Clarification Please: Why college basketball needs to ditch the possession arrow

By Shiloh Carder  |  Last updated 1/18/17

The possession arrow, seen above Augustana's Mike Busack's head from earlier this season, is used in college basketball but not the NBA. Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

For many college basketball purists, the possession arrow in one of the most controversial rules in the sport. It is used in lieu of a jump ball during live play and has been criticized by analysts and fans but has become an accepted part of basketball. The rule is now being used in virtually all levels of basketball, with the notable exceptions of the NBA and WNBA.

The jump ball used to be an extremely large part of the game. In the Dr. James Naismith days, there was a jump ball held after every made basket and to determine possession at the beginning of each quarter. Over the years, the jump ball rule has been modified and changed to occur at the beginning of the game to determine possession, when players from both teams simultaneously possess the ball (the "tie-up"), when the basketball gets stuck on the rim or a variety of other unique circumstances where possession of the ball is questioned. Coaches had plays diagrammed for jump balls, just as they do for in-bounds plays.

In 1981, college basketball went away from jump balls during the game and added the possession arrow, with high schools quickly following suit. The reasoning is that the jump ball gives taller and more athletic players a clear advantage, while the arrow alternates possessions between the teams. Now smaller players had no issue tying up bigger players with the arrow determining possession and not stature. There was also a bit of gamesmanship going on during the tip itself. Teams would try to sneak in taller players to the circle, coaches complained about the referee's toss and there would be a lot of posturing of players waiting to receive the tip.

Well, that is kind of how basketball works. Taller and more athletic players have certain advantages in basketball. They tend to get more rebounds. They tend to be able to dunk and block shoots easier, too. That doesn't mean shorter player can't be successful at any of these tasks – it's just a bit more difficult. And who really cares? In jump ball situations, just because the taller player can win the tip easier, it doesn't mean his team controls the ball.

Supporters of the arrow point to the fact that it plainly moves the game along. Well, why doesn't hockey or lacrosse use it instead of faceoffs? Why doesn't soccer do it? How about using the possession arrow when two football players are fighting for the ball under a pile? Instead of a bang-bang play in baseball, let's just alternate between safe and out or balls and strikes on close pitches.

When it was first put in place, this was a continuously discussed topic. In the 36 years since it has been implemented, the possession arrow is an accepted part of the game that no longer warrants debate. It does its job, and instead of getting together for a jump ball several times a game, we just alternate possession between the teams whenever possession is in doubt. Sure, it kind of evens out, but not all jump ball situations are alike. When they happen during a game and who is involved with the held ball can play a huge role in determining the outcome.

Someone like me doesn't like it that much. It penalizes the defensive team that may make a play but can't be rewarded for it. It also affects late-game situations where a team that is leading can get in a tie-up, gain possession just by the luck of where the arrow is pointing and help determine a game's outcome.

Right when the rule was put in place in 1981, when Rutgers upset UCLA, Rutgers had possession of the ball with the lead late. A UCLA defender tied up the Rutgers' ball handler but the arrow pointed to Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights kept possession and would win the game. With a jump ball, UCLA would have had a chance to make a play to gain possession instead of having the arrow just happen to be pointing away from the Bruins.

Personally, I think the college refs are more quick to call a held ball than their counterparts in the NBA. Note the 2013 Final Four when the referee ruled that Louisville tied up Wichita State late and was awarded the ball with a three-point lead. Replays show the defender grabbed his arm and didn't technically clamp down on the ball, yet the ref's quick whistle helped determine the game's outcome. That call essentially allowed the Cardinals to seal the win, and Wichita State had no opportunity to make a play. While the rule is supposed to be "fair," it doesn't always work without issues.

Watch the controversial jump ball happen and how it affected the outcome of the game:

Should the rule be changed? Yes. Dick Vitale – a man who champions everything about college hoops – still gripes about the held ball. Fans debate it. Will it be changed? Probably not. As I've stated, it has permeated to the roots of basketball, and only the professional level doesn't use it. Even if it costs a team a game it doesn't seem to move the needle for some reason. Coaches don't even fight it anymore. To me, it takes away from the game more than it helps.

Jump balls are actually fun to watch. Look at the NBA where you can see jump balls between all kinds of players of all different sizes. They don't happen all that often and are kind of like little extras during the game, and there is rarely any discussion there of "maybe we should switch to the possession arrow, too" there.

So why shouldn't college have the same thing? Imagine the crowds getting raucous as the jump ball is about to happen. The kind of chants the Cameron Crazies could come up with. Heck, Kentucky's program is all about preparing you for the NBA so why not have the league's jump ball rule? The roar of the crowd as the momentum could swing if a trailing team wins the tip instead of just falling on a guy who's already on the ground.

