On a cold night on Tobacco Road, North Carolina and Duke went back and forth in an overtime thriller. It was gripping, edge-of-your seat stuff. Tense down to the final second.
In short, it looked nothing like the Blue Devils' game against Florida State nine days earlier, when the teams missed five 3-pointers, two free throws and committed five turnovers all before the first media timeout. The Seminoles led at that point, 2-0.
Continue Reading Below
"Never seen a media timeout with a score quite like this," tweeted ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, an outspoken critic of the current state of college hoops. "Maybe in baseball."
Bilas is not alone in his concern for the current state of college hoops. Scoring is at a near-record low this season. Fouls are soaring. Attendance has dropped precipitously in many places, and television ratings are struggling to reach last year's levels.
"When you think about it, it's a spectator sport," said Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes, the chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee. "So how folks view it — I guess, watchability — would be a big piece of it. Are they entertained?"
The fact that the upcoming NCAA Tournament, long-considered recession proof, has struggled to build buzz is perhaps the most damning evidence of the dire state of the game.
"I do have some healthy concerns," said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's vice president for men's college basketball. "If the game continues to go in the direction it has been the last several years, with scoring being down and physical play being up, it could really hurt it."
That's a sobering assessment from one of the game's most important stakeholders.
Attendance in men's Division I basketball has fallen seven straight seasons, from an average of 5,327 in 2006-07 to 4,817 last year. The Southeastern Conference even asked its TV partners for flexibility in scheduling to help drive fans to the arena.
Not that life has been easy on broadcasters, either. ESPN and CBS, two networks with a long college basketball tradition, have both weathered a decline in ratings this season. As of last week, ESPN was averaging just under 1.5 million viewers on its main network for men's basketball games, down about 6 percent from the same period last year.
The NCAA tried to intervene last year, instituting a series of rules reforms designed to boost scoring and free up offenses to do what they do best. They have failed to stick. Now, some schools have resorted to outlandish gimmicks to sell seats, and TV executives have been force to expand pregame shows to help drive interest.
"There are a lot of things competing for eyeballs," said Nick Dawson, the senior director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, whose job is to help televise more than 1,300 games.
"We do so many games, you see all kinds," Dawson said. "There are some played at a high level, fantastic entertainment value, great flow. We've seen a bunch. But you also get a bunch that don't have that flow and that don't live up to those expectations."
Just consider some of those games:
— Georgia Tech was held to 28 points by Virginia in late January, one of three times that the Cavaliers have kept an opponent below 30 points. In one of those games, Virginia didn't do a whole lot better, grinding its way to a 45-26 victory over Rutgers.
— Arizona and Utah, two teams with national title aspirations, combined for 46 fouls just a couple of weeks ago. Wildcats star Stanley Johnson went 3 for 19 from the field.
— Think that was a lot of fouls? St. Francis and LIU-Brooklyn conspired to commit 66 fouls and shoot 97 free throws last month, accounting for nearly half of the points scored.
— In a game against West Virginia, Kansas went 0 for 15 from beyond the arc — and won.
"I think scoring is way down, I do. And I think a lot of that is bad offense," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. "It is easier to coach defense than offense, and a lot of times easier to stop people than it is to exploit people. I think a lot of coaches feel that way."
Self is among the faction that believes college basketball is still a robust product, albeit one that could benefit from a few tweaks. In interviews conducted by The Associated Press with more than a dozen coaches, players and administrators, a few ideas continually came up, dealing either with the layout of the court of the mechanics of the game.
On the court, several officials suggested widening the lane, which would curtail some of the physical play in the post while allowing more freedom of movement. They also suggested extending the 3-point line to the NBA arc, which would revive the once-crucial mid-range jumper.
In terms of game play, the NCAA is already experimenting with shortening the shot clock to speed up offense (see: this season's NIT). Some officials, including Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, also want to reduce the number of available timeouts, forcing teams to play through adversity.
"It's a difficult task to get rule changes through coaching groups because people who are influential in those coaching groups like rules the way they are," said Bowlsby, a longtime athletic director and former chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee.
"Somehow," Bowlsby said, "we need to think about the good of the game."
Perhaps there is no better time to ponder its future, either, as conference tournaments heat up and Selection Sunday draws near. By next week, millions of fans will be filling out brackets and tuning into the madness of March, many for the first time all season.
Will they like what they see? Will they even recognize it?
"With social media, Facebook, Twitter, you can dissect it backward and forward, and you can find something wrong with it if you want," TCU coach Trent Johnson said. "But I think the Final Four and the NCAA tournament is still a great event, as exciting as there is."
ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Co.; CBS is part of CBS Corp.