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Keith Stegmaier: The Shot Clock

The call for a shot clock in Men’s NCAA lacrosse has been going on for at least a decade. Every season there is a game or two that makes fans’ blood boil for a shot clock. The typical reasoning is that the “run & gun” style of play is dead and that the “fastest game on two feet” is becoming a boring game to watch.

In a July 2000 meeting, the NCAA tentatively approved adding a shot clock. Just seven months later in February 2001, the NCAA reversed on its decision. Since then every couple of years there have been “rumors” that “soon” the NCAA would add a shot clock, to no avail. Will the rumors start again this summer?

If the game has gotten so boring and unbearable to watch, how does one explain the boom in participation? During the biggest call for a shot clock (2001-present), High School participation has grown from 101,000 kids in 2001 to 227,000 in 2009. Considering it took 21 years to go from about 16,000 participants (1980) to 101,000 in 2001, how has a more boring game caused such a boom in participation? Also consider the first professional field lacrosse league was formed in 2001. While the pro league doesn’t attract huge crowds (thus the creation of this league can’t be attributed as a major factor to the increase of NFHS participation), it has shown increases in attendance year after year. The pro league would have folded if there was not an increase in interest. I would argue that in today’s sports psyche of big play, flash, one on one, lacrosse is a perfect fit. Enough speed, but also a lot of mono a mono matchups.

First, I will admit, there looks like a downtrend in scoring when you compare decades of lacrosse. Stats provided to me by the NCAA only include modern factory barely legal stick dimensions (2003-present). These stats show no significant changes as the average goals scored wavers between 9.0 and 9.9 with the average and median at 9.35. Ultra deep pockets, the movement to mesh from traditional, and tighter pinched factory sticks all were culminating in the late 90’s early 00’s. In order to see what has happened we need a bigger sample of data.

A good sample team to use is Syracuse since there are little variations and external issues that affect stats. Syracuse always gets good recruits, has always played up tempo and has very little coaching changes.

Between 1983 and 1999 Syracuse averaged 16.14 Goals/game, 47.5 Shots/game, and got 67% on goal.

Between 2000 and 2009, they averaged 13.18 Goals/game, 42.45 Shots/game, and got 61% on goal.

As a whole, yes, there is less scoring, but it is not by much. Why has scoring dropped between the 80s/90s and 00s?

With more games being televised and covered via all media and reaching more homes today than they did 10 years ago, perhaps some of the misconception simply falls on our own perceptions. It is easy to forget slow scoring games from 1983 because they were few and far between. If it was due to stalling, no one saw it except the few hundred at the game. All we have to go on is faded memories and a box score. However this year, even though low scoring games are still few (when you consider actually how many games are played) they are fresh in everyone’s minds. Add to that the fact we can watch games live, on the web, get recounts and analysis from dozens of media outlets as well as other fans, and a “stall” game gets engrained in our minds.

With all of the ways for people to voice their opinions through blogs, twitter, facebook, etc. (myself included), the few squeaky people calling for a shot clock are convincing more casual observers to agree. Why does a shot clock garner such support? A shot clock is simple to understand, and provides an equally simple, yet faulty logic: If a shot clock forces more shots, then there will be less standing around and a faster pace game. One may not necessarily lead to another. For example, look at last year’s National Championship game. Duke won by a score of 6-5. Some used that game as proof that stalling was ruining the game. If Notre Dame’s shooters weren’t nervous (only 10 shots were on goal out of 31 taken), and Scott Rodgers wasn’t a wall (15 saves although it seemed like more), the game in itself would have had more goals. It doesn’t mean there wouldn’t have been as much stalling.

If a shot clock is implemented, it causes more problems than it is worth.

First, schools would need to pay for new shot clocks (reportedly at $2,000-$3000 based on NCAA press release in 2001), as well as pay for someone to man them. This is a weak argument, because even the smallest schools should be able to afford a shot clock (should be cheaper now), and let the person handling the game clock deal with the shot clock.

