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Fixing College Basketball Will Require More Than A 30-Second Clock

Many have complained about college basketball's lack of scoring, but a 30-second clock alone is not the answer.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star says college basketball needs a 30-second shot clock (Hat tip:  Memphis Wildcat). We’ve heard this before, many times, and it was experimented with fairly recently, and I barely noticed it at all, which probably means it would be fine. But I find another part of his commentary more interesting:

The sport must change. It tried a year ago, when "freedom of movement" became a buzz phrase, and the changes worked. Scoring and possessions jumped. But officials didn’t have the stomach for it, and by conference play, with games taking on more importance and coaches continuing to pressure referees, the game basically reverted to its old ways.

So who runs college basketball anyway? Mellinger’s statement is true, though, and very, very illustrative of a big problem in college basketball. Officials were told to do something, and they essentially said, "Nah. We’re not gonna." The NCAA was helpless to stop them from disregarding the mandate.

Mellinger’s solution is a 30-second clock, wider lane, and longer 3-point line, but will that work? Mike DeCourcy rightly pointed out on Twitter and in an article he wrote back in 2013 that the last time we changed the shot clock, scoring dropped like a rock:

It’s really not that simple. As explained by Jeff Waksman, proprietor of the Basketball Predictions website, scoring plunged in college basketball soon after the shot-clock cycle was trimmed from 45 seconds to 35, from a 45-second high of 76.7 in 1991 to 70.2 in 1997. That’s a dozen fewer points per game between the two teams.

The problem with college basketball is not the shot clock, although I’m not against reducing it to 30 seconds reflexively. One of the reasons I like college basketball better is that there is enough time to run some offense. In the pros, a possession seems so fast that pick-and-roll is the only option, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the better for it.

I think the real problem here is being ignored, and that is that the NCAA has lost the ability to tell officials how to officiate the game. That’s why college basketball officiating should be brought under the NCAA; they should be hired, fired, and paid by the NCAA and required to follow the instructions of the NCAA with respect to calling basketball games. The current system of officiating — independent contractors who have their own guild — needs to be stopped. The NCAA has committed to more freedom of movement, at least they say so. Unfortunately, the officials have mostly refused to do the same.

Another thing about the 30-second clock — smaller schools with less talented athletes are likely to oppose reducing it. The reason is simple, and I probably don’t have to explain, but I will. By controlling the pace, you frustrate teams that like to run and negate, to some extent, better athletes and even better size. By forcing teams to defend for the whole 30 seconds, you tend to take more out of them than their faster offenses take out of you. Also, lowering possessions makes each possession more valuable, and younger teams (which tend to be the more athletic ones) are usually prone to more turnovers than more experienced teams. All that helps level the playing field.

Mellinger also suggests widening the lane and moving the 3-point line back. All these things might help, but let’s be realistic — you almost never see a 3-second call in college basketball anyway. What makes him think based on the current status of officiating, that it would be called with a wider lane?

But I’m willing to do all of it. I’d like a 30-second clock just because it makes more sense to me, and is a nice, round number and I like those. I’ve always thought a 24-second clock was too short, and 30 is a near-perfect midpoint between the men’s college and NBA basketball.

He also advocates for a "commissioner," and although that’s just one more highly-paid administrator, I regretfully think he may be right. One of the biggest problems now is that when the NCAA issues guidance, there is nobody to whom the officials are accountable. Nobody. Nobody can issue admonishments, nobody asserts control, it’s all left to their union or guild or whatever. They get the final say, and that’s a problem.

But if we are truly to ever get the game into a more high-scoring place, the officials must change first, and the NCAA must reassert control over how the game is called. It’s clear after last season that the current arrangement is not working.