By AARON BEARD, Associated Press
College basketball teams have been offensively challenged all season, at times struggling to score 50 points. And as one coach says, no one is enjoying the drop-off.
Fast-paced transition attacks have been replaced by grind-it-out fights with scores in the 50s and 60s. Scoring is at its lowest level in 15 years in Division I. Throw out the up-tempo styles of teams like North Carolina or Kentucky, and it's even uglier.
Coaches and players offer explanations ranging from defenses, coaching styles, more physical play and improved scouting. Whatever it is, it adds up to fewer points.
"The last three years, it seems there's been a confluence of events that have come together to put the game in a bad spot," said Jay Bilas, a member of Mike Krzyzewski's first Final Four team at Duke in 1986 and an ESPN analyst. "We've had three years where the quality of play has been low or lower. It doesn't mean it hasn't been competitive and it hasn't been fun to watch, but nobody can tell me the quality of play is as good this year as it was in 2008 or 2009. It's not."
Division I teams are averaging 68 points per game this year, down three points from the 1997-98 season, according to STATS LLC. And there have been no shortage of unsightly scores rolling across TV tickers.
Michigan State 58, Ohio State 48.
Syracuse 52, Louisville 51.
Kansas 59, Kansas State 53.
Texas A&M 47, Texas Tech 38.
And those came in a four-day span in February. Things didn't get much better in the conference tournaments, either.
Duke scored 60 and 59 points in its two Atlantic Coast Conference tournament games. Louisville beat Cincinnati 50-44 in the Big East final, Colorado beat Arizona 53-51 in the Pac-12 championship, while Vermont beat Stony Brook 51-43 in the America East final to prove the struggles weren't confined to just the power conferences.
And fans shouldn't get their hopes up that things will turn around dramatically in the NCAA tournament.
Last year's Final Four should've been an omen of what was on the horizon. Connecticut's defense overpowered Butler in a 53-41 victory that capped a weekend in which the teams averaged 56 points, the worst in the shot-clock era.
The decline has extended into this season and there are plenty of factors.
There's the ongoing exodus of underclassmen to the NBA, leaving behind younger teams relying on players whose games haven't reached maturity. The game is more physical, whether it's defenders clutching and grabbing cutters or the bigger, faster, stronger bodies that keep crashing into each other in the paint.
Coaches can scout opponents easier than ever with no shortage of games available on television or online, even using DVRs to record broadcasts and file them away for an upcoming league game or a team that could pop up in their NCAA tournament bracket.
With those factors working together, it's no wonder offenses are forced to slow things down and work deeper into the shot clock. And of course some teams run clock by design to shorten games and prevent more talented teams from utilizing their athleticism to wear them down.
As a result, the average number of shots in a Division I game has fallen to its lowest level in 15 seasons, down from 115 in 1997-98 to about 109 this season. And with turnovers also down, teams are getting fewer chances to run out in transition for easy baskets.
"I think most teams would love to get up and down the court — most kids like to run and play," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "... People are just not giving you those easy opportunities because they're defending and working hard and not allowing you to get your first, second and third options."
North Carolina's Tyler Zeller has seen plenty of that in his four years. Most opponents aim to lull the fast-paced Tar Heels into a halfcourt game, and the 7-footer said that pressure builds on players in those slower games to "get the maximum out of every shot you can."
"It's a tough game to play," Zeller said. "I think offensively you can get the game up a little higher and make (opponents) speed up. But I think it's something where you have to be able to win those games in the 50s as well as the 80s."
The decline has been especially noticeable in BCS conferences filled with big-name programs. Through Sunday's conference tournament games, there had been 139 games involving a BCS team in which the winner failed to score 60 points. That total is the highest of the past decade, up from 92 last year and 28 more than the next-highest mark in 2005-06.