It’s March madness. Alright.
I love college basketball. Always have. My parents’ house is walking distance from Siena College, which has one of the best mid-major fan bases in the country, so I grew up rooting for them and, as with pretty much everyone else upstate, Syracuse. Needless to say, I think the NCAA tournament is the greatest sporting event of the year.
Still, I don’t love it as much as I used to. It’s pretty obvious to me that the contemporary sport has significant flaws, and those flaws have gotten worse over the past 5-10 years. Here are the three biggest problems I see facing the game right now.
The one-year-and-done policy for superstars. The fiat from the NBA that you can’t play in the league until a full year after you finish high school has possibly wrecked more havoc on college basketball than anything else. The teams have no continuity of success; you don’t know half the kids staring in the NCAA tournament, and the student-athlete ideal has been degraded to a new low.
The NCCA tournament behemoth. The tourney has become so important that regular season games seem meaningless, and the conference championship — both regular season and tournament — has ceased to be interesting in the BCS conferences.
The fouling at the end of games. This isn’t a new problem, of course. And the steps they took in the 80’s to fix it certainly took care of the part of the problem that was literally ruining the game. But it still remains unsatisfactory. Not only does every close college basketball game become a free-throw shooting contest, but it also takes forever to finish a game. Which is great for the TV networks, but not so great for the fans. As someone who played rugby and loves watching college hockey, the difference could not be more stark: close games in those sports reach a frantic peak as you approach the finish. In college hoops, unless the difference in score is 3 or less, the ending grinds to a halt.
None of this comes close to ruining the NCAA tournament as a spectator sport; it’s still the greatest show on Earth for my money. But the combination of the three things has altered how fans approach the tournament, and how the NCAA sells it. In 1990, I could probably have named the star player or players on most of the BCS conference teams that made the tourney; they were usually juniors or seniors, and I had seen them play for several years. Not the case anymore. I think this changes how we look at the tournament. It definitely disrupts the multi-year storyline. Will it ever be the case again that a single game has the history of the Duke-UNLV rematch in ’91? Highly unlikely.
Anyway, here are three ideas for improving college basketball:
1. Make scholarship offers four-year commitments, regardless of whether the player leaves early. Right now, all of the best teams have incentives to offer scholarships to the one-year-and-done players, since they don’t have to personally eat the externalities. Think about it: Kentucky can recruit four consecutive one-and-done players, and get them for the equivalent of a single scholarship over four years. Meanwhile, the fans have to eat all of the negatives associated with the system when all the best schools use that same strategy. And a collective action problem sets in: no BCS team can afford to not pursue the best talent while all the others do so.
Solution: make all scholarship offers 4-year slots, and 4-year commitments on the part of the schools. You recruited John Wall and he left after one year? Guess what — you’re down a scholarship for the next three years, while his slot sits empty. Under this system, the schools pay part of the price for the externality. In theory, a new market would be created in which the one-and-done player is no longer such a hot commodity, and recruiting a series of them is especially unappealing. My sense is that this would bring things to a better (but not perfect) equilibrium. Would schools still take one-and-done players? Sure. But not as quickly as they do now. Things like transfers and career-ending injuries could easily be accounted for with a few simple rule tweaks.
Are there potential downsides here? Yes. The biggest problem is that the schools’ interests and the interests of the top players’ might diverge more than ever. It wouldn’t be a great situation if the school and the coaches were giving top players misinformation or other bad advice related to decisions about staying in school or leaving school. But it’s a trade I’m willing to make; the one-and-done system is killing the BCS leagues. And this solution is much better, I think, than other proposals, which are either pipe dreams (return to the days of no-freshmen allowed to play) or perhaps cures worse than the disease (raise the NBA minimum-age to 21).
2. Make all stationary fouls in the last two minutes automatically intentional. A generation ago, the twin problems of stalling by winning teams and fouling by trailing teams had gotten so out of hand that the NCAA took two drastic steps: they put in a shot clock, and later they added a double-bonus, so that most of the fouling at the end of the game did not results in 1-and-1 free throw trips, but instead in 2-shot trips. The shot clock solved the problem of the teams holding the ball for minutes at a time, which was absolutely killing the game in the early 80’s. Think back to the 1983 title game, when Houston got the ball, what, one time in the last two and a half minutes of a single-possession game? That’s not even basketball. And it also allowed teams to not start fouling so early, since in a 1-point game with a minute left, they were definitely going to get the ball back. The double-bonus made for a nice counter-point to this; when teams did start to foul (which is inevitable once the shot clock is turned off), there was not as much of a reward for doing so. It is much harder to come back under the double-bonus rules than under the old endless 1-and-1 rules.
But it’ss time to face facts: as well as the shot clock and double bonus have worked, the end of a close college basketball game is as awful as often as it is exciting. Unless the game is a 1-possession game right to the very last buzzer, you end up watching a whole lot of intentional fouls, court walking by tired players, timeouts, and commercials. When you are actually at the arena, all the energy of the game deflates. And note that this is often a problem even in the games that have great finishes. Because in order to mount the comeback that leads to the game-winning 3-pointer, teams often start fouling with 90 seconds or more to go, when they are down 6 or 7 points. It’s annoying, to say the least.
