Sunday, December 04, 2011

BCS Thoughts

It’s the first Sunday of December, so, of course, we have BCS outrage that people will incoherently scream about for the next 48 hours on talk radio. Every college football beat writer and television personality will chime in with their opinion in that same time. And, every idiot with a blog (myself included) will feel compelled to offer their thoughts. Then, amazingly, a month will pass with no outrage. People will go Christmas shopping, spend the Holidays with their families, bemoan the fact that New Year’s Eve is the most overrated night of the year, and finally, people will happily watch the New Year’s Day Bowl games while they eat collard greens and black-eyed peas. And only then, in the week leading up to the Rematch, will the outrage surface again. So, before the outrage subsides, let me take this opportunity to share mine.

Okay, that’s not really what I am doing here. For better or worse, at some point over the past several years, I have become a guy that appreciates sports for their entertainment and humor and very little more. The closest I have come to feeling outrage over anything sports related in these past several years was the NBA Lockout and that is only because I recognized that my winter and spring would be robbed of both my nightly entertainment and humor with no NBA, and more importantly, no Kenny, Chuck, Ernie, C-Webb, and Shaq. Now that I have that back, I’m cool. I like not feeling outraged about sports. Rightly or wrongly, it makes me feel mature and as if I somehow have my priorities in order. That said, I do have a few points about this year’s BCS Title Game I feel compelled to share:

First, anybody that argues that the Rematch is the “right” decision because Alabama and LSU are clearly the two best teams in the country (Yes, I’m talking to everyone at ESPN, including you Herbie) is offering an indefensible position. Why it is it indefensible? Because, by definition, you cannot know whether one team is better than another team unless you see them play one another. And, even then, it’s not an exact science. For example, I watched LSU v. Alabama I, and I know that Alabama easily could have won that game, but on that given night, the breaks didn’t go their way. So, even though LSU scored more points after overtime, I honestly don’t if they are better than Alabama. And, if I don’t know if LSU is better than Alabama, how in the world could I possibly know if Alabama or LSU is better than Oklahoma State, Stanford, or Boise State? I certainly can have an opinion, but opinions are subjective. Consequently, when you go on national television and try to pass off a subjective opinion as an objective fact, you look like you either are not smart enough to know the difference, or you look like you are trying to justify the result because your network paid gazillions of dollars for the broadcast rights to the BCS. Either way, you look silly. I knew Mark May was silly, but I really thought Herbie was better than that. Color me disappointed, Herbie.

Second, given the fact that OSU was one double OT loss at Iowa State away from the Title Game, I truly hope every human voter gave thoughtful consideration to the circumstances of that loss. Specifically, OSU took the field that Friday night in Ames approximately 24 hours after the school’s head women’s basketball coach and an assistant coach were tragically lost in a plane crash. Is this the reason they lost that game? I have no idea whatsoever. I do know, however, that we are talking about 18-22 year old young men that may or may not have ever had to deal with the fact that someone that they were accustomed to seeing all the time, or someone that their friends or girlfriends were very close with, would never pass by them in the dining hall or athletic offices again. Again, I have no idea what impact this tragedy had on those young men that night. I do know three things for certain, though: 1) that game day in Ames, whether it was the team breakfast, down time in the hotel, a possible walk through, and even dressing for the game in the locker room was, at least to some degree, not a normal day for those young men; 2) Coach Gundy and OSU will never, and I mean NEVER, bring this up in any argument on their behalf because they know that in the grand scheme of what is important in life, it would be wholly inappropriate and self-serving to do so; and 3) Because Coach Gundy and OSU could never even hint at the impact that tragedy had on them that night in Ames, it was the responsibility of the human voters to do so for them. If a voter took this into account and still felt it was appropriate to vote Alabama #2, that is fine and they should have had no hesitation about casting that vote. If a voter failed to take this into account, they failed to properly discharge their obligations

