This is an article I wrote for my college newspaper. Occasionally I post these on the blog as well.
If you like March Madness more than college basketball, you are normal. That is the status quo. The weeks of conference and national tournaments are a fun and exciting time for basketball fans and novice bracket-filler-outers alike. Some would even say that the NCAA Tournament is the best championship in American sports. However, what the Madness Hysteria overshadows is the fact that teams in the tournament have played over thirty games prior to the Big Dance in the regular season, and there is much to be learned from those games. As exciting and popular as the NCAA Tournament is, it is not representative of college basketball overall, and it fails to bring to light some of the major issues facing one of America’s top sports.
Scoring was down considerably in college basketball this year. According to NCAA.org and Stats LLC, field goal percentage numbers this season were at their lowest point since 1964-65. Overall scoring numbers per game were lower than any season in the past thirty-one years. Three-point field goal percentages have never been worse. Those are not the numbers of defensive battles; they are the numbers of struggling offenses. There are plenty of reasons, some to be explained in this column, for these low scoring numbers, but one simple one is that players are just missing shots. Many games are determined largely by which team is able to make more open jump shots.
Low scoring is a symptom of the physical nature of college basketball, particularly in conferences such as the Big Ten and the Big East. In fact, college basketball has become as physical as the NBA (some would say it is more physical). The difference is, NBA players know how to play through contact and they have the strength and speed to fight through physicality. Most college basketball players do not. Referees are letting a lot of fouls go uncalled, and coaches take advantage of this by coaching their players to foul, knowing that the times they get caught will be worth the dozens of fouls they get away with. Offensive players cannot drive, shoot, post up, or even run past a pick or cut to the basket without being heavily accosted by defenders. The result is more three-point shots at a lower percentage. College basketball diehards call the state of the game tough, gritty, and hard-working. I call it boring.
Another factor that plays in to the low scoring is the “one-and-done” rule. The nation’s best players stay in school for one year before they go to the NBA, as high school players are no longer allowed to enter the draft and a star player is not going to stay in school longer than he needs to earn a multi-million dollar contract. The rule also creates a lack of great teams in college basketball, as players do not stay around long enough for teams to build a winning combination. There will continue to be much debate about what the rule means for players, schools, and the NBA.
College basketball also has to deal with effects of conference realignment, generally driven by the moves of football schools. The top story this year was the end of the Big East, arguably the best basketball conference in the nation. Rivalries like Syracuse/Georgetown will be no more, and the departing schools will change the landscape of the conferences they move to, such as the ACC. Fortunately, the Big East will be preserved in some manner by the formation of the new Big East, which contains the “Catholic Seven”, which is a strong collection of united basketball schools, and is adding solid programs like Butler, Xavier, and Creighton. The growth of this new conference will come at the expense of others, but it will be a strong and stable one. Unfortunately, the remnants of the current Big East who have not left will be stuck in the American Athletic Conference, which may be a disaster.
College basketball is a beloved sport, and the popularity of March Madness, particularly after the Cinderella stories this year, is not going to fade. However, there are a number of issues facing the game that most fans, especially those who only pay attention in March, are unaware of. The NCAA is one of the most powerless and ineffective organizations in America, so solutions to these problems will be difficult to find. Following your favorite team will always be a joy, but falling asleep when anyone else is playing will be commonly accepted.
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Soli Deo Gloria