August 11, 2014

Great Shot Clock Debate Focus of This Week's Rules Meetings

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Not to use too much hyperbole, but what happens this week during three days of NCAA men's rules committee meetings could serve as a landmark moment for the college game. In the Magic 8-Ball of new rules, signs point to yes for the implementation of a shot clock after much chatter about pace of play over the last several years.

If so, a clock, with a time to be determined, would be in place for fall ball in a few weeks and when real games begin in February. The 2014 Duke and Notre Dame squads would have the trivial distinction of playing the last collegiate men's game without possession limits in last year's Division I national championship.

The rules meetings start Tuesday in Indianapolis and are scheduled to end Thursday.

The Committee

There are nine members, including a non-voting secretary-rules editor, on the NCAA men's rules committee. Four are from Division I — with one from an FBS school and three from FCS schools — one from Division II and three from Division III. That's by NCAA design.

Jon Hind, Hamilton athletic director (Chair)
Joe Breschi, North Carolina head coach
Bob Scalise, Harvard athletic director
Mike Hardisky, Mount St. Mary's associate athletic director
Bob Shillinglaw, Delaware head coach
John Jez, LIU Post head coach
Josh MacArthur, Babson College athletic director
Doug Misarti, Kenyon College athletic director
Don Zimmerman, UMBC head coach (Non-voting secretary-rules editor)

Hind's term as chair ends on Sept. 1, as does Breschi's and Zimmerman's terms. Former North Carolina head coach Willie Scroggs, a National Lacrosse Hall of Famer, will succeed Zimmerman as secretary-rules editor, a position that is basically the committee's interpreter and recorder, on Sept. 1.

NCAA men's lacrosse rules change years occur every two seasons and the last was in 2012.

Shot clock

The biggest topic up for debate is the shot clock. Is it time?

Two years ago, the committee introduced a 30-second manual countdown after a stall warning, as determined by the officials' discretion, as part of sweeping changes aimed at speeding up the game. To a point, "timer-on" has served its purpose by virtually eliminating teams' ability to milk away chunks of clock at their leisure. But there has been no visible clock on the field, a point of consternation and confusion for fans watching games at the stadium, on television or online, players and coaches on the field, and officials tasked with judging game flow and employing the 20-second timer, followed by a 10-second hand countdown.

The Intercollegiate Men's Lacrosse Coaches Association (IMLCA) recommended to the rules committee a physical clock be used last season on an experimental basis for schools that already had the capability, but it was not adopted. One Division I coach called it "borderline asinine" that there has been no visible clock and said at the very least, putting one in is the next logical step, even if the 30-second timer-on rule after a stall warning remains as is.

But the important question is: Was the timer-on measure a fine stopgap to an inventible hard shot clock or has it done enough to speed up the game, as intended?

"We're one foot in, one foot out," said Ohio State coach Nick Myers, whose team two years ago played in an experimental scrimmage against North Carolina featuring a shot clock. "You needed to do this to get enough people on board, but I think there's enough frustration where people realize you have to have a visible clock, whether it's a shot clock or visible clock so officials aren't counting down. We'll see where it goes. We're going to be in the shot clock era. It's just how fast do we get there?"

The general consensus among coaches appears to be right about now. On a pair of IMLCA conference calls in May to determine recommendations to the rules committee, not one coach that participated — with representation coming from all divisions — said they would vote against a clock, according to sources.

Ohio State and North Carolina played an experimental scrimmage with a shot clock two years ago ahead of the last NCAA rules change cycle. A shot clock was not implemented then. Could it be on the way in 2014? (Brian Schneider)

"I do think it's coming," Denver coach Bill Tierney, the IMLCA's liason to the rules committee who will sit in on the meetings, said in an interview for a Lacrosse Magazine story in the August issue. "We'll see.

"[But] a lot of the coaches who are calling for it, I think are calling for it for the wrong reasons. It's not going to speed the game up. They have to understand that. But what it is going to do, for the refs, it's going to make for a lot less arbitrary stuff. And for the fans, it will be a better situation. Even though the refs did a better job with it this year than last, it's still too arbitrary, too hard to explain to common people and it makes our game looks silly sometimes."

How long is the question, in more ways than one. Major League Lacrosse uses a 60-second clock after initially trying a 45-second variety and finding the longer time led to better flow, and times ranging up to 90 seconds have been suggested for the college level. The devil is in the details.

