Three Ways to Fix the Ugliness of College Basketball

AP Photo/David Stluka Wisconsin Badgers Head Coach Bo Ryan

I love college basketball. I love it the way a mother loves her evil little spawn, the one that everyone else in the neighborhood is pretty sure will end up in prison by age 20. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool supporter, and I’ll probably never change. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m a masochist. Whatever the disease, it began in childhood and is a lifelong affliction. College basketball doesn’t have to worry about losing me.

But if you’re not me? Or someone like me? If you’re not a stupid zealot who stays up late watching the Mountain West and gets in fights on Twitter and knows what the word pacism means?

I have no idea why you’d be watching college basketball. Really, I don’t. You’d have to be a madman, because the sport is doing everything in its power to bore you to death.

There was a little buzz about the latest cover of Sports Illustrated, which depicts a college football player bursting through a college-basketball-themed paper banner. Above the picture, it reads “March Madness: Let It Rip!” The message to college basketball fans is roughly the same as the one intended for the starving masses in France when Marie Antoinette uttered her famous line: “Let them eat cake!”* Below those words, in case we fanatics didn’t get the message, SI spells it out: “(Sorry, Hoops, Two More Weeks to Wait.)”

To continue the Marie Antoinette analogy, that last parenthetical is the equivalent of the French Dauphine clarifying her original pronouncement with something less oblique, like, “Just to be clear, I don’t give a shit if you’re hungry.”

*Yeah, yeah, Marie Antoinette might not have actually said that. Congratulations, you’re very smart.

We get it, SI. We understand that this is pure mockery, and we understand that football is more popular.

And this will ever be so, until the point in time when so many former football players are wandering around in dazed stupors that our humanity forces us to ban the sport. Which will never happen, because humanity is not our strong suit. HOWEVER, moralizing aside, the SI cover comes at a meaningful time. Simply put, the magazine is right. College basketball is a sport in crisis, and nobody cares to watch. College basketball will never be football, but it doesn’t have to be so fucking dreadful. It doesn’t have to become the slog that it’s become over the last several years, and it doesn’t have to be a sport whose popularity is limited to a few days in March — a popularity which, if we’re being honest, stems less from the game itself and more from the format of the postseason tournament.

The powers-that-be in the NCAA have lost sight of the fact that basketball is supposed to be a spectator sport. They have wrenched the power from the players and put it in the hands of the coaches, who are, by their very nature, control freaks. They can’t help themselves. They are smart men, and if you give them the chance, they won’t be able to resist imposing themselves on the game to the detriment of beauty and joy.

With that in mind, here are three easy fixes that will help the game return to a state of glory … or at least crawl, Andy Dufresne–like, through the acres of shit in which it has become mired.

Kill the Timeouts

Currently, each coach has five timeouts to use in the course of a televised game. If one of those timeouts isn’t used before halftime, it will disappear into the ether, leaving each coach with four timeouts for the second half. In theory, these timeouts are designed to be parceled out over 40 minutes. In practice, it’s become exceedingly rare to see a team with less than four timeouts in their pocket at the 10-minute mark of the second half, and with anything under three timeouts with four minutes remaining.

Why? Because they don’t need to use timeouts early in the game. There are four media timeouts each half, spaced apart at four-minute intervals, to satisfy the corporate interests without whom we wouldn’t have televised sports. These natural breaks usually give a coach all the time he needs in the first 30 minutes of the game to strategize, rest his players, and stem the little bouts of momentum that might emerge.

In other words, the coaches are prepared to work without timeouts for long stretches. So why should they have four in hand for the end of the game? Think about this — with, let’s say, 4:30 left in a close game, it’s not uncommon to see both coaches with four timeouts remaining. You’ve got the media timeout coming at the first whistle under the 4-minute mark, which means that in 270 seconds of action, there are nine timeouts to be spent. That’s a timeout for every 30 seconds. Considering that the shot clock is at 35 seconds, that’s one T.O. for each possession, which, as we discussed before, coaches will gladly use.

And the result is brutal. Constant stoppages, media timeouts, and the inevitable referee review when the timekeeper forgets to stop the clock or the guard possibly had his foot on the line when he rose for a jumper, create an interminable end-game. ESPN has the common courtesy to stay on-site for most of these late timeouts, so you at least get to see the huddles and hear some analysis. But when CBS picks up the action in March, the advertising deal is a little different; they go to commercial on every (or nearly every) break, even the 30-second timeouts, forcing you to watch the same annoying commercials you’ve seen on repeat for the past month until you find yourself in a state of frayed anxiety, ready for a serious bout of rage or a total nervous breakdown.

It ruins the end of the game. And maybe you think that I’m only considering the most extreme situation, with eight timeouts still on the board. Well, let’s turn to last week’s Kansas–Oklahoma State game. At the moment the whistle was blown for the final media break, there were five timeouts remaining between the two teams. I went back to the video on ESPN3, and discovered the following:

1. The last three minutes and change of game action, from the media timeout to the end of regulation, took 17 minutes and 41 seconds. If the rest of the game was played at that pace, it would have lasted roughly 2 hours and 56 minutes. And only three timeouts were used. This was, incredibly, something of a best-case scenario.

2. The first five-minute overtime session — absurdly, teams are given another timeout to start OT — lasted 24 minutes and eight seconds. Again, if a regulation game 40 minutes long was played at this pace, it would take 3 hours and 13 minutes.

