Is it time for a 24-second shot clock in men’s college basketball?
Ask Jamie Dixon about the idea of a 24-second shot clock in men’s Division I basketball, and he doesn’t mince words.
“I think it’s coming,” the TCU head coach told ESPN. “I’ve been saying that for years.”
Dixon has firsthand experience with the shorter clock. He coached Team USA to a gold medal at the 2021 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Latvia.
With a roster featuring the likes of Mike Miles Jr., Ryan Kalkbrenner, Chet Holmgren and Jaden Ivey, the Americans edged Victor Wembanyama and France 83-81 in the final. (“I tried to recruit Victor,” Dixon joked.)
Did the college stars accustomed to a 30-second clock have a difficult time transitioning to the international and NBA standard of 24? Dixon chuckled.
“You don’t get any guys looking to run clock,” he said. “It’s the right audience [for 24 seconds], they think they just made the league. You’ve helped them reach their dream.”
FIBA shortened its shot clock from 30 seconds to 24 in 2000. Since that time, Team USA has posted a 67-5 U19 record and won four of the past five gold medals.
Could it be time for D-I to synchronize with the rest of the world and go to 24?
The past, the NBA and the world
Whenever the idea of bringing the 24-second clock to college basketball has been raised, it has been pointed out, correctly, that the next level features the best players in the world. Of course the 24-second clock works fine in the NBA, this thinking runs. Just look at how talented those players are.
Over the past two decades, however, the ground has shifted under this particular response. In 2023, it’s no longer just LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo who thrive with the shorter clock. So do teenagers in Serbia, Canada, Senegal, Argentina, Australia and throughout the world — except in the United States.
Basketball is, and can be, very good when played with a 30-second clock. The question is whether 30 seconds is optimal.
“We practice with 24 seconds [at TCU] in the summer and in the fall,” Dixon said. “You just adjust in little ways. Rather than walk it up, you’re bringing it up quicker, taking out the weave thing or whatever.”
Dixon likes the urgency created by the shorter clock. “You have to get into your sets quicker,” he said. “Be on the attack constantly. We don’t want to be shooting in the last six seconds of the clock.”
Styles, defenses and upsets
One of the most common criticisms of the 24-second clock is that it allegedly leads to a dull uniformity in playing styles. In this vein of thinking, everything in a 24-second world is quick-hitters and isolations because there’s no time for reversing the ball and probing the defense.
Another concern is college teams will play more zone and employ more pressing defenses. Finally, the conventional wisdom holds that stronger teams will prevail more often as more possessions are added to a contest. The larger the sample size of basketball, the smaller the chance of a shocking upset.
These concerns are perhaps both legitimate and familiar. Many if not all of them were raised in 2015 when reducing the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds was under discussion.
Today, there appears to be a tolerable diversity of playing styles and a reasonable balance between differing defenses. Moreover, the first No. 15 seed ever to reach the Elite Eight (Saint Peter’s) did so with a 30-second clock.
Shaheen Holloway still numb after Saint Peter’s historic win
Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway describes his feeling leading his team to become the first No. 15 seed to ever reach the Elite Eight.
What about teams that prefer a slower pace?
KenPom tracks average possession length (APL) on both offense and defense for every team. In recent seasons, D-I’s longest APLs on offense have varied from 21.0 to 21.5 seconds. Running your offense at a speed just 2.5 to 3 seconds under a potential new time limit certainly sounds like a tight squeeze.
We may be doing the number 21 a disservice, however. APL measures an entire offensive possession. The metric isn’t bounded by a 30-second ceiling. An offensive rebound or a non-shooting foul by the defense can extend an individual possession length past 30 seconds.
Another measure of how fast a team chooses to play is elapsed time on a possession’s first shot attempt. When Villanova won a 50-44 slugfest over Houston in the 2022 Elite Eight, for example, the Wildcats went 18.3 seconds into the shot clock, on average, before launching their first attempt.
Villanova was characteristically deliberate in that 58-possession regional final, and 18 seconds or so may furnish a serviceable thumbnail for how slow you can currently go. In their next game, a 58-possession 81-65 loss in the Final Four to Kansas, the Wildcats averaged a first shot attempt after 17.6 seconds.
A team that expends an average of 18 seconds before attempting the first shot of a possession would face an adjustment with a 24-second clock. Finding out exactly what that adjustment would entail could be worth some experimentation.
What we think we already know about 24 seconds
Reducing the shot clock from 30 to 24 seconds isn’t necessarily the same thing as shortening it from 35 to 30. One way of addressing the uncertainty might be for the NCAA to give the shorter clock a trial run in an upcoming National Invitation Tournament.
Assuming the NCAA takes such an experimental step, what might we learn? If the college game were to adopt the shorter clock, we can project with a fair degree of confidence that the following would occur:
Scoring will increase. Over/unders will have to chart a corresponding uptick. When the clock was adjusted in 2015, scoring per team increased by about five points per contest. More recently, scoring appears to have settled in at a level about three points higher than the 2014-15 average.
Tempo will accelerate. Last month, Washington State and Stanford played a 53-possession game. Under a 24-second clock it would be more difficult to play just 53 possessions in 40 minutes.
There will be fewer games where both teams score 50 points or less. From 2010-11 through 2014-15, there were 258 such games in the sports-reference.com database. In the seven full seasons since played with the 30-second clock, there are just 99 such games, a per-season decrease of 73%. In this sense, at least, it can be said of shot clocks that they work.
Our ESPN colleague Fran Fraschilla has been calling for a 24-second clock for the college game as far back as 2010. If a shorter clock would nudge the most extreme and low-scoring contests in a slightly more fast-paced direction, it could be worth testing Fran’s idea at the NIT sometime soon.
Dixon is ready to give the idea a try. “It would be good,” he said. “It’s good for the game.”