Time For a Shot Clock in Tennessee Preps Basketball?

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Tiffany McCollins yells out to no one in particular. She’s thinking back on the 2002 regional playoff game between her White Station Spartans and the East Mustangs. McCollins was the Spartans’ starting point guard. White Station had lost to East just two weeks earlier in the 3A city championship game, so they decided to try a different defensive strategy against them in the regional matchup.

The Spartans started the game in a 2-3 zone, but it was not effective as East ran up a double-digit lead. So White Station’s coach Eric Sullivan made an adjustment. He had his team play man-to-man. But he wanted them to give the quick East guards space and dare them to shoot the ball from the outside.

The Spartans were able to get a few steals and keep people out of the lane and suddenly they were within 5 points with plenty of time to play in the second quarter.

So it was the Mustangs turn to make an adjustment. They decided to force the Spartans players to come out and guard their perimeter players closer by just holding the ball. Sullivan would not let his team take the bait. So the clock ran down and suddenly it was halftime.

The third quarter was a repeat of the latter part of the second, and the clock ticked away as East’s point guard Rudy Sims held on to the ball, occasionally passing it to teammate Whitney Woodard, only to get it back seconds later. In high school basketball in Tennessee, if a player is being guarded, he or she has 5 seconds to hold the ball, another 5 seconds to dribble it, and yet another 5 seconds to get rid of it.  

If he or she is being guarded, a player can hold the ball for eternity.

In the third quarter, the teams were like the Zax characters in Dr. Seuss’ book, neither would budge in the fastest 8 minutes played in a high school game. But the standstill was working to East’s advantage, they had the lead. With a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, White Station finally came out of their defensive stance and approached East’s ball handler. They were able to get East to put up a shot, but weren’t able to complete the comeback. The Spartans ran out of time — and season.

“They held the ball for two-and-a-half quarters,” says McCollins. “We set back and didn’t play defense. If I could do it all over that would be the one time I wouldn’t have listened to my coach.”

McCollins now coaches the 7th and 8th grade girls’ team at St. Mary’s. Several coaches have felt McCollins’ pain from that game in 2002. It is still a common practice in Tennessee for teams to hold on to the ball when trying to maintain a lead. And if McCollins had her way it would be a common practice no more. She’s in favor of the governing body of high school sports, Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA), implementing a shot clock. She has plenty of support.

Houston Mustangs’ athletics director and girls basketball coach Chad Becker agrees with McCollins. “I’m 100 percent in favor of it,” he says. “It would make the game better.”

Harding Academy’s boys basketball coach Kevin Starks acknowledges the positives and the challenges of installing a shot clock. “It would make coaching and playing the game more challenging,” he says. “For me, I’m a faster paced coach. But I would also want to be able to protect the lead (by holding the ball) if I had to. It would certainly change things.”

McCollins adds, “It would speed the game up and not all teams go fast.”

Becker understands the concerns, but does not believe they outweigh the benefits. “Let’s say you have a 35-second shot clock; 60 (possessions) a game is about the average (per game) now, with a shot clock you’re talking about 80 possessions a game. (Currently) if you have a dominant ball handler you can shorten the game. And if (the player) is a good free throw shooter you can really manipulate the game.”

Becker also notes the shot clock would prepare those moving on to playing on the next level. “After high school, wherever you play; college, pros, there’s a shot clock,” says Becker. “It makes (players) have to increase their skill level.”

According to an informal survey conducted by Memphis Flyer Preps, 86 percent of Memphis area high school coaches believe it’s time to start using shot clocks. But is there a realistic chance that it will happen anytime soon? That is unclear. According to TSSAA Assistant Executive Director Matthew Gillespie two crucial steps must be taken before a change will occur.

The first step is a proposal for change, which has yet to happen in Tennessee. “We’ve heard general comments about it from time to time but there has not been a (formal) proposal,” says Gillespie.

If members of the TSSAA vote in favor of the change, the TSSAA would then send the suggestion to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) for consideration. NFHS, which TSSAA is a member, writes the rules and guidelines for most high school sports in the United States.

Currently, NFHS has given a few states the green light to experiment with the use of the shot clock, but the demand for change isn’t high. “There are more states that don’t want (a shot clock) than do at this point,” says Gillespie.

Part of the issue may be the fear of change, but also the price of change. “You’d have to be willing to have a visible shot clock in place, installation of it, someone to operate it every game,” Gillespie says. “But it’s feasible.”

Becker agrees. “People say it’s not cost effective, but you have a play clock operator in (high school) football. It reminds me of the 80s when people were hesitant to (implement) the 3-point line.”

For now Starks remains noncommittal. “If I had to vote (to add a shot clock), it would be hard,” he says. “I’d like to experiment with it. It would be hard for me to vote without experiencing it.”

As for McCollins, things that go around come around. Last season her St. Mary’s Turkeys’ team played Briarcrest in a Shelby County championship game. St. Mary’s had a double digit lead in the final quarter, but Briarcrest came storming back. It was the perfect opportunity for McCollins to ask her team to implore the stall ball tactic.

She decided against it. “It would have been tougher on my team to play keep away,” she says. “It would have made them panic and commit unforced turnovers.”

Instead, the eventual champions stuck to the game plan.

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