Last week, Matt Norlander introduced you all to the idea that scoring is down across college basketball this season. This is something I should have done, but despite several people mentioning to me over recent weeks that they thought scoring was down, I never took the matter seriously enough to investigate. You should read the piece for yourself, but the summary is that it appears this season may challenge the modern record for scoring average.
After running a few more numbers, it turns out that probably won’t happen. For Matt’s piece, I computed scoring average using only games that involved two Division I teams which I think is how it should be done. But the NCAA uses all games that a D-I team plays which is going to inflate the numbers slightly. Using that method puts the current scoring average at 68.9 points per game, which would be the second-lowest in the shot clock era. The previous low occurred in 2009, the first season of the extended three-point line. The post-1952 low of 67.6 set in 1982 is going to be safe using this methodology.
Nonetheless, there’s been a pretty consistent trend since scoring peaked at about 77 points per game in 1991. Possessions have been getting longer and efficiency has remained constant and the result is a steady decrease in points per game. As to why this is happening, there is no easy answer. This season, shooting percentages are down across the board from last season and trips to the free throw line are fewer as well. The combination has resulted in a double-whammy of slow pace and less efficiency.
At this point, I’d like to refer you to a piece that is over six and-a-half years old. Way back in May of ought-five, I posted a graph of historical trends in the game based on the stats published in the NCAA record book. It’s worth a re-read if only to take a peek back in time, but if you’re rushed, I shall update that graph below. Keep in mind, excruciating details about the methodology used to produce this are described in the 2005 piece.
Not much has changed since ’05. Efficiency has increased a bit and pace has decreased slightly, continuing trends that were observed in the early part of the millennium. Overall, the slowing trend is slightly outpacing the efficiency trend, and if we don’t set a new shot-clock era low for PPG this season, it will inevitably be set in the next year or two.
It’s worth considering whether this is a problem. An honest assessment of the popularity of the sport is difficult to do. And whether the decrease in scoring is even a consideration in the decrease in popularity of the sport (if that is even occurring) is another matter, as well.
Furthermore, even if the sport is less popular and the decrease in scoring is a contributing factor, there seem to be few options available to reverse the trend. That’s why it’s interesting to look back at that post from six years ago, before the three-point line was moved. The game really hasn’t changed since then despite that change in the rules. With that in mind, let’s take a fresh look at the three most-discussed rules changes for the near future:
1. Shorten the shot clock.
The introduction of the shot clock helped boost scoring in the mid ‘80s. The reduction from 45 to 35 seconds in 1994 provided another small boost in scoring. It seems inevitable that the clock will be shortened to 30 seconds at some point soon. No doubt this effort would provide a small boost in scoring again, butit would come at a cost. While scoring would increase, I would expect points per possession to decrease, and long term, you’d see more zone defense which would further challenge offenses. Long term, scoring would remain unchanged and we’d just hear the shot clock buzzer go off more often.
2. Clean up rough play.
This idea comes up all the time from coaches and commentators. Through the miracle of YouTube you can easily confirm there is more contact in the game today than there was ten years. And there was more contact ten years ago than there was 20 years ago, etc. However, very few people really want to clean up the contact. You need only look at the reaction when a lot of fouls are called in a game. (Most recent example: Kentucky/Louisville on Saturday.)
Nobody likes those kinds of game. Refs don’t even like those games. That’s why the average number of fouls called in a game has remained nearly constant since 1953. The players define the acceptable amount of contact and, in most games, officials work around that. Everyone involved in the game has become conditioned to that. Which is why when a game has 51 fouls called, people get upset. If you truly want contact cleaned up, you’ll have to sit through a bunch of games like Kentucky/Louisville before the players adjust and I don’t think anybody has the stomach for that.
It should be noted that the NBA has worked diligently to reduce perimeter contact on the ball-handler and has seen scoring and tempo rise as a result. I would say the NBA is a different animal with a central authority that can train all of its officials the same way and also aggressively defend its officials from criticism. The fractured nature of college basketball officiating works against a major overhaul of how the game would be called at this level.
3. Do something with the lane.
Another option is to widen the lane to either the NBA standard or the international configuration. But remarking a court is kind of pain and always seems to meet resistance from administrators, and it gets messier if the women’s game doesn’t follow along. Besides, even were this solution adopted, it may only punish the offense. Moving offensive players farther from the hoop while not doing the same for the defense isn’t going to increase scoring. This was more or less the result of the 2004 rules experiment.
Perhaps in the long run, once post players adjusted to the change, it would open up the half-court game more and offenses would improve. I don’t believe this, though, and it was the same rationale fed to the public for moving the three-point line back. All we’ve gotten out of that is more zone defense, slightly slower possessions, and incrementally less scoring.
Whatever rules changes are made, I hope they benefit the offense. Giving the offense less time to shoot and expanding the lane do not do this, much as pushing the three-point line back didn’t do it, either.
The only real solution is to crack down on perimeter contact, but unfortunately the structure isn’t in place to do it in a way that wouldn’t send fans into an uproar. Perhaps a bunch of games in the 40’s and 50’s is the way basketball will played for many years to come. Just like it was in the early days of the NCAA tournament, but for different reasons. On the bright side, unlike in the 1940’s and early 1950’s, at least the average field goal percentage isn’t south of 40%.