Where Are the Points in College Basketball?

  • By John Antonik
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  • February 20, 2013 12:04 PM
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Before watching West Virginia battle Kansas State last Monday night, I was able to take in a little bit of ESPN’s other showcase college basketball game that evening – Notre Dame-Pitt.

And oh what an awful game it was.

The team that missed 18 of its first 19 shots (Notre Dame) actually ended up winning by nine, 51-42. There were only 30 fouls called on both teams so the two were basically permitted to beat on each other for 2 ½ hours.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather listen to Carl Lewis sing the national anthem than watch that.

On Tuesday night, ACC hoop lovers got to see Miami and Virginia slog their way through a 54-50 abomination - this coming on the heels of the Hurricanes’ 45-43 epic at Clemson. Incidentally, Miami is the nation’s No. 2-ranked basketball team this week.

Last Thursday, Big Ten basketball fans got to watch Wisconsin and Minnesota play to a 49-all tie after regulation before the Golden Gophers got hot and outscored the Badgers 9-4 in overtime to pull out a scintillating 58-53 victory.

In the rough and tumble SEC, Alabama recently dropped 52 on Georgia in a seven-point victory while Tennessee outlasted Vanderbilt, 58-46.

Even out in the Wild, Wild, West, where Loyola-Marymount once averaged more than 120 points per game for a season, we saw 19th-ranked New Mexico take the air out the ball to defeat Fresno State, 54-48. Meanwhile, UCLA coach Ben Howland continues to irritate Bill Walton with UCLA's MMA style of play. I’m sure the esteemed basketball analyst understands that Howland’s Bruins are actually one of the better scoring teams in the country this year averaging 76 points per game.

This is where the game is at right now. College basketball has a shot clock and a 3-point shot and teams can’t seem to score anymore.

In the name of Marvin Gaye what’s going on?

According to the latest NCAA statistics, Northwestern State is the top scoring team in the country with an average of 84.1 points per game. Three years ago, in 2010, VMI was leading the way with an average of 88.6 points per game. Fifty years ago, when the game was still evolving, Ohio State’s 90.4 points-per-game average led the nation.

Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, scoring increased from an average of 70 points per game in 1960, to 75.7 points per game in 1965, to a high of 77.7 points per game in 1971-72. After that, it leveled off in the low 70s, dipping to the high 60s in the early 1980s before experiencing a brief revival in the late 1980s and early 1990s with up-tempo teams like Loyola-Marymount, UNLV and Duke.

But once again scoring is on the decline in college basketball with the mean scoring average dropping almost every year from 2002 on. Last year, teams averaged just 68.01 points per game, and this year, the scores seem to be trending toward a similar result.

It bears repeating: The game has a shot clock and a 3-point shot, so why can’t teams score anymore?

There are numerous reasons. Some of the most frequently cited by coaches I have talked to include:

1. Defenses are much better
2. Scouting is much better
3. Fundamentals in lower-level basketball are on the decline
4. Dunking has become more appealing to younger players than shooting jump shots
5. Defensive players are allowed to grab and hold offensive players more frequently
6. Players are much bigger and stronger than they used to be

Back in the 1970s, when teams were frequently reaching the century mark in scoring, a defensive player couldn’t touch an offensive player without getting a foul called on him. Go watch film of games from that era and see how much room there is between the player with the ball and the person defending him.

Today, if a defensive player isn’t jamming a cutter or grabbing hold of an offensive player in the paint then they aren’t playing good defense.

But is this really good for the game? Is this really something college basketball fans want to see? What has happened to the concept of freedom of movement?

Are the officials at fault for letting this go on or is it the fault of the coaches for teaching this style of play? Some of the coaches I have talked to through the years believe the game started to change in the early 1980s when teams like Georgetown were allowed to grab, hold, and bully teams. Today, almost everyone plays this way.

I, for one, am not interested in seeing two 270-pounders hug each other for 2 ½ hours. If I wanted to do that I would go watch wrestling. I want to see scoring – and I don’t want to see it come from the free throw line either.

With all due respect to Dr. Naismith, basketball, in its infancy, was a terrible sport to watch. After each made basket the teams would gather around the foul line for a center jump. There were also center jumps for all held balls. Then, in the late 1930s, someone realized that the games might be more interesting to watch if they sped things up and eliminated some of these nuisances. Soon, the sport began to thrive because of the much faster paced, higher scoring games.

Other sports have used the rule book to make their product more appealing to the masses as well.

Football, for instance, has continually tweaked its rules to increase scoring. There was the so-called Blount rule enacted in the mid-1970s by the NFL that prohibited defensive backs from touching wide receivers – which has had a profound effect on game. Another rule instituted at that time permitted offensive linemen to extend their arms and grab defenders instead of tucking their fists into their chests and extending their elbows out, chicken wing style. That has also been a boon for offensive football.

Since then, rule modifications befitting offenses seemingly come about on a regular basis in football these days. Ask any defensive coordinator about the state of rules today in football and they will give you a conspiratorial explanation that would rival any Kennedy assassination theory.

Baseball, too, has had a history of tweaking things to benefit scoring.

In the late 1960s, when power pitchers were dominating the game, Major League Baseball opted to lower the mounds to give hitters more of a chance. Later, the American League added a designated hitter to increase scoring and baseball has continued to tweak things in the name of offense - specifically by reducing the dimensions of ballparks and juicing the balls and bats (and some would even say turning a blind eye to players juicing themselves in order to get big enough to knock baseballs out of the park).

In college baseball, drastic measures had to be taken to reduce the performance standards of its aluminum bats for safety reasons – not because of a demand to reduce scoring.

At any rate, perhaps it’s time for college basketball to consider rule changes to eliminate some of low scoring games we’ve had to endure of late – or at least come up with some ways to once again promote the concept of freedom of movement, which used to be a major part of the game.

Otherwise, we may be watching even more awful games like the one we saw last Monday night.

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.


NCAA college basketball, low scoring games, rule changes