The science of Syngery is changing the game but an artform remains … and how can we get scoring back

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.

Robert Stack says the lack of offense in college basketball is terrifying. What’s behind the unsolved mystery? A little Web service I like to call Synergy Sports

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.

Synergy’s servers are changing college basketball, but an art form remains, and perhaps in the future Synergy will help bring back scoring to the game

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.

3 thoughts on “The science of Syngery is changing the game but an artform remains … and how can we get scoring back

  1. There have to be a few changes in the college game to try to boost scoring. Games in the 40′s suck. Plain and simple. Nobody wants to see that, and it’s part of the reason that year-by-year, college basketball is losing fans and importance (football’s rise is a big part, as well). The regular season is virtually meaningless. The analysis that Synergy promotes and improved metrics give defense an advantage, I agree 100%.

    Other issues that should be looked at are the clutch-and-grab defense that’s allowed in the post, the charge/block arc, the handchecking defense allowed on the perimeter (e.g. Duke, Michigan St), and the shot clock. As Travis wrote about in the pace-of-play article, “wasting” 15 sec of each possession with no intent to score is ridiculous. Even the women’s clock is 30 sec!

    College basketball is as much of a niche sport as baseball is. They gotta do something.

    • Lee,

      Great points. I didn’t go into rules changes but perhaps college basketball could borrow the “no hand-check” rules from the NBA to create more offense in the halfcourt. Freeing up guards to create is what is required, I think.

      You’re right that no one wants to see final scores in the 40s and 50s which might be why we saw college attendance on the decline this season. College basketball might indeed in danger of becoming a niche sports (well, we’ll always have March).

  2. Travis,
    Analytics don’t help you play better defense nor help you score more points. Simply put, nobody is teaching players to shoot. There is no accepted form of shooting mechanics. I am amazed at how poorly players shoot. If a player shoots 5-8 from the three-point line, is he a good shooter. Well, what is his season shooting percentage. His accuracy was good for one or two games but he only shoots 34% on the year. Well, he stinks. He has no consistency.
    Synergy does not teach you how to shoot or help a player miss. Proper shooting mechanics help a player to shoot. Who is teaching the proper shooting mechanics? I say nobody. Fouls shooting %, in the NCAA, has not improved in 50 years. There is no defense that makes someone miss foul shots. There is no defense that can stop an open three-point shot. Poor shooting mechanics stop scoring. How much did Synergy pay you to write this article?

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