College basketball had a problem.
Teams were scoring less and less, physical defense had turned the area under the basket into a mosh pit and sluggish play was choking the life out of the game.
So, in the spring of 2015, members of the NCAA rules committee sequestered themselves for days of tough discussion, emerging with a set of changes that included opening up the lane and trimming the shot clock to 30 seconds.
The shorter clock, in particular, was a risky move because coaches might find ways — such as a soft press defense in the backcourt — to waste precious seconds, further slowing things to a crawl.
“I told the guys in the room, this is the rule for the next two years,” Rick Byrd, the rules chairman and coach at Belmont University, said at the time. “There’s nothing in concrete that says college basketball doesn’t find out this isn’t a good thing and you go back to 35 seconds.”
Two years later, it appears the committee’s gamble has paid off.
As the 2017 NCAA tournament begins this week, scoring is on the uptick and players are moving up and down the floor at a measurably quicker pace. Also, teams are shooting from three-point range at an unprecedented rate.
“I don’t think any reasonable person can look at basketball over the last two years and say it’s not better,” said Jay Bilas, the former Duke star who works as an analyst for ESPN. “It’s substantially better.”
UCLA is a prime example of life in the new order.
With Bryce Alford, TJ Leaf and Lonzo Ball topping a roster that features six players averaging in double figures, the third-ranked Bruins led the nation in scoring during the regular season at 91.3 points a game.
March Madness has other high seeds, such as Kansas, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Kentucky, that have been lighting up the scoreboard.
“I think college basketball is way more enjoyable than it was five years ago,” statistics guru Ken Pomeroy said. “You want to see people use their athleticism and use quick judgment and not see the game be so controlled and rehearsed.”
The shift toward offense began before the 2013-14 season, when the NCAA placed an emphasis on calling fouls for hand-checking to allow for freer movement around the court.
That change boosted scoring, but only temporarily. Something more was needed.
Pomeroy credits the shorter clock and another 2015-16 rule change that created more space in the lane by expanding the restricted arc under the basket from three feet to four.
“Those are probably the two biggest things,” he said.
Compiling numbers for his website kenpom.com, Pomeroy has tracked the recent surge in several key areas.
His “adjusted offensive efficiency” measures the frequency with which teams score per 100 possessions, with the final number adjusted for strength of opponent.
The past two seasons have seen the number of teams with plus-110 ratings more than double compared to the early 2000s.
At the same time, the average time of possession has dropped, which means players are pushing the ball up court faster.
“If you think about all the freedom of movement … the rules are basically set up for the offense,” said Seth Greenberg, another ESPN analyst.
The rise in three-pointers is a slightly different story that might not be attributable to any rule changes.
Th shot has clearly evolved over time. Coaches say they are seeing more small forwards and even big men emerge from high school with accuracy from long range. Players seem less hesitant to launch threes, especially on the fast break, which would have been taboo in prior generations.
This attitude shift took hold in the NBA with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson leading the Golden State Warriors to the Finals the last two seasons.
Now Pomeroy’s statistics show a steep increase in the number of college teams attempting at least 40% of their shots from beyond the three-point arc. And tournament favorites such as Kansas, Purdue and Saint Mary’s are making those shots about 40% of the time.
Again, UCLA typifies the trend.
Alford ranked among the most accurate shooters in the nation from beyond the arc, making 45.4%. As a team, the Bruins rank third in shooting percentage and ninth in total three-pointers per game.
In what may have been their signature moment of the season — so far, at least — Ball sealed a victory over highly ranked Oregon with a contested, step-back three-pointer in the final minute.
Purists might cringe, but the UCLA freshman embodies a new bravado.
“Step-back is one of my favorite shots,” he said. “I knew the time was winding down and once I got it off, it felt good.”
Effective three-point shooting can benefit conventional offense by forcing defenders to the perimeter and clearing the inside for easier shots. Consider that the Bruins led the nation in field goal percentage, making 52.6%.
And the overall rise in scoring could have a ripple effect that reaches well beyond the court.
Coaches talk about entertaining fans and filling seats, especially at schools that have built new arenas. Recruiting might benefit as high school prospects look for college programs where their talents will shine.
One more thing about the offensive surge — it could be making for unpredictable results, giving underdogs a chance to get hot in the final minutes and win an all-out sprint to the finish.
That isn’t particularly good news for millions of fans across the country sweating over their office pool brackets. But it could make for compelling television over the next few weeks.
Which is why the rules committee took a chance on a few big changes two years ago.
The members made their decision at least partly on faith. There had been some games that experimented with a shorter clock but the data were inconclusive.
As Byrd explained: “Sometimes you go ahead and make a rule because you think it’s better for the game.”
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