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By J. Richard Cheeks, PE, JD
HYPOTHESIS: THE DECLINE IN NCAA D1 BASKETBALL SCORING IS DUE TO A LONG TERM TREND OF RISING NUMBER OF TEAMS PLAYING AT THAT LEVEL HAVING THE AFFECT OF WATERING DOWN THE AVAILABLE TALENT POOL.
In recent days, there has been increased chatter among fans and commentators about the decline in scoring that seems to have been discovered during the current basketball season. Yes, scoring is down this year, but this is simply a continuation of a long term trend extending back to the mid 1960s.
The red line near the bottom shows the number of D1 basketball teams between 1965 and 2012. The source of this data is the NCAA records (http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/stats/m_basketball_RB/Reports/All-time%20Statistical%20Trends%20chart.pdf). The blue line at the top is a graph of the average scoring for each of these years, multiplied by 10 to provide improved visual contrast when viewing the number of teams data and scoring data together as presented here. The source is again the NCAA records cited above.
Note the decline from about 1968 though 1986. Through the 1980s, there was considerable discussion about why the game was losing scoring, and after several years of debate, the NCAA made two changes. It added a shot clock and added a 3 point shot. Each change began in 1987, and it appears that these changes did increase scoring over the 1987, 88 and 89 seasons as the coaches and players adapted to the new rules, but the gradual decline in scoring resumed on about the same long term trajectory that existed prior to the rule change. The increase that occurred from 1986 to 1989 was almost 7 points per game. If this increase is deducted from the scoring averages for all years between 1987 and present, the green line results.
It appears that the 3-point shot and shot clock did operate to increase scoring, as the advocates of those rules had promised. However, these changes did not alter the structural issue forcing average scoring to decline over the long term.
Today, the chatter about declining scoring seems to focus on a declining talent level in the college game, and that discussion seems to focus on the impact of the NBA’s one and done rule. However, I think the data suggests another explanation. If the decline is due to a declining talent level, it may not be the NBA’s rule on when a player may enter their draft that is the culprit or cause. However, long term expansion of D1 basketball spreads the available talent pool over an ever increasing base of schools. As the number of schools has increased, the talent pool waters down, and the average talent level per school declines. As the average talent level per school declines, so does the scoring.
In short, the decline of average scoring is due to the expansion of D1 college basketball. If fans of big time college basketball want to see this trend stopped, and even reversed, return the game to no more than 128 major college teams.
Let the debate begin.
Coach Calipari has discussed his idea of 4 mega-conferences with 16 teams each. I believe this is the proper direction that the game needs. As a starting point for this debate, I propose a return to a much smaller, by highly competitive, new basketball realm. I would be ok with Coach Calipari’s 4 mega conferences and only 64 total teams. However I would not want to see any more than a total of 128 teams.
These teams could be grouped geographically into 4 to 8 sixteen team major conferences. Each conference must play a 30 game, double round robin season, with 15 games at the home venue each year, and 15 games on the road. Rather than post-season conference tournaments, each team can schedule up to 4 additional games against teams from any of the other 3 to 7 mega-conferences at any time of the season and at any venue agreeable to the competing schools.
Based on a 128 team model, any team in one of these mega-conferences that traverse its 30 game, double round robin conference season with 15 or more conference wins qualifies for the post season tournament. The post season would includes at least 64 teams from those conferences and if more than 64 teams qualify, there will be single elimination play-in games between tying teams not from the same conference. The seeding of the post-season tournament is based only on the 30 game conference records, and must not permit two teams from the same conference to collide until the quarterfinal round, now called Elite 8.
There are now 347 teams claiming to be D1 teams. Let the other 219 teams organize themselves in any manner that they and their mother ship, the NCAA decides is appropriate for them. I do not really care how that happens, because frankly I am tired of seeing UK play Samford, Mississippi Valley State, and Eastern Michigan in ever increasing numbers.