Now, I’m not knocking the strategy. Teams are almost certainly correct to start fouling early. What needs to happen is that we need to reduce all incentives for doing so. The truth is that we’ll never stop the fouls once the shot clock is turned off; no matter how stiff the penalty for fouling, if the alternative is watching the other team run out the clock, the incentive will always be to foul. So what needs to be minimized is all the intentional fouling that occurs before the shot clock is turned off. If we could get the game in a situation in which teams didn’t start fouling in earnest until there were less than 35 seconds left, that’d be a major improvement.
But to get there, the refs have to start calling intentional fouls. Not flagrant fouls. Intentional fouls. The problem at the end of the game is that everyone is intentionally fouling, but the refs don’t call intentional fouls. So let’s force them to. How about this: any foul in the last three minutes in which the offensive player is simply holding the ball and standing there is an intentional foul. Ditto if he’s dribbling without attempting to attack the basket. Furthermore, any foul in the offensive backcourt after possession is gained is an intentional foul. This won’t reduce fouling to zero — there will always be logic to foul when the shot clock is off — but it will punish teams so severely that it is barely worth it.
3. Restructure the NCAA tournament to give first-round byes to the conference champions. This is my most radical suggestion, but I don’t see any way around it. If we agree that the NCAA tournament has begun to overshadow the regular season in both BCS league and smaller leagues, and has more or less destroyed the importance of the conference tournaments in the power conferences, then the only possible way to reverse the situation is to make the NCAA tournament more responsive to teams doing well in the conference regular seasons.
Now, there’s a history here. Once upon a time, only the conference champions were allowed to play in the NCAA tournament. You’re damn right the regular season mattered back then. And, because of that, most conferences didn’t hold conference tournaments at the end of the year to decide who would receive their one bid to the tournament (the ACC was an exception). But then the one-bid-per-conference rule was discarded in favor of expanding the tournament, and at that point all incentive was lost to not hold a conference tournament, since they are potentially very profitable for the conferences, and then you end up where we are today: everyone but the Ivy League gives their automatic bid to the conference tournament winner.
Now, the most obvious solution is to just go back to the one-bid-per-conference rule. But that’s obviously not going to happen. A second option would be to ban the conference tournament. Also not going to happen, and has the added problem of not solving anything at the BCS level, since all those conferences have multiple teams as locks for the NCAA tournament before the conference tournament even begins. What you need is a way to revitalize the regular season in the big and small conferences, without killing the conference tournaments.
Solution: automatic bids, and automatic first-round byes for regular-seasons conference champions. You heard me. Give both the Big East champ and the America East champ a first round bye in the NCAA tournament. Before we address the issue of small-conference champs getting byes, let’s talk about the math. It’s ridiculously simple. Right now you have 31 conferences with an automatic bid, and 37 at large bids, for a 68 team field. All you’d do here is give out 31 bids/byes to the regular season champs, 31 bids to the conference tourney champs, and 34 at-large bids. If a team won both the regular season and conference tourney title, then that’s one less conference tourney bid and one more at large bid (see below for the problems this creates.) Then you have 32 byes (for the regular season champs plus, say, the single-best non-champ), and a first round that features all the at-large bids and all the conference tourney champs that didn’t win their regular season.
Positives: a renewed emphasis on the regular season, in both small and big conferences. An expanded tournament tournament, but one that doesn’t favor the BCS schools. Continued meaning for the conference tournaments, and thus the possibilities for teams that were not good during the regular season. Negatives: an expanded tournament, which many do not like. First round byes for obviously inferior teams. Weird incentives for conferences to either get numerically smaller, or to rig their conference tournaments.
It’s the last point I want to take up here, because I know someone will bring it up if I don’t. Syracuse won the Big East. Under this system, isn’t it in the Big East’s interest to have them not win the conference tournament? Yes, but that’s already the case. We don’t see conferences tanking their tournaments to get an extra team in the NCAA tournament that otherwise would not have made it, do we? No we do not. Now, this could potentially be a problem in the lower conferences, since it could mean the difference between one bid and two bids every single time. A remedy for this might be to preference teams who win both their regular-season and conference tournament with seeding consideration.
Another objection might be that we’re biasing the system toward the smaller conferences. In effect, we’re giving regular season champs in the small conferences byes, while making the at-large teams from the bigger conferences play an extra round. To which I say: that’s a fair trade in my book. If all the BCS at-large teams have to play a small conference tournament champ, or another at-large team in the first round, that’s a very small contribution to be made in order to fix the entire regular season of college basketball. Think about it: when was the last time anyone really cared what happened on the last weekend of the regular season? Unless you follow Ivy League hoops, you probably can’t think of it. This would change all that. And it would be a change for the better.