Should a shot clock start immediately upon gaining possession, or should there be two counts: one to clear the ball over midfield or in the box, and another counting down possession in the offensive zone? The latter could prevent teams from holding onto the ball early in possessions and allow for a reasonable shot clock reset after a rebound, for example. How about a backcourt rule? Opinions vary.

And what are the side effects? The most obvious, to coaches, is the increased use of zone defenses. MLL has used a shot clock since its inaugural 2001 season, but also implemented a 2-point line to provide the offense an additional threat.

"A shot clock is for the defense. It's not for the offense," said Tierney, who is in favor of an iteration that includes 30 seconds to clear and 60 seconds to take a shot once you do. "You might see the zones take over for a while. On the other hand, I believe teams will get better offensively. They'll see more zones or have to push the ball more. Those are the two situations that create ugly offense, which is what I hope won't come from this but I'm afraid will, early anyway. You only get better at zone offense by practicing against zones. The reason zone defenses are so effective is because nobody practices that much against them. The early offense stuff, you have to be willing to suck it up as a coach and say we're going throw some away. It's a hard thing to do but if the clock gets there..."

... The game will certainly be different, and perhaps head down the path of men's college basketball. After the NCAA expanded its men's basketball tournament in 1985, it added a shot clock the next season and a 3-point line the year after. Would you know it, men's college lacrosse, a year ago, expanded its Division I tournament from 16 to 18 teams.

Tierney said he wasn't sure if coaches and administrators would be in favor of putting a 2-point line in, even if it is "something that is maybe needed to offset the zones. We have to be careful of creating something different than our game."

But it will be up for discussion.

"There's a lot of people that really feel strongly that a 2-point line has to be part of the discussion with the shot clock," Myers said. "It's like how basketball was however many years ago. Can we take that next step and just do it?"

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"I think everyone is into the shot clock idea at the college level. I don't think everyone has fully weighed out yet is how we use the 2-point arc as well as the shot clock," said Bear Davis, current coach of the MLL's Ohio Machine, Archbishop Spalding (Md.) in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, and former coach of Division I Robert Morris.

"People will just pack it in. Look at how many 2-point shooters we have in the MLL. There's just not a lot of guys that are consistently good at shooting 2-point shots. There's a lot less in Division I lacrosse and a lot less in Division II and III. I don't know how that would pan out."

Talk about a 2-point line assumes that a shot clock is inevitable. Although there seems to be a general push in that direction, it's not necessarily unanimous.

"Going to a shot clock is probably going a little further than we need to do it," Army coach Joe Alberici said. "On the surface, it sounds great but there will be secondary ramifications. Looking at the MLL is somewhat of a poor way of putting it. I don't think they have coaches that have the time with their players to schematically exploit the clock. With the shot clock, a 2-point arc comes probably, so teams aren't just jamming it in and running zone. Then all of a sudden, if you talk to any officials, there's not one that will tell you that with a 2-point arc they can do it with three officials. So then you're at four officials.

"A shot clock will actually change the game more than it's needed. The way they are administering it right now is pretty good."

Alberici suggested making tweaks to the current rules, including mandating a visible clock at the very least.

Marquette coach Joe Amplo said he could see both sides of the argument, and mentioned television exposure as one factor for the advanced discussion. Indeed, in the last two years, ESPN has worked to accurately display a timer-on countdown, but has admittedly found it difficult given the different moving parts involved, such as the officials on the field. ("We would be very happy for clocks to be displayed," ESPN lacrosse producer John Kettering said at one point.)

"Timer-on has helped. I think it's brought it to a better place, but as the game develops and as more TV exposure exists and hopefully bigger crowds, people are going to really push for the shot clock," Amplo said. "It brings the game to a different level from a spectator standpoint, and I also think it helps in coaching. I would prefer a permanent shot clock, but I do think that the 30-second timer-on has helped speed the game up."

Dave Huntley, the Hall of Fame midfielder from Johns Hopkins, current Team Canada general manager and former MLL general manager and coach, forewarns of generally lower scores if a shot clock is put in place. He also worries about competitive balance tilting more toward elite college programs. But he also said the current timer-on stall warning situation leaves too much in the hands of the officials and is at times unfair to teams with leads late in a game.

"A shot clock isn't a bad idea, but there's going to be unintended consequences," Huntley said. "I told [Don Zimmerman this], if you like 4-3 games, you're going to love 3-2 games, and a lot of them. It's pretty easy if you want to sort of play defense. Look at MLL playoffs as example. It's a very different game than the regular MLL season. Teams actually are focused on playing defense. The scores are almost always low, historically. If you get to work with your team all week and not concerned about selling tickets, you can really pack it in."

