CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jim Christian, one of three new members added to the ACC men’s basketball coaching fraternity this offseason, can recognize speed — where it isn’t and where it is. The new Boston College coach arrives in the ACC after two 20-win seasons at Ohio, a solid program in the Mid-American Conference, a traditionally slow-paced league with a decent track record of NCAA Tournament success over the past decade-plus. Christian has other speed-reference points, too, having previously coached in the Sun Belt, Big East and Mountain West, and his idea of tempo remains relative to what’s happening on the court.
The ACC was, in terms of adjusted tempo in efficiency metrics, the slowest conference in college basketball last season. Christian doesn’t necessarily see the on-court action matching those numbers.
"KenPom?" Christian asked laughing, referring to statistician Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency metrics. "Until you go out there and watch them suckers run, man. My version of speed and yours, you can KenPom it all you want, them suckers are running. Ball State and North Carolina play at different speeds."
Christian is correct in this assessment: Your typical ACC players move up and down the court faster than their mid-major opposition. But in terms of average possessions per game last season, no conference moved at a slower pace than the Atlantic Coast Conference during the 2013-14 season, and the league wants to change that — and, in some ways, the sport — moving forward.
ACC teams averaged 61.8 possessions per 40 minutes last season, a full 1.2 possessions behind the 31st-fastest Mountain West and a full eight possessions behind the comparatively up-and-dewn Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
It’s the extreme end of a trend for the league since the 2008 season, when it led the nation with a scorching 70.8 possessions per 40 minutes. After that, the conference’s rankings in the tempo department have plummeted: 2nd in 2009 to 9th in 2010 and 2011 to 20th in 2012 and 13th in 2013 to the back of the pack last season. Part of that has to do with the conference’s expansion, with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame traditionally ranking among the more deliberate teams nationally. Along with those three programs, former Big East transplants Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami finished among the 51 "slowest" teams in Division I along with Clemson and Virginia.
There’s a strategy involved here, however, as it should be pointed out that being deliberately paced does not necessarily lead to poor or even low-scoring offenses. In fact, partly due to some overdue offense-friendly emphasis on contact rules, the ACC enjoyed its most efficient campaign (105.2 points per 100 possessions) since 2007. Some teams like Clemson and Virginia simply rely on more ball movement and clock-eating in order to find the best shot available. Limiting the number of possessions and slowing the game down can also be a form of evening the playing field. Either way, a slower pace doesn’t lead to worse basketball in and of itself: the 2014 Final Four involved four teams averaging fewer than 66 possessions per 40 minutes. Slower can mean better.
It doesn’t directly help TV ratings and excitement, though.
So, what’s one possible solution to immediately increase pace? Put offenses on a shorter time limit. ACC teams are experimenting with a 30-second shot clock, one utilized in women’s college basketball, during their preseason exhibition games before taking the proposal to the NCAA rules committee after the season.
The expectation from most coaches at ACC Media Days in Charlotte was that the rule will eventually pass for men’s college basketball.
"It’s almost embarrassing that we can have our female counterparts play with a 30-second shot clock and we’re not. It’s a little embarrassing. They can play with a 30-second clock and we can’t," said coach Rick Pitino, whose Louisville Cardinals will likely help increase the ACC’s average tempo in their first year in the league. "It’s more exciting for the fans, for television, to play fast."
NCAA men’s college basketball features the longest shot clock in the sport and has historically resisted speeding up its game.
After NCAA women’s basketball followed the NBA’s lead and adopted a 30-second shot clock for the 1970-71 season, the men waited another 15 years before adding a 45-second clock. That was reduced in the 1993-94 season, but still not up to par with other top leagues. The NBA and FIBA use a 24-second shot clock. Some U.S. high school leagues utilize a 30-second clock while high schools overseas have moved to a 24-second clock.
The rule change held the unanimous public support of the ACC coaches, with 30 seconds serving as an acceptable middle ground even for downtempo programs.
"It’ll create more possessions, maybe create an even more exciting game. A little more offense in the game," Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. "I think it’s long overdue."
