March 19, 2012

Monday Midfielder: Learning From Basketball's Shot Clock Transition

by Matt Forman | Twitter

North Carolina and Ohio State scrimmaged with a 60-second shot clock last October, an experimental response to arguments that the game's pace has slowed too much at the NCAA Division I men's level. The arguments are similar to those regarding college basketball in the 1980s.
© Brian Schneider

You have two minutes to read this column.

With all this talk about implementing a shot clock in Division I men's lacrosse, it's only fitting to put a fake timer on this page.

OK, not really. Please stick around for as long as it takes to make your way to the end. I'm likely incapable of writing a column that takes less than five minutes to read. The first four installments of The Monday Midfielder averaged more than 3,000 words each.

But, if I were adjusting to the times, maybe my column would have a real "click clock." See, writing and lacrosse have something in common: The game hasn't changed, but the environment has, and therefore the demands have.

Indulge me for a moment and follow along...

Column writing is as simple — or challenging — as it ever was: Create compelling commentary that informs and engages. In this digital era, though, journalism has undergone a massive convergence that has left the media market fragmented. When computers, communication and content clash the way they have, you — the consumer — have lots of options for pleasure reading. We're all competing for a slice of your precious time. If I don't offer insightful opinions or quality reporting, and if I don't do in easily digestible chunks, and I don't do it quickly — every two minutes, let's say — getting rid of me is as simple as clicking 'X' at the top of the page, closing your browser, and going somewhere else. Will you come back next time?

Writing hasn't changed, but the environment that I'm writing in has, and therefore the product, should change. Hence the fake "click clock."

Now, follow similar logic in lacrosse. The sport itself hasn't changed, but the environment it's being played in has, and therefore the product should change. Hence the real shot clock.

We've all heard and talked about the pace of play in lacrosse. Some have said how drastically the game has slowed down. And while stall tactics have been employed — no doubt — the stats don't support the stories. It's a myth.

Let's take a look at the numbers, compiled by The Monday Midfielder from publically available services: the NCAA and individual schools' websites.

Goals scored, per game, per team...(current season through games of March 10)

2012: 9.8 2006: 9.4
2011: 9.6 2005: 9.4
2010: 10.0 2004: 9.3
2009: 9.3 2003: 9.3
2008: 9.1 2002: 9.8
2007: 9.4  

Goals don't tell the whole story, you say? How about shots taken, per game, per team...

2012: 33.8 2007: 33.9
2011: 34.1 2006: 34.7
2010: 34.3 2005: 34.6
2009: 34.9 2004: 34.4
2008: 34.0  

As you can see, goals and shots have stayed fairly consistent over the last decade.

More or less, the game hasn't changed. It just seems like it has, because the environment has changed. The nation's fastest growing sport has received more television coverage over recent years, so the game has been put under the microscope. With more TV time comes further attention. And with further attention comes coaches making more pressure-packed decisions. Thus, the demands on coaches have changed.

Now, I could also make an argument that journalism's fragmented market holds true in lacrosse's television market. With the advent of digital television, a variety of service providers and an increasing number of networks, advertisers are competing for your eyeballs. If we want lacrosse to continue to flourish — and really, who doesn't? — it only seems logical to make the sport as appealing as possible to its paying fan base. We should want people, including couch surfers on Memorial Day Weekend, to watch our sport. When you have 800-plus channels at your disposal, if the sport you're watching doesn't captivate you every so often — every two minutes, let's say, just like my column — getting rid of that sport is as simple as clicking the remote and going to a different game. Will you come back?

"Send these games to a neutral city where there are no alums and students who get in free, and let teams start collapsing into zone defense and stalling; by the second game you couldn't get enough people to fill a phone booth."

