Why Men’s College Basketball Games Have Two Halves, Not Four

The game of basketball was created in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith. In his original rule book, he stated that the game would be “played in two fifteen minute halves with rest time in between”. His goal was to create a sport that could be played between football and baseball season, in an effort to provide additional conditioning and team-building opportunities.

Over a century later in 2022, NCAA Men’s Basketball games have only deviated slightly from Naismith’s original rules, playing two twenty-minute halves. But for some reason, the men’s college-level is the only one to stick to this idea.

Women’s college basketball games (as well as the WNBA) on the other hand, are played with four ten minute quarters.

The professional men’s basketball league (NBA) also uses four quarters to split up a game, with each lasting twelve minutes.

Want to figure out why this change did or didn’t happen? Follow along in this article for an explanation as to why there is such a discrepancy between halves and quarters in the modern day game of basketball we all know and love.

After Naismith created the game, it was easy to see that two fifteen minute halves simply weren’t long enough for a high scoring, competitive game. In 1905, the rules were adjusted to what we now see in Men’s NCAA basketball – two twenty-minute halves.

In 1951, the rules were changed again, resulting in each contest having four ten-minute quarters of basketball for both the NBA and NCAA. But in 1954, the NCAA went back to playing halves while the NBA simply kept the new four-quarter rule and added two minutes to each – resulting in the current twelve-minute quarters that still exist today.

Basketball writers and Twitter commenters alike have many theories as to why the NCAA switched back to the original two halves of basketball. The most prominent theory is simple, though…

It makes the game more competitive.

Longer halves means less stoppages during a game, leading to more scoring opportunities, a steady pace and flow, and closer games between a wider range of teams. Even in 1954, they were trying to help make the “Cinderella Stories” happen.

That rule has led to more excitement spectators and a more competitive atmosphere among the 1,000+ colleges competing at the NCAA level. All of these factors have contributed to larger viewership for individual games and one of the most lucrative tournaments in all of sports: March Madness.

  • The largest effect the Halves vs. Quarters debate has in the game of basketball is related individual and team fouls, and the free throws offered from bonuses.

At the NCAA collegiate level, a team reaches the “1:1 Bonus” when their opponents reach 7 fouls per half. The 1:1 Bonus means with each subsequent foul, the fouled player gets one free throw – or two free throws if they make the first.

Once a team reaches ten fouls, the opposing team moves to the “Double Bonus” – meaning with each subsequent foul, the opposite team gets to shoot two free throws, instead of the single free throw guaranteed with a 1:1 bonus.

In the NBA, the team shoots two free throws after five fouls that reset at the end of each quarter. The simple change in team fouls and bonus free throws has a large effect on the game’s momentum and scoring.

  • The only other real consequence of halves vs. quarters falls on media timeouts that directly translates to overall revenue for an organization.

When playing two halves basketball is able to have four TV timeouts, with quarters it is reduced to three TV timeouts. While this doesn’t affect the rules of the game directly, we all know that revenue and dollar signs are a driving force behind many decisions in professional and college sports.

The debate of halves vs. quarters in NCAA basketball wouldn’t be a true debate without feedback from loyal spectators, but it is not as black and white as one might think. NCAA fans are truly divided on their feelings of watching four quarters of basketball or two halves.

In terms of flow of the game, fans are cut down the middle on whether moving to quarters will increase or decrease the flow of the game. While it might cut down on foul calling and bonus opportunities with free throws, having more breaks in a four quarter game seems counterproductive when addressing less stoppage time.

There was a large debate at the 2021 committee meeting for rule changes to NCAA Men’s basketball, including “Introduce quasi quarters by resetting team fouls at 10-minute mark of each half. Begin double bonus on fifth foul within each 10-minute segment. This eliminates the one-and-one free throw”.

Only time will reveal the true nature of how these proposals play out.

Committees meet regularly to discuss new rule proposals and current rule changes to ensure that the game we all love so much stays that way. Members of the committee are passionate about optimizing player abilities, increasing viewership, and overall interest in the game of basketball.

Based on the historical track record of halves vs. quarters in basketball, it seems that this debate will continue to fuel the opinions of fans in all organizations of the game.

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