Next, tonight, Nick Saban actually made the best argument I have heard in favor of the Rematch, but he and his interviewer, Reece Davis (someone whose work and objectivity, despite being a ‘Bama grad, I admire very much ) failed to seize upon it. Specifically, Coach Saban said that Alabama and LSU played to a tie after 60 minutes, and LSU happened to get the better end of things in overtime. For those, like me, that loathe the randomness of the college overtime system, this is a fine argument: “Look, nobody disputes that LSU should be in this game, and after 60 minutes of football, we proved we are at least their equal, so let us finish the game.” That is how Saban should have phrased it. Of course, he rushed through the point and continued to make a bunch of statements that might not be true. I mean, I’ve been told by many LSU and Dolphins fans that is what he does, so I will take their word for it

Finally, I really hope LSU wins the Title Game. I feel this way not only because my close friend and LSU diehard, Ben, may walk around in a catatonic state for a month if they don’t, but also because I will feel terribly for the LSU players and coaches if they don’t. When you break this down to its core elements what you are left with is an LSU team that has not lost a game, has two more wins, one less loss, and one more conference title than Alabama, and beat Alabama on its home field. Now, if that same LSU team, after over a month break, has its first off night of the season and loses to Alabama in the Title Game, they will be forced to watch the team they already beat (on their home field – did I mention that?), with one less win and one less conference title, walk out of LSU’s de-facto home city with the Crystal Football LSU has focused its every waking minute on since the end of last season. How does that make any sense to anybody?

Furthermore, if Alabama wins, everything LSU has accomplished to this point in the regular season, which is historic on several levels, will amount to nothing. And, as someone who has railed against a college playoff system for fear it would cheapen the regular season, I will have to re-evaluate my position. And, nothing outrages me more than having to re-evaluate my position. So, for my sake, I really hope LSU wins. I have no desire to once again feel outrage toward anything sports related.

Friday, June 17, 2011

You Didn't Really Think I Wasn't Going to Write About Lebron, Did You?

With two wars raging (maybe three, depending on how the media decides to characterize Libya any given day), devastating floods ongoing, intolerable heat waves engulfing the deep south, and a seven term congressman resigning in disgrace after making Brett Favre look smart for only texting instead of tweeting, the two most frequent questions I’ve been asked over the past week are: 1) Do you think Kim Kardashian really hooked up with that guy on the Patriots?; and 2) What do you think happened to Lebron? I’m not sure if this says more about me, the people I spend most of my time talking to, or our society as a whole. Regardless, I have no idea as to the answer to either question, but in both cases, I certainly have an opinion. Coincidently, I would argue that both opinions are based on empirical evidence. For the sake of brevity and so as not to state the obvious, let’s skip over the Kim question and move right to Lebron.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about a person or topic more in a week than I have talked about Lebron this week. The theories I’ve heard tossed around have ranged from ones involving Rashard Lewis pulling a Donte West (all alleged) to Lebron never recovering from the tongue lashing D. Wade gave him in Game 3. I even heard one guy say that it looked like LBJ was shaving points. Okay, that guy was me, but I was totally kidding. Everybody knows that nobody has shaved points in a high profile basketball game since UNLV in the ’91 Final Four. What? That didn’t happen? I’m still demanding an investigation.

Well, after much consideration and amateur psycho babble, I’ve finally settled on the theory that evolved out of one of the many LBJ psycho analysis sessions my buddy Joe and I conducted over the past week. Basically, there seem to be two types of uber successful people in sports (and, probably in all walks of life): 1) The people that constantly view themselves as the underdogs, either perceived or real; and 2) That rare group of people that are so incredibly talented and physically gifted that success not only comes easy to them, it’s an inevitability.

Those in the first group sometimes morph into the second group (see Jordan, Michael). But, even when they morph into the second group, they never lose their group 1 roots and continue to work as if the deck is stacked against them. They refuse to accept the fact that they can put things on cruise control. They invent ways to pit themselves in the underdog role by inventing slights that didn’t actually happen or taking small slights and turning them into much bigger deals than they actually are. For an example, just think back to MJ’s maniacal evisceration of Karl Malone in the ’97 Finals after Malone received his sympathy MVP award. Should MJ have been so pissed that he was denied his fifth MVP award? Probably not, but he has group 1 DNA , so he had no choice. He found an obstacle in his way (i.e. Karl Malone), and he chose to do everything in his power to destroy it. That’s what the group 1 guys do. If you challenge their greatness, you are going to face the consequences.