-- Former Boston Celtics general manager and coach Red Auerbach
on college basketball in 1982

But I won't belabor that point. As colleague Jac Coyne wrote in an October blog post: "It's not the responsibility of college sports to massively tamper with its structure just to make it more pleasing for a television audience or paying fan base. Yes, the last two D-I national championship games have been rather dull if scoring is the only indicator for excitement, but by artificially creating more shots — and presumably more goals — simply to increase advertising or gate revenue is wrong-headed. ... Intercollegiate athletics are known as extra-curricular activities for a reason – they are meant to be used as a tool to round out the educational experience through teaching, mentorship and teamwork."

There are many lacrosse purists who don't want to see their game change just for the sake of change — or to appease the common sports fan who may not appreciate the beauty of lacrosse. They say it's exciting enough already. They like that lacrosse allows for both a run-and-gun style and a deliberate style. But ask yourself this: Was the game ever meant to be played with a highly-skilled team holding the ball inside the box five, six, seven minutes at a time to preserve a slim lead? I don't think so. The "Fastest Sport on Two Feet" was not meant to be reduced from grace and flow to stall and sprawl. It was meant to be action-packed. The lacrosse traditionalists and shot clock supporters have the same goal in mind: to preserve the integrity of the game.

That's why something needs to be done, and why I'm in favor of a shot clock — in some form or fashion. How long? When does it start? What are the unintended consequences?

The details can be sorted out. They were sorted out in men's college basketball, which faced similar questions and concerns in the early- to mid-1980s. Lacrosse seems to be at a place in its developmental arc much like basketball was then.

The Monday Midfielder sorted through several hundred newspaper articles written at the time about the implementation of a shot clock, and correspondingly a 3-point line, in college basketball — at the time called things like "Stall Ball," "Slow Ball" and "Yawn Ball."

Here are a few excerpted highlights. As you're reading, substitute "lacrosse" for "basketball" in general terms and you hear many of the same arguments relating to our game today.

'The Brakes of the Game: Slow and Steady Winning Few Fans' (Feb. 27, 1982)

By Michael Wilbon, The Washington Post

..."There are various reasons offered by coaches and players, including the proliferation of zone defenses, overcoaching and the fear of being fired.

"I can't stand it," said Maryland's Mark Fothergill. "But that's the way the whole nation is playing. These days, you blow one possession and it can kill you."

Red Auerbach, general manager of the Boston Celtics, says the slower pace is bad for the college game. "Send these games to a neutral city where there are no alums and students who get in free, and let teams start collapsing into zone defense and stalling; by the second game you couldn't get enough people to fill a phone booth."

A number of other coaches also are abandoning their personal philosophies. It's good for job security.

"There is a tremendous pressure on coaches to win," said Gerry Gimelstob, coach at George Washington. "Maybe things will open up again when coaches, like professors, are granted tenure."

"The pressure on college coaches to win has gotten so ridiculous, we're just playing everything closer to the vest," said William and Mary Coach Bruce Parkhill. "I sometimes get the urge to play faster, the way I want to personally. But I have to be fair to the kids. I would prefer the quicker tempo, pressing and running for 40 minutes. But I've got to do what's in the best interest of the team. I've got to win."

Teams with modest talent, like William and Mary, can be expected to stall against better teams. But it's difficult to understand why top-20 teams like North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State slow it down.

"It's the better teams that are holding the ball," said Al McGuire, an analyst for NBC-TV and a former Marquette coach. "College basketball games are now 34 minutes instead of 40. The team with the ball now plays the last minute for the final shot of the half, instead of the last 20 seconds. And the second half is only 15 minutes because the team that's ahead sits on the lead the last five minutes.

"Michigan State started this whole thing by winning the national championship on national television with that matchup zone (in 1978-79). Coaches are great copiers, so everybody is going with zones now."

"Coaches are starting to think people are coming to watch them and their strategies, rather than coming to watch the kids play," McGuire said. "The coaches get into these chess matches and forget the value of the game itself." ...

