Don't Worry, College Basketball Will Survive

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Dan Gavitt, an NCAA men’s basketball vice president, recently said of the college game “I have great concerns. The trends are long-term and unhealthy. I think some people understand the urgency of it …” Iona coach Tim Cluess agreed, “The product stinks …. We’ve accepted mediocrity.” Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis wrote, “College basketball is facing a crisis … it stinks. It’s time for an extreme makeover.”

Men’s college basketball has become a punching bag. 

The doomsayers cite a plodding pace, lower scoring (67.1 points per team per game this season, compared with 77.7 in 1972), and seven consecutive years of decreased Division I attendance.

No one can dispute those basic facts. Nevertheless, as Aaron Rodgers said in response to the 2014 early-season angst of Green Bay Packer fans: “R-E-L-A-X.”

College basketball has merely followed a course previously taken (and ultimately reversed) by other major sports: Higher scoring early in the sport’s history, then a significant decline.

In Major League Baseball, the mean batting average dropped from .296 in 1930 to .237 in 1968, with a concomitant decrease in runs scored from 11.1 to 6.8 per game. Similarly, points per game in the NBA dropped from 118.6 in the 1961-1962 season to 91.6 in 1998-1999. Points per game in the NFL dropped from 47.2 in 1948 to 34.4 in 1977. Scoring also decreased over time in the National Hockey League and World Cup soccer.

Each sport had its own reasons for declining offense but some shared common themes.

The “defense wins championships” polestar resonates broadly with multiple effects. Talented defenders receive playing time at the expense of scorers. Practice time and other preparations may be disproportionally allotted to defense. The guideline also affects game strategy. For example, many basketball coaches emphasize getting back on defense over offensive rebounding.

Coaches in basketball and football developed more effective defensive concepts, advancing from a simple “guard your man” approach to sophisticated team strategies; “help defense” entered the vernacular. In the early 1960s, NBA teams typically single-covered Wilt Chamberlain in the low post. Defenders today would double-team Wilt, with players coming from different areas on the floor and at different times in the shot clock. 

Basketball also applied “help defense” to thwart penetrating dribblers. The classic 1985 NCAA championship game between Villanova and defensive stalwart Georgetown did not have a single charge/block play. That might shock today’s fans, because defenders now commonly jump into the lane to draw charges.

Basketball’s current defensive sophistication goes far beyond drawing charges and doubling the post. Today’s college and pro teams routinely employ comprehensive strategies that make olden defenses look primitive; for example, some variation of Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s “five men on a string” approach. The Bulls hinder driving by overloading the strong side. They react to ball movement with coordinated team actions, moving defenders to important areas on the court. Done well, this makes scoring a challenge. 

Pro football also evolved from its basic 4-3 man-to-man defense. Tom Landry introduced the “flex” in the 1960s; the 3-4 front followed in the ‘70s and the 46 defense in the 80s. Zone blitzes and the Tampa 2 and a whole variety of nuances also entered the fray.

At the other end of the spectrum, football and basketball found value in brute force, in the form of extra-physical defense. This dates back at least to the 1970s when NFL defensive backs began manhandling wide receivers coming off the line of scrimmage.

Luke Winn described in Sports Illustrated how Bobby Knight brought that style to college basketball. After UCLA played Indiana in 1975, a Bruins coach described Indiana’s defense as “They’ve got five guys fouling at the same time, and it’s hard for the officials to pick out one man.” John Thompson did the same at Georgetown and Knight’s many disciples dispersed the strategy around the country. Chuck Daly’s 1980s Detroit Pistons and Pat Riley’s 1990s New York Knicks took physical defense to and sometimes past the limit of the rules, at times bringing NBA scoring to its knees.

Field goal and 3-point shooting percentages in college basketball both fell four percent from 1988 to 2015. Davis noted that foul shooting percentage remained the same, suggesting that the lower live-action shooting percentages reflect better defense rather than inferior shooting skills. Improved defenses and slower pace combined to reduce scoring.

But, contrary to what we’ve been hearing lately: not to worry.

Whenever low scoring reached a tipping point in the major professional sports, relevant authorities responded. MLB lowered the pitching mound in 1968 (and is currently considering its response to another scoring decline). The NBA changed rules about hand-checking, isolations, zone defenses and more. The NFL enacted a series of rules restricting defenses, including the five-yard chuck rule in 1978 that limited defensive backs' contact with wide receivers. In each case, scoring increased to more usual levels following the rule changes. Pro football has been particularly proactive, making changes to maintain scoring in the face of increasingly sophisticated defenses.

And so college basketball will also survive, saved by new rules. Davis provides sensible suggestions: A 30-second shot clock, extending the arc under the basket, a wider lane, a deeper 3-point line (to spread out the defense), and fewer timeouts. In fact, the NIT implemented the 30-second clock and a 4-foot arc as experiments in this season’s tournament. The NCAA should also return to the offense-favored block/charge interpretation of 2013. These modifications should reverse the current trend.

Nevertheless, many remain pessimistic: They doubt that changes are forthcoming. Davis notes that many coaches prefer the slower, rougher game because it favors their less talented teams, and they are reluctant to make changes that reduce their own influence. In addition, the major D-I conferences have long-term, lucrative television contracts, which blunts coaches’ concerns over immediate problems.

All true, but that simply delays the inevitable. No sport commits suicide. The TV contracts will come up for renegotiation. If college basketball continues its downward trend and TV ratings decrease (as ESPN’s did this year), the networks will propose reduced fees. Lower TV revenue and declining gate receipts will inspire the college powers that be to action.

The dollar will prevail.

Sheldon Hirsch is author of the forthcoming book "Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths" from the University Press of New England.

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