In contrast, Lebron is squarely a group 2 guy. Since he was in 10th grade, the question was never if he would be a great basketball player, it was whether he would be the greatest basketball player of all time. Since we first came to know LBJ, we’ve been constantly awed by his athleticism and the ease in which he can dominate a game based solely on his physical gifts. He’s never been the underdog and we’ve never questioned his greatness. We’ve never doubted that LBJ would win rings, we’ve just wondered if he could get to MJ’s mythical level of six rings. Now, however, twice in two years (in last year’s Boston series and this year’s Finals), we’ve seen two inexplicable disappearing acts that have made us question everything we’ve ever believed about his apparent greatness. Last year, we could explain away the Game 5 in Boston with crappy teammates, impending free agency, the weight of his hometown on his shoulders, and, well, that alleged Delonte thing. This year? Nobody seems to have any clue what happened.

As for me, the only conclusion I’ve ultimately come to is that LBJ potentially fell victim to the same fate that the group 2 guys too often seem to encounter. Specifically, when everything has always come with relative ease and your greatness is naturally assumed, sometimes it is easier to put on the breaks and not take the big shots than it is to dig deeper and take the responsibility of winning and losing on your shoulders. The reason? If you fail but don’t put yourself completely on the line, it can be easier to swallow than if you give everything you have, take the big shots and big risks and come up short. You can always tell yourself, “if I had really given it all I had, we would have won”, and nobody can prove you wrong. Put simply, you don’t have to face the reality that, no matter how gifted you are, on occasion, your best might not be good enough.

By all appearances, LBJ is content to be great when the circumstances don’t require him to potentially expose himself to failure. The crazy thing is that it’s a matter of self perception rather than popular perception. Sure, we are all left wondering, “what if Lebron had just been average”? (My favorite writer/talk radio host/sports personality, Dan LeBatard, has asked this question no less than 30 times this week). I suppose Lebron takes some consolation from this lingering question, but what he doesn’t seem to understand is that fans, the media, and his peers would hold him in higher regard if he had been willing to put it on the line against the Mavs, and he had come up short. As strange as it sounds, there is a certain nobility in giving it everything you have and coming up short.

I mean, if you ask me if I have more respect for John Stark’s 2-18 Game 7 in the ’94 Finals or LBJ’s disappearing act in this year’s Finals, it’s not even close. Even as his shots continued to miss the mark, Starks did not succumb to the despair or the fear. For better or worse (I guess worse, if you are a Knicks fan), he never wavered from his commitment to take the responsibility of winning and losing on his shoulders. Consequently, while we all remember the 2-18, basketball junkies, almost to a man, still remember Starks as a warrior that had onions that would make Bill Rafferty proud. Even in a loss, Starks strangely cemented a legacy. As Hemingway famously said, “a man is not made for defeat.” Starks lost, but he was not defeated. LBJ, unfortunately, cannot say the same.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

At Long Last

"Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team - no one more important that the other." - Coach Norman Dale, Hickory High.

Most "old school" basketball fans will probably tell you this quote from the greatest sports movie ever made provides the ultimate key to success on the hardwood. As much as I love Coach Dale (even though he stupidly considered running the last play against South Bend Central for someone other than Jimmy - I mean, was he auditioning for the George Mason head coaching job or something?), I've actually always felt like this philosophy was partially flawed. Instead, the Dunn key to basketball success goes a little something like this:

"Five players on the floor functioning as a single unit: team, team, team - one guy way more important than the others."

The Dunn Philosophy is definitely a product of the teams of my youth and their unquestioned superstars: In the 80's it was the Lakers (Magic), Celtics (Bird), Pistons (Isiah); in the 90's it was the Bulls (MJ) and Rockets (Hakeem); and in the '00's it was the Lakers (Shaq), the Spurs (Duncan), the Heat (Wade) and the Lakers again (Kobe). Sure, each of these stars had significant help, whether it be Kareem, Worthy, Pippen, Vernon Maxwell (easy, it's a joke), Kobe, Ginobli & Parker, Shaq, Gasol, etc... You get the point. Under my theory, it's not enough to be five guys functioning as one unit. You need a superstar, and that superstar needs a sidekick or two.

