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Monday, October 22, 2012
Pining for the uptempo hoops of old

By Eamonn Brennan

If you're a denizen of the college basketball Internet, there's a good chance you have already seen SI writer Luke Winn's epic rewind of the legendary 1990 LSU-Loyola game, "The Lost Art of Scoring." If you haven't, go read it now. It's very good.

Luke's piece does several things at once. It recounts in great detail the insanely uptempo style of former Loyola coach Paul Westhead. It reminds us of the sheer, world-bending talent of a young Shaquille O'Neal, who dominated both ends of the floor as a 17-year-old freshman. It provides the last glimpse of televised basketball from Loyola forward Hank Gathers, who collapsed due to a heart disorder on March 4 of the same season. And it details the way college hoops has slowed to a crawl over the past 20 years, a trend that now seems irreversible.

It is this last point that I find most illuminating. The contrasts between 1990 and 2012 are impossible to dispute. As Winn writes [emphasis mine]:
The contrast is striking. In '89-90, there were four ranked teams averaging more than 80 possessions per game; in '11-12, there was just one ranked team that broke 70. [...] The stark reality is that the 2012 season was the slowest and lowest-scoring in the modern era. The 35-second shot clock can't be all to blame, because teams were scoring more when it was 45. Referees' allowance of overly physical defense has had a real impact. Coaches, warier of job security in a bigger-money era, have become more conservative. They have sacrificed pace for slightly higher efficiency. To run is to give up control, and to try to really, really run -- like Loyola did, training as if it were a track team -- is to risk losing games and losing players.
Ken Pomeroy covered the pace and scoring declines last January, when he delved into the NCAA record books and discovered that:
Nonetheless, there’s been a pretty consistent trend since scoring peaked at about 77 points per game in 1991. Possessions have been getting longer and efficiency has remained constant and the result is a steady decrease in points per game.

All of which leads me to believe, not for the first time, that college basketball desperately needs a shorter shot-clock.

I argued as much this offseason. Part of my argument had to do with rule uniformity between the collegiate and professional (and, for that matter, high school) games, but much more important to me was the idea that college basketball could be made faster in the transfer. Many people emailed me saying I was crazy, that they liked their college hoops the way it was, thank you very much, and why should college basketball try to be more like the NBA, anyway?

Fine! Forget the NBA! Think only about college basketball. Wouldn't it be great to at least attempt to return to the days when more than one -- one! -- ranked team averaged more than 70 possessions per game? Wouldn't college hoops be more entertaining for it? Wouldn't the likelihood of epic scoring classics like LSU-Loyola be immediately increased? Wouldn't the chances of seeing 60-55 snooze-fests go down at least somewhat, and wouldn't that be an overall net positive for the sport?

The shot clock is not entirely to blame, obviously; that LSU-Loyola magic took place in the era of the 45-second shot clock, after all. Increased allowance of physical play has a role to play here, and maybe the dimensions of the painted area are to blame as well. But as Luke's numbers make clear, coaches in the 45-second era more frequently ignored the shot clock altogether. They ran because running was a viable strategy. For a variety of reasons, that is less frequently the case. So maybe it's time for the rules to incentivize fast play with a stick.

A shorter shot clock would at the very least force coaches to shave 10 potential seconds off of each possession, encouraging teams to play more fast and secondary break. It would make the game faster, right? I think that's a good thing. Am I wrong?