You can't make many sweeping judgments early in the season, but one thing is nearly certain at this point: This will be the slowest-paced season that college hoops has seen. If it is, we're in for some really dire basketball this winter.
The previous record for sluggish pace was set just two seasons ago with 65.9 possessions per 40 minutes in 2012-13, which led to the lowest-scoring season since 1952. The reaction last season was a sweeping crackdown on contact with the ballhandler and a block/charge interpretation that was friendlier to the offense. It appeared that coaches, fans, media, and officials had accepted this new approach in the college game. At the beginning of last season, fouls were called in bunches, pace and scoring increased significantly, and the reaction wasn't completely negative. The games were choppy and full of fouls, but we could all look forward to the day when there were fewer called as players and coaches adjusted, and the game would emerge more free-flowing and with fewer obnoxious defenders sliding in to take obnoxious charges.
And fewer fouls were called as the season progressed, just as it happens in every season, but then everything ground to a halt in tournament play. The postseason tournaments were played at a pace slower than even the previous record-breaking season. This year, the sport is picking up where it left off in March with what is probably the slowest-paced start to the season in the sport's history. (We obviously don't have data going back far enough to know definitively, but realistically, only some pre-shot clock years in the early 80's are possible competition.)
With 923 games between Division-I teams in the books, there's enough data to predict that this season's pace will likely beat out 2013 for an all-time low. Through Sunday's contests, games have had an average of 66.7 possessions per 40 minutes. Using the early-season data from previous seasons, we can make a pretty good prediction of what the end-of-season figure will be. The chart below compares early-season pace to the full-season value over the past 13 seasons.
Comparison of early-season pace and full-season pace
|Season||Early Poss/40||Full Poss/40||Diff|
(Early season calculated through third Sunday of season)
Historically, average pace drops over the course of the season, presumably as conference play kicks in and opponents become more familiar with each other's tendencies. Using linear regression on the data since the 2002 season, the expected final value at the end of this season is 65.0 possessions per 40 minutes. But we don't need fancy math to see that it's almost certain a new low will established. In each of the past 13 seasons, the final average pace has been at least 1.2 possessions per 40 minutes less than the early-season value. Given the current value of 66.7, there's reason to have very high confidence that this season will finish lower than the 2013 record low of 65.9.
All that said, this season may not set a new standard for scoring futility. While pace has been slower than two seasons ago, efficiency is up a bit. Division-I teams are scoring 67.1 points per game which is the same early-season value observed two seasons ago. Whether another record is broken is not terribly important. The mere fact that one will be approached is significant, especially after a season in which heavy-handed rules changes were expected to reverse the trend of low-scoring games. Scrutiny will continue over how to solve the decreasing trend in scoring.
The NCAA's Men's Basketball Rules Committee will convene in the upcoming offseason to recommend rules changes that will go into effect for the 2015-16 season. In the past, the committee has recommended things like extending the three-point line, expanding the lane, and reducing the shot clock. However, each of these changes makes it more difficult to score on a possession basis. The committee did get it right last season with the crackdown on defensive contact. However, one key component of these changes—making it more difficult for a secondary defender to draw a charge—was rescinded before this season.
It's almost inevitable that the shot clock will be reduced from its current value of 35 seconds. That may create a modest boost in possessions and scoring, but without a focus on other changes that benefit the team with the ball, it simply restricts how much time the offense has to find a good shot, resulting in reduced efficiency. And in that vein, the committee should take another look at giving driving ballhandlers the benefit of the doubt when there's a block/charge situation.
So far this season, there has been an average of 28.7 fouls called per team per 100 possessions. That's down three percent from last season at the same time, but still up six percent from the early part of the 2012-13 season. So it appears the crackdown on contact hasn't been completely abandoned. But teams are taking much longer to get a good shot than they did last season, and the prospect of driving the lane only to risk a charge appears to be the problem.
Strong evidence to support this idea is that teams are struggling to score inside the arc much more than they did a year ago. Last season at this time, players across the country made 48.7 percent of their two-point attempts. This season, that number has plummeted to 47.4 percent. Additionally, teams are taking fewer of those shots. Last season, teams devoted 32.5 percent of their field goal attempts to three-pointers early in the season. This year, that's risen to 34.0 percent.
It seems reasonable that the fear of a charge has teams increasingly avoiding the paint and hunting for a good jump shot, and that's leading to longer possessions. If so, any change in the shot clock is going to have to come with a plan to reduce the incentive for secondary defenders to stand in the lane and get run over. But there's nothing that can be on that front this year. So you may as well get ready for the most plodding, slowest-paced season in the history of college hoops.
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.
Photo via Getty