And this wasn’t even an egregious example. I just plucked it from thin air. It’s an indisputable fact — the end of college basketball games, when the energy and excitement should be cresting, is a terrible bore. Give a coach a chance to use a timeout, and he’ll use it. (It also seems to create teams that are clueless in their execution without a timeout; see Oklahoma State’s last possession in double overtime, for example.)

So why give a coach that chance? Why allow him to control the game? Kill the timeouts. Give each team two to use per half. You don’t use your two in the first half? Fine. They don’t carry over. You have two to use in the second half. You get no extras if the game goes to overtime. This is a spectator sport, and the spectators came to see the players.

Kill the Shot Clock

I wrote about this a year ago, and rather than reformulate the same arguments, I will simply refer to myself. The problems have gotten worse. The charts you see in that post, plotting possessions-per-game and points-per-game over the years, have continued to dive or flat-line. Combined points have slipped below the 135-mark, and possessions per game seem to have bottomed out at 134. The last time scoring was this low? 1952 (pg. 44). Nineteen-Fifty-Fucking-Two. When they had no shot clock, and basketball looked like this.

After writing that post last year, I’ll admit that counter-arguments have swayed me, at least from time to time. The idea that the style clashes, between slow teams and fast teams, defined college basketball, and that variety is the spice of the sport’s life, started to make sense. I also began to fear that the college game would start looking like the NBA if the shot clock was lowered to 24 seconds, with lots of one-on-one play and the disintegration of the team game. The third argument, though, was the most logical and compelling: If defenses are so great now, how’s it going to help scoring to lower the shot clock and give inferior offenses even less time to break them down?

The first two concepts were easy to dismiss. In terms of style clashes, it’s not a fair fight; it’s way too easy for slow teams to bring fast teams to their level. There’s not enough talent on the college level to play an NBA isolation style, so I’m not worried about the second argument, either. But I will say in all honesty that I have no idea what might happen with bad offenses in a shortened clock. My suspicion is that since the strong defensive teams associated with slow offense — Wisconsin and Virginia are the stereotypes — will have to play faster on offense, it will hinder their stalwart defense just enough to open up the game and lead to increased efficiency. But all I know for sure is that with a 24-second clock, you’ll have more possessions, and more scoring opportunities, and a faster pace. The game needs that, and it’s worth the risk.

So kill the 35-second clock. Nobody needs that much time. It takes most teams an average of 18 seconds to shoot, so why should anyone have more than 24? I don’t want to watch the kind of game where a good shot is discovered somewhere in that last 11 seconds. Maybe that’s the sign of a patient, efficient offense, but again … this is a spectator sport. We like athletes, we like running, we like scoring. And yes, we like defense, but there’s room for everyone in the 24-second shot clock. It’s a big tent.

Kill the Intentional Foul

This will be, by far, the most controversial thing I say. You might already be scoffing. But before you close this page, try to think of any other sport where the defense can benefit at the end of games by committing penalties. The only past example I can think of, and it’s very mild by comparison, was how teams could stop the clock in college football near the end of games by going offside. But the NCAA nipped that one in the bud two years ago by adding a 10-second runoff rule. Why? Because it was a stupid loophole that didn’t make sense. A penalty should be a penalty, and it shouldn’t help a team win.

In every other sport, if you trail by a large margin toward the end of the game, you lose. Or you have a miracle comeback aided by turnovers or spectacular luck. You do not commit penalty after penalty, hoping for the other team to screw up. Why? Because penalties are actual penalties. They hurt you. They are not preferable.

Now, you could argue that the penalty for a foul in basketball, once the bonus is reached, is two foul shots (or a one-and-one). The other team can shoot for free! How is that not a penalty? It is, technically, but it’s not actually penalizing when that team would prefer to run the clock out. If it’s not preferable, it’s not penalizing. And like the factors above, this trend is ruining the end of games, turning them into free throw shooting contests and stopping play every few seconds to the detriment of our entertainment. With the timeouts and the referee reviews, it had made the endgame unbearable.

So kill the intentional foul. My initial idea was to treat the violations like flagrant fouls. The team on the receiving end of the intentional foul gets two shots and the ball. But then I was discussing it with my friend Justin, and he had a brilliant idea: Why not give teams the option? They can either have have two shots and the ball, or run the rest of the shot clock out — whatever remains of the 35 seconds on the board — and take their two shots in a live-game situation. That’s the NCAA football model with penalties committed in the last minute, and it makes a lot of sense.

To get rid of the intentional foul, you have to get rid of the incentive. If there are 45 seconds left in a game, and a team trails by eight points, knowing that an intentional foul would likely run the clock down to 10 seconds would effectively ruin the incentive. (For the record: Yes, referees would have to judge intentional fouls, but I don’t think this would be complicated; if a team isn’t trying to score, any aggressive foul is pretty safely intentional.) So how would a trailing team come back? Like teams in every other damn sport — by trying to steal the ball and playing actual defense and hoping for some luck.

So, kill the intentional foul. Kill the shot clock. Kill the timeouts. Then, maybe, my favorite sport can escape national mockery and become something more than a one-month novelty act. Maybe the beauty of basketball can be restored. And maybe it can become the game I remember from my childhood — an actual spectator sport.

Filed Under: College Basketball, Shane Ryan