Don't Kill The Mellinger

In which we totally fix college basketball

College basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who was honored at the Jay Williams Rising Stars Gala on May 14, 2013, has almost certainly ticked off too many within the NCAA to become college basketball commissioner.
College basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who was honored at the Jay Williams Rising Stars Gala on May 14, 2013, has almost certainly ticked off too many within the NCAA to become college basketball commissioner. The Associated Press

College basketball is in a bad place. This is not a controversial statement. Scoring and pace are tracking toward historical lows. TV ratings are down. The problems are an open conversation among many of us who love the sport. Relative to what it could and should be, there is no American sport underachieving like college basketball.

I wrote some words about this, and appreciate the conversation about specific rules changes, but one of the main points of the column is that so much of what ails the sport can be traced to its lack of leadership.

How does something get fixed when nobody’s in charge to fix it?

The NBA and most notably NFL have addressed similar problems with strong leadership in the commissioner’s office, but when it comes to college basketball, who is there to push for change?

College basketball tried to implement the so-called “freedom of movement” changes last year, but that mostly fizzled out by conference play because nobody had the stomach or guidance for it. A strong leader could keep everyone on task, so to speak.

One thing I didn’t get to in the column: The best college basketball commissioner would have a strong relationship with the NBA. There is so much the college game can learn from the NBA, not just in how to inject offense and pace, but in how to measure, quantify and improve the way the game is officiated and played. This would help the college game on so many levels.

For what it’s worth, Jay Bilas would make for a great commish, but he’s almost certainly ticked off too many within the NCAA for that to happen. Speaking of Bilas, he gave me way more stuff than I could use for the column. Here are a few lines I wish I could’ve used:

“College basketball is a bad product. It is just flat-out bad, relative to what it should be.”

“There’s nobody in charge, so we’ve just sat there and watched it.”

“It’s the physicality on cuts, on drives, where the offense has the advantage and the defense impedes illegally and it’s not called. We’re not doing anything about it. Not one thing. It’s embarrassing.”

“I’m not blaming individual officials. I’m blaming officiating. We have a multibillion dollar business here and we hire our officials like they’re parking lot attendants. They need to be salaried employees with benefits. That way they can be mandated what to do. That way they can look at the coaches and say, ‘Sorry, we have to do this.’ They shouldn’t be working six games a week. They should be making good money, working three games a week.”

“We’re taking away the (advantage of) the most talented and skilled players. Anybody can chuck cutters.”

The next best candidate, in my opinion, would be Stu Jackson. He has experience in both the college and the NBA, credibility on both levels, and he’s a smart and thoughtful man with basketball’s best interests at heart. Jim Haney would also be good. Same with Dan Gavitt.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are the changes that a strong commissioner could push for to make college basketball what it should be:

Draft eligibility. I didn’t get into this in the column, because honestly, that’s its own column and something I’ve written about before. I believe there’s a way the NBA and NCAA could work together to provide incentives for players to stay in school. As it stands right now, it is in both entities’ best interests for players to generally stay in school longer — college gets its stars longer, the NBA gets better and more marketable talent to draft — so it’s up to them to make it in the players’ best interests. I might write about this again sometime, but it’s fairly straightforward: financial incentives for experience, graduation progress, and draft potential.

Trim Division I. There are 350 programs that have a say in how the game is played right now, from Kentucky and Duke and Kansas to Chicago State and Stetson and Mississippi Valley State. Common sense says this is ridiculous. Revenue and interest are created at the top, but what’s good for those programs — faster games, more emphasis on athleticism and skill — isn’t good for the ones at the bottom. They live in very different worlds, so why not acknowledge this?

Shorten the shot clock. This one gets the most attention, because it’s easy to quantify and easy to see. There’s really no reason for the men to play with a 35 second clock and the women 30. Men’s college basketball has the longest shot clock in the world, which is just silly. Make it 30, like the women, but thinking that this alone will begin to fix the problems with college basketball is like washing your car when the engine is knocking.

Change timeout rules. Make them fewer, first of all, because you don’t need ten timeouts between two teams. No consecutive timeouts, and I’d take a long look at eliminating live ball timeouts, like the international rules. At the very least, calling timeout in the backcourt shouldn’t reset the 10-second rule, and you shouldn’t be able to call timeout under duress of a trap or falling out of bounds — what would football look like if a quarterback could call timeout just before being sacked?

Change the charge-block rule. It’s the hardest call referees make, so you should be able to simplify it in a way that opens the floor for offense and drives to the basket — the flashes of athleticism and skill that help make basketball so great. Make the charge-block circle bigger, and make it harder for defenders to slide underneath an attacking player who’s already committed to the rim.

Widen the lane. This frees up space for drives to the basket.

Go to quarters, like FIBA. Ten-minute quarters instead of 20-minute halves would allow the fouls to reset at each quarter, which would make for fewer free throws on common fouls, which would further emphasize floor play over free throws.

Actually implement rules that would increase freedom of movement. You shouldn’t be able to hip check cutters, and the rules emphasizing defense played with feet rather than hands should be called. College basketball had the right idea last year, but a lack of leadership killed progress.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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