College basketball teams have been offensively challenged all season, at times struggling to score 50 points. And as one coach says, no one is enjoying the drop-off.
Fast-paced transition attacks have been replaced by grind-it-out fights with scores in the 50s and 60s. Scoring is at its lowest level in 15 years in Division I. Throw out the up-tempo styles of teams like North Carolina or Kentucky, and it’s even uglier.
Coaches and players offer explanations ranging from defenses, coaching styles, more physical play and improved scouting. Whatever it is, it adds up to fewer points.
“The last three years, it seems there’s been a confluence of events that have come together to put the game in a bad spot,” said Jay Bilas, a member of Mike Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team at Duke in 1986 and an ESPN analyst. “We’ve had three years where the quality of play has been low or lower. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t been competitive and it hasn’t been fun to watch, but nobody can tell me the quality of play is as good this year as it was in 2008 or 2009. It’s not.”
Division I teams are averaging 68 points per game this year, down three points from the 1997-98 season, according to STATS LLC. And there have been no shortage of unsightly scores rolling across TV tickers.
Michigan State 58, Ohio State 48.
Syracuse 52, Louisville 51.
Kansas 59, Kansas State 53.
Texas A&M 47, Texas Tech 38.
And those came in a four-day span in February. Things didn’t get much better in the conference tournaments, either.
Duke scored 60 and 59 points in its two Atlantic Coast Conference tournament games. Louisville beat Cincinnati 50-44 in the Big East final, Colorado beat Arizona 53-51 in the Pac-12 championship, while Vermont beat Stony Brook 51-43 in the America East final to prove the struggles weren’t confined to just the power conferences.
And fans shouldn’t get their hopes up that things will turn around dramatically in the NCAA tournament.
Last year’s Final Four should’ve been an omen of what was on the horizon. Connecticut’s defense overpowered Butler in a 53-41 victory that capped a weekend in which the teams averaged 56 points, the worst in the shot-clock era.
The decline has extended into this season and there are plenty of factors.
There’s the ongoing exodus of underclassmen to the NBA, leaving behind younger teams relying on players whose games haven’t reached maturity. The game is more physical, whether it’s defenders clutching and grabbing cutters or the bigger, faster, stronger bodies that keep crashing into each other in the paint.
Coaches can scout opponents easier than ever with no shortage of games available on television or online, even using DVRs to record broadcasts and file them away for an upcoming league game or a team that could pop up in their NCAA tournament bracket.
With those factors working together, it’s no wonder offenses are forced to slow things down and work deeper into the shot clock. And of course some teams run clock by design to shorten games and prevent more talented teams from utilizing their athleticism to wear them down.
As a result, the average number of shots in a Division I game has fallen to its lowest level in 15 seasons, down from 115 in 1997-98 to about 109 this season. And with turnovers also down, teams are getting fewer chances to run out in transition for easy baskets.
“I think most teams would love to get up and down the court — most kids like to run and play,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “… People are just not giving you those easy opportunities because they’re defending and working hard and not allowing you to get your first, second and third options.”
North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller has seen plenty of that in his four years. Most opponents aim to lull the fast-paced Tar Heels into a halfcourt game, and the 7-footer said that pressure builds on players in those slower games to “get the maximum out of every shot you can.”
“It’s a tough game to play,” Zeller said. “I think offensively you can get the game up a little higher and make (opponents) speed up. But I think it’s something where you have to be able to win those games in the 50s as well as the 80s.”
The decline has been especially noticeable in BCS conferences filled with big-name programs. Through Sunday’s conference tournament games, there had been 139 games involving a BCS team in which the winner failed to score 60 points. That total is the highest of the past decade, up from 92 last year and 28 more than the next-highest mark in 2005-06.
No team illustrated that better this season than Southern California.
The Trojans went from around 77 points per game in 2002-03 to about 53 this year, the biggest drop of any BCS program in that span according to STATS LLC.
The Trojans — on their fourth coach during that time — shot 39 percent this season and didn’t score more than 58 points in a game after January. They closed a six-win season with a 43-38 loss to Washington State in the regular-season finale followed by a 40-point showing against UCLA in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
As USC coach Kevin O’Neill said, “Nobody is enjoying this.”
“I have no answer for it,” he said of his team’s shooting woes. “It’s frustrating. Bob Knight said: When you make shots you look pretty and when you miss, you don’t get invited to the prom.”
And of course the Trojans aren’t in the NCAA tournament.
At Louisville, coach Rick Pitino has long been known for leading strong offenses. But this year’s Cardinals scored 56, 57, 51 and 49 points in their final four regular-season games before clinching an automatic NCAA bid with just 50 points in the Big East final.
“Definitely it seems like a lot of teams we’ve been playing … have been trying to slow the pace down,” Cardinals forward Kyle Kuric said. “Work the ball a lot, not take quick shots and kind of play within themselves, try to keep the score real low and just try to prevent us from getting on the break as much as possible.
“We’ve kind of got to get that reversed and try to get teams to speed up and play the style we want to.”
Bilas puts significant emphasis on officiating and limiting overly physical play. One example came late in Kansas’ overtime home win against Missouri, when KU’s Thomas Robinson blocked a layup from Phil Pressey — Robinson got the ball cleanly but knocked Pressey to the floor with his body — on a no-call at the end of regulation.
Bilas said calling fouls on physical play would lead to more free throws and deter defenders from the bumping and holding that impedes offensive movement. It wouldn’t just make it easier to score — it could make the game a better product.
“It just doesn’t serve the game’s interest the way we’re doing it,” Bilas said. “How would the game suffer if Tyler Zeller weren’t held? If you’re a really good big guy — I mean, really good — why would you want to stay in college? So you can have guys hang all over you and you can’t execute a play and they don’t call it? And you can go to the NBA and get to execute in a 1-on-1 environment, they call fouls and you get paid for it.”