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March 16, 2011

Shorten It

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:23 pm

Over the greatest week of basketball all year, I will watch a variety of different hoops: NCAA men, of course, the NBA and also the NCAA women (whose madness starts on Saturday). One thing in particular will make the NCAA men’s basketball action stand out from the other games: the length of the shot clock. The NBA famously has used a 24-second shot clock since the concept was invented by the late Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals, as do FIBA and the WNBA. The women’s college game gives teams 30 seconds to shoot. Beyond the prep level, then, there is only one organized form of basketball in the entire world that believes players need a full 35 seconds to get off a shot: men’s college basketball. It is past time for that to change.

1. It Promotes Stalling

In a recent Unfiltered post, my esteemed colleague Mr. Gasaway agreed with a reader who complained about the bias against slow-paced games, arguing, “Possessions in these games always include passing, screening, and cutting, activities which are just as much the essence of basketball as shooting (and that’s just the offense on a given possession).” (This was, of course, before Wisconsin and Penn State set hoops back 40 years.)

That’s true–to a point. Certainly, the relationship between speed and quality is imperfect. One of my favorite NCAA games of all time was Princeton’s upset over a defending champion UCLA in 1996, a game that saw the Tigers take the shot clock down time and again using the kind of basketball actions reader Jack promotes. (Sean Gregory, a reserve on that team, has a terrific story about that game and team in this week’s TIME magazine.)

However, I draw a distinction between a deliberate offense and one that deliberately stalls the game. The latter features players passing the ball back and forth on the perimeter, a style of basketball that no one finds entertaining. Eliminating stalling is the primary reason we have a shot clock at all. The 35-second clock just doesn’t go far enough in the process.

2. It Fails to Reward the Defense

This, to me, is the worst aspect of the NCAA shot clock. In the NBA, when a team plays solid defense for 15-20 seconds and deflects a pass out of bounds, they’re rewarded by getting the chance to force the offense into a short-clock situation. At the college level, there is still plenty of time to run a play in such a scenario. For NBA teams, shot-clock violations reflect the ultimate in defensive intensity and effort. When teams do fail to get a shot off in the NCAA, it’s generally because the offense was discombobulated more than the work of the defense.

Answering the Counterpoint: Will a Shorter Shot Clock Hurt Offense?

If cutting the shot clock means sacrificing offensive efficiency in the name of speeding up the game, the change might not make sense. In order to reward defense more, we’ll have to be willing to accept a few forced shots in end-of-clock situations. However, I think there is evidence to suggest that offenses will successfully adapt to the new scenario.

The WNBA is an interesting proving ground for NCAA changes. The women’s pro league beat the NCAA to lengthening the three-point line by a couple of years (though to the former international length of 20’6″ instead of the 20’9″ used by the NCAA) with similarly minimal effect on percentages. In 2006, the WNBA cut its shot clock from 30 seconds to 24. Coaches feared the repercussions. In response, the league-wide Offensive Rating, which had stagnated around 98 points per 100 possessions for years, jumped to 99.1. It has since continued to grow to the point where WNBA teams now average more than a point per trip down the floor.

(Fun coincidence: One of the key players in the success of the faster-paced WNBA game was former Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead, who coached the Phoenix Mercury to a championship in 2007.)

When the NCAA did previously reduce the shot clock from 45 seconds to the current 35 in 1993-94, there wasn’t the same kind of uptick in scoring, but the impact on points per play (with no accounting for offensive rebounds, which are tough to track down at the national level so long ago) was modest: Scoring went down from .9 points per play to .893. Steady growth in the 2000s has pushed it back up to about .91 points per play now.

With the perspective of nearly 20 years of the current clock, the notion of 45 seconds to shoot–let alone an unlimited shot clock–seems curiously archaic. I suspect that if the shot clock were to move to 30, we’d think the same thing about the 35-second clock within a decade’s time. A 30-second clock would produce a better NCAA game.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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