As a college hoops superfan, I'll watch the NIT, and even the CIT and CBI given the chance. I've even attended two CIT title games. But the reality is that there's little at stake in these events other than the chance for participating teams to play more basketball and for me to watch more basketball. However, I was particularly excited about this season's smaller tournaments, or least the data generated by them.
In early February it was announced that all NIT games would use a 30-second shot clock and an NBA-sized restricted area, and the CBI and CIT eventually announced that they would do the same. These rules are the most likely solutions to be implemented next season in an effort to reverse the trend of reduced scoring at the college level. With only a few games left in each tournament, we can get some idea of how these changes might affect the sport.
This exercise is not quite as simple as comparing stats from the NCAA tournament to stats from the other three tournaments. For whatever reason, games in the NIT, CBI, and CIT have historically been a little higher scoring than NCAA tournament games, even when using the same rules. Since 2009, when the CIT debuted, games in NCAA tournament have averaged 3.2 fewer points than games in the other tournaments.
Whether this is due to players and coaches in the NCAA tournament taking things more seriously or is a result of playing games at neutral sites and in domes is hard to say. We do know that the scoring increase in the smaller tournaments is consistently produced by increases in both pace and efficiency.
In addition, one needs to consider the styles of teams participating in each tournament to do a fair analysis. This varies randomly from season to season but it can affect the numbers in a particular year. For instance, last year's NCAA tournament was populated by teams that played slower than average, producing an average pace that was the slowest for the event in the shot clock era. With that in mind, let's break down the numbers in various categories.
Does increased scoring imply a more exciting game? In almost all cases, I would say yes. (Calling a bunch of fouls or turning the three-point line into a four-point line are counterexamples, I admit.) Scoring in the lower-level tournaments has been 4.5 points per game higher than in the NCAA tournament. The difference is actually a little more significant than that once you consider this season's NCAA tournament was slightly skewed with offense-dominant and faster than average teams.
Adjusting for the matchups and expected points in each game, scoring in the smaller tournaments has been about 5.6 ppg more than the NCAA tournament. This is 2.4 ppg higher than the typical difference in these events. That's not something that will transform the game, but if you assume that boost applies to the entire 2015-16 season, it would take the sport to scoring levels not seen since 2003. (That statement excludes last season, when scoring increased dramatically, partly because a bunch of fouls were called.)
Not surprisingly, most of the scoring increase can be attributed to an increase in pace. Accounting for the teams involved and the increase in tempo normally seen in lower-level events, there have been two additional possessions per 40 minutes than we'd expect under normal rules. This is a more modest change compared to scoring and only turns the clock back to 2011 in terms of pace. This suggests simply reducing the shot clock to 30 won't produce significantly more up-and-down basketball. A surprising finding here is that slow-paced teams were affected as much as fast-paced teams were.
One of the concerns of the 30-second clock is that it may make offenses less efficient, but the postseason experiment isn't providing much evidence of that. Accounting for the quality of the teams and the usual increase in efficiency seen in the lower-level events, efficiency was actually up, though by a miniscule 0.6 points per 100 possessions. The fact that it didn't decrease in any significant is major news. Even if the rise is a statistical fluke of the 75 games played in the NIT, CIT, and CBI, it provides some evidence that a shorter shot clock won't harm efficiency too much.
Two-point percentage in lower tournaments averaged about 1.6 percent better than in the NCAA tournament in previous seasons. This season, it's 1.4 percent better, so it's basically unchanged, even when accounting for matchups. Likewise, three-point accuracy appears to be unaffected by the shorter clock. If anything, it's improved a bit. Teams have made a healthy 35.8 percent of their threes in the smaller tourneys, which is about one percent higher than we would expect after accounting for the teams involved and the apparently lax defense in these events. And the modest bump in accuracy is not because teams have been more selective on the their perimeter shots.
Three-pointers have represented 36.4 percent of all field goal attempts in the lower-level tournaments, this is more than in any season the three events have existed and about four percent higher than this year's NCAA tournament. But once we correct for the season-long tendencies, this figure is only about one percent higher than we would have expected under existing rules.
An increase in three-point attempts may make some sense. As teams are facing more situations late in the shot clock, they may be compelled to launch threes more than usual. However, the increase is small and three-point accuracy isn't suffering at all.
In analytics circles, it's generally assumed that the three-point shot is under-utilized by most teams. Maybe the 30-second shot clock has forced some teams to accidentally confront this idea. Anecdotally, the expanded restricted area has caused fewer charges to be called, but it appears the reduced shot clock is the much more important change. Teams haven't been any more effective inside the three-point arc using the new rules, but their perimeter game has expanded without negative consequences.
We can't know for sure how a shorter shot clock would impact the sport over a full season. The participating teams in the postseason experiment had little time to prepare for the new rules and likely didn't adjust their game plans much. Given an offseason to consider how to deal with five fewer seconds to shoot and fewer charging calls, the effects over a full season may be different than what we saw in late March. So any permanent change to the rules will still take a leap of faith. But given that college basketball is as slow-paced and as low-scoring as it's ever been and that initial results don't point to a brick-laying catastrophe, there's not much to lose.
Ken Pomeroy is the founder of KenPom.com, the best site for advanced analysis of college basketball. He's written for ESPN.com, Sports Illustrated, and The New York Times.
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