Has College Basketball Truly Changed Offensively Over the Last Decade and a Half?

Many are complaining about the slow pace in college basketball, but is it really a problem?

Last week during halftime of the Iowa State-Oklahoma game, ESPN analysts Seth Greenberg and Jay Williams were heavy with their praise of how the offensive pace of the game made it very engaging for college basketball fans. The score at the half was 46-46, and at halftime, Iowa State was 9-14 from three-point land. Iowa State went on to lose on the road to the then 17th-ranked Sooners 94-83, which would by all accounts be considered one of the higher scoring contests of the college basketball season.

These halftime comments got me thinking and searching online for more articles about offensive pace. All season, I've seen all sorts of comments on social media and articles about how players can shoot in college basketball, and how the slow pace is adversely impacting the game.

Further, there seems to be some rhetoric about moving to a 30-second shot clock to speed up the college game. Just yesterday, ESPN ran an article questioning whether plodding teams like potential 1 seed Virginia are viewed as bad for the sport because they detract from the casual fan's enjoyment of the game.

After reading all of these articles and being the nerd that I am, I decided to research to answer the following questions:

1) Have the median possessions per game (offensive pace) declined significantly through the years?
2) Has Offensive Efficiency declined significantly through the years?
3) Has scoring per game declined significantly through the years?
4) What is the correlation between possessions per game and Offensive Efficiency?
5) What is the correlation between possessions per game and scoring?
6) What is the correlation between Offensive Efficiency and scoring?

The Results

Using statistics compiled from Team Rankings for possessions per game (offensive pace), Offensive Efficiency, and points per game (scoring) from 1998 through season-to-date 2015, I was able to examine the trends for the past 18 seasons. This included 306 NCAA Division I teams (any team that was not a Division I school for the entire period was taken out of the study so there would be an apples-to-apples comparison, so my apologies in advance to alums from schools like Seattle and Quinnipiac). The results can be found in the following graphs, which show the median totals by year for the 306 teams that were in the study.

As you can see, there's been a slight change in median pace through the years, as shown by the trendline. Don't let the scale of the graph fool you though -- we're seeing 0.26 fewer possessions per game from the median college basketball team per year. You have to wonder if your viewing experience is really altered from one-quarter of a possession per contest, especially considering there are plenty of teams from each year analyzed that played at a very fast or very slow pace. In fact, the minimum pace by an NCAA basketball team has actually increased by .08 possessions per game each year since 1998.

While the game is slowing down a bit, median Offensive Efficiency (measured as points per possession) has actually remained very flat. The slope of the 1998-2015 trendline is .00, meaning that, on a per year basis, Offensive Efficiency has not changed. So while pace has decreased by just a tiny amount, teams are still scoring around the same points per possession from an efficiency standpoint.

When there are fewer possessions, and teams are scoring at a similar rate on these possessions, scoring will be down. And that's exactly what we see in the graph above, with median team scoring per game decreasing at 0.17 points per year over the last 18 seasons.

The takeaway here is that scoring is really not down by a significant margin and, in fact, 2014 saw the median team score 70.05 points per game, which was one of the highest for the period. Even if things were to decrease in this fashion for another 10 years, we'd see roughly 1.7 fewer points per game from now through the year 2025. Is that significant enough to alter your love for the game?

From here, I tested the correlation between both pace and Offensive Efficiency, pace and actual points per game, and Offensive Efficiency and actual points per game. A correlation of 1 indicates an absolute, positive correlation, while -1 would mean, for example, that the least efficient teams seem to score the most. And 0 would indicate no real correlation at all.

Correlated All 
Pace vs. Efficiency-0.02
Pace vs. Act PPG0.63
Efficiency vs. Act PPG0.74

We'd conclude from the correlation analysis that there is no relationship between offensive pace (possessions per game) and Offensive Efficiency (-0.02). This means that whether you play fast or slow, it probably has no bearing on your team's Offensive Efficiency. In relation to scoring on a per game basis, offensive efficiency had a stronger positive correlation to scoring (0.74) than offensive pace (0.63). This makes sense -- while playing faster may give a team more opportunities to score, playing more efficiently leads to better scoring. Obviously, when you have a fast pace and great efficiency, your scoring would go bananas.


We've seen that Offensive Efficiency has remained flat over time. So next time you're watching a game at the bar with a friend and they complain that "nobody can shoot", feel free to cite this article, correct them and note that Offensive Efficiency and its main components haven't really changed over the past 15 years.

As we saw above, scoring is down, but on a per year basis, it's been pretty insignificant. We also saw that, while pace is down, it really may not change the way you view the game of college basketball given how small the change is year over year.

So overall, the product you are seeing is a bit slower (but not much slower), and equally efficient as it was 15 or so years ago. While the pace is slower, the impact on scoring over the past 15 years on a per game basis is minimal. Based on the research, while the media perception may be that college basketball has gotten "boring" and "slow", to call for changes to speed up the game based on the insignificant declines in median points and possessions per game over the past decade and a half would seem to be an overreaction.