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The college basketball season is underway. It began last Friday. Many sports fans, though, probably won’t start paying attention until March.
BL: You have written, “Nothing in sports is more exciting than the end of the college-basketball season. And nothing in sports is less exciting than the start of it.” Why is that?
BC: Some of that has to do with the NCAA Tournament being maybe the greatest spectacle in sports and certainly the best three-week tournament that we have. But the beginning of the season coincides with the part of the season when college football is getting really good. It coincides with the NFL heating up. There are just so many other things going on.
What happens now seems to have very little effect on what might happen in a single-elimination tournament in four months.Ben Cohen, Wall Street Journal
BC: Well, I think that you're speaking poorly of miniature terrariums, first of all, and, second of all, the stakes of the college basketball game are so low at this time. What happens now seems to have very little effect on what might happen in a single-elimination tournament in four months.
BL: You have discovered that in the national championship game between 1994 and 2009, teams playing in those games averaged 75.2 points. And over the last six years, the average is down to 61.2 points — that's 14-point drop. You don’t seem to think that’s a random development, right?
BC: No, and that's something that my co-author on this story Andrew Beaton found, but it coincides with the game getting slower and scoring dropping to its lowest levels since anyone can really remember, and that's why college basketball has done something about it this year: they cut the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds, which is, you know, still a little bit slower than the NBA's shot clock of 24 seconds, but it is something. The quality of college basketball is never going to be what it is in the NBA, but it really looks sort of exaggeratingly bad when you watch an NBA game and a college basketball game back-to-back because of the timing of it.
BL: Well is that part of the goal — to make the college game look more like the NBA by making the shot clock in the college games closer to the NBA's clock?
BC: No, and in fact you could argue that part of what makes college basketball so much fun to watch is that it's not the NBA, and that there are a variety of styles that can win. So, you can win with the Princeton offense, you can win by milking the clock, you can win with motion, you can win with going up and down; there are so many different styles of play that can be successful. College basketball is never going to be the NBA — it isn't even clear if that's the goal — but if it can be a little bit better to watch, if we don't have to slog through some of these games this time of year, I think that the people in charge think that would be a good thing for the game.
BL: The season is very young. Have we seen enough basketball played with this new 30-second shot clock to know whether any of those things are happening? Is there less slogging involved these days?
BC: I think it's unclear right now. I think that 30 seconds helps, but whether or not it's a huge change to the game, I don't think we'll know for a long time.
BL: Are you optimistic about the future of regular season college basketball or, long term, is this just a sport that's just going to have to be satisfied with being very popular at the end of March and the beginning of April?
BC: I think it's always going to be popular in March and April. I think that there are some things that they could do to spice up this time of year. Maybe they can move up conference play, maybe they can compress the sport into a one-semester sport. I don't know that that's going to happen anytime in the next decade, and, in fact, I think it's logistically impossible, but I think that the people in charge of the sport are taking these things really seriously because they want to continue to grow the game, and they don't want to see it stagnate the way that it has in recent years.
BL: Maybe the NCAA should just embrace fantasy betting on college sports, and the whole thing would explode.
BC: Yeah, that's the one thing that they need right now. They're going to bring in some daily fantasy controversy and juice up the game. I think that would make everyone pretty happy. It might make the game more popular though.
This segment aired on November 21, 2015.
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