All that said, with the addition of the "superstar" to the mix, I still buy into the first part of Coach Dale's philosophy. Specifically, it is still essential for all five guys, Superstar included, to function as one unit. Or, to use the vaguest and most over-used term in sports, the five guys on the floor must have "chemistry." Since I took Chemistry from a professor that didn't speak English, I don't really know what the term means. As best I can tell, though, a team has "chemistry" when the five guys on the floor play unselfishly, put their own personal agendas aside, and focus only on winning. I've put that last part in bold for a reason, which I may or may not get to tonight depending on how much I have left in the tank. If not tonight, soon. I promise.

Okay, so where am I going with this? It's actually quite simple. After all the months of hype and well written, but entirely unnecessary Brian Windhorst articles, we've finally reached the moment when the Heat and Celtics are going to collide and either the Celtics are going to provide further support for mine and Coach Dale's theory that success is contingent upon "Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team", or the Heat are going to blow our theory all to hell. While he hasn't tread the same path getting to this same point, the great writer Bill Simmons (you know, the guy most of you accuse me of poorly ripping off?), has gone as far as to say that this series will put to the test everything he has ever believed about basketball. And, while Simmons used over 700 pages in his best selling "The Book of Basketball" to sum up what it is he believes, I can sum it up like this: He, like me and Coach Dale, believes five players on the floor must function as a single unit. Not nearly as marketable as 700 pages, but it gets you where you need to go.

As for the series, here's how it breaks down:

1) The Celtics are the grizzled veteran team. And, true, they aren't exactly devoid of stars since they feature four All-Stars and three future Hall of Famers (if any of you still want to argue Allen's and Pierce's HOF credentials with me after Reggie Miller just got the nod, I would kindly just ask you to argue with a wall. It may be more receptive than me), but, only one of those four stars, Paul Pierce, can still sniff the scent of Super Stardom. Instead, when at their best, the Celtics are the definition of the whole "five guys on the floor functioning as a single unit" philosophy. Over the course of the regular season, each of their five starters averaged double figures in points. 6 guys averaged more than 4 boards a game. Each of their current five starters shot 45% or greater from the field, with the team posting a 48.6% average. And, the Celtics averaged 23.4 assists/game as a team.

2) Now, let's look at the Heat. You know the story, and I don't need to rehash it. But, just in case you have been under a rock since July, or in case you don't care about NBA basketball (probably not enjoying this if that is the case), the Heat have arguably the best two players in the world, and a third guy that is arguably in the top 20 - arguably. At any rate, those three guys, we'll call them "LBW", are the only Heat to average in double figures, and collectively, they account for 70% of the Heat's points, 53% of all the Heat rebounds, and 67.5% of the Heat's assists. In fact, LeBron averages nearly 20 points/game more than the Heat's fourth most prolific scorer, Mike Bibby (7.3 ppg). Honestly, looking through all the statistics, I could on and on, but I think the point is clear: The Heat, unlike the Celtics, or any other team for that matter, are a three man team. It's LBW and 9 other guys wearing the same uniform and collectively trying their hardest to stay out of the way and not mess things up for LBW.

So, in sum, we have a clash between what many consider the NBA's most "complete" team because of its great "chemistry" and a unit out of Miami that, frankly, doesn't even resemble a "team" in any form that either me or Coach Dale recognizes. And, you know what makes this so fascinating? As of this moment, the Heat are a -180 favorite to win the series. In other words, despite having never seen a "team" like the Heat assembled before, and having nothing but decades of empirical evidence to support the belief that the Celtics "chemistry" should give them the edge over the Heat's lack thereof, the American betting public (admittedly, a suspect sample group) is pooping all over me and Coach Dale. Basketball fans (at least those that enjoy a good wager) have come to believe that 3 can be greater than 5 when that 3 features 2 of the best players alive (that 3>5 when 3 = 2 > world, got it?) Am I buying it? Not just yet. But, I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't very afraid that the Heat are about to rip away the curtain to reveal my long held beliefs floating away like Wilson the Volleyball in "Castaway". And, if this happens, much like Tom Hanks, I'm pretty certain I will react like a crazy man with a righteous beard and a missing tooth...at least until the Bulls have a chance to resurrect my theory in the Conference Finals.

