Two years ago on the (effective) opening day of the tournament I posted the following piece on how to make a great sport perfect. Here it is again: my 12-step program, with a 2012 update following each proposed reform.
By now you've gathered that I love college basketball. I watch it, puzzle about it, research it, ask questions about it, answer questions about it, and, not least, write a lot of words about it. I'm doing what I love.
Here are 12 ways to make my beloved college hoops even better.
1. Redefine fouls.
Somewhere along the line, the refereeing of college basketball -- maybe basketball, period -- got seriously off-track compared to what occurs in the sister movement-and-goal team sports like lacrosse, soccer, and hockey. (In other words the sports that Dr. Naismith was modeling when he invented this one.) Only in basketball can contact that doesn't visibly alter the movement of the alleged victim constitute a violation. Call it a touch foul, call it a nickel-dimer, under any name it needs to go away. If a defender has his hands up and is moving laterally, he shouldn't be called for a foul short of sticking out his leg and tripping the player he's guarding. And the fact that I even need to state the following shows there's a problem: A player standing with his hands above his head by definition is not fouling anyone, even if the big star from the other team jumps into him. Not every instance of players coming into contact needs to be a violation. Let them play.
2012: Foul calls should be limited to obvious charges and instances where defenders clearly reach and hinder. Otherwise let them play.
2. Eliminate fouling out.
We can talk about a new penalty to levy when a player picks up his fifth foul. Maybe the opposing team gets two shots and the ball on every subsequent foul by that player. But removing participants from the contest entirely, as has often been pointed out, is unique to basketball among major American team sports. For good reason. It's really stupid.
2012: ATTENTION BASEBALL PROSPECTUS PEOPLE: Don't read this.
Are we alone? Good. You know how baseball people can get when they discuss their sport? Kind of George Will-fussy, with the bow tie, talk of freshly mown grass, and quotes from Whitman? In my experience basketball people are never, ever like that...until you bring up the possibility of ending the foul-out. Then suddenly you're talking about the Sanctity of the Game. No, what we're talking about is much more arbitrary. At some point in the distant past someone connected with basketball had a really, really dumb idea, and it stuck. Because the dumb idea is quite old, people mistake it for something connected to the sport itself. It is not, any more than the absence of a three-point line or a shot clock were.
3. Reduce the number of timeouts.
Here's a tip. If the coaches in your sport can call timeout, send their players into action, see what defense the opponent is using, and then call another timeout before anything has even happened, your sport gives its coaches too many timeouts. Let's make a start here by taking away one timeout per game from each team. The earth will continue to spin, I promise, and TV networks fretting about lost commercial time can be accommodated via slightly extended breaks in the action during the remaining timeouts. But under the current system the last two minutes of a semi-close game can be agonizing to watch, what with all the fouls and timeouts. I can resign myself to the fouls, but the timeouts are within our easy amendment. (Related: Networks please vary the outro music going to commercial in the last minutes. Hearing the same two bars again and again every 30 seconds is maddening.)
2012: This reform is Twitter candy. Every time I bring it up in that particular venue I'm Kate Upton for 60 seconds. Everyone wants it, and it can be done at zero cost or inconvenience to advertisers. What's the problem?
4. Prohibit calling timeout when possession of the ball is in question.
A held ball is actually a held ball, even if a player from one of the teams is forming a "T" with his hands.
2012: I actually think the refs are doing better here of late.
5. Put a ref on the monitor.
Assuming the game is televised (and it bears repeating that even in 2010 this isn't the case for all D-I games), refs should be able to consult with a colleague at the monitor at the next stoppage in play. Said colleague will already have ordered up any replays he needs and will be able to tell his on-court mates if that shot a while back was a three or a two. In fact he'll be able to do so just as quickly as we do now at home. But this business of stopping the action so referees can "go to the monitor" is a classic example of achieving just outcomes through the slowest and most intrusive means imaginable.
2012: A better title for this reform would have been simply: Less "going to the monitor," please.
6. Paint the no-charge half-circle on the floor, already.
2012: It was all me.
7. Model the announcement of the tournament pairings on the NBA draft.
Every year on Selection Sunday the contrast between the drama of the occasion and the oddly serene and antiseptic feel of that tiny CBS studio strikes me forcibly. I'm sorry, I was under the impression that this is kind of a big deal, not halftime of Tennessee-Mississippi State. The pairings should be announced, personally, by a David Stern-like figure from the NCAA, and that person should be standing in front of a rowdy MSG-style crowd at Conseco Fieldhouse.
2012: I won't rest until I see Greg Shaheen announcing pairings David Stern-style.
8. Forthrightly acknowledge mid-major status in NCAA pairings.
The selection committee maintains that it's blind to conference affiliation when selecting and seeding the field. That's as it should be in selection, but when pairing teams a school's status as a mid-major should be acknowledged along with their geographic location. You ask: Have I ever considered that if two mid-majors play in the first round it means one will survive? You bet! But have you ever considered that both might have reached the second round had they not been paired against each other?
2012: This reform has become more problematic in a year where the committee gave out no fewer than 11 bids to mid-major at-larges. All those teams are seeded between the 5 and 12 lines. They can't avoid each other. I'm not particularly happy about VCU facing Wichita State, but with so many mid-majors in the field this kind of collision is tough to avoid.
9. Make the existence of NCAA Notices of Allegations (NOAs) public knowledge.
I've said this before so I'll be brief, but there is no earthly reason why the fact that a school is being investigated by the NCAA needs to be a secret. There. That was brief.
2012: This isn't national security. It's a game. The common ground shared by the NCAA and writers who profess to be smarter than the NCAA is that both of them act as though garden-variety recruiting transgressions in a game where kids put a ball through a hoop are tantamount to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
10. Do away with the requirement that schools "release" players who want to transfer.
Players are already required to sit out a year when they transfer. Fine. That's enough deterrent right there to prevent impulsive exits. But requiring the current school to "release" the player on top of that is simply too much. It's simple enough for a school to say no and, in effect, impose a one-year D-I-wide scholarship ban on the player in question.
2012: Painless and just. Do it.
11. Mandate that announcing teams have three people.
Three-person announcing teams always work better. Always.
2012: "Always" was too strong. This year I saw a one-night-only three-person team comprised of two pros and a rookie. It didn't go so well. What I should have said was: find three people who know what they're doing and put them together.
12. Levy a tax on use of the word "stun."
When a lower-ranked team beats an opponent in the top ten, it is said that the underdog "stunned" the favorite. Always. Problem is, this is quite often not true.
2012: This one's going great! Inappropriate deployments of "stun" are now roundly abused on Twitter. Si se puede!
I'll be keeping track of how many of these we get done. Meantime, enjoy the tournament. It's pretty good, even without all of the above.
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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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