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The Resurgence of College Basketball

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It has been a while, but glory days may be here again

2016 CBS Sports Classic - Kentucky v North Carolina Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Fresh off watching the riveting game between Kentucky and North Carolina, I had a thought; College Basketball is back.

That is not to say that College Basketball was ever gone, but it was clearly on the decline. Disclaimer; none of this applies to March Madness. That is an annual joy that even terrible officiating cannot take away or taint.

If you are over the age of 30, you remember the 90’s college basketball. You remember how much fun it was to watch as teams routinely played basketball the way it should be played, with freedom of movement and poetic fluidity.

During that golden time of the game, the NBA was an afterthought in comparison to the ‘watch ability’ of the two leagues.

Something happened over the course of the last 20 years though; the NBA cleaned up its act and has turned into a juggernaut that Forbes, CNN, and the Washington Post, to name a few, think to overtake the NFL in popularity.

In addition, during that time; the college game had devolved into a game of hand checks, holding, leveraging your weight and strength to overpower your opponent, and generally playing a facsimile of defense that consisted of ‘how much can you get away with’ vs. playing actual defense.

As the game became tougher to enjoy, viewership eventually started to take a hit. As you can see below, back in 2012 an average of 3.8 Million people watched games on the top four networks. Last season that dipped to 3.1 Million on those top four networks. That is average viewership too, an average of 700,000 less per broadcast, not total.

While the argument can be made that there are more viewing options now, the 18% decrease in viewership on those networks is a clear indication that viewership is down.

If you ask the average college basketball fan in the 90’s which league was better, you would be hard pressed to find anyone say the NBA. Ask that same question to those same people a few years back and I venture to say it was 50/50 at best.

The NCAA has clearly taken notice and over the past few years put in numerous points of emphasis to turn the game into a more free movement, fast paced game… and it is working.

“What the officials are trying to do this season, through a series of mandates by those who govern the sport, is redefine the way the game is played. After years of discussion, the Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee, the Rules Committee and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) agreed that action must be taken to reduce physical play and return the game to its free-flowing roots.”

Last season the main points of emphasis that were put into play consisted of the following:

  • Hand checking / Body Bumping
  • Freedom of Movement
  • Physical Post Play
  • Rebounding
  • Screening
  • Offensive initiated contact with defender

The NCAA tried to make the changes overnight in the 2012-13 season and it was clearly enforced early in the season, but slipped back to the norms as the season went on.

“Last year there was a lot of slippage and we went back to business as usual,” Clougherty said. “The rules committee, competition committee and NABC decided we have to have not just a change, but a cultural change. It’s going back to more of a skilled game.”

However, the continued emphases on the changes and implementing more of them have college basketball on the verge of the 90’s glory days.

While it is too early to compare this college season’s rating numbers to the ones above, it is notable that the UK/UCLA game was CBS’s largest debut since 2011. Kansas/Duke was up 27% over the previous year. Notre Dame/Villanova was up 22% over last year as well.

The chart below is something I put together using the site Team Rankings to see the trends, the way I came to the numbers was by taking the top 10 teams in points per game, and averaging the PPG among them.

For fouls, I took the top 10 and bottom 10 teams in fouls committed and used the mean for them. I went deeper on fouls because great teams can foul A LOT, and bad teams can foul very little.

The top-10 scoring teams are currently scoring an average 91.3 points per game; the 90-ppg plateau has not been breached since 1995. That is currently a 31 season high. You can see the pattern of the late 90s teams scoring upper 80s and slipping to the low 80s from 2003 thru 2015.

Points per possession are at the highest level we have seen since they have been keeping the stat. While it is likely to right size be season’s end, it still bears notice that the last three seasons PPP have been higher than any since 1998.

There is a corollary with fouls called too, you can see that the more fouls called, the more points scored. The easy response to that is that you are seeing more foul shots and points scored with the clock stopped.

The real reason (that you cannot explain on paper) is that teams are now allowed to play the game of basketball, they do not have to bring out shoulder pads for practice to prep for games.

There are already so many stoppages of play via timeouts and monitor reviews that not having a beautiful product during the time the clock is running is a losing proposition.

Just watch college basketball this season and you will see the difference. The eye test is very real and valid in this analysis. The viewer can watch a game and you can just feel if it is a fun game or not.

This season there are more fouls being called than any season since 2004, but as you watch the games like Kentucky/North Carolina and Kentucky/UCLA (highest rated CBS debut since 2011), you are not sitting there complaining about foul calls and the game being bogged down.

It also helps that in a resurgent year you have the true blue bloods of the sport all making their claim to be significant. Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, Kansas, Indiana, and Louisville are all near the top, or top half for IU and UL, of the rankings.

The truth of the matter is when you have an organization committed to making the game more free flowing; it takes time for the fruits of that labor to be recognized. The league has been trying to do this for a few yeas, now it feels like we are on the back-9 of that process.

This is shaping up to be the season that College Basketball comes back with a vengeance.

Now, if we can just get taking a charge outlawed, and flopping resulting in school expulsion (tongue in cheek fyi), we will be set!!