How Does the Possession Arrow Work in Basketball?

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While basketball has rules applicable to all levels of competition, there are also significant differences. Such is the case with the possession arrow. The possession arrow is in effect only at the amateur levels, while professional basketball leagues have no use for it. How does the possession arrow work in basketball, especially at the high school and college levels? Read this article and learn about all the nuances related to the possession arrow rules in basketball.

What Does the Possession Arrow Mean in BasketballWhat Does the Possession Arrow Mean in Basketball?

The possession arrow rule in basketball is officially called the alternating-possession rule. It is essentially a replacement for the jump ball in the middle of games because it is a method of putting the ball in play by way of an inbound. Professional leagues do not utilize this rule, but amateur competitions, such as high school and college ball, do.

The alternating possession or possession arrow rules were not conceived until 1981. Up until that year, any tie-ups or squirmish was decided by a jump ball. By 1981, college basketball had abandoned jump balls in favor of the possession arrow, and high schools immediately adopted the rule. 

Why does college basketball use the possession arrow? The explanation is that the jump ball provides a distinct advantage to taller and more athletic players, whereas the arrow swaps possessions between the teams. With the alternating possession rule in place, smaller players won’t second-guess tying up bigger and taller players in hopes of securing a basketball possession. It levels the playing field, so to speak, while also speeding up the game.

If you’re wondering where you can find the possession arrow at one of these games, it is located at the scorer’s table.

What Determines the Possession ArrowWhat Determines the Possession Arrow?

What Determines the Possession Arrow

Every high school and college game starts with a jump ball. The loser of the jump automatically lights the arrow in their direction, which means the next play that needs a jump ball will give them the possession. From there, the possession arrow switches back and forth. The team with the possession arrow pointing in their direction at the end of a quarter or half will start the next period with the ball.

Aside from player tie-ups, other situations, such as unclear out-of-bounds plays, also warrant the use of possession arrows. As mentioned, this readily prevents further delays and speeds the game up. If after the referees confer and the play is still inconclusive, the possession goes to the team where the arrow is pointing, thereby preventing the officials from making a wrong call.

Does the Possession Arrow Change Each QuarterDoes the Possession Arrow Change Each Quarter?

Yes, it does. The possession arrow change after each quarter. This is because the team to which the arrow is pointing after each quarter (or half) gets the possession at the start of the next quarter. Therefore, the possession arrow automatically changes sides after that.

Who Gets the Possession Arrow FirstWho Gets the Possession Arrow First?

The loser of the jump ball at the beginning of the game gets the possession arrow first. That means any tie-up or inconclusive out-of-bounds play will result in the ball possession of that team. After that, the possession arrow changes back and forth.

At the high school, college, and FIBA basketball competitions, they determine who gets the possession arrow in this manner. The most significant difference is how each level handles overtime.

If the two teams are tied at the end of regulation in high school and college basketball, the possession arrow is not utilized to decide who gets the basketball; instead, it resets. The possession is determined by a jump ball to begin the overtime. After the jump ball, the possession arrow automatically points to the team that lost the jump.

Who Gets the Possession Arrow First

This is not the case with FIBA competitions. In FIBA games, overtime possessions are decided by the possession arrow. As a result, the team receiving the arrow is handed the ball at the start of overtime, while the arrow is immediately shifts to the opposite team, just as it is done at the start of the quarter or half.

What is the Alternating Possession RuleWhat is the Alternating Possession Rule?

The alternating possession in basketball is the official rule that governs the possession arrow method. Technically speaking, the terms “alternating possession” and “possession arrow” can be interchanged. The official definition of the alternating possession rule, according to the NCAA rulebook, is “a method of putting the ball in play with a throw-in rather than a jump ball.”

Imagine this scenario: After bouncing off the rim, a shot is deflected away from the hoop. Players from opposing sides fight for possession of the ball. The referee blows his whistle, announcing a jump ball. Except that in high school, college, and FIBA basketball competitions, there are no jump balls in the middle of the game. They make use of the alternating possession rule, otherwise known as the possession arrow.

