The Evolution of the Speed of College Basketball

How has has the speed of college basketball changed since the game’s origin, and what do we do now?

(Almost) from the very beginning of basketball, “speed of play” has been a paradoxical point.  Dr. James Naismith not only invented the game, but he played a part in development of the game beyond the original thirteen rules.  In 1923, he was appointed by the NCAA as an honorary lifetime member of their basketball rules committee.

Basketball strategy involves the style of play adopted by each team in a contest.  Many teams adjust their play to take advantage of opponent’s apparent weaknesses.  Other teams play one set style, thus making their opponent adjust to them.  These very simple points have had a striking effect on the development of the game.

In 1901, a style of play called “five-man defense” was introduced.  Basically, it’s when five tightly-packed together defenders guard their goal, and they don’t leave the pack to try to get the ball away from the offensive team.  Strategies soon developed to counter this defense. One of these tactics, called the “stalling game”, introduced simply standing at the opposite end of the court if you were in the lead and had the ball. By 1932, these two strategies were thought to be “damaging the popularity” of the game, because seriously, who wants to watch two teams standing at opposite ends of the court for long stretches of time?

Dr. Naismith argued the defensive team was the fault of these strategies, so he argued for three rules to force defensive changes.  The first would give one point to the offensive team if the defensive team did not come to guard the player with the ball within 30 seconds.  The second would give four points for a shot made outside all the defenders.  And the third would only allow three defenders to be in the defensive end of the court while the ball was in the other half.  The coaches at the time, however, adopted the “10-second rule,” forcing the offensive team to cross the half-court line within 10 seconds of passing it inbounds.  This rule, of course, is still in effect.

Naismith’s objection to the “10 second rule” ultimately proved correct.  Forcing the offense into the forecourt did not eliminate the “stall game” strategy.  Fifty years later, Dean Smith perfected the “four corners” stall, which ultimately led to the 35 second shot clock in the college game.

Is the current “speed of play”optimal, or are additional rule changes needed for the game to be more enjoyable for spectators? What about the changes that could be made in the overall competitiveness? Many college coaches believe that the shot clock should be reduced to 25 or 30 seconds, but is that in the best interest of the game? 

What is the current complaint about today’s “speed of play?”  When teams are moving quickly against each other, the excitement in a gym can reach fever pitch.  When defenses retreat quickly and offenses come up the court slowly and methodically, fans can spend more than half a possession with their eyes closed and not miss a thing. What are ways an offense could be encouraged to attack more quickly, or a defense to guard more closely?  Let’s go back to Naismith’s suggestions and see if some version of those might have merit today.

Teams standing apart at opposite ends of the court aren’t part of our current problem, so let’s slash the first idea.  His idea of a four point shot is still intriguing.  Perhaps a combination of time and distance might encourage a quicker attack.  What if a shot made from behind the three-point arc was worth four points for the first 15 seconds of the shot clock?  Teams would develop quick-strike offenses to capitalize on something like that. Offensive-minded coaches, such as Fred Hoiberg of Iowa State, would be very happy with this change.

What about the third idea? It suggests forcing two defenders to be in the backcourt until the ball crosses half court. At first this seems like it would force full-court pressure defense, like West Virginia likes to play, and that may well be the case. However, it could also have a huge impact for the offense. Imagine every team essentially being in a broken-press situation every time they bring the ball up the court! Rather than facing a group of five set defenders, they would face three set defenders, and two more opponents trailing up-court.  The balance-shift in favor of the offensive team would encourage a quick strike before defenders could recover.

Finally, what about the shot clock? Would reducing its length achieve the desired result of increasing the percentage of competitive game time? There seem to be plenty of ill-advised shots taken early in a possession by many teams, and not every player needs additional incentive to jack up a shot the second they touch the ball. A shorter shot clock would likely diminish team play and ball movement, hallmarks of the college game, and encourage one-on-one play that is more inherent in the professional league. Would this be more fun to watch than what we have today? Reducing the amount of time to take a shot may increase the speed of play, but it won’t automatically improve the quality and enjoyment of the game.

Historical information from Basket Ball, Its Origin and Development by James Naismith.

Names Jaysmith

Staff writer for Rock Chalk Blog.