I love basketball, especially the college game.
Which is why I am so worried about where it seems to be headed.
At the risk of being labeled a bitter old man caught in another time—wait, too late!—the college game, in my humble opinion, is losing much of its beauty.
It has become NBA Lite.
Sometimes I wonder whether Pistol Pete Maravich, if he were playing college ball today, would be able to average even 20 points a game. Could Rick Mount get free for a jump shot? Would Isiah Thomas be able to drive the lane?
Defense and physicality have come to rule the college game. Average scoring per team last year (68.1 per game) in NCAA Division I was its lowest since 1982, before the advent of the three-point shot.
In recent years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the first half of a game thinking to myself, “First team to 50 wins.” Or maybe 40. Consider this: The University of Miami’s nationally second-ranked team totaled only 98 points in two games last week. But it won both.
Two years ago, when the University of Connecticut defeated Butler University in a simply gawd-awful national championship game that capped an aesthetically unpleasing Final Four, I hoped it was an aberration. I now believe it was an exclamation point.
The freedom of movement is disappearing. The squeak of sneakers is being replaced by the thud of bodies. There is no rhythm, no flow. Offenses based on motion have been immobilized by cutters that are routinely chucked and post play that more resembles sumo wrestling.
Perhaps it’s merely the result of the evolution of the game, where bigger, stronger, faster bodies are still confined to the same competitive space they were 60 years ago. Certainly, I see far more athletes on the court than ever before. But through the prism of my old-fashioned view, I see far fewer basketball players.
Caught in the crossfire are the officials who have to make instant judgments on the degree of punishment being inflicted on those getting hacked, bumped, pushed or leaned on at a particular moment. At the very least, the next time you watch a game, don’t watch the ball, but watch for the contact away from the ball. That off-the-ball fouls are rarely called certainly affects the flow of the offense.
Now I’m not blaming officials because, well, blaming the officials is too easy. I actually empathize with the officials. Theirs is mission impossible. The best thing they can do is to not legislate in favor of one side or the other and my observation is that, most often, they achieve that goal.
Besides, referees cannot dictate how the game is coached. And coaches now coach players to body-up, disrupt and restrict unimpeded movement.
That’s why, in some ways, Indiana’s top-ranked Hoosiers have offered a refreshing alternative to the increasingly prevalent bump-and-grind style of college hoops. Though Coach Tom Crean’s kids sometimes get going a little too fast for their own good—I’m reminded of Coach John Wooden’s famous line, “Be quick, but don’t hurry”—their collective ability to run the court, create offensive space and move the basketball almost seems like a throwback to a different era.
Hurryin’ Hoosiers, indeed, but still an anomaly. Indiana is the only team in the top 10 in the rankings that’s also in the top 10 in scoring (second, at 82.9 points per game).
Anyway, rather than just complain about college ball, I’d offer a few solutions, although they’re unlikely to be adopted.
One, which I’ve advocated before, is the trapezoidal lane used in international hoops. It creates space around the basket.
Two, shorten the current 35-second shot clock to 30 seconds, or even to the NBA’s 24.
Third, adopt the NBA’s new anti-flopping rule. No, the colleges can’t assess a monetary fine to a defensive player for flopping while trying to draw a charge like the NBA does, but it could assess a foul—or even a technical foul and a free throw—if a defensive player flops.
Finally, instruct officials to stop allowing “incidental” off-the-ball contact. The no-harm-no-foul” mentality is harming the game. The irony is that if you “let them play,” it actually restricts their ability to do just that.
At least in my opinion. But then, I’m both old and old-school. Not quite peach baskets, the keyhole lane and center-jump old-school, but old.
Like, I can even remember when officials didn’t huddle over replay monitors. They just made the call and the game played on.
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.