Is a shot clock in college lacrosse inevitable?
© Brian Schneider

'ACC's Aim Is Good, but A Bit Short' (May 20, 1982)

By Dave Kindred, The Washington Post

... "[The] move to a shot clock, because the clock will force coaches to play real basketball. Purists lament the need for a clock, but the need, alas, is real. To remember the Virginia-Carolina tournament championship game last March is to grow sleepy, very sleeeeeeeepy.

The irony is that everyone assumes the ACC shot clock is there to juice up offense. Scores will go higher. But the clock was made necessary by defenses. Too many coaches refused to play defense against ball-control teams; they ordered cautious zones.

They gave such orders because it is easier to wait 16 minutes and play pressure defense four minutes than it is to play good defense 20 minutes. They were content, pleased perhaps, to play these minigames with only a few significant plays. That way, they had fewer chances to lose.

This makes sense for coaches who know they can't coach good defense and/or know their players can't play it. So when a Dean Smith orders a delay to draw out the defense and create new offensive patterns, the easy thing for the other coach is to tell his guys: "Don't chase 'em now, don't give up any backdoors, just wait for 'em to play."

So we saw Virginia stand around on defense against Carolina in that championship game. Carolina wanted to run its delay. Virginia said it couldn't play defense against the delay. At this impasse, everybody just stood there. Two marvelous teams, with Ralph Sampson and James Worthy suited up, did nothing resembling basketball." ...

'Will the Rules Raise the Scoring?' (Nov. 21, 1982)

By Sam Goldaper, The New York Times

... "I originally voted against the clock," [Georgia Tech coach Bobby] Cremins said recently by telephone. "Now I want the clock. Last season was my first as an A.C.C. coach, and I saw a lot of delaying tactics start too soon, with 12 to 14 minutes remaining. We're getting a lot of money from TV and the fans are paying a lot and the game is getting boring."

When asked why he changed his vote, Cremins said: "I think coaches suddenly realized they were over-coaching and there was a need to give the game back to the players."

Carnesecca has been an advocate of some form of a shot clock since 1966. "I was a voice in the wilderness for a long time," he said. "Coaches have finally come to the realization that a lot of teams are starting to put the ball in the ice box in the first half. Basketball is a game of action, not inaction. The 45-second clock is a step in the right direction. The 30-second clock may be all right, and the pros' 24-second clock is too quick for us."

Scoring totals declined for a seventh straight year last season. The average combined score has dropped from a high of 153 points a game in 1975 to 135.

"It's not a revolt of any sorts," said Dr. Edward S. Seitz, the Springfield College athletic director and chief college basketball rules interpreter for the last 15 seasons. "What the conferences are doing in the experimentations is saying let's get the objective data together and see if there is a need for a shot clock and the 3-point basket. The rules committee is a very conservative group. We need to have the objective data before we tinker with the rules." ...

'Use of Shot Clock is Growing' (June 11, 1982)

By Gordon S. White Jr., The New York Times

... "Mounting pressures to win have forced most college basketball coaches to play cautiously in recent seasons and to be overly protective of small leads. This tendency has produced fewer daring and aggressive offenses and more protective zone defenses against opponents equally leery of risking low-percentage long shots.

As a result, scoring dropped for the seventh consecutive season in 1981-82. The average combined score in a game - 135.08 points - was the lowest in 30 seasons because teams were holding the ball more, looking for easy, inside baskets, or they were stalling, wanting no shot in particular. Big Ten Conference coaches became so fearful of having their players shoot from the outside that the combined score average was only 123.1 points a game, 14 fewer than a season ago and 48.2 fewer than the high of 171.3 in 1969-70.

Fans often became bored with the stalling and the dull offenses last season. On March 7, amid the boos of the crowd in Greensboro Coliseum, North Carolina, ranked No.1 in the nation, held the ball without taking a shot for 7 minutes 6 seconds to protect a 1-point lead against the No.3 team, Virginia. That spectacle was the nationally televised Atlantic Coast Conference championship game that North Carolina won, 47-45. It was time for a change, according to some college officials.

