NCAA Basketball: Why the Elam Ending is bad for college basketball

What kind of impact would an alteration like the Elam Ending have on NCAA Basketball?

From a global perspective, the game of basketball continues to grow across the world at phenomenal levels. Young kids in nearly every continent watch legends of the game, even from their own country, and picturing themselves breaking out onto the national stage. Many emulate the brightest stars of the NBA while others look up to the international stars that have shown that anything is possible. No matter how you slice it, basketball is on the rise, even during the national pandemic of our current lifestyle.

The game of basketball has transformed quite a bit since it’s invention by James Naismith over a hundred years ago. The addition of features like the shot-clock, the 3-point line, and various types of offensive and defensive strategy have shaped the game over time. At every level, basketball remains a game with some flaws. No sport is truly perfect after all, but that doesn’t mean solutions haven’t been discussed.

The most prominent solution in recent times is the Elam Ending. The invention is an alternate game-ending scenario devised by Ball State professor Nick Elam several years ago. Following the first stoppage in play after the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter, the game clock is turned off. At this point, the two teams are now shooting for a target score, which is calculated by adding eight points to the winning team’s current total. With the clock no longer in play, the game ends when that target score is reached by either team.

The idea is revolutionary and does combat a few late-game issues with the sport of basketball. By giving the winning team a target score, it prevents the end of the game from becoming a free throw shooting fest. For many people, this can make the final minute of games annoying and unexciting, stopping the action every few seconds to shoot more free throws. The formula has been used by The Basketball Tournament for the last three years and was a hit with the NBA All-Star Game this past February. While this speeding up of the endgame pace has seen some positive reactions, the negative effects on college basketball far outweigh.

Potential issue of Elam Ending

One immediate issue raised by the Elam Ending is that it completely eliminates buzzer beaters from the game. If you think about college basketball history, some of the greatest moments in the sport would be eliminated had this rule been in place. Heroic shots, such as those by Christian Laettner, Kris Jenkins, Bryce Drew, and Jordan Poole, would cease to exist in their current form.

The argument can be made that the Elam Ending would force every game to end on a made shot, much like the buzzer-beaters mentioned above. Unfortunately, the change would also eliminate a team’s chance to respond after a made shot. There’s no guarantee that these game-winning shots would have come at the buzzer. One of the most incredible moments in recent memory would have been eliminated as a result.

In March 2016, Cincinnati and Connecticut met up in the AAC Tournament quarterfinals. They were both bubble teams and their NCAA Tournament lives depended on their performance in that game. They played an intense and competitive game that wasn’t decided in regulation, nor in either of the first two overtimes. With the game tied, Cincinnati’s Kevin Johnson made a 3-pointer to give the Bearcats the lead with 0.8 seconds left, but the game wasn’t over. Jalen Adams hit a crazy three-quarter court shot to force quadruple overtime.

Not only would that game above not have had such a fantastic ending to triple overtime, but no games utilizing the Elam Ending can enter overtime at all. While overtime may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the excitement of five minutes of sudden death is one of the most exciting parts of basketball. There are plenty of examples and counterexamples in addition to that UConn shot, but imagine all the fantastic overtime games that wouldn’t exist. The most significant is likely the Syracuse-UConn six overtime game in the Big East Tournament, while the most recent national championship game also went to overtime.

We’ve only considered the changes affecting close, exciting games, but picture what would happen in a blowout. Say a team leads by 35 in the final minutes, likely a nationally ranked team playing a mid-major at home. If the score was 80-45, then the leading team would still have to reach 88 points. By this point, they’d likely have filled the court with walk-ons and other benchwarmers, but instead would be forced to keep pushing to score additional points in a game that is clearly over.

If your argument is that the Elam Ending gives the trailing team a chance, even when they’re down double digits late, then consider the alternative. Texas A&M’s infamous 12-point comeback in the final minute against Northern Iowa showed that anything is possible late in a game. Forcing the other team to make their free throws isn’t bad for college basketball. If they can’t make their free throws or defend in the final minutes, then no reasonable lead is safe, even without the Elam Ending.

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The most critical thing to realize is that the Elam Ending has only been used in an exhibition format. It’s fair to say that the solution works well in these kinds of games, but would tarnish many exciting aspects of real basketball, especially at the college level. When young children are shooting hoops in their backyard, they count backwards from five and hoist up the “game-winning” shot, perhaps yelling to emulate the buzzer as their shot goes up. Let’s keep working towards potential solutions and changes for the game we love, but let’s not tarnish some of the most exciting features of the current game. An endgame solution exists, but the Elam Ending is clearly not ready for non-exhibition games.