ACC's shot clock experiment: Why not?

May, 15, 2014
May 15
3:15
PM ET

The NBA installed a 24-second shot clock in 1954. It took men's college basketball another 30 years -- until 1985 -- to follow suit.

Decades of painful stalling strategy would have seemed to make the shot clock a no-brainer, but the college game put up an admirable resistance. Tennessee's infamous 11-6 victory over Temple happened in 1973, 12 years before the first men's shot clock. When the NCAA rules committee finally gave in, it did so nervously: The first version of the college shot clock was 45 seconds, nearly twice the length of the NBA clock. Eight years later, it changed to 35 seconds.

Now, two more decades later, we might finally, mercifully lop another five seconds off the clock.

On Thursday, ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson reported that the ACC would experiment with a 30-second clock in exhibitions in the coming season. ACC commissioner John Swofford said the coaches and athletic directors were on board; Pitt coach Jamie Dixon told ESPN's Andy Katz a shorter clock is "where the game is headed." The experiment will be just that -- a brief lab trial staged in otherwise meaningless games. The ACC will report back to the NCAA men's basketball rules committee. A tentative toe will be dipped into the frightening waters of change.

[+] EnlargeShot Clock
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThe college basketball shot clock has been set at 35 seconds since 1993.
The 2012-13 season was its slowest and lowest-scoring in decades at 67.5 points per game, despite upticks in points per possession, which is why the new freedom-of-movement rules were designed before the start of last season, when scoring increased to 71.0 points per game. If you believe the college game is too slow, this is encouraging news. It is a step in the right direction.

What's the worst that could happen? If you believe the college game is fine the way it is, the idea of a shorter shot clock is a little bit scary. Your answer to the first question is "a lack of personality."

The theory is not without some merit: A longer clock allows stylistic flexibility. It gives smaller schools a chance to compete with the big boys. It means up-tempo pressure and methodical offense can exist within the same sport. Variety is the spice, etc. If you lose time, won't everything get watered down? What if the shorter possessions hurt the quality of play? Speed isn't everything, right? What if the game gets shorter and worse?

The only problem with the first theory is that it is the same argument employed against the original college shot clock. It was more institutional then; now the worry is stylistic. It is still the same rough fear. And the stuff about quality of play is almost insulting: These are Division I athletes, coached by men who make millions (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars a year. Give them a season. They'll figure it out.

A shot clock hasn't always made the game faster. The 45-second clock worked like a charm; teams quickly blew past the limits of the incentive. But the 35-second clock correlated, if not caused, a drastic, decades-long drop in average possessions per game. Coaches tightened their grips. Scoring went down not because offenses got worse, but because games got slower. The trend finally abated last season, but compared to 30 years of sloth, the uptick was marginal. This is another argument against a shorter clock: The last time we went down this road, the game got slower. Correlation or causation?

The game is slow. That much we can agree on. A yet-shorter clock might solve the problem. It might introduce new ones. The game might get faster, but at what cost? Asking doesn't really matter, because the only way to find out is to change the rule and see what happens. Go to 30 seconds. Go to 24. The NBA tried it out in the mid-'50s, with players most modern college athletes would dust. Let's experiment. What's the worst that could happen?

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