Is technology to blame for college basketball’s scoring decline?
CLEMSON — College basketball’s great mystery this season is the decline in scoring.
Division I men’s teams are averaging their fewest points per game, 67.6, since 1952. Yes, 1952, before the shot clock and well before the 3-point line.
Over the last six decades, scoring has dipped below 68 points per game only once — the 1981-82 season.
From 1985 to 2010, there were only three ACC games in which neither team scored 50 points. There have been five such games in the last three seasons.
The usual suspects are cited when discussing the decline in scoring. Coaches say today’s players lack offensive skills, and they point to the number of elite players departing before their junior seasons.
But those factors were prevalent long before the recent decline in scoring. There must be something else.
Perhaps the prime suspect, the newest variable, can be found in the windowless, closet-sized office of Lucas McKay. With a laptop computer, the Clemson video coordinator has access to a scouting database that reveals any imaginable stat or video clip of nearly every player or team in the country.
The scouting database is a creation of Synergy Sports Technology. The company scouts, quantifies, and captures on video the performance of individual players and teams and uploads the data to searchable indexes.
With a few clicks of a computer mouse, McKay demonstrates the depth and speed of the technology. He shows how Synergy is eliminating the element of surprise and exposing secrets. This, he says, might explain why scoring is in decline.
To test the depth of Synergy, McKay is asked how often Virginia Tech’s Erick Green, the leading scorer in the ACC, drives baseline in isolation situations — on the left-side of the court.
Surely no one has bothered to measure such a specific statistical split.
Without hesitating, McKay swivels around to the center of his L-shaped desk wedged between a corner and something resembling an entertainment center that houses six satellite TV cable boxes, which McKay uses to record every one of Clemson’s opponents’ games during the season.
After several seconds of searching, McKay reads the results from his laptop screen:
Green drives baseline 44 percent of the time.
He drives middle 37.5 percent of the time.
He pulls up and shoots 12.5 percent of the time.
Another test: where is Green most efficient in pick-and-roll situations? When he goes away from the pick and to the basket, he scores 1.43 points per possession.
McKay can also retrieve video clips of each of these specific situations, showing how different teams have defended Green.
“You can basically go look at anything you want,” McKay said.
And it’s not just an advantage for Clemson, Synergy’s technology has proliferated throughout the college game over the last five years. And in five of the last six seasons, scoring has declined in college basketball.
Synergy’s Scott Mossman believes the database is changing the game.
“With three clicks of your mouse,” Mossman said, “you can watch any player doing anything, or any team doing anything.”
Synergy began in the NBA.
The company’s CEO, Garrick Barr, was a video coordinator for the Phoenix Suns in the 1990s when he dreamed up the idea of combining analytics with video and sharing the information with anyone linked to the database.
In 1998 he founded the company, then known as Quantified Statistics, and brought his longtime friend, Mossman, aboard.
“We took every game in the NBA and applied all these unique analytics, and we did it off of VHS,” said Mossman, a former head coach at Grand Canyon University. “Everything was just a report that went up on our web site. The technology progressed, got faster and faster, and then stream video came in.”
Synergy has about two dozen full-time employees and uses part-time employees from around the country to evaluate and break down every NBA and college basketball game, uploading the detailed reports and updating the video index.
Born in the NBA, Synergy expanded to college basketball last decade.
Marquette was the first college to subscribe and has made seven straight NCAA appearances. In 2008, the company offered its database to two teams in the NCAA Tournament — UCLA and Kansas — on a test basis. Kansas won the national title, UCLA reached the Final Four.
This year some 300 Division I men’s basketball teams subscribe to the service at a cost of $6,500 a year. Clemson, South Carolina and College of Charleston currently use Synergy. The Citadel and Charleston Southern don’t have it, but CSU plans to begin using the service next season.
Mossman said women’s basketball teams also are jumping on board.
So if there are no secrets, why does Synergy give defenses an advantage?
The primary reason is it remains easier to quantify an individual player’s offensive performance. Turnovers and assists are easily calculated. Shots taken and shots made are easy to track. Synergy calculates a player’s shooting percentage at any point on the floor.
“If you can tell your players that (Duke’s) Mason Plumlee likes the left block 80 percent of the time, turns to his left shoulder 80 percent of the time, and puts the ball on the floor 100 percent of the time, he becomes a very predictable player,” Mossman said. “Synergy allows you to focus even more on defense.”
The accompanying video allows coaches to see how various offenses have been defended.
“The video makes it come alive,” Mossman said.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell believes Synergy has played a role in bringing down scoring.
“It allows you to see all these things quickly and all the different ways they’ve been guarded,” Brownell said. “How do we defend the ball screen? Virginia Tech does it this way, Virginia does it this way. ... It’s amazing.”