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College basketball moves to avoid stall ball

Considering the current popularity of college basketball, the idea of going under the hood to adjust the engine may seem ill-advised. ``If it's not broken, don't fix it,'' conventional reasoning would say. In adopting a 45-second shooting clock, however, the men's basketball rules committee hardly feels it is doing more than fine tuning things a bit, basically by eliminating stalling.

The change could be so slight, in fact, that hardly anyone will notice when it takes effect next season. Why? Because most teams are in the habit of shooting long before 45 seconds expire, and because 19 major conferences experimented with clocks this past season, so they won't be anything new.

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The Sun Belt Conference, a pioneer in this area, has actually used a 45-second clock since its post-season tournament ended in a 22-20 game in 1978. The clock has only ticked off a handful of times, though, costing a loss of possession.

Coaches were once overwhelmingly opposed to a shot clock, but have learned that they can live with a conservative one, though nothing so radical as the 30-second version used internationally as well as by American women. And, of course, the National Basketball Association's 24-second timer is generally considered an anathema in the X-and-O world of college hoops.

The college game obviously wants to retain its distinctive flavor. And that means allowing teams like Villanova to turn the court into a massive chess board.

Villanova used its deliberate offensive strategy to perfection in beating heavily favored Georgetown 66-64 for the national championship. The game was loaded with such tension and excitement that it became an immediate classic, and some felt a testament to the virtues of play without a clock.

This, however, was not necessarily the case. Georgetown's relentless defensive pressure, its commitment to contest virtually every pass and dribble, infused the game with tremendous action that might not have been the case against a less aggressive opponent.

Coaches such as Villanova's Rollie Massimino basically frown upon stalling tactics. They prefer to talk about ``controlling the tempo,'' and playing a ``short'' game, that is, one in which each team must make the most out of fewer possessions. Georgetown, on the other hand, prefers a ``long'' game, in which the ball changes hands frequently and the Hoyas can do a lot of scoring.

These divergent styles are appealing to fans, and neither is ruled out by the 45-second clock. The more deliberate team, for example, is still permitted ample opportunity to probe the enemy's zone defenses in search of a good shot. And if the offensive team rebounds its own miss, the clock is reset. The clock, of course, eliminates stall ball, which some see as the great equalizer and the sole means undermanned teams have for springing upsets. But outright stalls do the game's image more damage than good.

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