Seth Davis had an interesting article looking at ways to improve college basketball. I want to offer a few comments and observations about his main points. It is thoughtful work, and despite our observations of a few years back about Davis' immaturity, he has grown into his position very nicely and is now offering some excellent commentary on the sport, and this is one example of it. Here, on the cusp of the conference tournament and the ides of March seems to be a good time to talk about it.
When I first read this, for some reason, this classic Jack Nicholson scene popped into my head:
College basketball needs an enema too, at least if our objective must be to increase the pace of the game and scoring, as so many people insist. So let's go with that.
Davis' main points are these:
- College basketball scoring is in decline and is facing a crisis;
- Several structural changes should be made, including:
- Shortened shot clock
- Restricted arc under the basket extended
- Wider free throw line
- Longer 3-point line
- Fewer timeouts
- The rules committee is largely made up of mid-major people and that should be changed to Power 5 members;
- The officials should be nationalized, although this isn't so much a point as a "maybe this would be helpful."
I'll save his first point for last, it will make more sense that way.
The court/game structural changes
I have no problem changing the court, especially to conform to international rules. I don't think it's necessary to affect the needed change, however, and I think in isolation making all of them won't help much, if at all.
America invented basketball, and part of me, the jingoistic part I suppose, thinks it should be us who leads the way in basketball and not follow what the Europeans do. But it's a minor and largely subjective point that I'd be happy to lay aside if it makes the game better.
Fewer timeouts is a really good idea, and Davis is correct to lament the level of coaching input into the game. He says it better than me:
Unfortunately, the men who call all those time outs are the same ones who write the rules. College basketball coaches are fierce competitors. They’re under a lot of pressure. They are not about to relinquish control. "Coaches have always felt that if you take time outs away from them, it’s like taking their first born," says Art Hyland, the rules committee’s secretary editor.
He has a good point. Coaches have too much power already, and it's time to take some of that back. That will be hard to do, but I agree with Davis that it's both necessary and desirable. Contra Davis, the coaches aren't causing the "problem," but they are making the problem more intractable. Their influence should be greatly diminished, and that's going to require university presidents to stand up to them.
The rules committee
Davis' point about the rules committee is spot on:
Start with the makeup of the rules committee. There are 12 members, but three spots are given to Division II schools and another three to Division III schools. That’s because the rulebook applies to all three divisions. Of the six seats allocated for Division I, five are currently occupied by men who work at the mid-major level: Belmont coach Rick Byrd (the current chair), Marshall associate athletic director Jeff O’Malley, Akron coach Keith Dambrot, Long Island University coach Jack Perri and Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson. The 12th man is Karl Hicks, the deputy athletic director at Florida State.
Marinate on that for a moment: Just one out of the 12 men on the rules committee works for a school in a Power Five conference.
A brief, semi-gratuitous snark: Marinate is what you do to food, Seth. Humans meditate. Moving on.
Mid-majors are the primary benefactors of low-possession basketball, because it makes each possession more valuable, reducing the impact of talent and athleticism on the game and giving less athletic squads a better chance to win. The influence of mid-major colleges must be vastly reduced, because the way the game is currently played is entirely within the scope of their self-interests and counter to the interests of most Power 5 conference members.
This could happen in a couple of ways:
- The Power 5 could separate from the rest of Division I and form a super-division, creating their own rulemaking body;
- The structure of the existing committee could be radically changed, giving the Power 5 more of a say, even to the extent of making them the majority of the committee.
Either way, you can expect major pushback from the more minor schools. They are not going to give up the most effective weapon they have to minimize the impact of the massive recruiting advantage Power 5 schools enjoy. When you add the "full cost of attendance" into the equation, you can expect the mid-majors to fight tooth and nail to have a strong say in how the game is played.
I think it's important to note that their argument is justifiable, especially if they must continue to compete with the Power 5 schools, and nobody seems to be proposing otherwise. The recruiting advantages of bigger schools combined with the new emphasis on the cost of attendance creates a very anti-competitive atmosphere for smaller schools, and they are the significant majority of Division I.
You can't blame them for fighting to remain competitive, but if it's more scoring we want, then possessions must increase, and that will instantly make them less competitive. This is an intractable problem without an obvious solution that doesn't help the game at the expense of most of the Division I participants.
