Who Took the Baskets Out of College Basketball?

Shooting and scoring numbers for the sport are at a historic low. What gives?

blocked basket 2 ncaa notre dame 615.jpg
REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth andThe Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) attempt to issue mid-season report cards on NCAA men's basketball.


Gentlemen,

Conference titles are still up for grabs. March Madness is more than a month away. There is plenty of regular-season college basketball yet to be played. And yet, I can't help but think we've already witnessed the Game of the Year, the contest that best captures the state of campus hoops in 2012-2013.

Indiana-Michigan?

Florida-Arizona?

Kansas-anyone-but-TCU?*

Nope. Sorry. None of the above. The game of the year took place in late January, between Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan. Actually, forget Eastern Michigan. Focus on Northern Illinois. In the game's entire first, the Huskies scored four points. As in: as many points as Larry Johnson once scored on a single memorable play for the New York Knicks. In 20 minutes. Northern Illinois shot 3.2 percent from the floor—setting an NCAA record for futility—and registered a single field goal, tying another NCAA record. How bad was it? So bad that the Huskies quintupled their offensive output in the second half, and still finished the game with 25 total points on 8-of-61 shooting, including 1-of-33 from beyond the three-point line. (Protip: if you're already 1-of-32, it might be a good idea to stop shooting three-pointers).

Now, I'd like to say this game was an anomaly. A statistical outlier. An imperfect basketball storm. And it was. But only by degree. Fact is, the basket part of college basketball is in sorry shape this season, with men's Division I shooting and scoring numbers at historically low levels. As of Feb. 1, teams were averaging 67.7 points per game, the lowest figure since 1981-82, when neither the shot clock nor the three-pointer were part of the campus game. Field-goal accuracy was at 43.3 percent, the lowest mark since 1964-65. And three-point shooting was at 33.9 percent, the lowest mark since the arc was introduced in 1986-87.

Who let the air out of college basketball's ball?

As of Feb. 1, teams were averaging 67.7 points per game, the lowest figure since 1981-82, when neither the shot clock nor the three-pointer were part of the campus game.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins blames bigger, more physical defenders. Xavier's Chris Mack blames better video scouting. Others fault poor shooting fundamentals—a dubious proposition, given that free throw shooting is roughly the same as it always has been—or that corrupter of tall young men-cum-longtime hobgoblin of lazy sportswriters everywhere, AAU summer basketball.

In a fabulous SI.com piece, writer Luke Winn makes a compelling case that over-controlling, slow-it-down coaches are the real culprits, sacrificing "pace for slightly higher efficiency," afraid to run because running means risking "losing games and losing players." Just the other night, No. 5 Kansas—a blue-blood school that used to giddyup under former coach Roy Wiliams—scored 13 first-half points in a loss to TCU, prompting current coach Bill Self to say, "It was the worst team that Kansas ever put on the floor, since Dr. Naismith was there. I think he had some bad teams when he lost to Topeka YMCA and things like that in the first couple years. But for the first half, there hasn't been a team play worse than that offensively."

Hampton, we're supposed to be filling out our midseason college basketball report cards. My grade is incomplete. Just like too many of the Jayhawks' shots. So I'll ask you two questions: What are your mid-term grades, and more importantly, what the heck has happened to the game we both love?

–Patrick

* Hampton Stevens only

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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