CLEMSON – Earlier today on ESPN, Jay Bilas and Jalon Rose were debating why college basketball scoring is at a modern-era low this season.
College teams are averaging 67.6 points per game, according to KenPom.com, which would be the lowest average since 1952, and just the second time in the last six decades that scoring dipped below 68 points per game.
Bilas and Rose named some of the usual suspects in an effort to solve this mystery: the erosion of offensive skills (namely shooting) and the departure of the game’s elite players to the NBA.
But the problem with those arguments is they are hardly new. Coaches have been bemoaning diminishing skills since the 20th century and elite players have been bypassing college, or leaving as freshman or sophomores, since 1995 when South Carolina’s own Kevin Garnett started the modern trend.
Those arguments fall short of explaining the recent historic lows. Scoring has declined in five of the last six years. Something else must have changed.
From the 1970s to the mid 1990s, team scoring remained relatively steady, in the mid to low 70s. But since 2004 scoring has fallen below 70 points per game, declining five out of the last six years.
It can’t just be declining skills or the loss of talented underclassmen – fewer than 1 percent of college basketball players declare early for the NBA Draft. It has to be something else. As I wrote about Saturday, I believe the main party to credit (or blame) is Synergy Sports Technology, a service that provides coaching staffs with nearly any statistic or video imaginable with which to scout. It began proliferating the game last decade, with a boom in subscriptions occurring after the 2008 season.
And since it’s easier to quantify – and thereby scout – offensive performance it explains why Synergy has helped defense and hurt scoring.
But just because science is changing the game and taking away secrets and the element of surprise there remains an art in sifting through this avalanche of digital data: what do you use, what do you ignore?
For instance, Clemson was young this season and lacked elite talents, yet it ranked in the top 20 percent of points per possession allowed. The ranking suggests Clemson has done a better job of teaching defense than other teams. Brownell said he doesn’t want to overwhelm his team with data.
“You still have to develop sound plans,” Brownell said. “It’s great what you know but you have to get your players to know it. They are not watching it all. You are showing them a small snippet. It’s what you are emphasizing in practice; making the right decision on how to play things.”
Said Clemson video coordinator Lucas McKay: “All these stats are great, all the scouting is great. But I think you can get lost in it sometimes. At the end of the day it’s about players able to go out there and execute a game plan.”
The data is better than ever and scoring is lower than ever, but the human element remains in deciding what to use and what to discard, and some staffs are better at this than others.
The game is being influenced by the science of Synergy but an artform remains.
HOW TO GET SCORING BACK
It was fun to see some 20th century basketball (scoring!!!) in the ACC title game in Greensboro on Sunday. But such games are likely to continue to be outliers with Synergy technology being employed by slow-down, control-freak coaches.
But there are ways to get more offense back into the college game, without changing rules.
One is dependent upon technology. Quantifying offensive performance is much easier in most sports, including basketball. It’s easier to measure a shot made or missed than a defender who affects a shot or is in the right place, etc. Professional baseball has made major strides in quantifying defensive performance, and I think this will trickle down to sports like college basketball. Once defenses can be scouted as well as offenses – and weaknesss can be exposed – offense can enjoy the benefits of Synergy-like scouting.
The second is up to college coaches: tempo must increase.
Scoring is down in part because tempo is way down. Much of the Synergy data – the tendency of individual players and teams – is tied to sets, plays and situations in the halfcourt. To negate the defensive advantage in the halfcourt, teams are best served by increasing tempo, playing more full-court pressure, and trying to create more transition opportunities which are much hard to defend and prepare for.
Scoring is at a historic low in part because of technology like Synergy. Scoring is at a historic low in the modern era, but as UNC and Miami showcased on Sunday, it doesn’t have to be.