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College Hoops: Billy Tubbs Must Be Turning Over in His Grave

Why has the game gotten SO ... BLOODY ... SLOW?

Duggar Baucom's VMI Keydets are one of the only truly high-paced teams left in college basketball.
Duggar Baucom's VMI Keydets are one of the only truly high-paced teams left in college basketball.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

I know. I know. Billy Tubbs is not dead. But, I think it's safe to say that the style his run n' gun Sooners played in the 80s and 90s is now dead. And I, for one, lament its passing. What has replaced it in college basketball is growing increasingly unwatchable, at least to me.

Well, it's not just me either. Regular season men's college hoops ratings are routinely ghastly things. The money quote from this Sports Media Watch post on the 2nd half of the 2012-13 regular season:

A whopping 606 of the 678 games had less than a 1.0 rating. That includes 376 games that had between a 0.1 and 0.4, and an incredible 127 games that had a 0.0. Of note, every single game that had a 0.0 rating aired on ESPNU or NBC Sports Network.

Now, it's easy to overplay what TV ratings tell you. The ESPN sports programming world lends itself to severe audience fragmentation. But it's pretty obvious that no one is watching college basketball until March. The regular season is a deadzone, and even the vaunted first weekend of March Madness rarely shows up on top 50 ratings lists for sports (even if you take out the NFL). As with anything complex, there are lots of reasons for this, but one reason is most assuredly that the product isn't very good.


The kids really aren't the problem

Over time, I've had to pare back my sports tree. These days I primarily pay attention to Missouri and Arizona, my Alma Mater. I know less about the overall college hoops landscape than I used to. Still, I see a reasonable amount. And from my vantage point, the quality of input has never been better. You see few super teams, favored to go wire-to-wire in the top five and win a title, but most teams in the AQ conferences have 2-3 good players. Say what you will about AAU and the influence of the shoe companies on the sport, kids are entering college basketball having played a ton of basketball.

Think about our own Johnathan Williams III and Arizona's Aaron Gordon. Both have been criticized for their lack of functional strength. Well, that used to be a phase that almost every freshmen went through. Now, we are surprised to see it. We expect them to walk onto the court on day 1, at 18 years old, and dominate against 20-something upperclassmen. What's crazy is that the expectations are not entirely unreasonable. So many freshmen have been able to do it that we have "raised the bar" to unfair (but ironically, not unreasonable) heights.

These kids can play however they're coached to play.

College hoops has become Restrictor Plate racing ... by choice

To me, a far bigger problem with college basketball is what the coaches are doing to the game. Or, more to the point, what they're not doing. They're not running. At all. They are casually strolling -- sashaying, if you will -- compared to just 10 years ago. If I understand the following data correctly, it illustrates the point.

Look at these two charts compiled from on pace, or possessions per game. In the first, I chose an arbitrary 11-year range as a way of including full-season data for 10 years. My interest is in the "Hi" category and the "# Teams over 80" category. That is, how fast are the fastest teams playing, and how many are playing that fast? Possessions per game, 2002-03 to present
Season Hi Low Range Teams over 80
2002-03 81.3 55.4 25.9 1
2003-04 79.2 54.5 24.7 0
2004-05 80.5 54.2 26.3 2
2005-06 80.6 55.8 24.8 1
2006-07 91.6 54.8 36.8 1
2007-08 82.9 58.4 24.5 2
2008-09 83.6 59.1 24.5 1
2009-10 86.7 58.5 28.2 2
2010-11 79.5 58.7 20.8 0
2011-12 77.2 60.2 17.0 0
2012-13 76.0 59.1 16.9 0
2013-14 80.6 61.5 19.1 1
Avg 81.6 57.5 24.1 0.9

I suspect that we can all agree that 80 possessions per game is pretty fast for college, but there is nothing magical about 80. I use it because my eyes tell me that a pace in the low 80s is the highest sustainable pace in a 40 minute college basketball game. Notice that, aside from the extreme outlier (VMI in 2006-07 and 2009-10), the fastest teams barely exceed 80 possessions per game for the past 10 or so seasons.

