Evaluating the state of college basketball heading into 2016–17

When we last saw college basketball, nearly six months ago, the on-court product was in excellent shape. Kris Jenkins gave us the greatest ending ever to a national championship game; Villanova, North Carolina and Buddy Hield, among others, collaborated on a well-above-average NCAA tournament; and the implementation of a 30-second shot clock reversed a decline in scoring and pace. In a few weeks on SI.com, we’ll begin previewing the 2016–17 season on a player-and-team level, unveiling our projection system’s forecasts for individual stats and conference races, and its 1–351 national rankings. Before that, I wanted to take a big-picture, analytic look at the state of the sport itself—how it’s changed (or remained the same) during the past five seasons, the impact of the new shot clock and where college hoops stands in relation to the NBA.

• College hoops is the real home of three-point volume.

As the Warriors dominated all basketball discussion last season and were hailed as revolutionaries, they took 36.2% of their shots from long-range—the second-highest three-point rate in the NBA, behind the Rockets—and the league as a whole had an alltime high three-point rate of 28.5%. Meanwhile, in college, the national three-point rate hit an alltime high of 35.4%, and three of the four Final Four teams (Villanova, Oklahoma and Syracuse) took more than 40% of their shots on the season from deep. College, with its smaller arc, zone defenses and wider distribution of talent, is naturally a more three-point-conducive environment—and one that may experience a few more seasons of three-point-rate increases before it plateaus and gives the NBA a chance to catch up.

• College pick-and-roll volume is increasing at the same rate as it is in the NBA—but it’s still well below the NBA. College teams iso slightly more than the NBA does, though.

Five seasons ago, college teams finished an average of 14.8% of their halfcourt possessions in the pick-and-roll (or with passes out of the PR), according to my analysis of Synergy Sports Technology’s team-by-team logs. While that rate has increased every season since, hitting 21.3% in ‘15–16, it’s significantly lower than the NBA’s most recent rate of 32.4%. College hoops is unlikely to close that gap; it still has plenty of motion-offense proponents, and 20% of a college team’s possessions (on average) occur against zone defenses, making it almost impossible to run pick-and-rolls at the volume NBA teams do against 99-plus-percent man-to-man.

The surprise in this data is that isolation volume is higher in college than in the NBA. I think if you polled college basketball fans, 90% would speculate that the opposite was true. But the pick-and-roll boom in the NBA—as well as the realization that iso possessions tend to be inefficient—has led to a decline in iso popularity. When Duke relied on heavy doses of what some announcers called “NBA-style” isos for Brandon Ingram last season, the Blue Devils were actually iso-ing more than most NBA teams.

• The 30-second shot clock improved college hoops, and there is no going back.

Last summer, I was among the skeptics who worried that shortening the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 would have the unintended consequence of empowering defenses. That didn’t happen. The new shot clock hit a trifecta of increasing scoring, pace and offensive efficiency from ‘14–15—all positive outcomes for the game.

(Stats harvested from kenpom.com and sports-reference.com.)

That said, just because offensive efficiency went up in Year 1 of the new shot-clock era doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way. Coaches can be slow to adapt, and D-I wide, there weren’t significant changes in the ways teams played defense from ‘14–15 to ‘15–16. It could take a few years for effective theories on shot-clock leveraging to spread. I still think there’s merit to shaving seconds off with non-turnover-focused backcourt pressure, then falling into a time-eating halfcourt defense, in hopes of forcing more possessions into inefficient, end-of-shot-clock territory. But oddly enough, there was a slight decrease in full-court pressure from ‘14–15 to ‘15–16; it dropped from 7.6% of defensive possessions, on average, to 6.8%, according to Synergy.

• The new shot clock didn’t create a zone boom.

A zone boom did happen in college hoops, but it was in ‘13–14, the first season the NCAA implemented its new freedom-of-movement guidelines for referees. Perhaps in response to the rising number of whistles, halfcourt zone defense usage jumped from 15.4% in ‘12–13 to 21.1% in ‘13–14, according to my analysis of Synergy team logs. There was widespread speculation from coaches that more zone would played under the 30-second shot clock, but . . . the national zone-D rate in ‘15–16 was 20.0%.

There were some anecdotal, high-profile cases that resulted in zone being talked about more—Xavier going from an infrequent zone team to one that did it 32.4% of the time; Duke going from all-man two years ago, to 23.5% of the time last year; Villanova throwing some 2-3 zone curveballs during its run to the national title—but the aggregate zone rate stayed pretty much the same.

• The college foul rate has declined from its initial freedom-of-movement-driven spike in ‘13–14.

The NCAA’s definition of what constitutes a foul has evolved in the past three seasons. Referees have been instructed to place greater emphasis on enforcing freedom-of-movement infractions (such as hand-checking or cutter-bumping), and the rules committee made alterations to both the block/charge rule and the block/charge circle under the hoop. The rocky—but necessary for the long-term health of the game—initial adjustment season of ‘13–14 resulted in a ton of whistles. There were 19.1 fouls per game, 0.29 fouls per possession, and 0.41 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt.

The NCAA shortened the shot clock and told referees to place additional emphasis on offensive freedom in ‘15–16, and while tempo gains pushed fouls per game up to 19.3, there were fewer fouls per possession (0.28) and fewer free throws per field-goal attempt (0.37) than in either of the previous two seasons. It’s unclear whether those decreases were because there was less time to foul on each possession, or defenses were acclimating to the new rules or referees were simply calling fewer fouls. Regardless, a situation where pace and offensive efficiency increased while fouls-per-possession decreased is a positive development.

I have no interest in the college game looking exactly like the NBA, but the comparison of the leagues’ data in the above graphic shows that the pro fans still enjoy fewer fouls per possession and fewer free throws per field-goal attempt. The NBA’s shorter possessions are part of that, as are its different bonus rules, more entrenched definition of fouls, and more consistent refereeing. But I do think college should aspire to that level of flow, and keep doing whatever is necessary to reach the equilibrium where defenses are regulated enough to allow for offensive freedom, but whistles aren’t bogging down the game.

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