By Jim Weber
Now that the college football regular season has ended and the Heisman Trophy has been handed out, this is supposed to be the time when college sports fans turn their focus to college hoops.
Except, that’s not happening this year. No one is talking about the sport or its games right now, as the NFL and NBA are dominating all the headlines.
Why is this happening? That’s easy: The games aren’t very exciting to watch.
First of all, there’s no star power this season. There isn’t a dominant freshman like Anthony Davis. There isn’t even a single “must watch” player like college football’s Johnny Manziel. The overlying problem is that offense in college basketball this season is at historic lows and games like Georgetown’s 37-36 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 30 are embarrassing the product as a whole.
In any sport, more scoring means more excitement. The NFL and NBA certainly figured this out in recent years. Well consider this: During the 1990 college basketball season, five teams averaged over 92.1 PPG. Last season, the highest scoring team was North Carolina at 81.3 PPG – almost a full ten points lower.
College basketball is in a precarious position right now. College football trails only the NFL as America’s favorite sport and its explosive growth in popularity has no end in sight. Meanwhile, college basketball continues to fade into obscurity while being overshadowed by the star-driven NBA. In 2011, ratings for college basketball reportedly hit a seven-year low.
Obviously the biggest source of this problem is the brain drain of players leaving for the NBA, like the 49 underclassmen who went pro last season. Most of those are now sitting on NBA benches or not even in the league. Unfortunately, this drain will never change unless the NBA increases the age limit.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing the NCAA can do to put a jolt back in the sport. There is almost a unanimous cry for increased scoring in college basketball to harken back to the glory days of college basketball in the 1990s and teams that played at warp-speed like Loyola Marymount – excellently profiled here by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn.
With college basketball’s ratings and significance continuing to slip and this year’s start to the season equating to a tree falling in the forest, NCAA president Mark Emmert must enact changes to restore college basketball’s popularity with casual sports fans with a three-point plan:
#1: Reduce the Shot Clock
I’ve already made the case for reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to the NBA level of 24 seconds. Naturally, it’s a controversial position to take. But I just don’t see another way to increase the number of possessions and shots back to where they were 20 years ago. Some people say it will ruin the college game and make it a poor man’s version of the NBA. There were also people saying a 35-second clock and 3-point line would doom college basketball, though they’ve both proven to be great additions. Plus, a reduced shot clock will result in less hackathons at the end of games. If a 24-second shot seems limiting, consider this: Grinnell averages a shot every five seconds. And as the DIII school has proven, you often get better shots this way because the defense doesn’t have a chance to set up.
#2: Increase Blocking Calls
It’s no secret that drawing a charging call in college basketball has become a joke. While the NBA goes the other way by turning almost every play into an “and one,” you can basically draw a charge in college basketball by diving in front of a player as he drives to the basket. This has hurt scoring, encouraged defenders take more bad charges and resulted in increased flopping – all of which are bad for college hoops. As Jay Bilas has pointed out, the charge circle the NCAA first used last season to decrease charges has seemingly had the opposite effect, as officials rule almost anything that takes place outside the circle a charge. Whether the circle needs to be abolished or increased or the charge rule just needs to be enforced better is up to the NCAA, but something clearly needs to be done.
#3: Install a Defensive Three-Second Rule
College basketball purists just threw up in their mouths. Look, I know that Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense and John Beilein’s 1-3-1 zone are staples of college basketball, but they are also gimmicks that reward bad defenders and hurt the game. By having a big man like Fab Melo squat in the lane like a goalie, the offensive team’s player and ball movement is limited and in turn hurts scoring and watchability. Why can a defensive player stand in the lane an entire possession while an offensive player only gets three seconds there? Heck, the NBA didn’t even allow zone defenses until 2001. And since then, zones have been curbed by this rule to increase the speed of the game – and that is with a 24-second shot clock.
Look, I love college sports and will always watch college hoops over the NBA even in its current state because of the pageantry and passion involved. But if the NCAA doesn’t address the urgent issues afflicting its game and restore college basketball to the way it was played two decades ago, I’m going to be part of a shrinking minority.
Photo: Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images