Most importantly in the above chart, the team that plays at the highest sustainable pace does so pretty much by itself.

Contrast it to the way the fastest teams played back in the proverbial day. Possessions per game, 1997/98-2001/02
Season Hi Low Range Teams over 80
1997-98 85.7 58.5 27.2 12
1998-99 85.6 58.1 27.5 10
1999-00 84.0 60.7 23.3 8
2000-01 82.2 58.5 23.7 3
2001-02 81.9 59.2 22.7 7
Avg 83.9 59.0 24.9 8.0

The Team Rankings data only go back to the 1997-98 season. (That was Kelly Thames' senior season and Brian Grawer's freshman season, for a Mizzou point of reference.) But you can see that a) the highest paced teams played considerably faster, and b) they weren't alone.

I don't want to over-claim with this data. I am intentionally looking at the fastest and slowest teams, not average pace. So I can't say much about the "typical" team. What this simple data establishes is that "running" used to be a "thing" that teams did. Some coaches -- at title-contending schools, no less -- even preferred this as a strategy. This was not that long ago.

In fact, consider that 1997-98 Missouri team. It was not one of Norm Stewart's finest. The top 3 scorers were Thames, Albert White, and John Woods, and it was generally considered a mid-tempo team. It ranked 76th in pace, at 74.5 possessions per game. Today, that pace would rank 19th (not far behind Mike Anderson's current Arkansas squad, which ranks 14th). That completely nondescript Missouri team would be playing a style akin to "Fastest 40 Minutes." The 2013-14 Missouri team plays under 70 possessions per game (68.9), good for 190th.

For reasons that I can't say I fully understand, coaches, save a small handful, do not play fast. I am not here to suggest that they all should, but almost none do. I think that's bad for college basketball. (My first college hoops "love" was John Cheney's Temple teams, circa 1985. So I'm not opposed to slow play.) If the trends at the end of the first chart continue, the difference between the fastest and slowest teams will shrink to under 20 possessions. If you believe, like I do, in the old dictum that "styles make fights" you should find that troubling.

It's time for a 28-second shot clock

For some of you, the aesthetics don't matter. You may even prefer a slow-paced game. I am not here to convince you to love a different style. Rather, I'd argue that the 35 second shot clock has long outlived its usefulness on its own merits. The 35-second clock hinders good offense, fast or slow.

It wastes time early in possessions and at the end of halves and games. The first 15 seconds or so of many, if not most, college possessions are filled with nonsense, plain and simple. High-quality, early offense has basically disappeared from the game. UNC's Tyler Zeller became a first round pick doing what virtually every forward and center did in the '80s and '90s: run the floor and try to post before the defense sets. That has been replaced by pointless weaving and perimeter passes that do nothing but invite the defense to recede into the paint and camp out under the basket. (Thank you, Bo Ryan!) Everyone in the building knows the possession is going to end with a three point hoist. It's just a question of from whom.

These are all dead-on indicators that teams have time to waste, and feel compelled to waste it. Missouri, for example, rarely gets into its half-court offense until 12 seconds or so remain on the clock, quite by design. They could do without seven extra seconds.

At end-of-half situations, the shot clock is so long that teams are routinely more interested in running the clock than getting a good shot. The last two minutes of last week's Syracuse-Pittsburgh game was a classic example of a team getting burned by simply trying to run out clock. Coaches will always do that, but the game should provide less incentive.

Calling more fouls was supposed to put flow back into the game by penalizing grab-and-hold "defense," but it's not too soon to say that approach was too heavy-handed. It puts officials in an impossible situation of bailing out out-of-control drives. It has also forced coaches to become overly reliant on precisely that kind of offense. You're stupid not to when you can get 10-15 additional FTAs in games where there are 60-70 total FTAs. Of course, no one can be surprised that crews vary widely in what they call and when.

To me a 28-second clock doesn't resolve every problem with college hoops. It doesn't need to. But it would do mostly good things without being ham-handed. It would encourage (not force) teams to initiate their offense sooner. That would incentivize teams to start running again. Even if you don't like that style, you'd have something to root against.