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What if Nobody Scores?

In the 1982 ACC Championship Game between UNC and UVA, Dean Smith shifts to his "four corners" attack with 13 minutes to go and leading 40-39. The teams score 7 and 6 points, respectively, the rest of the game (see Charlotte Observer summary). In reaction to this game and the strategy trend, the NCAA adopts the 45-second shot clock after 1985.

Is the NCAA headed down this path again? In 1987 (first year of shot clock and 3-point line), 3 games in the tourney finished with a combined score of 120 or less. The 1988 edition had 4 such games. In 2007, there were 11 and 7 so far this year. The IU-UCLA score at the half last year was 20-13 -- not much different from the UNC-UVA last 13 minutes of four corners in 1982.

Physical defensive play rather than offensive tactics now accounts for the low scoring. The development of physical play can be attributed to savvy strategy itself. If a team fouls almost continuously, they place the referees in a dilemma much like overwhelmed police during a riot. Calling all or many of the fouls ejects a lot of players, creating a broo-ha-ha as it did at Clemson in a game when Rick Barnes coached game and a Duke game this season. Or, officials can selectively call fouls, keeping the total below a "normal" maximum (25-30). However, this selectivity not only allows more fouls to go unpunished but it encourages more strategizing and fouling, especially for teams that can spread their fouls among 9-10 players.

Louisville (as a second half strategy) and Georgetown seemed to be two of the pioneers in the 1980s. Then, Kentucky, Arkansas, Duke and others followed suit. As with most successful innovations, lots of teams pursue the strategy leading to a huge overall increase in physicality. In watching games from the 1970s (for example, the 1974 ACC final between Maryland and NC State replayed on ESPN Classic now and then), the difference in physicality is apparent. By those judicial standards, there are at least 4 to 5 fouls committed on each possession now. Beyond lowering scoring, the result is more arbitrary officiating, as somehow the glut of fouls has to be allocated among 20-30 called fouls.

The stalling tactics could be addressed with a black and white change like the shot clock. Reducing physical play is more problematic. For one, there is a tradeoff of the short run and long run. In the short run, permitting physical play can help to equalize unequal opponents. Michael Jordan is not as superior to John Starks if both are in bear hugs. This equalization may lead to closer games and drama. However, the short run gains may be offset by diminished fan interest because of "ugly" games. This short/long tradeoff may explain why even profit-maximizing leagues like the NBA and NHL have tried to reverse the hyper-physical trends of the 1990s but have had trouble sticking by their commitments come playoff time.

The other difficulty is the pressure on referee crews. Coaches and players test whether the officials are genuinely committed to a new regime and try to create or exploit agency problems between the league and officials. The "zero dissent" rule with which the NBA experimented last year is an example where coaches/players broke the league down. A few officials or crews cannot act unilaterally. The league must back the shift consistently and over a substantial time frame. The multi-team, cartel setup of sports leagues, and especially a very large and less cohesive joint venture like the NCAA with not only team but conferences, makes setting up and sticking with a major new agenda for referees much more difficult. Minor "points of emphasis" such as traveling calls may be accepted by coaches/player, but major shifts will be tested.