Is College Basketball Seeing the Same Increased Offensive Production as the NBA?
Due to the success of teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, it is common knowledge that the NBA has seen a boost in scoring over the past few years, but has the trend also reached college basketball?
In January of 2013, per a USA Today article, scoring in college basketball was on pace to average its lowest points per game mark since 1952. It did not reach the dire comparison of 63.3 points per game, but scoring still got down to 67.5 points per game by season's end. Similarly, the NBA was coming off a season in 2011-12 in which teams averaged only 96.3 points per game.
Fast forward to today, and NBA teams average a touch more than 106 points per game, while having 6 more possessions per game (compared to the 2011-12 campaign) and launching threes at a record setting clip. While this has been noticeable and it has been driven by popular players and teams, the NBA offensive surge has gotten tons of publicity, but there is not much talk of a scoring spike in the college game.
Using data from the past eight seasons, let's see if college basketball has been keeping pace with the NBA's increase in offense.
Is Offense Improving in College Basketball?
The short answer is yes. College basketball has seen an a steady increase in scoring over the past few seasons when using points per game as the barometer.
Taking an average of the five seasons between 2010 and 2015, teams scored 68.6 points per game. Over the past three seasons, the average team scores 73.7 points per game -- with this season being the highest at 74.7, equating to 12 more total points scored per game than during that aforementioned time period.
Higher scoring does not always mean better offense. However, in this case, it does. The average shooting percentage in a game has gone up from 43.6% to 45.0% in the last few years. When you take into consideration that teams are attempting more threes, it is especially impressive. The average team attempts 37.5% of their shots from beyond the arc, 4.5 percentage points better than the five-year stretch from 2010 to 2015. While this percentage stayed pretty steady during that time period, ranging from 33.0% to 34.2%, it has made sharp jumps recently -- 36.4% last season and 37.5% this year.
This increase in three-point attempts has not come at the expense of quality shooting. Three pointers are going in at a 35.3% clip as opposed to 34.4% in the years prior. While it does not look like a big difference when looking at the percentages, the actual numbers stand out. On average, teams combined to hit 12.6 threes on 36.5 tries per game, but now they are converting 15.6 threes on 44.1 attempts.
Overall scoring has increased, but is the main cause strictly better shooting, or is there more to it?
Shot Clock and Pace
The obvious place to go for an explanation for improvement is the implementation of a 30-second shot clock prior to the 2015-16 season. Before, teams were given a 35-second shot clock, which would reset fully if there was a foul on the floor or if the ball went out of bounds and the offense retained possession. This season, a new rule was added to reset the shot clock to only 20 seconds to increase the total number of possessions in hopes to garner more offense.
This idea worked immediately with the 2015-16 scoring average jumping from 67.6 to 73.0. The addition of more possessions for each team resulted in more points per game because teams saw an extra four possessions per 40 minutes, which is measured by a stat called Pace. Teams used to see an average of 66 possessions per game prior to the change, and that number would fluctuate less than one possession from season to season. Since the switch to a 30-second clock, that clip has grown quickly, and now teams are seeing an average of 71.0 possessions per game this year.
The increased Pace results in an immediate boost in shots attempted per game, jumping up to 115.9 from 109.9 in the five years prior, and that number has since increased to 117.7 this season.
Quantity, Quality, or Both?
Changing to a 30-second shot clock has certainly paid off in regards to total scoring, but is this a case of teams just having more opportunities to score, or are teams actually becoming more efficient at scoring?
Using Kenpom's efficiency numbers, the answer is clear.
Per Kenpom, 22 of the top-30 most efficient offenses since 2002 are from the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons. When adding this season into the fold, the number increases to 23, and six teams from this year -- Villanova, Duke, Saint Mary's (CA), Purdue, TCU, and Arizona State join the list, knocking off a few teams from the previous seasons. Currently, this year's Villanova and Duke offenses rank as the two most efficient offenses since 2002.
How Does this Compare to the NBA?
The numbers are actually strikingly similar when comparing the offensive growth in both college basketball and the NBA. While the NBA did not have the benefit of forcing teams to have more possessions per game like college ball did, the overall gain looks about the same in each sport.
Over the past five seasons, the NBA has seen an additional 16.5 total points per game, compared to 14.5 in college. When adjusted on a per-minute basis, it comes out to be basically identical. Similarly, field goals attempted per game is up about eight shots in both sports, Pace is up nearly five possessions per game, and offensive rating, which is points per regulation minutes -- 40 in college and 48 in the pros -- is up 3.5 per game.
The one glaring difference is the sudden emphasis on three-point shooting in the NBA. In 2010-11, NBA teams averaged 18 three-point attempts per game. This number has now grown to nearly 29, roughly a 38% spike. The split is much smaller in college basketball as teams used to take 18 threes per game and now take 22, an 18% jump. This increased number of threes in the NBA is even more noticeable when we look at three-point attempt rate -- the percentage of total attempts that are threes -- which has gone from 22.2% to 33.6% in the pros while only increasing from 32.9% to 37.5% in college.
While the NBA has been recognized for their faster-paced, higher-scoring games, the change in college basketball has been lesser discussed. When the USA Today published that article five years ago, it was talking about a totally different game than we see now. In a season in which teams like Oklahoma and Duke are regularly scoring in the high 80s and 90s, teams like Virginia and Cincinnati, who hold opponents to 51.6 and 57.3 points, respectively, and slow down the pace of games to a grinding halt, are looked at as outliers in the wrong direction.
To put things in perspective, there are 54 Division-I teams averaging 80-plus points per game this season, with Duke leading the way at 91.7. Just five years ago, there were only three teams that eclipsed the 80-point mark, and the highest-scoring team that year, Northwestern State, averaged 81 points per game, which would rank 44th in the country this year.