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Breaking down TBT’s Elam Ending

The last few minutes of basketball games have been a nagging problem for the sport.

If a losing team resorts to fouling, the final two minutes can take twenty minutes. If a winning team decides to chew the clock, that too will suck the life out of any game. Either way, games are ending with bad basketball.

When Nick Elam and his college housemates threw around ideas on how to fix this issue while watching the Elite Eight in 2004, most of them just tabled the discussion and moved on.

But not Elam. He saw potential in the idea of getting rid of the clock, but he knew it couldn’t entirely work.

He continued to ponder solutions, and three years later, in March of 2007, he figured out how basketball “could have the best of both worlds.”

“You play most of the game with a clock, and you play the last part without the clock,” he said. “That, in a nutshell, is the Elam Ending.”

The Elam Ending proposes that a target score be set and the clock be turned off at a certain point near a game’s end so that the first team to hit the target score is declared the winner.

“The idea is to try to compel teams to keep playing real basketball,” Elam said.

The concept transformed Elam from armchair commissioner to full-on spokesman for this new idea. He began emailing NBA teams, colleges, coaches, rec leagues — whoever would listen.

“I tried with just about everybody I could,” he said. “I really did believe in this idea that it was going to catch on, and I wanted to have a paper trail to say, hey, wait a second now, I thought of this back in 2007.”

A proposition like this might catch people off guard, so he had to think very carefully about how to approach people regarding the Elam Ending.

The feedback he received from coaches was positive, but in order to convey the idea effectively to people with the power to put it into play, he didn’t want to be too blunt or come off as too radical.

Being a lifelong basketball fan, and now a season ticket holder at the University of Dayton, his alma mater, he needed to make it clear that his proposed change comes from an immense love for the game.

“I always think in that first paragraph it’s important to say how much I really do love basketball. It’s not like I’m somebody that’s like, ‘this sport’s garbage,’ Elam said. “I’m a basketball junkie, I actually love basketball, and I think we could make a great thing here even greater.”

Finally, ten years after he developed the Elam Ending, Nick Elam broke through–in the form of an 86-slide Powerpoint–to The Basketball Tournament founder Jon Mugar.

In that Powerpoint, Elam, now a middle school principal and soon to be a college professor, shared findings from analysis of more than 2,200 NBA and NCAA games.

Whatever he sent caught Mugar’s eye, and with TBT entering its fourth year of competition, the Elam Ending found the perfect stage from its competitive debut.

Mugar decided to put the new rule into play for the first-ever TBT Jamboree, a sixteen-team competition which took place last weekend to determine the final four teams in TBT 2017’s official 64-team field.

Using data from NCAA games, which are of similar length to traditional games at TBT, Elam deduced that if the under-four media timeout is used as a stopping point, the target score should be set at seven points higher than the winning team’s score at that U-4 timeout, since four minutes is 10 percent of a 40-minute game and seven points is about 10 percent of the typical college team’s score of 70 points.

“The idea is you’re taking out a chunk of a game, so now you need to add back the same amount, or close to the same amount,” he said. “For TBT, we don’t have the same amount of data from years past to go off of, so it’s more of a shot in the dark for TBT, we’re just giving this a try. Ultimately we settled on the under-four mark plus seven, and it’s working out pretty well so far, but again, this is an opportunity for us to fine-tune this and make this even better.”

The Elam Ending was a smashing success at TBT.

Games with medium-sized margins became much more exciting. From a numbers perspective, the rule worked, with most endings lasting between two and five minutes of conventional game time.

And, perhaps most importantly, we saw some pretty exciting finishes.

Take the example of Saturday’s contest between uKnighted and the Silver Springs Willow Runners. uKnighted trailed by 13, 67-54, when a target score of 74 was set at the under-four mark, but because the Elam Ending was in play, they did not resort to fouling or giving up. They instead rattled off 14 unanswered points to take the lead, and then, in another epic twist, Silver Springs regained the lead and escaped with a 74-71 victory.

In another game, former Kansas star Josh Selby’s Brothers Dat Ball team was down 69-65 when 76 was established as the target score, but Selby took control and hit a game-winning fadeaway to snatch an exciting victory.

The Elam Ending also served its purpose in the one game that did end in a blowout. In a 29-point win for Reach 1 Teach 1 on Saturday, the untimed period lasted under 90 seconds, as the leading side reached the target score of 94 in just three possessions to secure the victory and not prolong the game.

Elam was at Philadelphia University to take it all in, and although he had planned on using the weekend to gather more data, he decided that process could wait for later.

“I came here with all my stat sheets ready to go, ready to fill out, and I thought I was just going to be charting data like crazy as the games are going on, but really, once that first game started, it’s like, ‘you know what, I just kind of want to sit back and enjoy this,’” he said. “I’ve been speaking on behalf of this concept for ten years now, and I’ve played out these games in my mind so many times, and this was a special weekend, to finally see it in action, and it’s just as good if not better than what I had envisioned in my mind.”

“This is an idea that doesn’t happen often and it certainly doesn’t happen quickly, so that’s why it means so much for TBT to give it a shot.”

After the way the Elam Ending performed at the TBT Jamboree, it’s not hard to imagine we’ll be seeing it employed at other venues in the near future.

The NBA and NCAA surely have taken notice, but, like Elam said, these ideas don’t happen quickly.

At least now, however, he’s got concrete evidence that his idea, 13 years in the making, works out on the basketball court.

“I’ve been speaking on behalf of the concept for a long time and now it has a chance to speak for itself,” he said. “So far, it’s off to a good start.”

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