By Jack McCaffery
The 35-second shot clock in men's college basketball has expired, timed out, come and gone, sounded the buzzer. By next season, teams will have 30 seconds to launch a shot, and not a tenth of a tick longer.
More scoring is one possibility. A faster-paced game is another.
“To be honest with you,” Phil Martelli said, “it's much ado about nothing.”
The coach at Saint Joseph's may be correct, that five fewer seconds per possession will not necessarily have the desired effect, which is to increase scoring, which was down five points a game during the last college basketball season.
If so, he has company.
“I'm a guy that likes to try certain things and see how it works,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “So I am fine with it. I don't think it changes very much. Those people who were pushing it thought there would automatically be much more scoring involved. I don't see it as that.”
Dunphy might know more than many about a 14-percent reduction in the amount of time a team will have to shoot. That's because his Owls played four games last season in the NIT, where the rule was tested. Temple averaged 74.25 points in the NIT, after scoring 64.8 points in its first 33 games. There could be reasons for that, everything from conference teams having a better familiarity with what the Owls might have been doing to deeper player rotations in games without one-and-done stakes. And no four-game sample space is sufficient for a conclusion.
But Dunphy is certain that the 30-second clock did not provide a jolting change in the pace of play, the style of coaching or the results of the games.
“It wasn't a drastic change, to be honest with you,” he said. “That's not how I saw it. We got down to a couple of less last-second shot-clock situations, but it just didn't change anything drastically. I think kids and coaches and referees over the years have been able to adjust to any new rules that we have.
“But again I don't see it as this great way of helping our game get better. I don't see it as that. If we want change, it's going to have to come from how we are demanding the game be officiated.”
The 30-second clock was just one new rule approved this week for the 2015-2016 season, most designed to improve the aesthetics of the college game, where timeouts, particularly late in games, have become unpopular, where fouling, particularly underneath, has gone largely un-policed, and where game times have increased by up to five minutes per game, never a popular trend.
For that, the NCAA has sanctioned these major changes:
n The arc underneath the basket will be lengthened from three feet to four, theoretically reducing hard contact.
n The “closely guarded” rule will be eliminated, meaning that players will not be penalized for dribbling for more than five seconds while being defended.
n Coaches may call three second-half timeouts, down from four. And if a timeout is called within 30 seconds of a scheduled media timeout, it will be counted as a media timeout.
Also approved, in an attempt to increase the fan experience, is that coaches will no longer be able to call timeouts while the ball is in play, dunking will be decriminalized during warmups and coaches will have 15 seconds instead of 20 to make a substitution after a player fouls out. Also, officials will be ordered to hustle the teams onto the court in a timelier fashion after timeouts.
Oddly enough, some exit polling shows that coaches are in favor of having fewer timeouts, even late in games.
“I like that,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I think with getting four television timeouts a half, we have plenty of stoppages. I would even be in favor of giving up another timeout in the first half. Because I do think at the end of the game, we save a lot of timeouts because we get so many stoppages. With the television timeouts, I think we have plenty. I am in favor of this rule and I would be in favor of cutting another one in the first half.”
As for Martelli, he sounded almost ready to unfurl crimson streamers in celebration of the new timeout rule.
“Tremendous,” he said. “Tremendous. I think it puts more emphasis, to be honest with you, on practice. Now, you've got to get your guys in position with situational practices. I think there will be a better flow to the game.
“I think we make our game look foolish when we call an allowable timeout and then two plays later we take a media timeout. I think we should better coordinate the stoppages in play. I think we can play a crisper game.
“We have to understand that as much as it is a competition, the game also has to be an enjoyable experience for fans and sponsors and players. And I am all for anything that helps the flow of the game.”
The 30-second clock could have that effect. Or not. While it is guaranteed to lead to more possessions, it does not guarantee better positions. Might there be more rushed shots? And if there is, will there be more long rebounds? But if there are, won't that invite more run-outs, fast breaks and open-floor play that fans enjoy?
How about late in a game? Will coaches be more likely to wait-out a 30-second possession than a 35, choosing not to foul to stop the clock, one stain on the college game that has made it “uglier than ugly,” according to one widely publicized rant from Mark Cuban?
“I actually don't think that the 30-second shot clock is going to make that much of a difference,” Wright said. “I really don't. But I think it's going to get people comfortable with shorter shot clocks and that is going to get us to 24. I look at this simply as a move to get us to 24. I don't think it's going to impact the game as much right now. But I think it is going to set up the move to 24.
“In the NBA, you don't see a lot of the fouling down the stretch like you do in college. I definitely think that will be a result, that there will probably a little bit less of that.”
As he will do, Wright was looking a play or two ahead, predicting that the clock will be reduced again, making the college game less distinguishable from the NBA.
The more immediate test, though, will be whether the 30-second limit so changes how the college game is played that different teams, with different philosophies, with different coaching styles will be more likely to succeed. Dunphy, for one, is a doubter.
“I think everybody makes adjustments to any new situation that comes along,” he said. “But I still think the best teams are going to win the games for the most part. There will be some games that will be managed better than others. But for the most part, the best players are typically going to win the games that are out there.
“We have succumbed to the pressure of many others, probably on TV, that said we have to change our game. I don't think we needed to change it in terms of the shot clock, but I am willing to do that. I have no problem with that. And if we decided to go to 24 seconds, then we would have to change in that regard and make adjustments.”
If there is an early consensus, it is that college basketball has become so rugged that only more stringent officiating will help.
“The only way to get scoring up is by changing the way that we officiate the game and call many more fouls for a while so that the kids make the adjustment, like the NBA did a couple of years back, where if you breathed on somebody it was a foul,” Dunphy said. “And then it loosens the game up and allows kids to get to the basket a little bit more. But I don't think it has anything do to with the shot clock.”
“Until we get to the point where the referees call a foul every time there is a foul, we are not going to change this downward spiral in scoring,” the Hawks' coach said. “It's not going to be because of a shot clock that we change it. They've got to let people play.”
On one level, at least, they will not only let that happen, but mandate it, for at its core, the five-second shot-clock reduction is a message: Shoot.
“Truthfully, I like that the college game is different from any other game, personally,” Wright said. “That's because I am a coach. And as a coach I like that you can play against different styles and that coaches have the opportunity to play different styles. But as a guardian of the game, thinking about the popularity of the game and the popularity of the game internationally, I feel the pressure and know that everybody wants to speed the game up with more offense. And I think that we will eventually get to the 24-second clock because of that.
“Do I like it as a coach? No. Do I think it's probably best for the popularity of the game? Yes.”