Tracking the trends: How much has scoring improved this season?
Is college basketball a better product to watch this year on the whole? The numbers say offense has gotten better, and it's not just because of more free throws.
College basketball is seeing a rise in scoring. This is fact. Given that we're only one month into this season, and trends could snake, let's examine the how and why. Is the uptick in points kneejerk or natural?
The human element at play will probably lead to a continued adjustment that will bring more consistency as we head toward season's end. As more referees work more games and we get to conference play, all involved will inherently become ever more familiar with the points of emphasis for the zebras this season. That means coaches and players will adapt, just like the officials. There is a practical element to all of this, and as this first month of hoops has been very interesting to watch play out, so have the day-by-day mini-theses from pundits on the play and whistles before our eyes.
So let's look at the empirical information: what nearly 1,700 games through 31 days has given us on offense.
I'm doing this by relying on the ever-steadfast KPI Sports. Kevin Pauga happens to be a stat wonk -- who is also a Director of Basketball Operations for Michigan State. (Related: Tom Izzo has his own thoughts and concerns on the grander effects from the new rules for refs.) Pauga's site has been keen on keeping track of what teams are doing in the macro this season. Come conference play, we'll circle back around to the trends with offense and see where they fall. The best thing about KPI is it factors in only D-I vs. D-I games, giving the purest point of analysis.
Bottom line: Right now, college basketball is averaging 72.7 points per game. That's a 5.2 points-per-game rise from the five-year average from the most recent seasons and a 7.8-percent jump (or 5.25 points) from where college basketball was at this exact point in the season a year ago. Overall, 72.7 is the highest average since 1995-1996, according to the NCAA's official statistics.
Winning teams are scoring an average of 80.7 points. Whoa, right! Remarkable, but obviously a huge asterisk attached to that number, seeing how November is littered with power-conference teams playing against much lesser competition. The average score for winning teams will almost definitely drop well below 80 by January.
Some believe the rise in points can be mostly attributed to a heavy increase in foul shots. But that's not really true. According to KPI, "In 2012-13, 52.3 percent of points came from made 2-point field goals, 27.4 percent from made 3-point field goals and 20.3 percent from made free throws."
Contrast that to this season: 51.7 percent off 2s, 26.2 off 3s and 22.1 off free throws. There is a rise in foul shots, but it isn't outrageous -- and the bump in free throws doesn't directly correlate to the increase in total points per game. Simply put: foul shot are a part, but just one factor, in the expansion of total points scored this season.
"The net increase is plus +2.32 points from made 2s, +0.54 points from made 3s and +2.37 points from made free throws," according to Pauga, and teams are scoring 2.9 percent more points per possession, the ultimate metric for offensive efficiency.
Free throw attempts per game sit at 23.2 (highest since 1993-94), with 19.0 fouls per game called -- a number that's fallen from nearly 21/game earlier in the season. Overall, foul shots are up by 3.47 per game, according to KPI, and fouls per game are at their highest mark in 20 seasons.
But we've got more speed, too. Tempo has gone up! Possession-wise, teams are playing at 68.8 per game, more than three possessions more on average than where we were at this point last season. Even if offense is getting an increase because of free throws, the game is undeniably moving faster and drifting -- slowly -- back to what it was 10, 15, 20 years ago. Teams are shooting more field goals (57.2 to 55) and making more shots (44 percent to 43.3) than at this point in 2012. According to KPI, more shots overall are being taken at any point since the 2001-02 season.
Assists are up slightly (0.1 per game). Turnovers are down slightly (0.2 per game). The effects are somewhat granule -- but again, we're just one month into the season. Big-picture, these are positive signs for people seeking more offense and less molasses.
And if you're wondering which conferences are putting up the most points per game, KPI also deduced that. Here's the top 10:
1. Pac-12 (80.3)
2. WCC (80.2)
3. Big 12 (79.3)
4. Big Ten (77.8)
5. AAC (77.5)
6. SEC (77.2)
7. MWC (76.6)
8. Horizon (76.5)
9. Big East (76.0)
10. ACC (75.7)
I'm most interested to see what happens with another 30 days gone on the calendar. See you in January.
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