Oh, remember up above when I put this in bold: "put their own personal agendas aside, and focus only on winning"? Well, as you likely predicted, I ran out of steam for tonight. But, I promise there's more to this, and I will get to it in the days ahead (if this were radio, or even a blog people actually read, you would call that a tease). For now, enjoy the start of Round 2. OKC and Memphis - two of America's great bbq hot spots - tip off in less than 12 hours. That means Kevin Durant should have 20 on the board in less than 13 hours.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How Big is the Three?

In my last post, way back on Super Bowl Sunday (a/k/a The Day Dunn was convinced it was finally time for an OT Super Bowl - long story), I went to great lengths to break down what I view as the deterioration of the quality of play in college basketball. Let's just say that my comments were met with some support and with some suggestions to do unspeakable things to myself. Pretty much like most of my comments on most subjects. At the very least, though, I touched a nerve, which was somewhat gratifying. Now that we are quickly approaching what is going to be a historic Final Four, fear not. I have not returned to poop on the lawn that is the best weekend in college basketball. Granted, many of the games in this tournament have been horribly hard on the eyes (yes, I'm talking to you Butler and Wisconsin, among others), but even I have to admit that the excitement of the tournament still delivers. I would, however, point out that there is a difference between an "exciting" game and a "good" game, but again, I'm not here to beat a dead horse (can we still use this expression in the post Mike Vick world?...I'll just move on).

My purpose here is to offer my answer to the questions I've heard a thousand times (not literally...it's a writing device) over the past few weeks, and especially over the last 24 hours: How do these mid-majors keep pulling these upsets?; and how in the hell is VCU in the Final Four?

Well, for starters, I still maintain that a lot of the rationale set forth in my previous post provides insight into these answers (i.e. talent and skill levels diluted due to one and dones, AAU, Lindsay Lohan dropping her last name, etc...), but among all the points I made below, I think the one that has gained the most validation in this tournament (at least in my own tortured mind) is the fact that now, more than ever, the three point shot wholly dominates the college game. By way of illustration, let's look at some of the biggest upsets of the tournament, and we will end with VCU run:

#12 Richmond over Vandy - 43% of Richmond's FG attempts were 3 point shots. They took 24, and they made 12 for a 50% clip. Vandy, on the other hand, made half as many 3's. Fair to say the +18 differential from behind the arc was key in the Spiders' 3 point win? Now, the flip side of this equation ultimately reared its ugly head against the Spiders when they took on Kansas in the Sweet 16. In that game, Richmond hoisted 40% of its FG attempts from behind the arc, but they only made 4 out of 26. Yep, that's a whopping 15.4%. Their shooting performance was so poor that I'm pretty sure the game was relegated to TruTV's awful HD in the second half.

#8 Butler over #1 Pitt - So, those pesky Bulldogs took 52% of their shots from behind the arc, and they made 12 of their 27 attempts (44.4%). Couple that with the most ridiculous foul call....never mind. Butler won.

#8 Butler over #2 Florida - This one blew my mind. Butler took 55% of their shots from behind the arc - a total of 33 shots from three point range. Now, they only made 9 of them. But, when you consider Florida threw up two ridiculous 3's at the end of regulation and OT after having only made 3 such shots the entire game (I will spare you a whole other rant on the atrocious end of game management we've seen in this tournament), you again find a +18 three point margin, which I would venture to say was fairly decisive in a three point OT win over the worst coached program to ever win back to back national championships. Okay, I spared you the rant, but I had to throw in a snarky comment. Thanks for your indulgence.

Now, let's look at VCU:

Play in game (I refuse to call it round 1): They drain 9 threes. USC connects on a shockingly gruesome grand total of 1 three. That's a +24 margin for those keep score at home.

Round 1: Against Georgetown, the Rams took 57% of their field goal attempts from behind the arc, and made 48% of them (12 for 25). Now, consider the fact that they only made 18 FG's in the entire game! How in the world do you beat a Big East school when you only make 18 FG's in a game? Well, when that Big East School takes half it's field goal attempts (26) from behind the arc and makes only 5 of them (19.2%), you are looking pretty good. If you are John Thompson The Original, did you ever think you would see a day that the Hoyas would out rebound an opponent by 10, make 58% of its 2 point shots, and lose by 18 points? Pretending I am John Thompson The Original, I will simply say "no".

