Here is Bill Self’s predicament. He wants his Kansas men’s basketball team to play faster. Yes, he really does. He yearns to see them run more. He desires more transition buckets and easy dunks, the kind of play that would make any basketball purist nod in approval.
His players, Self says, want this, too. The KU staff sells this style of play during recruiting pitches. If you play defense for us, they’ll say, you can have freedom to run on offense. Listen to Self in any given year, and you’ll likely hear him talk about Kansas playing faster. You hear it from the players. You hear it in interviews. Everybody, Self says, wants to play faster. But then the season will come, and Self will glance at the numbers, and it will say that the Jayhawks are playing about as fast as they always do. Which is to say: Pretty darn fast, but not fast enough.
“They always say they want to play fast,” Self says of his players. “They don’t know what playing fast is until they practice this way.”
Self, of course, is not the only college basketball coach who is talking about playing faster this summer. In fact, you might consider this The Offseason To Discuss Tempo. In the aftermath of one of the slowest seasons in college basketball history — teams averaged a glacial 64.8 possessions per 40 minutes — the powers that be (in this case, the NCAA rules committee) got together to offer some corrective measures. The game was too slow, they concluded. Too unpleasing to the human eye. Too filled with choppy possessions and physical play. It needed more pace.
So earlier this month, the NCAA officially approved reducing the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30 seconds. It was the first reduction since the NCAA shortened the shot clock from 45 to 35 before the 1993-94 season. It’s one of many rules changes for 2015-16.
“We don’t think it’s going to cause a huge bump (in scoring),” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd, who also serves as rules committee chair. “We think it’s a part of the puzzle, just a piece that helps us get the game headed in the right direction.”
If the “right direction” includes more pace, Kansas will have an early chance to adjust to a shorter shot clock. When the Jayhawks take the floor at the World University Games in Gwangju, South Korea, they will play with a 24-second shot clock in accordance with FIBA rules. In addition to the shorter shot clock, FIBA rules mandate that the shot clock resets to 14 seconds on an offensive rebound.
“It’s totally different,” Self says. “But one that I think will make us play faster.”
It’s worth pointing out that the Jayhawks have never played particularly slow under Self. During 12 seasons at Kansas, Self’s teams have, on average, ranked around 90th in the country in adjusted tempo. Last season, the Jayhawks ranked 49th in the country in average possession length (17.1 seconds per offensive possession), which was 1.5 seconds slower than their average possession five seasons ago. Kansas also ranked 53rd overall in adjusted tempo, averaging 67.4 possessions per game. The NCAA average was 64.8, according to KenPom.com.
Self, though, would like to see the tempo ratcheted up. And for the moment, he believes the experience of playing with a 24-second shot clock could change the way the Jayhawks play — and the way he coaches.
“Playing with a short clock, you can’t run a different offense against every defense,” Self says. “You can’t have a ‘slow press’ offense whenever people decide to soft-press you. You got to get it and go. It’s been good for me, to basically re-evaluate how we do things, to make our guys play with more pace.”
To be clear: Self isn’t talking about any large-scale philosophical changes on the offensive end. During practices, Self preaches the need to get the ball to the “second and third side.” It’s his way of saying the ball needs to be reversed multiple times on a single possession, the best way, Self believes, to break down a defense. Self still wants his players thinking in these terms. But if the Jayhawks can get into their offensive sets quicker — if they can foster crisper ball movement and better spacing — it could improve the pace and flow on the offensive end.
Which in turn could help the Jayhawks’ efficiency numbers. Last season, the Jayhawks ranked 36th in offensive efficiency, averaging 1.10 points per possession. It was the Jayhawks’ lowest-ranked offense since the 2005-06 season.
“Our game needs more possessions,” Self says. “There’s a lot of things like that. Hopefully we can convince our guys — we can be patient, and get the ball to the second and third side before you look to score, but you just need to do it quickly.”
From a reps standpoint, the Jayhawks should get plenty over the next three to four weeks. After playing two exhibition games against Canada at the Sprint Center on June 23 and 26, Kansas will be guaranteed eight games at the World University Games. That’s 10 games — and a month of practice — with a 24-second shot clock.
“It’s going to be something that we all have to adjust to, but we’ll do those things in practice,” junior guard Frank Mason said. “We should adjust pretty quick.”
The use of FIBA rules could have other consequences during the next month. Self, for instance, has pondered beginning defensive possessions in a man-to-man defense, then sliding back into a zone when the shot clock hits 10 seconds. The offensive rebound rule could also wreak havoc. Self hopes his team will improve in late-game and short-clock situations. But beyond that, the trip to South Korea promises one thing: A quicker pace.
Inside the Kansas practice facility, Self says, everybody on the floor wants to play faster. For a couple of weeks this summer, they’ll have to.
“It’s a totally different game,” Self said. “… You get across half court, even if you push it up, you’re at 20. Now you have 20 seconds to get a shot.”
Can Kansas play faster?
When Kansas represents the United States at the World University Games in July, the Jayhawks will play with a 24-second shot clock, in accordance with FIBA rules. KU coach Bill Self is hopeful the experience forces his team to play faster. Here is a look at Kansas’ recent tempo trends during the last five years.
Adjusted tempo (possessions per game)
Offensive possession length