I've never watched as little college basketball as I have this season. The game is poorly coached, often lacks any flow or beauty, rewards unathletic play, and is as uninteresting as at any point I can remember. I watch USF and the AAC due to this website, Kentucky... and that's about it. I didn't enter The Jerome this year because it would be throwing darts with as little ball as I've seen.
And that would be one thing if I was a casual follower of the game, but five years ago I would have told you college basketball is unquestionably my favorite sport. I grew up a rabid Villanova/Big East fan, have been to 11 of these buildings, and have this weird fetish for the West Coast Conference that's simply bizarre for a Floridian. But I've checked out on the sport more than ever. And if they've lost me, they're in trouble.
There are lots of reasons to worry about the college game, including the (often correct) perception that it's a corrupt enterprise. But what makes it worse is that the NBA has never been better. You can get your breath taken away nightly if you stay up for any top eight Western Conference game by the gorgeous team play and unselfish ball movement. Stretch 4's that shoot 3's like 2-guards did 20 years ago. Players flying up and down the floor, teams defending as if a single-celled organism, and frontcourt players spotting up for above-the-break 3's even in transition. It's a beautiful game to behold.
I'm a NBA agnostic and don't have a favorite team, but with as many amazing games & players as are currently on display, why would I watch a mid-tier ACC or B1G game?
The college game has of course never competed athletically with the pro product (exempt the 2015 versions of Kentucky & the Knicks from this), but the entertainment gap between the two has never been as broad. There's lots of reasons for this: the one-and-done rule, the ease with which both players and coaches transfer from school to school, the over-coaching... (oh God, the over-coaching), and the choppy nature of the game amongst them.
So bring me back, squeaky shoes and PG-13 student sections: Here's some easy things that could be done tomorrow to could make college basketball much more appealing.
1. Stop with the damn timeouts. Now.
In the first half of every NCAA game there are four tv timeouts (under 16, 12, 8, & 4 minutes), plus each team has a use-it-or-lose-it 30-second timeout for a total of six stoppages. In the second half, there are four tv timeouts, plus the first 30-second timeout taken by either team becomes a fifth tv timeout, then each team also gets one timeout of 60 seconds instead of 30 seconds, and after all those are used... each team still has three timeouts!!
There are 18 stoppages in the college game totaling when each team uses their full timeout allotment. For NCAA Tournament games, here's the stoppage total:
Nine 2:30 TV Timeouts = 22:30
Seven :30 second timeouts (four per team, minus first :30 called in second half that becomes TV timeout) = 3:30
Two 1:00 minute timeouts (one per team) = 2:00
That's 28 minutes in stoppages before you include halftime. "Why we gotta run suicides Coach? We can't get tired in March!"
Halftime is 20 minutes at NCAA's as opposed to just 15 minutes during the regular season. So when you attend an NCAA Tournament game, you actually see more of the mascots, bands, & cheerleaders than basketball if you're in the stands (48 to 40). And then they won't even sell you alcohol to try and get you through the mind-numbing pain of hearing Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby" (I wanna knowwwww...) by the fifth different pep band that day.
The Fix: Change the game to four 10-minute quarters, and give three total timeouts per team: two :30-second and one 60-second. Require that one :30 must be used in the first half or lost.
To satisfy the TV need for commercial time allow a TV timeout at the under 5-minute mark of each quarter, but make the quarter breaks even longer (as much as three minutes during the regular season and maybe even a smidge longer for CBS during The Dance). This also doubles to allow the marketing teams at arenas to do more intricate promotions that fans often enjoy.
Also add the current NCAA women's basketball rule that a timeout taken within 30 seconds of a media timeout zone shifts to a media timeout. No more back-to-back timeouts can only help game flow.
Four quarters also reward smarter teams that are well-coached in game clock situations as it creates more of them. That should help to keep the mid-major coaches at bay, who want to limit possessions knowing that makes it easier to knock off a better program. The lack of two-for-ones is the bane of my college basketball existence (JUST SHOOT THE DAMN BALL WITH 42 SECONDS LEFT IT DOESN'T MATTER IF IT'S A GOOD SHOT MY GOD HAVE YOU EVEN HEARD OF THE SLOAN CONFERENCE), but this might also force coaches to finally catch up with the math of basketball.
2: The officiating is terrible. Poor refs keep getting work, and the game lacks flow due to current interpretations.
College basketball officiating has reached crisis levels. And when you think it can't get any worse... go watch a women's NCAA game because it'll restore your faith that the men's refs aren't the worst on the planet. The women's game is quite often a travesty of incompetence, but that's another post.
Having all Division I officials under one umbrella isn't an original idea, but it would also force referee evaluators to be nationalized as well. I try and talk to everyone I can at a basketball game (scouts, trainers, marketing people), but the officiating coordinators are often the most interesting people. What they do is subjectively evaluate what should objective data. They're surprisingly willing to share because there's so much misinformation about what they do and how the game should be called.
They often sit at the scorers table during games, and they see things you'd never consider otherwise: the difference between a hand-check and incidental contact on the perimeter, how what might be considered a moving screen is actually dependent on how the screened player creates contact, etc. They should be allowed to do this for officials they don't know already however.