"I do think it's coming," Denver coach Bill Tierney, the IMLCA's liason to the NCAA rules committee who will sit in on the meetings, said of a shot clock. "We'll see." (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

It's a topic that came up recently in international play, notably between games featuring U.S. and Canadian professional and NCAA-experienced field players playing without a shot clock, and a Canada game plan in the world championship final executed to perfection by gaining and maintaining possession in an 8-5 win.

"I probably heard more rumblings about a [clock] at this event more than I've ever heard," Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) president Stan Cockerton said.

In the last publicly available rules survey conducted of NCAA men's coaches in 2012, 55 percent of coaches said they disagreed a shot clock was needed and few liked the idea of a 2-point arc.

Also two years ago, in advance of the last rules change cycle, several experimental games were played with a shot clock. Ohio State and North Carolina used a 20-second countdown to get the ball over the midline and 60 seconds to get a shot on goal.

The committee, chaired by Hind as well in 2012, discussed the shot clock then "in totality," he said, but "settled where we settled." He said the committee then never wanted to get to the point of visible clocks either.

The thing about making rules is that, in an ideal world, everyone would make their own based on their own views, beliefs or preferences. How the eight voting members of the NCAA rules committee decide to address the shot clock discussion will be the biggest takeaway when its proposals are released to the public.

Faceoffs

One school of thought is that the implementation of a shot clock could negate some of the importance of the face off, given teams will have another way to gain possession that doesn't involve scoring or allowing a goal.

That may ease some minds, but judging from past history, there are bound to be some proposed tweaks to faceoff rules in any event. Two years ago, the committee proposed outlawing the motorcycle grip and an experimental rule moving the sticks apart to encourage more of a ground ball situation. But the faceoff lobby responded in turn on the former and safety concerns were raised about the latter and moves never went into effect after the committee reconsidered.

But stiffer pre-whistle violation rules did go into effect, handing out penalties after the third and subsequent such violations per half.

Based on conversations with several coaches this season, one of the topics that needed to be addressed is carrying the ball in the back of the stick after a faceoff win. Some faceoff men have learned to carry the ball all the way to the goal backhanded, and some even scored at the tail end. It's taken the pop out of the pinch-and-pop.

Many coaches say the larger issues at hand remain faceoff men "going early," tilting sticks, leaning and the like – problems that date back even before many current players were even born.

Check out more on the faceoff issue Tuesday on LaxMagazine.com, with a look at the 1979 season, the NCAA year without the faceoff that sprung out of similar arguments of today.

Push/dive

If a shot clock is adopted and theoretically helps defenses, could the dive be on its way back to give offenses another route to score? The NCAA banned the dive shot (without an attacking player being pushed from behind) in 1999, a move popularized in the mid-'90s by the Virginia attack tandem of Michael Watson and Doug Knight. Safety, of the attackers and goalies, is a primary concern for keeping the play banned.

"From a spectator standpoint the dive is great, but it's an unbelievably dangerous play and I wouldn't vote to have that brought in," Amplo said.

The pro and international levels allow for it, which eliminates what is possibly the toughest call in men's lacrosse: did an attacker near the crease dive in it under his own will or was he pushed by a defender? It's a possession-deciding and sometimes momentum-swinging play, equivalent to the charge-block dilemma in basketball.

"It's almost impossible to defend," Myers said. "I don't know how to teach a defenseman to defend an attackman that is dodging straight down goal-line extended and leaning on him. It's almost like you can't do anything defensively because you're going to get called for a push. If you don't push him or drive him, he's going to get to the front of the cage."

"At the end of a shot clock or flag down, you almost tell your best dodging attackman to do it because you have a 50-50 chance of scoring or drawing a penalty or them saying you're in the crease. I don't blame the officials. It's an impossible call right now. It would be nice to make our game a little easier to officiate."

Miscellaneous

Removing the substitution horn and the encouragement of quick restarts two years ago have in general gone off smoothly, but keep an eye on if the larger substitution box remains. Has it helped or curbed transition play? ... Stick-specification tweaks. Two years ago, U- and V-shaped shooting strings went on the chopping block. ... Sportsmanship and behavior initiatives are always important ... And to a lesser degree, an interesting item on uniform colors, particularly jerseys with the same color numbers as the main jersey color. With coaches no longer able to scout in-person aside from double- or triple-header type events in which their teams participated, per NCAA rules, some have found it hard to determine numbers of players while breaking down tape. Press box personnel would also rejoice.


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