Elam Ending creator, a UD grad, sees dream come to life

Nick Elam invented rule adopted by The Basketball Tournament

Nick Elam drives two hours from his home in Fishers, Ind., to UD Arena for every Dayton Flyers men’s basketball game. He watches the action from high above Tom Blackburn Court in section 404.

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“Once I hit the big time, maybe I can move my way down,” Elam said.

You could argue he already has. Elam’s name stood out last weekend at Capital University during the first three rounds of The Basketball Tournament’s Columbus Regional. Large signs on each baseline featured his last name, which is so much a part of the event even the basketballs have his signature. It will be the same at every other regional and in the final three rounds in Chicago in August.

Elam, a Middletown Madison High School graduate who is now an assistant professor in educational leadership at Ball State, is the creator of the Elam Ending, a rule that has transformed the finishes of games in The Basketball Tournament. It’s a concept he first started thinking about at as a student at the University of Dayton while living at 26 Evanston Ave. — steps from the Dayton RecPlex.

“I was fortunate to live with a group of big sports fans,” said Elam on Friday while sitting in the stands during the first game of the first round at Capital. “It was our senior year, March of 2004. We were sitting around on a Sunday watching the Elite Eight. Duke and Xavier was the first game. It was a great game that came down to the final stretch, and the style of play really just deteriorated at the end. Like we see so many times, the leading team was stalling and playing very passively. The trailing team was fouling and handing away free points and rushing on offense, rushing shots. It made slim leads very hard to overcome.”

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Elam and his housemates discussed the ways the game changes in the final minutes. It often becomes a parade of free throws as the losing team tries to extend the game. One of minute of action can take 10 minutes in real time.

At that point, Elam didn’t have a solution. A few years later, he started thinking about it more and realized all the problems were attributable to one thing.

“Maybe if you got rid of the game clock at the end of the game,” he said, “that would address a lot of those issues.”

How it works

The rules of the Elam Ending are simple. In the fourth quarter, timed play ends at the first clock stoppage at or under 4:00. At that point, eight points are added to the leading team’s score. That becomes the target score. At The Basketball Tournament, large signs on each end of the court read “Elam Ending” and show the target score.

For example, on Saturday, the Dayton alumni team, Red Scare, trailed Mid-American Unity 72-71 after a basket with 3:30 to play. Mid-American Unity then called timeout. The Elam Ending came into effect. The first team to score 80 would win.

Dayton fell behind 77-74 and faced seven possessions in which Mid-American Unity could have clinched the victory. Dayton tied the game at 78 on a layup by Kyle Davis and could have won the game on its next possession, but Kendall Pollard missed both free throws.

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That set up the thrilling finish. Mid-American Unity’s D.J. Cooper missed a 3-pointer. Davis grabbed the rebound, pushed the ball the other way and missed a layup, only to have Devin Oliver follow with a game-ending dunk.

Every Elam Ending will feature a game-clinching basket. Few will be as dramatic as this one.

“The two biggest wins in my time as a Flyer fan are the 2003 Atlantic 10 Championship and the 2014 victory over Stanford to advance to the Elite Eight,” Elam said later. “But because those games faded out with a whimper, with fouling and stalling, I honestly can’t remember one specific play or scenario from either of those games. But I’ll always remember Devin Oliver’s putback dunk to win a second-round game in TBT 2019.”

Elam doesn’t know if the rule will lead to an avalanche of late comebacks. He said there will be a “a nice uptick in late comebacks because a trailing team always controls their own fate. They no longer have to foul and hand away free points on defense, and they no longer have to rush and force up ugly shots on offense. As long as they can get enough stops and scores, they’re still in the game.”

Dream come true

The original name of the Elam Ending was the “hybrid duration format.” Elam settled on the name after much tinkering with the numbers — math was one of his majors at UD — and started shopping it around to different leagues and events. He wrote about the idea around 2015 for The Cauldron, a sports website. He wanted to start a paper trail so no one could steal the idea.

In 2017, The Basketball Tournament adopted it on an experimental basis and the wider world learned of it from an ESPN.com article. The Basketball Tournament organizers asked Elam if they could name the rule after him. He said it would be an honor.

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At that first tournament, the rule was only used in the Jamboree, a series of play-in games for teams trying to qualify for the 64-team field. Elam attended the games in Philadelphia.

“To see it in real life, especially with this quality of player, it was a dream come true,” he said. “I looked at it with a very critical eye.”

Seeing the rule in person is important for Elam. He wants to watch how the teams play during the Elam Ending and how the fans react and the arena sounds. That’s one reason he was in Columbus last weekend. The other reason is he’s a huge Flyer fan. He planned to dissect the game footage later and break down the numbers to see how the Elam Ending worked.

Elam said, “It’s meeting all its primary aims: to address the fouling we see; to address the stalling we see; to keep a high quality of play during those crucial possessions; to make comebacks more likely; and to get more memorable game-ending moments.”

Expanded use

In some ways, the Elam Ending is still a work in progress. Elam will consider minor modifications. Last year in The Basketball Tournament, seven points were added to the leading team’s score. He changed it to eight points this year.

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“I’m gathering data about how much theoretical game time we are seeing during that final stretch when there’s no clock,” Elam said. “If you’re taking out four minutes, you want to get about four minutes back. We were finding games were running a little quicker than we anticipated.”

Elam listens to critiques of his rule, and the No. 1 one complaint is it takes away the excitement of the buzzer beater. With no clock, there is no buzzer.

“I maintain that under the Elam Ending, when a game comes down to a sudden-death situation,” Elam said, “and many times even if a game is decided by four points or more, there’s still that look, that sound, that feel of a buzzer-beater when the final shot goes through the net. Red Scare’s victory on Saturday provides more evidence of that.”

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Damon Goodwin, the Dayton basketball great and Capital University head coach who coached the Red Scare, called the rule a pretty good idea that would work well in some settings.

“When you’re playing, it’s different,” he said. “You’re up 20, and you’ve got to turn the jets back on to end it instead of just letting the clock run down. The first time around, you’ve got to get used to it, I guess.”

The Elam Ending has found other homes. The East Coast Basketball League, an independent minor league, adopted the rule on a limited basis this year. The Up-North Challenge boys basketball tournament in Michigan adopted the rule in May.

“We’re seeing different rec leagues, amateur leagues, summer camps, youth camps using the Elam Ending,” Elam said. “I think that’s the coolest thing in the world. No matter how big or small, whatever, if anybody’s using it, it’s cool. And what I’m told is there’s very good chance the Elam Ending will be utilized on an international stage in 2020. The plans are still crystallizing.”

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