Round 2: The Purdue game doesn't really help illustrate my point, so I'm calling it an aberration, and I'm moving on. Hey, this is my blog, I make the rules.

Sweet 16: The Rams took 26 threes (49% of their field goal attempts), and they made 12 (46.2%). FSU only made 7 of 19 threes, but they did out rebound VCU 45-28 and 20-5 on the offensive glass. In other words, even with the +15 from behind the arc, VCU only won this game because FSU proved what we all have known for quite some time: FSU can't score from anywhere on the floor, even under the basket. Honestly, this is the most amazing box score of the tournament. In addition to the ridiculous rebounding numbers, FSU put up a staggering 18 more field goal attempts than VCU and still managed to lose. Forget all my theories about AAU, I'm going to start blaming the demise of college basketball on Leonard Hamilton...and Rick Barnes, of course.

Elite 8: This is where it gets fun. This is where the insanity should have stopped and VCU should have gone back to Richmond with a great story to tell as they watched Kansas play in the Final Four next weekend. But, luckily for us, we have Bill Self and his phenomenal game plans and in game adjustments. Check out these numbers: VCU, the grossly undersized and out manned team, takes 47% of its field goal attempts from deep and hits 12-25 (48%). At this point, I think it's worth noting that this is the same VCU team that shot 37% from three in the regular season (translation: they are collectively out of their minds right now). So, the Rams shot great. That's awesome for them, but that really shouldn't matter for the Jayhawks, who have an incredible size advantage and should be able to get whatever shot around the basket whenever they want it. So, how did Kansas counter? Well, of course, in true Selfian fashion, they proceed to throw up 21 threes. They make 2 of them (9.5%). I'm going to put that a different way: Kansas, the team with the size, talent, and jersey advantage (you know, the "we're effing Kansas, your VCU" advantage) decided to stop running an offense and throw up brick after brick from beyond the arc. The result, of course, is that Shaka Smart is going to increase his bank account by about $2 million/year come Tuesday of next week, and we are going to witness a national semifinal on Saturday that could feature 80 three point shots and 70 total points scored. Don't think for a minute that's not possible.

The ultimate takeaway here is not that the three gives less talented teams a chance to beat more talented teams. That's not a revelation. We've known that ever since Billy Donovan was learning all he knows from Rick Pitino at Louisville. Well, everything except for how to coach a team in the final minutes of a close game. No, the real takeaway here is that when the more talented teams are willing to engage in a three point battle with these less talented teams, they are placing themselves on equal footing with the less talented teams, and upsets are no longer possible, they are as equally likely to happen as not (by the way, that is what "equal footing" means. I enjoy being redundant from time to time).

Think of it this way: when I was a little kid (say around 7 or 8), I played my older neighbor, Brian, one on one every day. Brian was probably 6 or 7 years older than me, and he was bigger and stronger than me (he was also very kind for taking the time to play basketball with the brat across the street). So, I would tell him he was only allowed to shoot from behind an arbitrary line I would draw. Suddenly, his size and strength were neutralized, and I would manage to lose 21-4 instead of 21-0 (granted, he would let me score the 4). There came a time, however, when I could actually shoot a little, and Brian would no longer agree to stay behind that line, and the 21-0 beatings recommenced. Well, it's time that the more talented teams in college basketball stop letting the less talented teams keep them behind that arbitrary line because, if we know nothing else, we know that everybody now has the potential to get hot at the right time and shoot a little.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

A Super Sunday Article Not About Super Sunday

After three and half months of silence, here I am resurfacing on the eve of the Super Bowl. So, I must be here to write the 4 millionth Super Bowl preview you’ve seen on the internet? Not so much. Sure, I’m excited about tomorrow’s game, but the truth is that I have about as much valuable analysis to offer as every other blow hard with a blog. In other words, I have nothing. So, instead of throwing out baseless predictions for a game I am yet to see, I thought I would take a few moments and offer some observations about something I did see with my own two eyes today: the current state of college basketball.


