Commentary

Let the players play

Scoring is up in college hoops, but there is room for more fixes

Originally Published: December 9, 2013
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Julius RandleRobin Alam/Icon SMI

At a Kentucky Wildcats basketball practice in early October, a day after he had attended an SEC coaches meeting that hammered home the reinvigorated emphasis on foul-calling in the college game, John Calipari interrupted a scrimmage with his whistle just about every trip down the court.

If the occasion happened to be a prolonged hand check on the perimeter, Calipari would stop everything and say, "Listen – they're going to call that. They're going to call it every ... single ... time."

The same went for arm bars to the back of a post player or the repeated hand jabs into the small of a ball handler's back or the incidental contact hip checks of guys too late to get into position to take a charge. In the exasperated tone of someone who makes his life's work -- and fortune -- from dealing with headstrong and egotistical 19-year-olds, Calipari blew his whistle and said in a raised voice, "I'm telling you something here: They're not messing around. Every ... single ... time."

Calipari was right. They're calling everything. All the time. Every time. No messing around.

He didn't know it then, but so far Calipari's team has been in the best position to take advantage of the "point of emphasis" -- bureaucrat-ese at its finest -- involving the officiating at the college level. Kentucky is leading the country with 35.3 free throws attempted per game, which is somewhat offset by the fact that it is 251st in accuracy at 67 percent. Nearly a quarter of the way through the college season, Kentucky is one of 25 teams to be averaging more than 30 free throws a game.

Devoid of context, that number might not mean much. Historically, it's truly astounding. Consider this: There hasn't been a team to average 30 free throws per game throughout an entire season since LIU-Brooklyn (30.4) in 2010-11. It has been 12 years since two teams averaged more than 30 in a season. Last season's most voluminous free throw shooting team, Villanova, averaged 26.4 per game. Where would that rank this year? A robust 79th.

The NCAA was worried about the decrease in scoring, and it pinpointed unpunished physical contact as the main culprit in a land of 57-54 finals. The increased vigilance has certainly worked in that regard -- a whopping 60 teams are averaging 80 points per game, and five are averaging more than 90. Last season, three teams finished the year averaging 80, with the leader (traditional power Northwestern State) at 81.0. It's impressive to see those big numbers on the score list every morning, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of fan excitement emanating from a drastic increase in scoring that's directly related to a drastic increase in the number of foul shots. As sexy goes, the free throw falls somewhere between flannel pajamas and overalls.

But scoring is scoring, no matter where it comes from, so mission accomplished, right?

Not quite, but the NCAA deserves credit for putting itself on the right track. The reasoning might be a bit backward -- don't force the referees to call more fouls because scoring is down; force referees to call fouls because they're fouls -- but there's no reason to stop there. If you can get Wisconsin up to 73 a game just by whispering in the refs' ears, we'll operate under the premise that anything's possible.

The biggest problem with college basketball is control. More specifically: who has too much of it and who needs more of it. The coaches, as you might have guessed, have way too much. This is an offshoot of their grand public relations machine, which dictates that without the patient and paternal guidance of Coach Omniscient and his Omniscients In Training -- and really, doesn't every really good assistant deserve a head coaching job somewhere? -- the players on the court would randomly dribble into the stands and routinely shoot at the wrong basket.

And because of this perception, we have come to accept sequences like the one that took place a week ago in the final minute of the Marquette-San Diego State championship game of the Wooden Classic.

[+] EnlargeBuzz Williams
AP Photo/Morry GashIt might be time for coaches likes Buzz Williams to cede some control to players.

Down eight points with 13 seconds left, Marquette coach Buzz Williams had his team foul to put San Diego State at the line. Down eight after his team scored with three (three!) seconds left, he called a timeout.

Williams is a good coach, and he's fun to watch, and his teams play with the kind of wild-eyed intensity that makes you think they've got something to prove that can't be proven on a basketball court. And this phenomenon is by no means limited to Williams, but what do you suppose he told his team during that timeout?

Get a steal, hit a three, get a steal, hit a three and we're right back in this one, fellas.

I'm sure he had his reasons; there had to be a teaching moment in there somewhere. But what Williams was doing was what too many coaches do: He was administering CPR to a corpse. There should be a class taught to every coach. Call it "When It's OK To Let Go."

And so the first Next Point of Emphasis: Reduce the number of timeouts. This will lead to fewer stoppages and more opportunities for players to think on their feet and actually be forced to figure things out on their own. As it stands now, the timeout situation is appealing only to advertisers (God love 'em) and those with overactive bladders.

Nearly every game is on television, which means there are four media timeouts per half. It's tempting to tell coaches that that's enough, deal with it, but we'll concede that a coach needs to be able to call a timeout -- let's say two -- when he feels the situation warrants. The way it stands now, a coach can call four 30-second timeouts and one 60-second timeout, in addition to media breaks. In other words, a televised game can be stopped a grand total of 18 times if each coach uses his entire allotment, and by the hand of Ben Howland, you can bet most of them will.

The second Next Point of Emphasis: Shorten the shot clock. If the NCAA wants to increase scoring the right way, it will increase possessions by dropping the shot clock from the glacial 35 to something closer to 25. (I'd say 24, but that would suggest collusion with the NBA, and we all know that would never happen.) A 25-second clock would serve more than one purpose. It would quicken the pace and, perhaps paradoxically, lead to fewer forced shots. The 35-second clock invites stagnation, which creates more rushed, frantic shots at the end of the shot clock. A 25-second clock would demand rhythm and reward pressing teams that force the opponent to use seven or eight seconds to get the ball across half court. As it stands now, teams that struggle to get it across the midline can hold the ball between the circles and take a few cleansing breaths before getting into their offense. That option needs to be removed.

Calipari's preseason angst was both well-founded and overplayed. Yes, they're whistling a foul on just about everything, but it'll be all right. The smart players will adjust and the dumb ones will foul out. It's Darwin meets Pavlov, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the NCAA is on to something here, probably without even knowing it. The issue isn't a contact issue, or even a scoring issue. It's a control issue, and more of it needs to be redirected to the players. The sooner the better.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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