In Defense of the Possession Arrow

If you’re reading this, I can nearly guarantee that you’ve watched a basketball game that Dick Vitale has broadcast this season (provided that you didn’t mute the TV, which would be defensible). And if you’ve heard Dick Vitale for even five minutes this year, you have almost certainly complain about his least favorite rule in the college game, the possession arrow.

To paraphrase: “Oh THIS RIGHT HERE, THIS is my LEAST favorite rule in the college basketball. The defense made a GREAT PLAY and the kids DESERVE to jump it up. THROW THE BALL UP AND LET THE KIDS PLAY MR. ZEBRA. OH, BABY.”


Vitale isn’t alone. I’ve heard other announcers, like Jeff Van Gundy and Shane Battier, bellyache about the arrow in the college game.

Their arguments are all relatively based on the idea that the arrow is arbitrary and many times will give the ball back to a team that has just made a sloppy or unintelligent play.

The problem is that the NBA’s jump ball solution doesn’t solve either of these issues. Having the two players involved in the tie-up participate in a jump still essentially gives you a 50-50 chance anyway (unless you’re someone like Kentucky who have 4 or 5 players who would win jump-ups at an excessive rate). If Duke makes a play on defense to force a held ball, their chances of Jahlil Okafor being the jumper or Tyus Jones doing so are basically the same odds as the possession arrow.

What’s the solution then? There’s certainly no way to reward the team more deserving of each specific held ball. You could have a jump ball with each team choosing their participant, but that’s still skewed. Teams with a leaping center would win an inordinate amount of jumps, far more so than would be deserved.

The same could be said of a foul shot determining possession. This is the most logical idea, which is why it’s what’s been used at parks and pickup games for years. It brings a basketball skill into play. It favors teams with a great shooter if you allow them to choose who takes the shot. In general, the team shooting, whether they choose the shooter or not, has an advantage as the average free throw percentage sits well above 50%. I don’t think there’s a shooting scenario that coaches would feel more comfortable than the coin-toss of the arrow.

At face value, taking turns seems like it could not possibly be an acceptable way to handle such a crucial call. Though when you truly weigh the other options, I don’t think you’ll find one more fair than the current system. Every rule can’t be perfect. We aren’t going to make everybody happy. Amazingly in this case, a shrug and taking turns is the closest we’ll get.

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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