The Final Four is the deciding weekend of the national championship in college basketball, and while the conclusion is paramount, the event is far more than that. On this fabulous weekend when the game crowns a champion, there is also the largest gathering of the year in fans, media and the game’s luminaries, and, in addition to a coronation, the Final Four is a mass celebration. It is a celebration of the game and all that we love about it. There has never been a bad Final Four, although some are better than others. There are always great stories, fabulous competition, and there is always a worthy champion that will long be remembered. The Final Four is idiot-proof, and thank goodness for that.
This year, the NCAA tournament provided what it always seems to provide: great stories and competition, and a good feeling to all. We had a return to normalcy with fans in the stands, loud crowds, cheerleaders saving the day when a ball was stuck on the backboard, the miracle of Saint Peter’s, and a final weekend of blue bloods to fight it out for the title. We have the last time for Coach K to win a title, the first time for Hubert Davis to win a title, and another chance for Bill Self to win multiple titles, and for Jay Wright to join elite company by winning three or more titles. Every Final Four team has won multiple championships, making this one of the most royal Final Fours of all-time. There is little to complain about.
Every year at the Final Four, the NCAA president, the “leader” of the opaque bureaucracy that claims to be “in charge” of college sports, has a news conference to provide the “state of the game.” In my judgment, it is of very little value to anyone. The media are able to ask probing questions, yet they get artfully dodging answers that provide little in the way of substance. It is, traditionally, a waste of everyone’s time.
So, in the absence of substance from NCAA leadership, let this be one person’s humble judgment on the state of the game. While reasonable minds can differ on certain issues, other issues raised here are facts that should be discussed and acted upon, and with deliberate speed. There is a phrase often uttered that I don’t agree with: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” At the same time, I have never heard anyone say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t properly maintain it” or “If it ain’t broke, don’t strive to improve it.” These “state of the game” thoughts are not to indicate something is broken, but to help ensure that the game is properly maintained and improved to be the best that it can be.
The state of college basketball is strong, but there are significant issues that need attention to keep it strong and make it much stronger and sustainable. Here are some areas to consider:
Seth Greenberg, Jay Bilas and LaPhonso Ellis reflect on Saint Peter’s run to the Elite Eight in this year’s tournament.
Which coaches will pick up college basketball’s baton?
With Mike Krzyzewski leaving the sideline after this Final Four, there is a feeling that a void will be left, and there will be a void. When John Wooden, Bob Knight, Dean Smith, Roy Williams and Jim Calhoun left the game, there was a void, and some of those programs have not yet been able to match the glory days of their tenure. Will Duke remain among the true elites and stay among the highest-rated and most compelling programs? Nobody truly knows. Next to exit the stage will be Jim Boeheim, Jim Larranaga, Leonard Hamilton and Bob McKillop, which raises questions about what the game will look like in the future.
But the coaching profession is deep with talent, and to the extent that Coach K is passing a baton to those remaining in the game, he is passing it to a deep pool of talent, in my judgment. Jay Wright, Tom Izzo, John Calipari, Bill Self, Kelvin Sampson and Tony Bennett are all established stars, and younger coaches with shorter tenures such as Hubert Davis, Tommy Lloyd, Greg Gard, Juwan Howard, Chris Beard, Mark Adams and others are capable of carrying the game forward on an upward trajectory. We greatly miss the long shadows cast by Wooden, Smith, Knight, Williams and Calhoun, and we will miss Coach K terribly, yet what remains is not only good enough — it is great enough.
It’s time to get serious about physical on-court play
In the past couple of years, I have identified what I consider to be very real issues of physical play and uncalled illegal contact not only creeping back into the game, but becoming embedded in the game. Players are better and more skilled than ever, and the game had more experienced players than ever. Yet scoring is down, field goal percentages are down, fouls called are down and turnovers are up. These are difficult issues for the game to address because of the NCAA bureaucracy and the fact that nobody is really in charge. Still, there is responsibility, and something must be done.
Several years ago, the game underwent a “freedom of movement” initiative where no new rules were implemented, but rules would be enforced as written and interpreted. It was successful in the first few years, and there were significant gains in the areas listed above. This year, and perhaps last year, those gains have been given back. For the significant step forward, the game has taken three steps back, and the game has devolved into a far more physical contest where fouling is substituted for defense.
