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Fixing College Basketball - How to Improve A Pretty Good Sport

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College basketball is a great game when it gets out of its own way. Right now, however, there are simply too many stoppages over 40 minutes, and it's causing fans to lose interest.

Too many free throws hurt the game.
Too many free throws hurt the game.
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

I watched Duke-North Carolina with a friend at a bar the other night.  We were both getting tired, but still enjoying the game.  That said, as the Tar Heels and Blue Devils finished regulation tied, he looked at me and said "I'm getting out of here, I don't have another 30 minutes to watch how this ends."

If people are leaving bars during overtime games between two top-20 rivals, your sport has a problem.

That said, too many of the fixes proposed lately seem to focus on the wrong problems.  The biggest suggestion I've seen of late is reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds.  While this would certainly increase the number of possessions per game, and thus likely increase scoring, it's not going to solve the problem above.  In fact, by increasing possessions without increasing the number of fouls required to get into the bonus, it's likely going to make games take even longer, as more possessions will result in more fouls, which will result in more free throws.

So, what would actually work to speed up the game and keep fans interested?  Here are my three suggestions on rule changes I'd like to see implemented next year, that would have minimal impact on the game itself, but would help move it along for fans and teams alike:

1. Media timeouts and team timeouts converge. This works to solve a few problems.  First, there are simply too many timeouts in modern college basketball.  Each team carries five timeouts, and there are four stoppages each half for media timeouts (at 16, 12, 8, and 4 minutes).  That's 19 stoppages in 40 minutes of basketball.  It's unsurprising the game never really gets into a flow, particularly in the second half, where coaches normally use the majority of their available timeouts.

So how do we solve this?  We go to a modified NBA system.  In the NBA, teams are required to call four of their six timeouts at specific parts of the game, which means they basically serve as media timeouts.  Put the same requirement on college teams - each squad gets five timeouts, but loses one each if they're not used within a certain period of time.  These could basically mirror the current TV timeout structure.  Since most telecasts don't take commercial breaks during non-media timeouts, this also wouldn't hurt revenue.

The functional point here is that we're simply reducing the number of timeouts in the game, as well as those that a coach can call.  That's the point.  There's really no reason for college teams to have as many timeouts as they do, and reining in that number and coaches ability to call them - particularly late in the game - is a win for everyone.

2. Instant replay reviews can only last 90 seconds. Obviously, the implementation of instant replay has served a number of interests, particularly fairness - it's disheartening to see a team lose a game because of a call that was obviously wrong.

But that's as far as it should go.  If a team loses a game late because of a call that may have been wrong, but that we're not going to know is wrong without microscopes and a five-minute review, then I think as a sport we need to live with that result.  It's not perfect, and if there were a better way to do it, I'd be all for it.  But at their essence, sports are meant to entertain.  There's nothing entertaining about three referees huddled around a replay monitor.

Over time, the best solution would be for a centralized replay center, as MLB and the NHL use.  I'm not sure there's a cost efficient way to do that, but taking replay out of the hands of the officials on the court and putting it into a centralized location has sped up other sports, and would certainly serve the college game well.

3. Change the bonus. There are a number of ways we could change the bonus to speed the game along.  Two possible ideas include (1) extending the number of fouls required to get into the bonus; and (2) granting the bonus at the option of the fouling team.

The first solution simply accepts the reality that there are more fouls called today than there were years ago, primarily because there are more possessions in games than there were prior to the shot clock.  Since foul shots slow down basketball games more than any other play on the court, reducing the number of foul shots serves these interests.  Of course, the best way to change this is to reduce fouling, but there's a chicken-and-egg problem there - you can't make players play the game differently.  A looser whistle encourages more contact and ruins the game by making it Murderball.  Tighter whistles just lead to more free throws.  Moving the bonus to 9 and 12 fouls, instead of the current 7 and 10, should speed up the game, although it will harm teams that make their living getting to the foul line.

Another, less invasive change, would see us allow teams to put shooters on the line before they hit the bonus.  One tedious end-of-game situation involves a team with only four team fouls working frantically to run up their foul count so they can put the other team at the line in an attempt to get the ball back.  You can't change that incentive - teams that are losing without the ball need to get possession, and they're going to risk points in order to get it.  That said, there's no reason we can't allow defensive teams the option to concede a one-and-one after a foul with under two minutes to go, instead of making them commit numerous fouls.

These three changes should serve both of my primary fan interests - not interfering with the underlying structure of the game, while still decreasing the time it takes to finish a basketball game.  What do you think of these three ideas, and what other ideas might work to speed along the sport, making it more appealing to fans?