"The North Carolina-Virginia game on the tube, appearing before millions, had a very significant effect upon people saying we have to experiment with the shot clock," said Dr. Edward S. Steitz, the athletic director at Springfield College and the secretary of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Basketball Rules Committee. "They said they didn't want this kind of game again. There are two problem areas - the excessive number of zones reportedly played last year, which were conducive to lower scoring, and the feeling that the 3-point play will pull those zones out for more man-to-man defense plus the feeling that the shot clock will make for more aggressive offenses."

When reading those old articles, did you find yourself replacing each basketball reference with lacrosse? I know I did.

As the rules are currently constructed in lacrosse — just like college basketball before the shot clock — stalling is a completely legitimate strategy for coaches to employ. They will continue to do so until mandated to do otherwise. They're paid to win and develop young men, not necessarily to attract fans to the sport.

A shot clock would address the issue. Coaches and fans seemingly have been split on the issue. In an informal Facebook poll, US Lacrosse's friends voted at a near 50-50 split. But in human nature, hardly any change is viewed as positive. It just takes time.

An NCAA Rules Committee questionnaire in May 1982 returned that 85 percent (275 of 394) of college basketball coaches opposed a shot clock of any kind. It was eventually introduced for the 1985-86 season. ...

"Coaches are starting to think people are coming to watch them and their strategies, rather than coming to watch the kids play."

-- Former Marquette coach and television analyst Al McGuire
on college baskeball in 1982

A few related thoughts:

  • Would using a 60-second shot clock really force teams to play faster than they would like, outside of the final minutes? I highly doubt it, and some might argue that it would slow the game down. In 60 seconds, there's still plenty of time to organize offensively, be creative and cohesive, and set up a play. And it worked well in scrimmages last fall, like one played between Ohio State and North Carolina. Think about the math: That's an average of one shot per minute for 60 minutes, or 60 shots. Right now, using the math earlier, each game averages about 68 shots. Would 75, 90 or 120 seconds be more reasonable? Or 30 seconds after a stall call is made? Basketball started with a 45-second shot clock before reducing it to 35 seconds just four seasons later. So it can start on the conservative side and then be sped up, too.
  • If a shot clock gets implemented, would a 2-point line follow? In basketball's case, the NCAA-wide 3-pointer was instituted just one year after the shot clock. Here's the thing: Forcing offenses to shoot within some time interval, without a 2-point shot, wouldn't make scoring increase. It would actually help defenses, which would stay in their zone sets. But forcing defenses to be aggressive and hedge out to the line — afraid of letting in a shot worth double the value — would open space on the inside around the cage.
  • Would a shot clock and 2-point line make college lacrosse too similar to Major League Lacrosse? Is that even a worry? College basketball aficionados expressed concern that using a shot clock and 3-point line would make it too much like the NBA (which had used a shot clock since 1954 and a 3-point shot since 1979). Though valid in theory, there are still substantial differences between the NCAA and NBA styles of play. The same likely would be true for lacrosse. Even though some have said the MLL is a midfielder's league with 1-on-1 isolation plays as the core offense, the games would remain unique.
  • Whatever the NCAA decides to do, it should not follow basketball as a blueprint for experimentation. For several seasons, different conferences were playing with different rules during the regular season, and then everyone was forced to play without the shot clock and without the 3-point line for the postseason. For the 1982-83 season, five conferences tried both the shot clock, ranging from 30 to 45 seconds, and 3-point shot, ranging from 19 to 22 feet. Some kept the shot clock on all game, some turned it off for the final four or five minutes. "When teams from different conferences played, the home team had the option of offering its conference's rules to the visiting team, which had the option of refusing and playing by NCAA tournament rules." And independent schools refused to cooperate. This benefits no one. Find a set of rules that everyone can agree on and stick with them.
  • The bottom line is this: The rules aren't going to change in 2012, but the NCAA rules committee, which gathers every other year, is scheduled to meet this summer. Whatever rules are decided upon could go into effect immediately. Or with status quo, a shot clock couldn't be instituted until 2015 at the earliest.

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