The caliber of the play in Louisville’s 82-76 win over Michigan in the NCAA tournament final was applauded by many because of the high-powered offenses on display.
Given the ever-slowing pace in college basketball, the game also was an anomaly.
Overall scoring in 2012-13 was 67.5 points per team, marking four straight years of declining averages and the lowest figure since 1951-52 when set shots and underhand free throws were prevalent. It’s also a considerable drop from the early 1970s when the national average in back-to-back seasons was 77.7.
Northern Illinois scored just five points in the first half during a loss to Dayton in December, tying an NCAA record for fewest points in the opening 20 minutes since the shot clock was introduced in 1986. The Huskies went more than 16 minutes without scoring.
About one month later, they broke the mark by tallying a mere four against Eastern Michigan.
But NIU wasn’t the only offensively challenged team last season.
Syracuse beat Marquette, 55-39, in an NCAA regional final, and that losing tally was a record low for an Elite Eight game in the shot-clock era.
In the regular season, Georgetown beat Tennessee, 37-36, in an excruciatingly sluggish game after trailing, 18-16, at halftime. Fans might have had a more exciting time watching two hours of C-Span.
And Wisconsin — oh, Wisconsin — always seems be a team that lowers the national scoring average a tick or two all by itself. The Badgers had final scores last year of 47-41, 49-47 and 45-44.
College coaches believe there are myriad reasons for the paucity of points, saying the game has changed considerably since the time when offenses reigned.
“For me, I attribute the low scoring to officiating,” UD coach Archie Miller said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just think the game is called a certain way in college basketball right now where you can really muddy the waters (defensively) and you can really, really be physical. … It’s not a flowing offense. It’s much more of a grinding mentality on both ends of the floor. I think that’s really a difference.
“I also don’t think you see in recruiting a lot of guys who can shoot the ball. I don’t think that’s part of the youth culture right now. I think you’ve got the dunk. You’ve got the dribble moves. You’ve got a lot of that good stuff. But I think we’re losing a lot of our skill instruction, and we’re dealing with guys that aren’t terrific shooters.”
When Wright State coach Billy Donlon was growing up, he regularly attended summer basketball camps. But AAU events have taken over the spring and summer schedule, resulting in a decreased emphasis on fundamentals.
“The offensive skill set of today’s player isn’t close to players even 10 years ago, in my opinion. Never mind 15 or 20 years ago,” Donlon said. “There are many reasons for that. But there’s no doubt the skill set of today’s young college player is not what it was.”
Shooting numbers down
The average field-goal percentage in Division I last season was 43.3, the worst mark in 48 years. And 3-point accuracy dropped to 34.1 percent, the lowest since the first trey was launched in 1987.
“The bottom line is, teams are certainly good enough defensively to protect the paint,” Donlon said. “And if you can’t make outside shots, if you don’t have a couple guys who can make 3s consistently, that impacts the game.”
Pete Gillen, a head coach from 1985-2005 at Xavier, Providence and Virginia and now a TV commentator, saw a halftime score this year that jumped out at him — UTEP trailing New Mexico State, 17-14. And Miners coach Tim Floyd later offered Gillen a sensible explanation for why his team had trouble even reaching the teens.
“He said one of his theories is that kids don’t know how to play,” Gillen said. “Kids don’t play 3-on-3 anymore in playgrounds or in gyms. They just play games. They play six or seven games on a weekend. They just want to play games and dunk and be fancy with the ball. And 3-on-3 teaches them how to move without the ball, set a pick, help out on D, how to go backdoor. It’s just a great way to play because most basketball plays are either two-man plays or three-man plays.
“I know I sound like an old codger, but the game is slipping a little bit.”
Miami coach John Cooper pointed out how back-to-the-basket scorers are becoming an endangered species. Rare is the team that has a player in the post who can be a consistent source of points.
Like Gillen, Cooper believes teamwork — high-IQ players working instinctively to create shots for each other — is a lost art.
“When you talk about having five guys that can all pass, catch, shoot, think and have the ability to do things from a skill-level perspective, you don’t see all that as much,” he said. “Back when I played, we made more passes and we averaged a lot more points, which is interesting when you think about it.
“But I will also tell you the game has been allowed to become a more physical game now. The way the game is officiated is different than the way it was 15 years go. That curtails scoring.”
The NCAA rules committee is making a push to address that. It met for three days earlier this month and proposed measures for 2013-14 that could enhance offense.
Reggie Greenwood, the Atlantic 10 supervisor of officials, sat in on the meetings as a consultant representing other conference supervisors, and he said the tone of those sessions was that something had to change.
“I think people are sick and tired of watching a wrestling match on the court,” he said. “If you go back to the founders of the game, it was a game of finesse, not a game of physicality. It’s gotten out of kilter. It’s become a game of physicality — the strongest survive.
“That’s something the rules committee and others have said we need to bring back into focus.”
Among several changes — which still need to be approved by the NCAA playing rules oversight panel in June — was a difference in how the oft-disputed charging foul will be called. A defensive player now has to be in a stationary position before an offensive player begins his upward motion with the ball, not just be set before he leaves his feet.
It still will be a bang-bang call, but it could result in a few more whistles going the offense’s way.
More whistles coming
Officials also have been instructed to clean up much of the excessive contact in the game, a la the NBA. During an unpopular stretch in the 1990s, the pro league practically allowed muggings to take place in half-court sets. But that’s been changed with an emphasis on calling fouls for holding, hand-checking and chucking cutters.
The rules committee hopes a similar crackdown will create more fluid offense. Only 17.7 fouls per team were called in 2012-13, the fewest since the NCAA began keeping records in 1948.
“The guidelines they came out with are guidelines that have been in the book — page 115 — for the last two or three years,” Greenwood said. “Now they’re saying, if these guidelines are there and we’re not enforcing them — for whatever reason, whether it’s league-based or philosophy-based — we need to go back and start enforcing them because that gives the offense more freedom.
“The emphasis is to get away from this whole concept that, OK, nothing really happened, so we’re not going to call it. We want to get back to now, if you put two hands on people, it’s a foul.”
But coaches can’t help but be a little skeptical. After all, it’s not the first time officials have been charged with clamping down on rough play.
“I think it happens early in the season, but when you get in your league — when we get in the Horizon League, when Dayton gets in the Atlantic 10 and Ohio State gets in the Big Ten — I don’t think much will change,” Donlon said. “That’s just my opinion. I think it will go back to being officiated the way it’s been officiated because ultimately, in order for there to be true change, there will have to be games where three, four or five guys foul out or come awfully close.”
Greenwood understands the cynicism, but he believes the refs will stand their ground — even though they can expect some backlash.
“If you start calling a lot of fouls, I think people will get antsy and nervous. ‘Let ‘em play’ is going to be the cry,” he said. “It’s going to be hard. But if you want to enforce the rules the way they’re written, you’re going to have a lot more fouls.
“The NBA went through a period where they had a lot of fouls … but the game became a lot cleaner — especially on the perimeter. They adjusted. That’s what the hope is. If we make these calls early in the season, people will start to realize you can’t play defense that way. They’ll either not adjust and sit down (with foul trouble) or they’ll adjust and the game will open up.”
NCAA Division I basketball
Team point averages since 1950