Today, I had the good fortune of accompanying one of my great friends to the Tech/Clemson basketball game. Once we arrived and found our seats a little less than desirable, we had the even better fortune of making our way down to great seats on the floor. From this vantage point, we not only had the opportunity to take in a great view of the game, but we had the opportunity to share a few brief moments with the always gracious and entertaining legendary voice of the Jackets, Wes Durham. Sitting right behind Wes, and watching this, well….less than artful game unfold in front of us, I couldn’t help but think about at topic Wes has recently written about and discussed on his radio show: the general public’s waning interest in college basketball. I was particularly pleased to see Wes’s articles on the subject, because it provided me with a little vindication. Specifically, around last year’s NCAA tournament, I engaged in a lengthy email exchange with several of my most die-hard college basketball fan buddies, in which I expressed my fear that, within a generation, college basketball may find itself on par with college baseball in the public consciousness. The reaction I received included a few less than subtle inquiries into my sanity. That said, if you haven’t read Wes’s thoughts on the subject, I encourage you to do so.

You can find part 1 here:

http://www.790thezone.com/blogs/WesDurham/blogentry.aspx?BlogEntryID=10193261

and part 2 here:

http://www.790thezone.com/blogs/WesDurham/blogentry.aspx?BlogEntryID=10193870.

Wes does a much more comprehensive job of examining some of the major problems facing the sport than I plan to do here, but one thing he does not directly address (although I believe he intimates at it in part 2) is the problem that I believe is the single biggest threat to the college game today. Specifically, it appears, at least to the casual observer, that the quality of play in college basketball has declined to nearly unacceptable levels. In fact, at times, the college game is almost unwatchable.

Okay, so I’ve just made a bold statement (desperate attempt to keep your attention? Maybe), but I don’t believe it is without cause. For those of us who grew up in the glory days of college basketball (the golden years of the Big East and ACC in the 80’s and 90’s), the game we see today barely resembles the days of fluid offense that consisted of swift ball movement, open back door cuts, open 17 footers, and only the occasional three point bomb. There was a time when teams that depended heavily on the three ball (i.e. Pitino’s Providence and Kentucky teams) were outliers. Now? Teams hoist the three with reckless abandon. For example, in the three games I watched today (Tech/Clemson; A&M/Baylor; and Gonzaga/Memphis) the total percentages of the field goals taken behind the arc were 33%, 35%, and 42%, respectively. And, the average of the points scored in regulation by the six teams participating in those three games was 63.2 points. Admittedly, this a grossly small sample size, but the numbers support my hypothesis, so I’m going with them. If you have a problem with that, I’ll give you a full refund. Let us continue…

Now, keeping the stats from today’s games in mind, consider that the 3 point shot made up only 27% of the field goal attempts taken by Pitino’s ’95-’96 Kentucky team (one of the aforementioned outliers of the 90’s), and that team averaged….wait for it….you really aren’t going to believe this….91 freaking points per game. In other words, one of the most prolific three point shooting teams of the 90’s took less threes and averaged dozens more points than the teams we now see. Granted, that Kentucky team may have been the greatest of all time, but, again, those stats really help my argument, so let’s just go with them. Agreed? Good.

Seriously, despite the inadequate sample sizes and extreme examples, these figures are important because, in my mind at least, they back up what I’m seeing with my own eyes. The college game has turned into nothing more than a dribble, drive, kick game. What do I mean by that? Well, for the most part, we never see teams come down and run fluid offensive sets, move the ball, hit the cutters, or feed the flashing post men for easy buckets. Instead, we see a point guard bring the ball up, drive to the middle and do one of two things: throw up a shot himself or kick out to a three point shooter on the wing. The result is that teams are scoring in limited ways. Either the guard makes the often wild shot in the lane. Or, the three point shooter knocks down the trey. Or, a big guy, who is never going to get the ball in the confines of the offense, grabs an offensive board and puts it back in. Or, finally, a defender slow on the rotation to stop the initial penetration, or an out of position defensive rebounder, bails out the offense by committing a foul.

The result of all this is that the game looks sloppier, choppier, and we are seeing way too many games played in the 50’s and 60’s. Again, my empirical proof is limited (translation: it’s late and I don’t want to take the time to run a lot of numbers), but let’s just look at the five games played today in the once might ACC. Six of the ten teams that played today scored less than 60 points in regulation. The total average of points scored in regulation by those ten teams was 63.6, and this includes the 91 points thrown up by Maryland against a woeful Wake Forest team. If you want to take it a little further, just look at the Big Ten, which is considered by some to be the best conference in America. Only four teams played in the Big Ten today. They combined for an average of 67 points.