The officials are the primary reason for the problem, and make no mistake, it is 75% on them. Davis barely touches on this issue except in the abstract:
In recent years, the task of preaching the freedom-of-movement gospel has fallen to Adams, the NCAA’s officiating czar. Adams does not have the authority to assign officials to games during the regular season. He does, however, have a huge say in who works what round in the NCAA tournament, and he has used his carrot-and-stick routine to prod his zebras into enforcing the rules regarding contact.
This is a tacit admission that the officials are out of control. Even the guy who oversees them can't meaningfully impact their actions. The only thing Adams can do is refuse to assign truculent zebras to tournament games, and even that is probably mitigated by his friendships with many of them who've been around as long as he has or longer. This is a completely ineffective way to influence how the game is officiated, and where Davis completely cops out on his argument. Consider:
Today’s referees don’t lack competence. They lack empowerment. Give them a set of rules to make things better, and they will enforce them. That was evident last season, when the adjustments to physical play and the block/charge call yielded the biggest increase in scoring since 1964. Yes, there were more free throws, but that only accounted for half of the bump. "We told the referees last year there are four things you can’t do to a dribbler, and they called the fouls they were supposed to call," says John Adams, the NCAA’s national coordinator of officiating. "I don’t think the officials care what the rules are. Tell us what the rules are, and we’ll make the calls.
I agree that they don't lack competence, but they also don't lack empowerment. They refused to continue to implement the NCAA's emphasis after the commentariat complained about the games being "unwatchable" because of the number of fouls. The officials began rebelling against the mandate, and were allowed to revert back for two reasons — one, the committee, made of mid-major administrators, didn't want it changed to begin with, and two, they lack the power of enforcement over the officials. In fact, the NCAA has no meaningful power over the officials at all. It is the officials guild that is culpable here, made manifest by the all-too-willing "helplessness" of the NCAA.
Don't buy Adams' cavil, it doesn't hold up to the cold light of reality. His argument, as you might expect, is that it's just too hard. It's supposed to be hard.
Until the officials are brought to heel, none of this other stuff will help much. The last time we shortened the shot clock, for example, scoring dropped dramatically.
The idea of "crisis"
I think depicting the current situation as a crisis is typical overwrought media groupthink. The game of basketball, whether it's played as it is today, or as it was in the 1970's and 1980's is beautiful to watch for all the same reasons, even though the emphasis may have changed.
Americans are conditioned to like lots of scoring, which is one reason why soccer has been so slow to catch on, why ice hockey has been largely confined to the north, and why baseball has been on a long, slow decline. The beauty of defense is not nearly as appreciated as an explosive offense, and while I might think that's too bad, I'm generally in the minority here.
Most "casual" basketball fans want more offense, and they aren't really interested enough in the game to appreciate outstanding defensive positioning and execution. Apparently, to most of the commentariat, the casual fan who tunes in to college basketball just to cheer for their office pool during March Madness is the guy/gal we should all be catering to. Whatever. I guess us lifelong fans of the game don't really matter much — we seem to be so few that even the Seth Davises of the world don't consider us the cornerstone of the sport's support.
But if we must emphasize offense, we have to start calling fouls again. In my day, we called our own fouls on the playground, and they were almost never disputed — heck, most of us called fouls on ourselves before the opponent had to.
Can you imagine that today? You'd be harangued off the court for calling all but the most egregious muggings — Heaven forfend calling one on yourself. That's just how the impact of "letting them play" has changed the game from its grassroots to all but the very highest level. In the NBA, they recognized the problem years ago and ordered their officials to change the way the game was called.
The NBA didn't ask them nicely, or put up "points of emphasis" — they instructed their officials, who are employees of the league, to call the game a certain way, and the officials, being the professionals they are as well as understanding the employer/employee relationship, willingly complied to the benefit of all.
That worked. It would work in college as well if the NCAA had both the will and the actual authority to accomplish it.
I can live with basketball either way — as it is now or as it was then. But if you're a big fan of the NBA or can't stand to watch a defensive slugfest, then I can understand your pain. Unfortunately, the stars are currently aligned to continue the game as it is. Oh, we'll probably see a bigger restricted arc and a 30-second clock, but without a change in how the game is called, the "problem" will probably get worse instead of better. Imagine, if you will, how hard it would be to score on Kentucky or Virginia if you only had 30 seconds to do so.
I like what Seth Davis did here, but as English teachers used to tell us, his emphasis is on the wrong syllable.