While not dispositive of the issue, this year’s NCAA tournament is instructive. Before the tournament, I believed that tournament games would be called cleaner and closer, but I was incorrect to the point of being naive. The NCAA supervisor of officials has no real authority over the conduct of officiating during the regular season. That is left to the conference supervisors, and while the NCAA supervisor has his bully pulpit, the bureaucracy limits his authority. That needs to change.
What fooled me on the tournament was the ability of the NCAA supervisor to mandate the way games are called, with the disincentive that officials would not advance forward in the tournament if they failed to enforce the rules. Yet what we saw in the NCAA tournament was really no different than what we saw during the regular season: an overtly physical game with clear fouls going uncalled.
North Carolina blows a 25-point lead in the second half but manages to hold on for a 93-86 OT win over Baylor.
This has been pointed out before, but this is not about missing a call here or there. It is about recruiting plays and actions going uncalled. Nothing pointed out here makes college basketball “unwatchable” or “ruins the game.” That is hyperbole that does not advance the argument. However, what is pointed out hurts the game, hurts the players and provides a diminished product on the floor.
The data backs up these assertions. In this year’s Sweet 16, only six teams scored 70 or more points in a game. On average, 66.6 points per game were scored in the Sweet 16, the lowest scoring output since 2015, which coincides with the start of the “freedom of movement” initiative. To find lower scoring outputs, one would have to go back to 2010, 1999 and the 1980s. That is instructive. In this Elite Eight, only two teams scored over 70 points, with four teams at 50 points or fewer. One NBA coach told me privately that the college game looked much like the NBA of the 1990s. Again, not dispositive of the issue, but instructive.
Here is what the game needs to do. Those in charge of officiating and rules need to first admit that the game has a problem. Second, there has to be a will to swiftly address the problem and remedy it, including structural change to allow such issues to be properly addressed. Third, there needs to be accountability for those in charge if such issues are not properly remedied and progress is not made. The game deserves better, and we can do better.
What rules changes must be considered?
There has always been a barrier to change in college basketball, and it goes beyond tradition. It is often stated that “College basketball is unique” and “We don’t want to be like the NBA.” I have never understood that. What makes college basketball unique is that it is played by young adults who are enrolled in school, not that the game has two halves instead of four quarters. The rules of play need to be addressed in a thoughtful way, and the antiquated thinking of “this has always been the way” needs to go away. The college game should strongly consider several rules changes, including:
Four quarters instead of two halves: Men’s college basketball is the only visible form of the game in the world that does not have quarters. It is not a question of remaining unique. Quarters provide more clock plays and allow team fouls to be reset after the first and the third quarters. Moving to quarters will reduce the number of free throws on common fouls, and it will eliminate the one-and-one. A team will reach the bonus after upon the fifth foul of a quarter, and two shots will be awarded upon every common foul thereafter. Some argue that the one-and-one is necessary, but I differ. The argument is that a player must “earn” the second foul shot by making the first. That second shot was earned … by getting fouled. Remember, the foul limited the offensive team’s ability to get two or three points on the possession. This rule change, in my view, is necessary.
Charge/block: The charge call that the game should value is that of a primary defender in legal guarding position maintaining that position. A secondary defender sliding under a driver that has won a path to the basket should not be as celebrated in the game as it is now, in my view. First, it seems illogical to the reduction in physical play to celebrate a collision. Second, the rule as written allows a help defender to get into position before the offensive player leaves the floor. The standard for a help defender taking a charge should be moved back to when the offensive player begins his upward motion, or “the gather.” That would reduce such collisions and bring better results. I am told that most officials agree with this point, although I do not hear such agreement in committee meetings. To me, it is a “must” to change this rule. I believe it will make the game better.
Advance the ball to midcourt late in games: The NBA, FIBA and women’s college basketball all have this rule, and it makes for more excitement and late-game plays. Opponents suggest that valuable real estate is given up with this rule, and we would not have the Christian Laettner and Jalen Suggs moments with such a rule change. That is true and a fair point, but the counter is we would have even more exciting, game-changing plays with the rule change. This change is not a must, but one that should be strongly considered and debated, as reasonable minds can differ on it.
