Monday, April 22, 2013
Proposed rules changes a good start
By Eamonn Brennan
In the weeks since Louisville cut down the nets, we've heard of two rules change proposals winding their way through the NCAA's vast tangles of procedural bureaucracy. The first was Tom Izzo's acknowledgment that the sport, with its coaches' support, could move to a shorter shot clock. This proposal will go to a men's basketball rules committee vote in the second week of May. The other was the NCAA's announcement that its Legislative Council had approved and passed on to the Board of Directors a proposal that would move the start of men's practice (and thus Midnight Madness) up by two to three weeks, to Sept. 27 or Oct. 4 of this year.
The shorter, less jargon-riddled version of those sentences is as follows: The NCAA is considering earlier practice and a shorter shot clock. And the immediate consensus reaction is that both are pretty good ideas.
ESPN.com's Andy Katz surveyed a group of 37 Division-I coaches, and informal votes on both issues were sharply in favor, though there were some dissenters. Some coaches think practice starts early enough. You can imagine them, just having finished a season and begun the recruiting grind anew, feeling the existential stress of a longer year. And some coaches are quick to point out that a shorter shot clock isn't any guarantee of faster pace or more scoring. Some even argue the effects might be negative, whether through loss of stylistic diversity and parity ("A shorter shot clock will hurt that," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said) or even just by making it harder to score period. ("Have fun going against the Syracuse zone with five less seconds," UCLA coach Steve Alford said.)
But as Katz points out, the majority of coaches are in favor of both. This is good to hear! Let's go one a time:
1. The shorter shot clock is a decent idea, provided it is not the only remedy discussed. The bottom line is that college basketball has scoring issues. These issues are caused by incentives that are sneaky at first, but obvious when you see the numbers. As Ken Pomeroy charted back in 2012, the constant drop in points per game is the product not of a worse offense but a slower offense. In fact, as the sport's offense has lurched slower and slower, they have been more efficient. But because increases in efficiency are not outpacing the lurchiness, which is a word I think we should use more often, to the naked eye college hoops feels less watchable than ever even as we all tune in for the inevitable suspense.
Maybe shortening the clock will work. Maybe not. What is really important is that there is an official acknowledgement that issues need to be resolved. The game should be, and could be, prettier and more fun to watch. It is a goal worthy of discussion and effort and no small amount of experimentation. Basketball should be beautiful.
But there is one important caveat many coaches seem to support: It cannot be the end of the discussion. There is so much systemic rust here -- how a diffuse group of different conference officials allow the game to be played physically; how we could probably do with fewer timeouts; how if we're going to 30 seconds, why not 24? -- that merely slapping a coat of paint on the top could end up being counterproductive.
A 30-second shot-clock is no more a cure-all for slow pace than the charge circle was a cure-all for interior congestion. If we forget that in the transfer, it may not be worth it. But it is a start.
2. The new start of the season is a really good idea, full stop. Considering the mostly overjoyed reactions of coaches when the NCAA allowed them to work with players for a few hours a week last offseason (in conjunction with summer academic requirements), it's hard to guess why many don't want to begin their official runs a couple of weeks earlier from the official start of the season. It is more practice time! It is what you guys want, right?
Whatever the reasons -- and look, the season is long, but no one's saying you have to add two weeks of windsprints -- there's no question that the new practice start date would be entirely more fair to everyone involved.
For the past five years, the NCAA tournament selection committee has almost constantly stressed the importance of nonconference play. It did away with any formal mention of a team's "final 12 games" as a tournament criterion. It has weighed nonconference strength of schedule as highly as any other trait on a team's at-large profile -- often even if said teams didn't perform particularly well against that schedule. The mere appearance of effort has occasionally been enough. The season starts in November, the NCAA, which has an obvious vested interest in college basketball being as popular as possible in advance of March, is saying. Go play people.
In the old days, coaches approached the regular season a bit like Shaq in his prime. Things would be ugly at first, but they'd slowly play their way into shape when it mattered the most, and by early March everything should be peaking. When nonconference play was less important, this was a viable strategy. That is no longer the case. If the NCAA is going to require that six travel-filled at the start of the season can rank as highly (or higher) as what you accomplish for two-plus months in your own conference, it should give you more time to get your team ready to play by the very first day of the season. It's only fair.
That's what the NCAA is doing if/when it passes this proposal: giving coaches more time. Coaches can use these practices as workouts, or early strategic sessions, or good old-fashioned everybody-on-the-line sprint parties (ouch), but the point is the option is theirs. Any coach treating November as an extended preseason was already on notice, but now they will have zero excuse.
Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't see how this could possibly be a bad thing.