The Fix: Nationalize the cross-checkers, pare down officials as the season continues while increasing pay, and limit refs to five games a week.
Getting cross-checkers and evaluators out of their home regions is vital. Former legendarily whistle-happy ref Curtis Shaw currently runs the officials consortium of five conferences, so he gets the blame for King Karl Hess being allowed to bully everyone for so long. Tim Higgins couldn't move 10 feet without having to pull up his pants at the end, but kept getting work forever. Maybe having West Coast evaluators grading the work of Ted Valentine might save us from more of this. It would take away the pre-existing relationships between officials and assigners that at least give the perception of potential bias.
As the season continues, it's for the greater good that the best officials don't work when USF plays Houston. To reward the best and punish the worst, let's split games into different tiers as the season progresses and have the best officials work the top tier regardless of travel. I'd much rather have Tulsa-SMU with the best crew, because hopefully my school is competing in that game someday.
Let's also add a dash of Darwinian capitalism: based on the knowledge that each ref makes about $1000-$2500 a game depending on the conference (plus expenses), let's have Tier 1 games pay $1300, Tier 2 $1000, and Tier 3 $700 for a mid-major.
As for what those cross-checkers need to look for? Of course block/charge is the first problem, and go back to the "upward motion" of the offensive player as opposed to the "leaving the floor" interpretation. Every single instance of this call across America needs to be evaluated post-game and reviewed with the ref that made the call. Also stop letting defenders bump cutters, especially on baseline cuts, by whistling it early & often. The refs might dislike Jay Bilas but he's right about this one. Adding the NBA's charge circle would of course help too.
Let's also help the defense in certain areas as well: no more letting dribblers initiate contact on perimeter drives to the rim via transformation into a human bowling ball, and stop making the verticality of post defenders an absolute: if a fingertip on the hand not initiating contact is over the plane, let it slide. Giving all jump balls to the defense and ditching the possession arrow wouldn't hurt either.
3. Drop the shot clock to 30 seconds, move back the three-point line, and initiate defensive three-seconds as in the NBA.
The sport has evolved too much, and too many guys can shoot. Right now it seems any D1 team can stay in any game if they can make some threes, so moving the line back & implementing a no-three-seconds-in-the-lane-unless-you're-guarding-someone illegal defense rule does several things:
* It opens up driving lanes & mid-range basketball for good players that have to be guarded from deep, but can also put it on the floor and get to the rim.
* It forces coaches to put more people that can drive the basketball on the court so they can force defenses out of system to get those kickout three-point looks. You know, skilled athletes. The guys we want to watch play this game in the first place.
* It makes zone defense, the bane of game flow, even more risky. If you want to zone it up your opponent can counter with a bevy of shooters, or post a big on one side and place a good driver on the wing opposite. This will keep bigs from being able to hedge between ball side & weak side by simply standing under the rim.
As for the shot clock, I'm less convinced than most that this will act as a panacea for the drop in scoring that others see. But if the women's game can get by with 30 seconds, the men shouldn't have an issue.
4. Shake it up. Don't be afraid to change formats to make things more interesting.
I grew up watching the Big East six-foul rule, and I thought it was great. The dumbest excuse for everything ever is "that's the way we've always done it." We live in an age of disruption, and no sport needs a market shakeup more than college basketball. Here's a few ideas.
* For mid-major conferences that aren't getting more than one or two teams in The Dance anyway, change the format of your conference tournament. Put your top three seeds in the semifinals directly, have the rest of your league's teams play a tournament for the fourth spot, and have the #1 overall seed choose their semifinal opponent from the three teams remaining.
As soon as the fourth team wins their game, have the head coach (or better yet the entire team) get on the microphone and call out who they're playing tomorrow. It would make for more strategy, intrigue, and great television. All that's missing is WWE's TitanTron and Jim Ross saying "MY GOD, THAT'S ARKANSAS LITTLE-ROCK'S MUSIC!!" Hell, get J.R. out there to do the announcement!
* The replay challenge has been good for every sport that has it so far, so bring it to basketball. We've got enough stoppages already, so the penalty for being wrong needs to be steep: teams that replay challenge and are wrong not only lose a timeout, they also concede a one-shot technical and possession of the ball. It'll also keep teams from burning every last timeout, because you can't challenge if you don't have a TO left.
* Each team must carry at least one upperclassmen non-scholarship player with more than a 3.5 GPA, and that player must play for at least one minute of game time.
We all love the Human Victory Cigars that Mark Titus made famous, but what if they had to play in the game? Each team's usual DNP becomes an integral, necessary DNP (Designated Nerd Player). What becomes the prevailing strategy regarding DNP's? Start them and get it out of the way, or wait for a favorable matchup? You'd like to wait until garbage time to get him in there... but what if the score is closer than you projected and there is no garbage time?
This might be the least realistic option, but how could this be a bad thing? It at least makes college basketball more interesting and fun. And that's what the sport needs now more than ever.
I still love you college basketball, but I also loved some ex-girlfriend's that needed therapy too. There's still time to save yourself from becoming less and less relevant on the sports landscape.
Seek help. Immediately. I'll be here waiting for you when you're ready.