Widen the lane: A few years ago, the rules committee moved the 3-point line back, but did not widen the lane to NBA and FIBA size. That was a mistake, as those two things should have been done together. A wider lane should help in reducing physicality in the post area, although is it not a magic bullet for that goal.
Bench decorum: Coaches are not going to like this one. While interaction with officials should not be discouraged, the behavior of coaches toward officials needs to change. What is allowed by officials on the college level would never be allowed in the NBA. Coaches should coach their teams and leave officials alone. If such negative interaction can influence officials, it needs to stop for obvious reasons (I do not believe it influences officials). If such negative interaction does not influence officials, it needs to stop because it is a bad look and affects public perception. Officials should call technical fouls on all such behavior and should be supported in doing so. There are no sacred cows on the sideline. The officials are the law of the court. Nobody is decrying a quick and emotional reaction to a call. But there is a line, and that line is too often crossed by coaches. We can do better, and the officials should not have to deal with such issues.
Monitor review: While we all want to “get it right,” there are too many monitor reviews and it simply takes too long on too many occasions. Replay should be used for out-of-bounds calls in the last minute of regulation and overtime only. Review of every call under the two-minute mark is unnecessary. And, a monitor review for a potential flagrant 2 foul (which carries with it an ejection) should be allowed at any time during play, even is play has resumed. That just makes good sense.
What to do about the transfer portal
The ease with which players can transfer and be immediately eligible is still new to most and offends the sensibilities of some. While I differ with those who object to player movement and player rights, I respect the difference in opinion. Unpaid students should not be limited in their choice of destination. It strains the mind to believe that a high school player with no college experience should be required to make a binding commitment, yet after having college experience, cannot be trusted to decide whether staying or leaving is right for him. The transfer portal is clunky and has some problems, but those can be remedied by some sensible regulation. Forcing a player to sit out a year should not be one of those regulations.
Several high-profile coaches are complaining about rival coaches recruiting transfers off of their rosters, and I don’t doubt that is happening. However, that phenomenon is more reflective of the ethics of the coaching profession. Who should pay the price for such actions? Why should players be subject to a transfer penalty because some coaches are not behaving ethically? Players are assets of the university — valuable assets. Yet unless they are paid under contract, they should be allowed to move as they wish, with reasonable regulation as to timing of decisions.
The reality of NIL
Amateurism is dead. Players can now be compensated for their name, image and likeness and be paid for promotional activities, appearances and for their talents outside of the field of play — just like anyone else in our society and just like any other non-athlete student. It was a long time coming, and athletes still do not have full economic rights. Yet, while this is still new and so contrary to the way the NCAA has done business over the last century, there are many in the game struggling with this new reality. Now, “collectives” are being formed by seemingly every major conference school, and NIL enticements have moved into the recruiting realm, which was inevitable.
The NCAA is furiously lobbying Congress for a national standard so that it can legally restrict and regulate what players can earn or accept. While it seems ridiculous for a serial antitrust violator to ask Congress for an antitrust exemption, that is what the NCAA is doing. Given in what low esteem the NCAA and president Mark Emmert are held on Capitol Hill, such an exemption seems unlikely. In my view, universities should simply sign players to contracts rather than continue down this road.
Recently, I had a great discussion with a college administrator in which the concept of “rationality” was stated. The argument was put forth that there needs to be rationality with the amount of money any athlete can be paid. I thought about that and, while I am a free-market advocate, it seemed reasonable to consider. After considered thought, I believe the amounts being offered to athletes are completely rational, as the biggest keys to success in college sports are due to athletes. If anything is irrational, it is running a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry on college campuses. Until that is addressed, it is entirely rational to offer competitive compensation to athletes.
We have NIL now, and it is not going away. Yet the games are played, billions of dollars are being generated, and no fans have turned away. In fact, the games seem more popular than ever, and there will not be an empty seat in New Orleans. Compensating athletes is not a problem, it is just business.
The state of the game is strong, but it can be stronger. Let’s hope that the bureaucracy of the NCAA can change so that a strong game can get stronger and better. I believe that it can, if we have the will to make those positive changes, and we stop rationalizing continued inaction.