While cutting five seconds off the possession-based countdown is being embraced, there’s a limit to how far the ACC — and likely the rest of college basketball — is willing to push.
With warranted consideration given to the differences in NBA and FIBA rules, the notion of college basketball mirroring the pros with a 24-second clock does not look like a realistic option.
"I’ve been involved with 24-second shot clocks for quite a few years and I don’t think college basketball’s quite ready for that," former NBA player and Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said. "… We were talking about this in our coaches’ meeting, you gotta make some adjustments in the rules (for a 24-second clock). People look at the NBA and say, ‘Hey, they’ve got a 24-second shot clock.’ They also got illegal defenses. They also have a certain amount of rules in place that allow more offensive freedom, so to speak."
Added Clemson coach Brad Brownell: "At the end of the day, the NBA game is set up for the best players to be playing in the Finals. Six fouls. Forty-eight minutes instead of 40 so the best players are on the court longer. Gotta beat them four times — seven-game series, you gotta win four. There’s isolation rules against helping and double-teaming a guy. … If we’re just gonna do that, we might as well just have Duke and North Carolina and Louisville in the Final Four every year."
Even in preparations for an exhibition game, a few ACC coaches are adapting practice routines around the shortened clock. Brownell’s Tigers have thrown timed drills into the equation and, in the offseason, played pickup games with 24-second clocks. Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said his team is emphasizing pushing the ball more after made baskets.
Still, it’s unclear just how dramatic of a difference five seconds would make.
From a mathematic perspective, the reduction allows for around 11.5 extra full shot clocks per game. There will be an added emphasis on quicker decision-making and teams will be forced to get into their offense sooner, but even the most down-tempo teams weren’t flirting with shot-clock violations every time down the court. Miami ranked as the most sluggish offense in Division I last season, and it took up an average of 21.9 seconds per possession. The national average was 18 seconds. Frantically hoisted jumpers with time expiring aren’t going to become an offensive staple.
However, as Jeff Waksman of Basketball Predictions has previously pointed out, scoring plunged from 76.7 points per game in 1991 to 70.2 in 1997 despite men’s college basketball shaving 10 seconds off the clock. Faster offense is not necessarily better offense. Shortening the clock could lead to more turnovers, more forced shots and sloppier play. In fact, it creates a scenario where defensive players are asked to defend for a shorter amount of time.
Full-court pressing and suffocating zone defenses, a few of which can be found in ACC play with the likes of Louisville and Syracuse, only complicate matters for an offense. For example, opponents took up a nation-high 21.1 seconds per possession trying to penetrate Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone last season. At the end of the day, offenses need to create quality shots, regardless of pace.
"There’s not much difference. If you look at the facts — numbers scored, points scored, baskets scored — there’s not a lot of difference," said Dixon, who pointed out that his 305th-fastest Panthers scored the third-most points in the conference last season. "The perception is you’ve gotta fit into one category, and that’s how it works out. (The 30-second clock) hasn’t shown a lot of effect, though."
Shooting percentages and offensive efficiency are trending upwards — thanks in part to the rules changes and interpretations which took effect last season (though a slight reversion in the charge rule could change a few things) — and the average national possession doesn’t come within 10 seconds of the proposed change, so it’s clear that men’s college basketball is capable of catching up to speed with other high-level leagues. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, coaches from the Southeastern Conference and others have expressed similar support.
And while there will undoubtedly be some resistance to creating more possessions per game from low- and mid-major representatives on the rules committee — ACC associate commissioner Karl Hicks is the only major conference rep on the 13-man committee — the league, from commissioner John Swofford on down, seems to believe it’s only a matter of time before 30 is the magic number.
"I think at the level of play that we play, the more we should do things to enhance the game. I think we should have (a shot clock) from youth basketball on. A kid playing in Italy plays with a 24-second clock. They learn how to play basketball, they don’t learn how to hold the ball," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has petitioned for shot clock use throughout all levels of U.S. basketball since becoming the men’s national team coach, said. "The fact that we don’t have a shot clock in high school basketball throughout our country, I think that’s wrong. I’m a big proponent of at least a 30-second clock."
There’s a long process ahead, but the ACC isn’t riding the brakes.