Possession after possession passed without the scoreboard moving.
Shots clanged off the rim. Fouls halted the action. Defenses snatched control with steals and deflections. On this February night, Louisville and Virginia were smothering each other, and no one could find the net.
In the 7 ½ minutes before halftime, Virginia managed only two baskets. Louisville, zero. The halftime score: 24-13.
As the minutes ticked down, DeAndre Mathieu turned to his teammates as they watched together on a night off.
“What the heck?” the former Gophers guard remembers saying.
The Virginia victory, 52-47 over the Cardinals that night, was one of a slew of games last season in which neither team broke 60. These grinders pulled down the national scoring average for the 13th time in 15 seasons and renewed fears that college basketball has a problem, a concern raised by no less of an authority than the president of the United States.
This summer, the NCAA responded by implementing another round of rule changes, headlined by a shorter shot clock and other tweaks aimed at minimizing stoppages and improving the flow of the game. It’s the next step, officials say, in addressing a scoring decline that many blame for a simultaneous drop in key measures of fan interest.
“I have great concerns,” Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president of men’s basketball championships, told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “The trends are long-term and unhealthy.”
But not everyone, particularly players, coaches and others close to the sport, feel the same way. Mathieu and his teammates watched the Louisville-Virginia game, not with exasperation over the absence of offense, but with awe for the active defense played by both squads — whooping as Justin Anderson dunked and the teams traded three steals and four blocks in the same slow-scoring span.
“They were good teams, you would enjoy watching them, the way they defended, it just depends on what kind of basketball fan you are,” Mathieu said. “If you really love the game, you’re going to watch it regardless. If you’re just watching for scoring you should just go watch the NBA.”
Perhaps that’s the problem. Although NCAA tournament viewership is as strong as ever — the ratings last March were the highest in 25 years — viewership during the regular season often barely registers in the ratings.
According to Sporting News research, nearly 60 percent of regular-season games earn a rating of 0.0 or 0.1. Of 979 regular-season games last year analyzed by Sports Media Watch, only 25 had a rating of 1.5 or higher. For comparison, NBA games in 2014-15 had an average rating of 1.8.
Home attendance in college basketball has also declined for seven straight seasons, according to the Sports Business Journal, down 9.6 percent in 2013-14 from 2006-07.
“College basketball is facing a crisis,” Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis wrote in a March column on the sport’s offensive decline. “It’s time for an extreme makeover.”
Scroll through tweets from last season to find that sentiment being echoed.
“College basketball makes me want to fall asleep,” one viewer tweeted.
“Boring. Slow. Ugly.”
Even President Obama got in on the griping in March, telling ESPN — while filling out his annual NCAA tournament bracket — that he is an advocate of shortening the shot clock and other changes.
“The fact of the matter is I like how basketball is going in the NBA because it’s fluid,” he said. “I’d like to see college basketball get back to that. It’s a fast game, let’s get [the shot clock] down to 30 seconds at a minimum.”
Among basketball insiders and critics, there is no consensus for why scoring — down 7 percent in the past 28 years — has dropped so steadily. Teams averaged just under 68 points each last season. In NCAA tournament play, scoring went up just enough to keep 2014-15 from being the lowest-scoring season since 1952.
Some argue the drop is due to more talented college players, and that the greater talent is generating better defense. Others argue it’s due to less talent in the game, as players routinely leave early in the one-and-done era. And some critics say the evolution of officiating has allowed for an overly physical game, restricting offensive freedom.
Brad Stevens, current coach of the Boston Celtics and former Butler coach, has a different theory: advancements in scouting.
Stevens remembers driving to schools all over the Midwest to pick up VHS tapes of NCAA tournament opponents in his first year as an assistant at Butler. Other times, the coaching staff would wait for tapes to arrive via FedEx and then painfully go through each one to make edits for the team to watch via an archaic three-VCR machine process.
“One mistake and you had to do the whole thing over,” he said.
It was a far cry from modern scouting, in which opponent clips are just a few clicks away. Those days and hours represent time a defense has to prepare, and the volume of material allows for a wider understanding of a team’s offense and how to shut it down.
“Now, everything is so accessible and efficient,” Stevens said. “My last year at Butler, we drew Bucknell [in the NCAA tournament] and I watched multiple Bucknell games online immediately after the brackets were released. And we had multiple clips created for our team later that night because all of our splicing software is so advanced.”
Shaving the shot clock
Hypothetically, a shorter shot clock combats sluggishness — generating more possessions and therefore more scoring. But like most of college basketball’s changes in recent years, it’s a guess. The NCAA tested a 30-second clock in last spring’s NIT tournament and analyst Ken Pomeroy found slight increases in possessions, scoring and offensive efficiency. But the sample size remains small.
Offensively, some teams will have to set up their plays faster, which could benefit defenses by forcing bad decisions and rushed shots. Some teams are practicing with even shorter clocks so that players get used to thinking fast. Maryland’s Mark Turgeon tightened his team’s practice clock to 24 seconds while Penn State’s Patrick Chambers has taken it all the way down to 20 and occasionally 10 seconds.
“You’re going to need a guy who is going to need to make that shot within the last five seconds,” Chambers said. “And I think that’s what we’ll see, whether it’s your post player or a guard getting a go-to move to be successful at a short clock.”
Gophers coach Richard Pitino, meanwhile, shrugs off the change, calling it a slight adjustment — especially compared to the 24-second clock used by both FIBA and the NBA that some sought.
“I don’t want to sound like I don’t like it, but I don’t think it’s going to affect a whole lot,” Pitino said.
Others have stronger words in that regard.
“So some genius came up with five seconds off the shot clock to get one more shot,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “I tell you, I don’t know where they graduated from, but it’s a heck of an idea. So, whatever it is: Just play good.”
The NCAA is making other efforts at speeding up the game as well — allowing teams one fewer timeout, eliminating double breaks that were often called around the media timeout, banning live ball timeouts called by coaches and shortening other stoppages in play — changes that many coaches and players support.
Gophers sophomore guard Nate Mason said he would often think “Let’s go” when timeouts became excessive last year.
“So many timeouts, so many media timeouts,” he said. “It kind of stops the momentum.”
The NCAA also re-emphasized contact fouls, put into place the past two years. The aim is to reduce physicality and let playmakers make plays.
Will all these changes break the current? Will they return fans to their seats and deliver a more exciting game?
The 2015-16 season, which begins Friday, holds all the answers.
One Big Ten coach said if the NCAA wants more offense, the new rules and approach make sense.
“You’ve got to either tighten it up with the officials or make it a bigger court,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “And I don’t think they’re going to make the court any bigger.”