There are 345 Division I college basketball teams. With so many teams playing so many games in any two-month stretch, you'd expect things to look pretty similar on a year-to-year basis. Some teams play fast. Some play slow. Some score a lot. Some defend well. And everything balances out in the end.
Except, apparently, this season.
Matt Norlander, our friend at CBS, had a hunch that college hoops in general was going through something of an offensive dearth. As I'd willingly attest, when one watches college hoops scoreboards that look like this for a living, one tends to form such hunches almost through informational osmosis. But such hunches are difficult to trust. What if they're anecdotal? What if your eyes are playing tricks? If Matt would have asked me if I thought college hoops was suffering from a general lack of scoring this season, I would have probably assumed the hunch was incorrect. Sure, some teams are struggling, but is it really a sport-wide epidemic? Without some numbers to back it up, it seems like a pretty unlikely premise. After all, what's so different about this season?
Matt needed hard data to back up his hunch, so he asked stats guru Ken Pomeroy to confirm or deny his suspicions. And guess what? Matt's right! To wit:
Turns out, the hunch was true. At least to this point. We're at 42 games with less than 40 points scored by one team involved. And the number of teams cracking the 90-point barrier is down, too. (Chart below.)
And as of this week, college basketball is on pace to have its worst offensive year since 1982 (when, like this year, it was 67.6 points per game). In fact, there remains the possibility 2011-12 could be the most anemic year on the scoreboard since 1952, when free throw rules altered the sport forever. Check page 44 of the NCAA's record book to see how points per game bobbed from 63.3 in '52 to 69.1 in '53, never to drop down again. And that was without a 3-point line, which was more than two decades away.
So far this year, college basketball is averaging 1.5 fewer points per game than it was in 1953. Doesn't that seem extraordinarily bizarre to you?
It does indeed. Also bizarre is the chart Ken passed along, which shows individual scoring performances down in nearly every category. There are more sub-40-point games at this point in the season than at any time since 2004. Points per game are down across the board. The only number that looks somewhat normal -- at least relative to the rest of the chart -- is games with a point total above 89. Other than that, scoring is down everywhere.
If this were the first week of the season, we could write it off to small sample size. If this analysis was limited to a specific conference, we could call it a stylistic aberration. But it doesn't appear to be either of those things. After 1,800-plus games, and an obvious downtick in scoring across all teams, leagues and competitions, it's fair to call this a bonafide trend.
Which begs the question: Why? It isn't a lack of three-point shooting accuracy; top teams are shooting the ball as well as ever. And it can't be easily explained away with discussions of a talent drain, because this might be the most talented overall hoops landscape we've seen in decades. (At least, it was supposed to be. Maybe we were wrong?) There weren't any rules changes that could have affected this, no new three-point lines or even points of emphasis that could have this sort of widespread impact.
In fact, that might be the most fascinating part of Matt's hunch -- the explanation is so eluisve. Maybe scoring will pick up in conference play. Maybe it's just a weird year in college hoops. Maybe it's all Grambling's fault. (I admit it, I laughed.) Maybe you have an insight we're missing (in which case please do share). But there's no mistaking it: The numbers are there, clear as day, and they come with no easy justification at the ready.
In 2011-12, all of college hoops -- not just a few teams, or a couple of leagues, but all of it -- has gone cold. How inexplicably strange.