The Elam Ending in College Basketball Would Have Lots of Unintended Consequences


You might have heard the term “Elam Ending” this summer. It’s an idea to change how basketball games are ended, to incentivize less fouling by setting a target score rather than rely on the clock at the end of a game. “The Tournament”–the $2 million winner-take-all tournament featuring a lot of former college players–has utilized this format to end its games.

The “Elam Ending” stops the game at the first stoppage within the 4 minute mark, and whatever the score is at that time sets the winning score to achieve. You add 7 points to the team leading the game at that point, and the first team to achieve that score wins the game.

And while it may sound like a good way and an exciting way to end games (after all, every game will end on a made shot), it will have a lot of unintended consequences. Mike DeCourcy lays out a pretty good case for why college basketball should avoid experimenting with it.

I thought I would expound on some of the issues with the concept. I went back through this year’s NCAA tournament games, just to see how it might play out. The Elam Ending method would end a certain type of games sooner–namely those where a team was comfortably up by double digits. Most of these games hit the target score before the final minute of game time. Now, we don’t know if they would have done so playing under the modified rules. That’s because teams would be incentivized differently. A team trailing by double digits is going to extend pressure, take risks, and try to speed up the game to try to get back in quickly. Often, this results in quick buckets. But under the Elam Ending, these same teams might pack it in, despite trailing.

Another subset of games would be elongated by the Elam Ending–mismatches. There were numerous cases of a power team being up big and bringing on the subs and calling off the dogs in the final minutes and not scoring much more. Half of the largest margin games would have taken more time to hit the winning score than just using the current method. An Elam Ending would require them to score more to end it.

Finally, the close games would have failed to hit the Elam Ending in regulation time two-thirds of the time. Further, most of the best game endings would have been lost. Yes, the game winners could still happen. But removing the time factor takes out a lot of drama. You would have lost the drama of Clayton Custer’s game winner against Tennessee, and the miraculous Michigan game winning shot against Houston. Nevada’s big comeback wouldn’t have hit the target by the end of regulation against Cincinnati. Barry Brown’s running layup to knockoff Kentucky wouldn’t have been a game winner and Kentucky wouldn’t have been as pressed for time.

Elam Ending game winners might be when already up, with some reduced drama. Miss this one, get the next one. A team down one knows they can still get a stop. Take away the clock and you lose all those time-crunch-inspired magical moments. Duke doesn’t need to throw a baseball pass to Christian Laettner, they can just dribble it up. Tyus Edney doesn’t need to go coast to coast. The Bryce Drew play doesn’t need to be drawn up that way.

There are plenty of other unintended consequences. For example, it would probably lead to fouling before the stoppage to determine the Elam score target. If you are trailing, you may want to extend the game and see if you can close the margin before that target is set. It would lead to reduced strategy and changing of tactics in the closing minute. Teams would not need to press or try to speed teams up (if that wasn’t their standard practice). Trailing teams could play slowly. Teams leading by 1 and within 2 points of the target could intentionally foul to prevent game-winning three pointers. There would never be overtime, or tying shots to send it to overtime.

It would have a huge impact on gambling markets and scoring and point spread evaluations, something that would cause some chaos early on. It could lead teams to make personnel and substitution decisions when up comfortably that are now considered unsporting, because they could end games sooner, instead of letting time and impossibility taking its course.

I’m all for creative ideas to address problems. Might I instead suggest giving teams the option to keep possession and try to re-inbound the ball or alternatively take the free throws in the final minutes, which creates strategy. But this idea to remove the clock and set a target score seems fraught with issues. I don’t want to shorten the games that are comfortably decided at the expense of the greatest moments and drama.