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January 3, 2014

From the Press Box: I’ve seen the enemy … and it’s the double bonus

TERRE HAUTE — I’ve seen the enemy.

I’ve seen it turn the game of basketball from one of exciting flow into a nonstop parade of tedium. I’ve seen it morph hundreds of what would-be thrilling, last-minute, end-to-end conclusions into foul shooting exhibitions that suck the life out of a gym or arena near you.

It’s the double bonus. It’s a scourge, one that is often overlooked when ideas on how to make the game more entertaining or to speed the game up are put forth.

The double bonus is about as entertaining as a punch in the gut and it grinds the gears of basketball to a complete halt. When fans make fun of hoops and say the last minute of a game takes 10 minutes? You can thank the double bonus for that.

For those who aren’t familiar with the double bonus, it comes into play when a team amasses 10 team fouls. At that point, the other team gets to shoot two free throws for the remainder of the game on any additional team fouls.

Eliminated in the double bonus is the one-and-one free throw scenario that exists with the regular bonus, which is triggered at seven team fouls. In that case, if a team misses its first free throw, it’s a live ball.

With new guidelines this season for officials to call the games tighter — the idea being to give players freedom from contact to increase scoring — the bonus and double bonus are coming into play much earlier in the game than intended. It’s not unheard of for a team to be in the double bonus by the 10-minute mark of a college game.

That’s not what rule-makers had in mind, but the smart voices in college basketball knew this would happen. They warned that scoring might very well go up, but that the new guidelines wouldn’t quite work as intended, because teams would make more trips to the line.

To wit, every team in the Missouri Valley Conference has met or exceeded its average free throw attempts per game. In some cases, dramatically so. Evansville has shot nine more free throws per game. Wichita State has attempted eight more.

The double bonus is not sacrosanct. James Naismith didn’t invent it. In fact, it’s a relatively new addition to the college and high school game.

The double bonus was implemented at the college level during the 1990-91 season and high schools adapted it shortly after. The idea at the time was to create a deterrent that would keep coaches from green-lighting the seemingly limitless fouls that morph basketball games into a molasses-like yawnfest.

Fat chance.

Let’s make one thing clear about coaches — and this goes for coaches in almost any sport — they are inveterate control freaks.

Any rule that attempts to limit a coach and save them — and the game they coach — from themselves is destined for failure. It’s a naive exercise in futility. It’s a half-measure.

We’ve seen the folly of the thought process that went into the double bonus in the last two decades. Basketball coaches can’t and won’t help themselves.

They likely tell teams to foul in their dreams. Coaches speed through and exceed that 10-foul limit like it’s another “Fast And The Furious” sequel.

Add on to that the silly misplaced pride that’s attached itself to late-game fouling. Some coaches refuse to quit fouling well beyond the point of any benefit to it because they think it sends the message to their team that it’s OK to quit.

It’s completely batty, but who said sanity had anything to do with coaching? Last week at the Pizza Hut Classic, for example, I saw a team foul in the double bonus while down double-digits with barely 10 seconds left. Are you kidding me?

To be fair, coaches are paid to do whatever it takes to win. They get paid to master game theory. But game theory isn’t the same as the game. The game is a spectacle. Game theory, while intelligent and often the path to victory, often plays out with all of the fun of a migraine headache.

Paying customers want a game. It’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that basketball is a spectator sport and is entertainment first and foremost. No one jumps out of their seat during endless marches to the free throw line.

So let’s save the coaches from themselves. Let’s not let the well-intended new rules be choked by the fumes of double bonus madness. The best way is to change the threshold for the double bonus, and perhaps, the regular bonus too.

If I were the god of hoops, I’d put the bonus threshold at eight fouls. It doesn’t take long to hit seven team fouls in the current climate. On the other hand, you don’t want to make the bonus threshold too high. Eight seems about right.

The double bonus? If it’s kept at all, it should be a high threshold.

Failed one-and-one’s are underrated. Failed one-and-one’s make the game exciting. A missed free throw is a golden opportunity for the trailing team to make a comeback. We need more excitement, more tension, and more flow in the game.

Make the double bonus threshold 16 team fouls. The double bonus should be rare not routine.

If a team can’t shoot free throws? Too bad, it’s part of the game. Poor free throw shooting teams shouldn’t get an out for their weakness via a low double bonus threshold.

Frankly, I’d be all in favor of eliminating the double bonus entirely.

Why keep something that turns the game into endless slog? Basketball is supposed to wide open and fun.

The double bonus is a killjoy. Let’s take it out of the game.

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