Back in 2000 when they theoretically approved a shot clock the mechanics were:

60 seconds after each shot, change of possession with the exception of man-up opportunities.

A shot was defined as, “a ball propelled toward the goal by an offensive player in an attempt to score, either by being thrown from a crosse, kicked or otherwise physically directed”.

Substitution horns, and stall warnings would also thus be eliminated.

If a shot does not need to be on goal, I do not understand how this rule will help? It will actually be easier to stall. As the clock winds down, an offense simply needs to move an attackman to the backline and tell their middies to play keep-away (since there would be no keep it in the box call), and crank a shot a few feet wide on purpose. They get the ball back and can stall another minute.

If a shot needs to be on net, offenses will need to completely revamp. Even teams that do not stall the game aim their shots for the corners, and many of these shots don’t even make it on net. Now they will be forcing bad/weak shots on net. Also, a team that wants to stall or just can’t get off the shot it wants, they simply lob the ball into the corner as the shot clock winds down and everyone gets back on D. If you’ve seen the MLL, you’ve seen this done. This does not speed up the pace of the game, as it will actually lower the number of fast breaks with teams fading back on D.

I am not a fan of mercy rules, but currently some coaches will slow their game down if beating a mismatched opponent. Are we going to force them to just keep shooting to destroy a team?

If there is a desire or need to speed up the game (I am not totally convinced we need to interfere), there are alternates to a shot clock, and I am not alone. Everyone has an opinion. Jack Emmer was recently gave his opinion in an interview with the Baltimore Sun. I agree with his initial thought that a shot clock is not needed. He pointed out the same problem I have seen in the MLL. To me, that is just as boring of a play. Jack Emmer then suggested a Charlie Sheen crazy like idea of no face offs after a goal. He pointed out in basketball they used to have a jump ball after every basket and have obviously done away with that rule. If I had to choose between a shot clock or no face-off I’d go with a shot clock. A face-off is a pivotal part of the game. To me the face-off is the heart of lacrosse itself. You have two players battling for the ball, one on one and then if the ball does pop out, it is a scrum between 6 players maximum in their own little world until the referee calls possession. It is fast, frantic, and physical. To me face-offs and wing play (when there is no procedural call) is just as exciting to watch as a behind the back goal.

Keeping with the MLL, aside from the 2point line in the MLL, the biggest difference in play is the shot clock. We can all agree that the MLL scores a lot more goals than the NCAA. The main factor is not the shot clock, but is the level of talent on the squads.

For comparison look at the NBA and NCAA basketball. When you factor in the difference in game time, and the difference in 3 point lines, the NCAA is still scoring about 20% less points than the NBA per game. Simply put this can be attributed to the skill level of the players. The professional leagues get to cherry pick the top talent, and one would naturally expect a pro league to score more.

If we carry the estimate 20% rule to the lacrosse field, we can see how close NCAA scoring is to the MLL even without a shot clock. I would argue that even WITH a shot clock, you will not see the scores/action of an NCAA game increase dramatically.

So now what if a shot clock is not the golden answer? What other options are there?
Another suggestion by those with either short memories (or not old enough to remember), is to limit the number of long sticks on the field to 3. There was a time when teams could have more than 4 poles on the field at once. Limiting the number of poles to 3 might help increase scoring, but will not increase the pace of play people want. Limiting the number of poles to 3 just makes it easier for an offensive team to hold onto the ball and control the clock (ie. Stall). I say go in the opposite direction. Let a full 6 poles be out on the field at once. There is a reason defensemen have 6 foot sticks, and that is to take the ball away, intercept/knock down passes, keep the offensive unit moving. By having 6 poles on the field, it would force the offense to move the ball quicker, and move off the ball (both increase the tempo). No more of this pass to the guy being guarded by the “shortie”, having him take the ball out to almost midfield (or the end line) pausing to set up and then taking a run.

