FIBA adopted a 30-second shot clock in 1956. Women’s collegiate basketball started using it in 1969. In 2015, men’s college basketball ended decades of trepidation and joined the rest of the world by instituting a 30-second shot clock. Even being nearly four decades behind everyone else, there was still plenty of debate over whether the men’s game was doing the right thing.
In the midst of the one of the lowest scoring seasons since 1952 (exceeded only by 1982 and 2013), 30 percent of coaches polled by Jeff Goodman supported keeping the shot clock at 35. Maybe that figure wasn’t so bad. After all, it’s difficult to get 70 percent agreement on just about any topic. If such polls were conducted before the introduction of the shot clock or 3-point line, I’m guessing we’d find similar levels of dissent.
And being in the minority doesn’t make one wrong. But given that men’s college basketball has been multiple generations behind the rest of the world with regards to modernizing the rules, it’s important to document the specific wrongness in this situation. Let’s take a look at some of the protests regarding a 30-second shot clock and see how they turned out.
Shorter possessions will lead to worse shots.
Admittedly, there’s some logic here. Reducing the time that the offense has to shoot might cause it to take worse shots as it deals with the end of the shot clock more often. However, there was some reason to think this wouldn’t be true. Scores were dropping because the offense was taking longer to shoot, yet offenses were just as efficient as ever. Given the results from last season’s use of the new rules in some postseason tournaments, and that the offense has most of the control over possession length and shooting percentage, it seemed virtually impossible that games would be lower scoring this. But a few smart people thought scores really might go down, including Ben H. from Starkville.
But those people were incorrect. Three-point accuracy finished at 34.7%, the highest figure since 2008, which not coincidentally was the last season the 3-point line was at 19’ 9”. Two-point percentage finished at 48.7%. This is the highest since 2007, but that understates things. It’s actually a virtual tie with 2007 and from there you have to go to 1992 to find a better number. There were 71.6 points scored per 40 minutes of D-I on D-I action this season, the highest figure since the mid-90’s.
So scoring didn’t go down. It went up. By a lot. And shooting got better. No question, it wasn’t just the shot-clock reduction that drove this. The expanded charge circle and focus on freedom of movement helped as well. In the end, change was very, very good to the game.
We’ll see more backcourt pressure, leading to more turnovers. Zone will become more prevalent.
Nationally, turnovers were committed on 18.1 percent of possessions. That’s the lowest turnover rate in well, as far as we can go back. That would be 1993, the year that the NCAA started tracking turnovers nationwide. But it’s possible there was a time teams committed fewer turnovers. Perhaps in the late 1960’s when shots were seemingly hoisted instantly after players crossed half-court. (The average pace back then pushed 90 possessions per game.)
One fear was the a team like Syracuse that forced long possessions with its zone would be more effective than ever. The Orange’s defense had a nice season, but I suspect that has to do with factors other than the shot clock. Over the past six seasons, their defense ranked between eighth and 20th and this season it finished 16th. And let’s not forget that Syracuse gave up 84 points in 75 possessions to St. John’s. I know, it’s just one game, but the Red Storm had the 304th-ranked offense in the country! (NJIT and Niagara and St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner were able to have better defensive games against St. John’s. Basically, every other college from the states of New York and New Jersey that played St. John’s had a better defensive showing than Syracuse.)
I haven’t crunched the synergy numbers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if we found there was more zone this season. Teams took more 3-pointers than ever this season, and surely some of that was due to the defense’s will. But teams made 3’s at a higher rate, too, so maybe those zones weren’t all that effective.
There will be fewer upsets.
This one comes from Jeff L. in Greenville. It certainly didn’t seem like it was more difficult for an underdog to win. All we heard about this season was how often unranked teams were beating teams in the top ten and how often the AP #1 was losing. Though perhaps that was just the pollsters sucking more than usual. (Seriously, why don’t people ever offer this as a possibility?)
More double-digit seeds won first round games than ever before, though some of those teams were favored. The NCAA tournament wasn’t any more upset-prone than usual, but it definitely wasn’t unusually chalky, either. And Michigan State may have been the best team ever to lose a first-round game.
Basically, the results are inconclusive, but in the first season of our brave new world, I didn’t hear anyone complaining about the lack of upsets.
There will be a lot of fouls.
This one was submitted by Bob H. of Morgantown and Larry E. of Fort Collins. Hand-in-hand with the shot clock reduction was the emphasis on improving freedom of movement. Of course, there were more fouls this season, and to some extent that artificially boosted scoring. And while you may have been at a game where there were 50 fouls or more, let’s not get carried away with thinking the officials had a large impact.
There were 19.2 fouls per team per 40 minutes this season. That was a six percent increase form last season, but less than a two percent increase over 2003, the last season where average pace was at least 69 possessions per game. There will be more fouls called when there are more possessions, and once accounting for that, this season wasn’t terribly unusual, even with an emphasis on freedom of movement (which didn’t exist in 2003).
Team styles will look the same.
This is also from Bob H. who was quite the grump this season. And at least in terms of possessions per game, this wasn’t true. The Citadel led the nation in adjusted tempo at 81.5 possessions per game. Denver finished last at 61.9. The difference of 20.6 is identical to last season. (The coaches on either end of the extremes are also the same as last season.) If you prefer fancier mathematical terms, the standard deviation of team pace was about 3% higher this season than last season. Hey, if you like slow-paced low-scoring basketball reminiscent of the early 1950’s – and I don’t know why you would – there was still a 47-43 game in the NCAA tournament! Those games are more rare, but they still exist. Thankfully, there were just 30 games with fewer than 100 points scored this season, compared to 136 last season.
Games were higher scoring and faster paced this season, but there was roughly the same diversity in styles as last season.
None of these changes matter, it will all look like last season when the tournament starts.
In fact, relatively fewer fouls were called in the NCAA tournament compared to the regular season, but to some extent this happens every season. Fouls in this season’s tournament are down about three percent from the regular season considering who’s playing, but pace is down less than one percent from what you’d expect given the participating teams, and efficiency increased, though by less than one percent. (As an aside, based on the participating teams, you’d have expected efficiency to average a whopping 1.057 points per possession in the tournament and we got 1.064. That’s a nice showing for the #OffenseWinsChampionships crowd.)
Were there any other concerns over the new rules? There probably were and they were probably wrong, too. The thing is, offenses are getting so good that it’s apparent that reducing the shot clock further would not set the game back.
One of the troubling things about this year’s data was that turnovers actually dropped. So did offensive rebounds for that matter. While there are more possessions than we’ve had in over a decade, there are fewer things happening in those possessions. Offenses are simply making buckets with unprecedented precision. The next set of rules changes will probably favor the defense, something nearly unheard of in team sports in modern times.
But history indicates it may be a while before that happens, and a while will be too long. The game is changing faster than it ever has. Teams are taking a lot more threes and scoring more efficiently than ever. The move to a 30-second shot clock was so overdue that the rest of the world, save for women’s college basketball, has already moved on to a 24-second shot clock.
“The game is in great shape” opponents of further modernization will say. And maybe it is. Who knows. But people were saying the same thing at this time last season, and this season has shown that the game had room to be even better. Whether it’s pushing the 3-point line back, reducing the backcourt count to eight seconds, or reducing the shot clock to the international standard, based on what we’ve seen this season a game with more space and more pace would be improve even more.