In a nutshell, this is how the alternating possession or the possession arrow rules in basketball work:

  • The basketball game starts with a jump ball (tipoff) on the center court.
  • The possession arrow remains deactivated until one team gains possession of the ball following a tipoff. Let’s call them Team A. When that happens, it turns on and points to the team who missed the opening tip. When the next alternating-possession situation occurs, Team A will be given the ball.
  • Let’s say a tie-up happens not long after the tipoff. Team A will automatically be rewarded with the possession. Team A made a successful inbounds play, causing the arrow to point to the other team, which we will call Team B.
  • If, say, Team A commits an inbound violation, the arrow will also reverse. It won’t cause a reversal if any of the team commits a foul during the throw-in process.
  • For each alternating-possession scenario, the same method will be followed

possession arrow rules in basketball

In these instances, the side whose possession arrow is pointing will always get the ball. After this procedure has been completed, the arrow is reversed, pointing to the team that did not receive the ball. In similar situations that follow, the possession arrows simply change directions.

The arrow’s direction will be changed before the start of the second half as teams change courts, ensuring that the team that had it at the end of the first half will have it to begin the second.

In the case of overtime, the possession arrow is reset. The team that loses the jump ball at the beginning of overtime gets the possession arrow, and the process is repeated until the game ends.

Does the NBA Use the Possession Arrow

Does the NBA Use the Possession Arrow?

While the possess arrow rules in basketball are in effect in high school, college, and FIBA basketball competitions, the NBA does not use them (same with the WNBA). 

The two professional leagues are among the last to utilize the jump ball to settle disputes following a held ball or any situation where two players have equal claim to the basketball. Most leagues do not use a jump ball except at the start of the game and occasionally to open overtime. Besides jump balls, NBA referees can also review inconclusive out-of-bounds plays to see who touches the ball last and get the call right. 

Should College Basketball Just Ditch the Alternating Possession RuleShould College Basketball Just Ditch the Alternating Possession Rule?

Since the rule’s inception in 1981, it has definitely done its job and made the game quicker. The possession arrow is an established aspect of the game that no longer needs to be debated, which is a good thing. No more arguments coming from the players and coaches, and the game just moves on.

However, it also effectively takes out excitement, especially at the end of games. The alternating-possession rule balances out most of the time, but not all jump ball scenarios are the same. When they occur during a game, who is involved with the held ball, and the timing can have a significant impact on the outcome.

For example, a defensive team that needs a stop at the end of games may have the possession arrow working against them. The team could pull off a held ball, but if the possession arrow points to the other team, they still won’t be rewarded for their efforts. 

This situation is best illustrated by a real-life scenario that happened in 1981, right around the time when the rules were first implemented. It was a game between the UCLA Bruins and the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights. Rutgers was up and had the ball late. A Bruin defender managed to force a tie-up, but the arrow pointed in their direction, which means Rutgers still kept possession, and they managed to hold on to win the game.

Now, can you imagine the possibility if the possession arrow rules were not implemented? If the tie-up resulted in a jump ball, UCLA would have the chance to claim the possession back and possibly affect the outcome. Instead, the fans were treated to an anti-climactic finish.

The same thing happened in the 2013 Final Four game between Louisville and Wichita State. The referee ruled a held ball, a call that prevented Wichita from making a play in the final seconds to possibly tie the game. What’s more, the defender did not actually make a play on the ball against Wichita’s Ron Baker but actually yanked his arm. The possession arrow is indeed generally fair, but it doesn’t always work out that way, especially toward the end of games.

Here is the play in question:

As a basketball fan, would you be in favor of such an outcome? Instead of the possession arrow, two more exciting scenarios could happen: Louisville wins the jump ball and holds on for the victory, or Wichita wins the jump and has a chance to launch a three at the final buzzer. Either would be a more satisfying ending than watching an arrow light up at the scorer’s table. 

Wrapping Things Up: How Does the Possession Arrow Work in Basketball?

The possession arrow rules in basketball are already in place since 1981. It is also known as the alternating-possession rule. These rules have been followed by non-professional basketball competitions in hopes of making the game quicker.

How does the possession arrow work in basketball? Whichever team the arrow points to gets the ball during tie-ups or held ball situations, as well as inconclusive out-of-bounds plays. The team that lost the jump ball at the beginning of the game gets the possession arrow first, switching back and forth for the rest of the game. There are cases where the possession arrow doesn’t change, especially during violations and fouls during inbound plays. 

We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.

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Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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