The past few years of college basketball were holistically humdrum during the regular season. The pace of play was purposely sluggish, coaches abused rules to maximize the number of timeouts and scoring trends were at 20-year lows.
These factors combined to create a product that, again, prior to the bubble watches and conference tournaments in March, was almost unwatchable. And I’m not just talking about Georgetown basketball — the problem was nationwide.
Thankfully, the NCAA realized this and showed unusual responsiveness by enacting several major rule changes for the 2015-16 season that may reverse the tide and make college basketball entertaining year-round, such as reducing the shot clock, adjusting timeout rules to improve the pace of play and shaving off time to push the ball to the front court. Such alterations could start to give some insight about which teams are ready for a late-season tournament run and which should be on upset alert.
The biggest rule change was reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30. Five seconds may not seem like much, but already the average number of possessions per game is up by 4.2 and scoring is up by 6.5 points per game. Before the rule change, per-game scoring was down 12 percent from the 1990-91 season, and it was clear that many teams, including high-ranking teams like Virginia, were content with bleeding the shot clock and winning low-scoring, defensive games. The strategy worked well for some teams but took its toll on the NCAA, television ratings and attendance. People did not and still do not want to pay to watch what they perceive as boring basketball.
Aside from simple scoring, the changes have also affected the strategy that teams implement on both ends of the floor. As is the trend in other college and professional sports, the rule changes have noticeably impacted major offensive categories besides points — teams are also becoming more efficient. For instance, last season only 12 teams finished with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating over 110. This measures the number of points teams score per 100 possessions, adjusted for the quality of the opponent. Currently, there are 20 teams who exceed that threshold. This increase can be partially attributed to the faster pace of play the reduced shot clock forces and the increased flow of the games that results from tweaking timeout rules.
Fans lamenting that this is just the latest example of leagues changing rules to benefit offenses are partially right. Just as there are more teams with increased offensive efficiency, there are also fewer teams with stellar defensive efficiency. This season only 27 teams have a defensive efficiency below 95, compared to 37 teams from last season. This makes sense because points scored for one team also count as points against for another. Teams are not necessarily playing worse defense per se — rather, they simply have to play more of it. Over the course of a 40-minute game with added possessions and more fouls, the only logical outcome is that more points are going to be scored due to some combination of defensive fatigue, increased shots and more free throws.
In the Big East, these changes are having a noticeable effect as well. Last year Villanova was the only team to finish the season averaging more than 75 points per game, and six teams averaged fewer than 70. This season only two teams are averaging fewer than 70 while five are scoring at least 75 points per game, and Butler leads the conference with almost 81 per game. Naturally, not all of this can be attributed to just the rule changes, but there is no doubt that the changes have helped most of the teams in the conference in some way.
According to advanced statistics, one prominent team that could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament is Villanova. The Wildcats boast one of the most balanced teams in the country and excel on both ends of the floor. The 2016 Pomeroy Ratings rank Villanova as the fifth most efficient defense and the fourteenth most efficient offense; the only other comparable team is Virginia, which is ranked 12th and seventh in the same stats, respectively. Ironically, both teams are known to disappoint during tournament time, but the anarchic nature of this basketball season has left no clear-cut favorite.
This college basketball season has been particularly interesting. There are perhaps a dozen teams that could conceivably win the national championship. Luckily, the NCAA has done its part to make the games more competitive and offense based without taking away anything from defenses; if anything, they put the onus on offenses to improve. It might be difficult to pick the team who is going to win it all, but the game as a whole has undoubtedly won.
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