Is college basketball getting worse? and other thoughts on a changing game

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Here at Triangle Offense, we're catching our breath in the last lull of the college basketball season. Next week sees the buildup to the season-ending UNC-Duke tilt that will determine the course of the free world until the next time the two teams meet. Week after that is the ACC Tournament, which despite its extreme unimportance, is a tradition unlike any other—than March Madness, of course.

So, with nothing much going on beside a UNC-Clemson scrap down in Littlejohn Coliseum and third-ranked Duke getting floor-rushed yet again, this time at Virginia, basketball scribes Thad Williamson and Rob Harrington agreed to email each other some thoughts, prompted by my question below:

On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 12:56 PM, David Fellerath wrote:
Thad, there's a bit of a media meme about college basketball, namely that the game has become dull, with the rules tipping the balance in favor of defenders. Here's Adam Gold on WRAL.com. The key metric is that scoring is at its lowest in 30 years. Here's The New York Times on this subject.

What do you make of this?

On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 1:50 PM, Thad Williamson  wrote:
To me the most obvious explanation is that the players aren't as skilled shooters as they used to be. A generation ago 75-percent foul shooting as team was considered the norm for a good team but in recent years only about 15—25 teams nationally have been reaching that mark. UNC's foul shooting percentages from 1983 to 1987 were 74 percent, 78 percent, 76 percent, 74 percent, and 72 percent. Those weren't guard-dominated teams, but teams that regularly played two or even three 6-foot-11 guys at the same time. In the last five years UNC's foul shooting percentages have been 75, 65, 67, 68 and 66 percent (this year). 

Young players need better coaching and more time spent on the fundamentals, and they need to understand that you don't become a Stephen Curry by genes but by practice, constant repetition of a fundamentally sound stroke.

In terms of the rules, I think going back to the 45-second shot clock would actually improve offensive play, though not necessarily total points scored. You'd see fewer rushed shots put up and more opportunity for offenses to probe a defense before taking a shot. I also would favor pushing the college three point line back out to the international line so as to open up the mid-range game.

I'd be interested in Rob's take on this and also his thoughts on how coaching staffs today scout shooting ability in the recruiting process. How much weight do they put on it? How much confidence do they have they can improve a player's shot once they get into college? And what college programs actually do seem to improve players' shooting over time? How does the way Carolina approaches this compare to that of Duke—or that of Davidson, which is now No. 1 nationally in foul shooting at 81 percent? 

On Feb 28, 2013, at 2:56 PM, Rob Harrington wrote:I think style of play carries more blame than skill deterioration. The same players participating in these high-level NCAA slugfests exhibit considerable skill the moment they arrive in the NBA, which has enjoyed a renaissance thanks not only to an influx of great young players but also high scores and fluid offense.

The NBA's devolution and re-commitment to offense provides a convenient benchmark for the NCAA. The immediate post-Jordan era featured ugly playoff series led by teams such as the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, which grappled and clawed their deep into the postseason while entertaining practically no one. Sports Illustrated identified the burgeoning problem back in 1995.

The Times article David linked seems hesitant to take a strong position, but the Washington Post published a column this week that gets to the heart of the brutality. The NBA recognized its problem and instituted rules changes to solve it. The league finally began to enforce rules against hand-checking—which remains a pervasive menace in the college game—and cleaned up contact off the ball. 

Check out this story written in 2009, when the NBA's modern philosophy had begun to take effect:

"You can't even touch a guy now," says Charlotte coach Larry Brown. "The college game is much more physical than our game. I always tease Michael [Jordan], if he played today, he'd average 50."
Defending without fouling is hardly a new concept; players have been practicing slide drills and doing four on four drills for decades, at all levels. The influence of North Carolina's Dean Smith on the NBA, for example, is profound.
Smith taught a generation of players and coaches the importance of defending without fouling, and those players and coaches have influenced others."

I don't believe extending the shot clock would help, and a slow and grinding game would become even slower and more savage. Creating new rules and working with officials on enforcement would alleviate the pressure on offenses, and those changes should be legislated during the offseason. This situation has intensified over the past five years, and finally national media have begun to hammer the NCAA for its negligence. 

As for recruiting, I haven't perceived a change in priorities.  Most coaches try to recruit shooters rather than develop them, because most excellent college shooters also had been excellent high school shooters. It's not uncommon for a great prep shooter to slump against more intense competition, but the inverse proves rare. 

Duke recruits great shooters extremely well because the Blue Devils have developed a reputation for being three-point friendly. 