The possession arrow just reeks of the "everyone gets a ribbon" aspect of sports now. "Hey, we all get a turn!" No. Sports are also about athletic feats, and denying one of the core elements from Naismith's game that still exists at the highest level just seems wrong. College basketball needs to ditch the possession arrow and allow these talented players to actually play the game.

Imagine that Louisville-Wichita State game in a world where we have no alternating possession. Wichita State, down by three, and Louisville getting ready for a jump ball with less than a minute left in a Final Four game. Wichita State needs to win the tip in order to possibly go down and tie the game. Louisville wins the tip and can salt away a win. That's more exciting than looking at the scorer's table to see where a lighted arrow has been pointing.

QUIZ: Name every NCAA men's basketball player that averaged more than 25 points per game since 1993

66 NCAA men's basketball players have averaged 25 points or more per game in a season since 1993. How many of them can you name?

Clue: School-Year/PPG

Austin Peay 96-97/31.7
Bubba Wells
LIU 96-97/30.1
Charles Jones
VMI 01-02/29.3
Jason Conley
Centenary 00-01/29.1
Ronnie McCollum
LIU 97-98/29.0
Charles Jones
BYU 10-11/29.9
Jimmer Fredette
Tx Christian 94-95/28.9
Kurt Thomas
Davidson 08-09/28.6
Stephen Curry
Gonzaga 05-06/28.1
Adam Morrison
VMI 06-07/28.1
Reggie Williams
New Mexico 02-03/28.0
Ruben Douglas
E Illinois 02-03/27.9
Henry Domercant
VMI 07-08/27.8
Reggie Williams
Niagara 07-08/27.6
Charron Fisher
Tenn-Martin 08-09/27.5
Lester Hudson
Howard 15-16/27.1
James Daniel
Jackson St 06-07/27.1
Trey Johnson
Tx Southern 95-96/27.0
Kevin Granger
Oakland 02-03/26.9
Mike Helms
Duke 05-06 / 26.8
J.J. Redick
St Peter's 03-04/26.7
Keydren Clark
Creighton 13-14/26.7
Doug McDermott
W Carolina 94-95/26.5
Frankie King
Rice 06-07 / 26.4
Morris Almond
Murray St 95-96/26.4
Marcus Brown
E Illinois 01-02/26.3
Henry Domercant
St Peter's 05-06/26.3
Keydren Clark
Grambling 94-95/26.3
Kenny Sykes
Austin Peay 95-96/26.3
Bubba Wells
Kansas St 07-08/26.2
Michael Beasley
Tx RGV 01-02 / 26.2
Mire Chatman
Illinois-Chi 94-95/26.2
Sherell Ford
Oakland 11-12 /26.2
Reggie Hamilton
Southern 94-95/26.2
Tim Roberts
C Florida 08-09/26.2
Jermaine Taylor
Loyola (MD) 05-06/26.1
Andre Collins
Towson 05-06/26.1
Gary Neal
St Francis (PA) 11-12/26.0
Umar Shannon
NE Illinois 94-95/26.0
Marcus West
Davidson 07-08/25.9
Stephen Curry
Chicago St 08-09/25.9
David Holston
La Salle 94-95/25.9
Kareem Townes
St Peter's 04-05/25.8
Keydren Clark
Texas 06-07/ 25.8
Kevin Durant
LIU 94-95/25.8
Joe Griffin
Grambling 05-06/25.8
Brion Rush
E Michigan 97-98/25.7
Earl Boykins
Tenn-Martin 07-08/25.7
Lester Hudson
Hampton 95-96/25.7
Jafonde Williams
Houston 09-10/25.6
Aubrey Coleman
Niagara 13-14/ 25.6
Antoine Mason
Michigan St 94-95/25.6
Shawn Respert
Missouri-KC 02-03/25.5
Michael Watson
Rutgers 05-06/ 25.4
Quincy Douby
Oklahoma 15-16/25.4
Buddy Hield
Ball St 95-96/ 25.4
Bonzi Wells
Towson 06-07/ 25.3
Gary Neal
BC 02-03/25.2
Troy Bell
Iona 05-06/ 25.1
Steve Burtt
Vermont 04-05/ 25.1
Taylor Coppenrath
Niagara 98-99/25.0
Alvin Young
Virginia Tech 12-13/25.0
Erick Green
Georgetown 95-96/25.0
Allen Iverson
New Orleans 06-07/25.0
Bo McCalebb
W Carolina 95-96/25.0
Anquell McCollum
Northwestern St 15-16/25.0
Jalan West

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