On Oct. 14, a month out from the start of the 2014-15 season, we asked a simple question: Is scoring stuck?
Three months and five days later, we have an official, indubitable, irrefutable answer: blerg.
Allow us to translate: yes. Yes, scoring is down again. Yes, the game is still getting slower. Yes, the progress made in the early portions of 2013-14 -- when the NCAA men's basketball rules committee changed the rules to enhance freedom of motion, when the game got faster and more offensive for two whole months! -- have been squandered entirely. Yes, our hope -- that the NCAA's first organized response to decades of snowballing sloth could be sustained -- was misplaced. Yes, the game is less watchable than ever. Yes, it's all mildly depressing.
After a brief and minor uptick a year ago, the 2014-15 season is on pace to be the slowest, lowest-scoring ever. That was the case back in 2012-13, too. And the year before that. And the year before that. And back through the archive, back to the early 1990s, when the game started getting slower and never really stopped.
Before we go further, the actual problem is worth clarifying. The issue isn't not scoring. It's pace. Even as the game slowed to a halt over the past two decades, points per possession rose. Offenses score more efficiently when tempo goes down. When tempo goes down, though, teams score fewer points overall, which, along with a constant stream of anecdotal evidence -- clogged interiors and constantly held cutters -- fuels the perception of offensive woes. In any case, the trends are bad.
That dynamic is exactly what makes this problem so difficult. It's one thing to make new restrictions about contact, or change the block-charge call. What rule could force the game to be faster?
On Monday, USA Today reporter Nicole Auerbach asked Belmont coach and rules committee chair Rick Byrd exactly that. Byrd acknolwedged the game's widespread issues ("I'm not sure I've inherited this role at the best time," he said) -- issues which have led to a slight downtick in viewership numbers this season -- and said the rules committee is just as aware of them as ever. But he is equally unsure of what rules changes would make a positive impact:
"They don't want the game to slide into a point where it's not enjoyable, where it's sluggish, where it's ugly -- use all the words you want to," Byrd said. [...]
Right now, Byrd isn't so sure exactly what changes would actually help offenses — he personally believes that shortening the shot clock could help defenses more and would also cause the sport to lose its unique styles of play -- and is hesitant to suggest changes just to try them out.
"The job the committee has is to make college basketball the best game it can be," Byrd said. "If you're going to make a rule change, you better make sure it's the best for the game."
Byrd's hesitance to shorten the shot clock is shared by many. It's also well-founded. After all, college basketball was at its fastest in the 45-second shot clock era. As the NCAA gradually shortened it -- first to 40 seconds, then to 35 -- the game didn't speed up. It slowed down. Slower play still meant more points per possession. The maximum length of those possessions did little to change coaches' incentives. Likewise, some worry that the more obscure styles of play, which give college basketball its stylistic variance, would be anesthetized by a shorter clock.
The counterpoint is one Fred Hoiberg made on College GameDay Saturday morning. Hoiberg is in favor of a 24-second shot clock, he said, because so many modern offenses spend so much of their shot clock running "false motion" sets before eventually relenting and setting up what they always wanted in the first place: a high ball-screen. Not everyone plays this way, of course, but ball-screens are more pervasive than ever. Perhaps a shorter shot clock would force offenses as a whole to play more a more direct, north-south style -- and maybe just faster overall.
Meanwhile, what happened to freedom of motion? Along with the block-charge change, the rules put in place two summers ago gave offense a tangible boost, even if much of it came in the form of free throws. The adjustment period was awkward, but the hope was officials in every league could maintain their November 2013 emphases over a number of seasons. Instead, the freedom of motion rules were abandoned in a few months. This season, officials have reworked the block-charge call to be fairer "or more favorable" to defenders. It's like last season never even happened.
There are a lot of reasons why college basketball is slower and less scoring-inclined than ever. None of them are particularly easy to solve. Every prospective solution has its detractors, and those detractors have solid points. Everyone should be able to agree on two things: 1) Whatever gains were made a season ago have now been lost entirely, and 2) something has to be done.
The alternative is an infinite downtempo deathmarch -- a future when the game is fun to watch only when the viewer has a rooting interest. No one, least of all the NCAA, wants that.