Some other ideas to “speed the game up” involve limiting substitutions to dead ball situations. Having to blow a horn and do wholesale changes every couple of minutes will drag the game out. Subbing on the fly in my opinion is fine and actually good, as it keeps fresh legs out there to (theoretically) push the pace. If you modify the sticks (!), and make it less desirable to pull the ball out and wait for the best ISO matchup, then you will naturally lower the amount of substitute and wait time.

Since I’m so negative about all the other proposed changes. Here are some thoughts… Modify the current stall warning. Allow each team 1 stall warning per game. After all it is a warning, and after such there should be consequences. As anyone remembers being a kid, if your parents warn you but don’t punish you, you’ll keep doing the behavior until you are called out on it. Not only that but rather than make it a technical 30-sec penalty against the “team” the referee assess it to the player in possession of the ball that is stalling. This may be tough to enact, but with proper notice and a trial in fall-ball could be reasonable.

A different stall warning modification would be that once it is called, the offense has a 3 second count to get the ball above GLE, and can’t take the ball back behind net unless on GB, or shot.

Shrink the box. Right now even with a “keep it in” call, the box is large enough, teams can still fake a drive to goal, pull out and continue to stall without getting much defensive pressure.

The only problem with my own ideas stated above, are they are just modifications to the stall warning.

The biggest problem and potential for a resolution would be to fix the sticks. If you fix the stick issue there will be a huge trickle down affect of “fixing” the game.

Watch the games where a player loses his stick. A majority of the time, you’ll see the ball actually stay in the stick, even though its spinning in the air. Realize that a defenseman has just surgically removed the offensive player from his stick, but the ball still won’t come out of the stick. How is this possible? Simple…the sticks are tighter in the throat, and have bags for pockets. This better hold affects the game not only in the obvious way, but also the coaching mindset.

a) By having a better hold, offensive players can run through D-men easier than before. This encourages more ISOlation play. More ISO play means more trotting the ball to the best spot on the field and pausing to set up the ISO. This also leads to the mass substitutions as coaches get specialists in and look for the best matchup.

b) By having a better hold, offensive players can add more velocity. Yes even before the Velcro-like sticks of today, players could rip shots…but not everyone on the team. Now, anyone can wind up and rip the duck from the restraining line. By being able to shoot harder, farther, it enables the range of the offense to increase thus spreading out play. This spreads out the defense making slides more difficult and lets up on the amount of pressure the defense applies in one on one situations.

c) The most obvious, by having a better hold, defensemen have to disembowel an offensive player to get the ball away, or hope that the offensive player makes a mistake. This diminishes some take away check artistry, as coaches err on the side of caution. I am not saying there aren’t any take away artists with a pole, but there are fewer, and they are less successful getting the ball onto the ground.

If the problem is the sticks, how can the NCAA address it? The NCAA finally made some changes to the stick requirements much to the ire of manufacturers. Unfortunately the committee did not go far enough, and did not address the pocket issues. Also, there is the problem of enforcement. Not every stick is checked, and players always find ways around checks (pull string, pocket scrub, etc). Would it be feasible to check every players stick before the game (considering each player has at least 2 sticks)? Could refs instead of lightly drop the ball into a players pocket, pound the ball in to see the real game time situation of the pocket? I would think a company could create a tool/jig that refs can bring to lacrosse games to test sticks with more accuracy and efficiency.

In conclusion, I do not believe the game is as bad as many suggest. Yes it has slowed a bit, but we have selective memories. a shot clock would just be like lipstick on a pig. Yeah it looks a LITTLE better, but is still a pig. If the powers that be in the NCAA really want to improve the tempo of the game, they need to address the root of the issue. I believe most of it derives from the sticks and the abilities it gives to players. Coaches understand and game plan accordingly. It may not be the whole reason, and I may not have the answers of how to fix it.

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2 Responses to “Keith Stegmaier: The Shot Clock”

  1. mike Says:

    How about adding a rule that after you cross centre you have x(10) seconds to get the ball into the box and if it leaves posession change?

  2. kstegs Says:

    There is also the option to keep stall warning guideline as is.
    However after 2 warnings, and subsequent stall call is a loss of possession AND a 30 sec technical.

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