Keeping Score

Why Is College Basketball Scoring in Decline? One Expert’s Take

Clark Kellogg, who will call the Final Four for CBS, blames technology, and lack of skill development, for college basketball's scoring woes.

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LIU Brooklyn's Jamal Olasewere dunks the ball during the second half of their NCAA Northeast Conference college basketball championship game against Mount St. Mary's.
John Minchillo / AP

LIU Brooklyn's Jamal Olasewere dunks the ball during the second half of their NCAA Northeast Conference college basketball championship game against Mount St. Mary's in New York, March 12, 2013. LIU Brooklyn defeated Mount St. Mary's, 91-70.

College basketball is facing a scoring crisis. Last season, men’s Division 1 teams averaged 68.01 points per game, the lowest total since 1982. They might finish with even fewer points this season. So what’s causing this decline? At CBS’ pre-NCAA tournament media day on Monday, I asked commentator Clark Kellogg, who will once again call the Final Four for the network, his thoughts. Kellogg, an excitable guy to begin with, immediately got fired up. “I think there are a number of factors,” Kellogg says. “The first, in my mind, is the ability to prepare better scouting reports. With the technology, you can watch every team’s sets, break them down individually. And really zero in on what you’re going to do to take away offense.”

“The other thing that to me, that’s part of it, coaches keep their hands on the steering wheel way too much in basketball. And it’s not just in the game, I think it’s overall. The ability to have kids in summer school now that are on scholarship, and the off-season workouts, there’s too much hand-holding under the guise of doing what’s best for the kids. And that transitions into the game.”

In other words, all this coaching isn’t necessarily improving players’ skills. It’s making them tighter. “It’s too much, it’s too much, it’s too much, it’s too much,” Kellogg says. “Too much control. Kids don’t get a chance to grow up. I like the fact that you can accelerate your education. But even in some of those cases, they’re not doing meaningful school work. Kids should have two months off, because of the demands of the regular season, with a program that they can implement on their own if they’re serious about getting better. And they suffer the consequences of not doing it, or the fruit of their labor if they come back ready.”

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“And this goes to another point – it goes back to that everything is organized. There’s very little of just showing up at the park or the gym to play with a bunch of guys – half of them older than you that are going to beat your head in, just because they know how to play. And you’re going to sit for two hours if you lose because you won’t get back in. There’s none of that. Everything is choreographed and organized. So kids don’t learn how to play as well.”

Kellogg brings up a good point. When you’re a kid coming up, playing against stronger adults in unstructured settings can toughen you up. “Come on, man!” Kellogg says. “You’ll get drummed. You’ll get drummed.” That kind of experience could make scoring against college kids, even though they’ve scouted you out, a bit easier. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Kellogg says.  At this point, he’s practically yelling. “You learn how to play!”

So how do you fix the scoring problem? “Hey, it’s a very deep-rooted thing,” Kellogg says. “You’ve got to change from the bottom up. There’s not nearly as many instructional camps now, man. Camps now are just to highlight top players. They’re not instructional! They’re 80 percent play, 20 percent instruction! It used to be 80 percent instruction, 20 percent play!” And a lack of instruction has more of an impact on offense than defense, because defense is mostly about effort and athletic ability. Offense is about skill development.

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“I think it’s all of that, man,” Kellogg says. “It’s a multi-pronged dynamic. And it frustrates me on some levels. I mean, the game is not worse. In some ways it’s not as good. But the athletes are far superior. They’re exposed to more. They’re ready to handle the bright light a little bit better. But there are some elements that we’ve lost.”

If, as Kellogg suggests, today’s players are less skilled, the fact that they’re going against longer, more athletic players makes scoring even tougher. Combine this improved athleticism with technological and statistical advances, and better scouting reports — that’s a recipe for low scores.

“The other thing is, coaches talk about running, but they really don’t want to,” says Kellogg. “Because it’s a lack of control. It’s a lack of control.” Kellogg is smacking my arm, sending the digital recorder I’m holding to the floor. I can’t remember that ever happening in an interview before. Clark needs to relax a bit. And I need a stronger arm. “If you tell a team that we’re going to run on every opportunity, you’ve got to relinquish some control, baby,” Kellogg says. “Because running is going to create some chaos. It’s going to create some mistakes. You need good players now, but you’ve got to teach them shot selection, while giving them freedom. And that’s a much more difficult dynamic than saying ‘run here, go here, we’re going to set this up.’

One more point: giving kids internet rankings while they’re still in high school, and younger, isn’t helping. “The culture of the game now, the AAU, the diminished value of playing to win – playing for rankings, that’s the be-all now,” says Kellogg. “That’s a disservice, that’s a terrible disservice. Because it means nothing. It doesn’t mean anything other than attention. It’s not going to serve you as a player.” Kellogg cites Georgetown’s Otto Porter, who eschewed AAU basketball while growing up in Missouri, and was just named Big East Player of the Year as a sophomore.

I thank Kellogg for his passionate thoughts. “You get me on that box,” he says. “I can keep going…”

What do you think of Kellogg’s arguments? Why do you think scoring is down in college basketball? Is it bad for the game? Feel free to debate in the comments.

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