On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 3:19 PM, David Fellerath wrote:Here's a follow-up for either of you: Is it possible that the more physical style acts as a leveler between uneven teams? I wonder if the difference in quality between the best NBA team and the worst is less than the difference between Top-25 NCAA teams and everyone else.

Alternately, if we want to change the subject: What do you think about the trend toward special designer uniforms? Clearly it's a way for sponsors to create extra value from their involvement with sports, but are there any costs associated with it? How long will it be before ACC teams are wearing uniforms like these Adidas outfits that will be unveiled next month? (Does Adidas supply any ACC schools?)

On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 3:49 PM, Thad Williamson wrote:Well I'm not sure I entirely agree with Rob's assessment (disagreement exaggerated for sake of conversation, of course). Some guys like Harrison Barnes have benefited from the NBA style compared to college, but the average college player is not a serious NBA prospect. Barnes is one of the most skilled guys to come along in a while. Most college players don't have that mid-range game anymore. If more did I think the play would improve both statistically and aesthetically. You'd have more guys who don't need to get all the way to the basket to score and who know instinctively how to find and make a shot in the 12—15 feet range. 

There's also a philosophical question about what you consider an ugly game. A game with a low shooting percentage, or a game with a lot of stoppages for fouls? I just saw a game in person in the latter category and it's a pretty miserable experience as a fan. If the refs call the game tighter you will, at least in the interim while teams adjust, have more fouls, and possibly more disjointed games.

I would agree that cutting down hand-checking would help the flow of the game. I'm not sure calling it tighter on the inside necessarily would. But if you have more guys who can shoot better at the line, that makes fouling more costly to the defense, and if you have more guys who have a skilled mid-range game you're going to have higher-performing offenses, no matter how the game is called. 

I would like to see Davidson make some noise this year in the tournament just because perhaps that will send a message that you can win by being flat out better at shooting the ball than opponents. 

I don't think the physical style really acts a leveler between uneven teams, at least if you are thinking about the whole spectrum of Division I basketball. For teams not in the Top 100, the three-point shot is a much better way to go to try to pull an upset; usually outside the top 100 you are very lucky to have more than one guy with substantial size and skill, so playing physical isn't really an option anyway. Those teams might have their one or two good big guys and they want them to stay in the game, not get in foul trouble.  

The gap between the top 25 and teams not in the top 150 or so is much greater than the gap between the the best and worst and NBA team. But within a league like the ACC perhaps the gap is similar, as shown by Wake beating Miami. 

As to alternate uniforms, my assumption is that all of them conform to Charles Barkley's maxim about the NBA preseason, which is that they are ultimately a gimmick to pry money from fans' wallets.

On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 4:41 PM, Rob Harrington wrote:
I agree that fewer players have a mid-range game, and obviously free throw numbers are down, but defenses have grown so disproportionately that teams build defensive strategies around the philosophy that every cutter must be bumped. The stuff that occurs away from the ball seems even more damaging to me than the hand-checking. If players are absorbing so much contact that they can't get to a desired spot and catch the ball cleanly, enhanced skill will overcome help them only so much. They need room to breathe.

Roy Williams received criticism a decade ago when he described an ugly Final Four game as being a "weight room contest," but his words ring even more true now. I think teams that play at slower tempos can be fun, but the maulings need to stop. I'm sure an adjustment period would be required while everyone transitioned to the new system, but in my mind the effort would prove worthwhile. 

I do think that suppressing offense serves as an equalizer, and in fact Williams' philosophy always has been that the more talented team will benefit from increased possessions.  

I agree with Thad on the uniform issue. Silly gimmick with sometimes vomitus results.

On Friday, March 01, 2013 at 8:03 AM, Thad Williamson wrote:Rob is probably a much better observer of the game than me because he watches the game off the ball, something I and most people struggle to do in watching live games. And I do agree that defensive "aggressiveness" can help a less skilled top-50 team against a more skilled top-20 team.

Still, I think the two games last night—Carolina-Clemson and Duke-Virginia—lend support to the "skills deficit" hypothesis being significant. Just as a naive live viewer, all four teams in those two games missed tons and tons of open shots. Combined shooting in the two games was 43 percent from the field, which is not that terrible by current standards, but the pace of the UNC-Clemson game certainly could have led to a score in the 70s or 80s with better shooting on wide open shots (and, especially for Carolina, better foul shooting).

Likewise, in the Duke-Virginia game, despite the overall slower pace and ruggedness of the game, the two most skilled players on the court from an offensive point of view, Seth Curry and Joe Harris, shined. God forbid how ugly that game would have been without those two. Harris was dominant and showed a balanced game including the mid-range pull-up game. Why aren't there more Joe Harrises?

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