These numbers (again, for the umpteenth time are admittedly limited) support what I’ve been seeing with my own eyes for the past several years: the college game is increasingly tough to watch because, with few exceptions, teams simply do not have the patience, discipline, or commitment to run fluid, cohesive, and effective offense, and the result is less points, which as The Angel of Stern (trademark: Tony Kornheiser) will tell you, can ultimately kill your league.

So, now that we know what I think the problem is, let me tell you what I blame for bringing us to this point. I have two answers: 1) AAU; and 2) Duke. The first answer probably doesn’t surprise you, but the second one might (and, it probably delights some of you). Let’s first address AAU.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s we really started seeing the emergence of the AAU leagues, and more importantly, the AAU coaches as the most important element in recruiting. Since that time, the AAU platform has exploded, and the top players, from the time they are in 8th grade, are playing far more games with their AAU programs than with their school programs. On the surface, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you attend an AAU tournament, you start to understand the roots of what we are seeing manifesting itself in the college game. Specifically, as the elite players start to separate themselves from the others, their AAU season turns into their summer long audition. They use the AAU season as an opportunity to showcase their skills for not just the college coaches, but also the shoe execs and every other person hanging around these tournaments that could potentially benefit them over the next few years. The result is that the guards take every possession as an opportunity to prove how easily they can get to the rim, and the shooters take every touch as an opportunity to show their range.

I’ll give you an example. In summer 2006, I traveled to Augusta to watch one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious AAU tournaments, the Peach Jam. While there, I watched Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon play alongside each other. They were awesome. In fact, Rose was breath takingly awesome. The only problem was that nobody on the team seemed to touch the ball other than Rose and Gordon, and Gordon never seemed to venture inside the three point line. Now, five years later, we have seen Derrick Rose become arguably the best point guard in the NBA, with incredible passing skills. Those passing skills, however, went largely uncultivated until he entered the NBA because, quite frankly, there was no need for him to showcase them while playing AAU or in college. Again, it’s just one example, but if AAU can turn one of the most gifted passers of a generation, who knew by the time he was 17 that he was going to play in the NBA, into a non-passing guard focused only on scoring, imagine the effect it has on kids much more desperate to stand out and earn their scholarship.

Now, as for Duke, the argument is a little tougher to sell. Bear with me, though. In 1998, Duke featured a lineup of Will Avery, Trajon Langdon, Chris Carrawell, Elton Brand, and Shane Battier, with Nate James and Corey Maggette coming off the bench. If ever a team was built to run the dribble, drive, and kick offense, it was this team. With Carrawell driving and kicking to Trajon or Will, or with Will driving and kicking to Trajon or Shane, you couldn’t go wrong. Well, unless you have Trajon driving to win a national championship and he walks from Durham to Chapel Hill, but whatever. The point is that this team had great penetrators, a good deep threat with Battier, a great deep threat in Avery, and one of the greatest deep threats of all time with Langdon. They also had Brand, Battier, and Maggette to swallow offensive rebounds. So, since he is the greatest coach that’s ever lived, Coach K embraced his strength and turned his guys lose to be the pioneers of the dribble, drive, kick offense. That team won 37 games and lost to Rip Hamilton, Ricky Moore, Khalid El-Amin and Co. in one of the great national title games of all time. Hard to argue with that success. So, what did Coach K do the next year? He replaced Avery, Maggette, and Langdon with Jason Williams (the motorcycle one, not the limo shooter or white one), Carlos Boozer, and Mike Dunleavy. And, considering Jason Williams was one of the greatest penetrators AND one of the greatest shooters the ACC has ever seen, and since Dunleavy was a pretty deadly shooter (who ultimately became a solid penetrator), and since Boozer was a pretty fair garbage man on the block, they didn’t miss a beat. They continued the dribble, drive, and kick parade. The result? A national championship in 2001. Since then, Duke has not changed it’s identity, and it’s been to two more final fours (’04 and ’10), won another national title (’10), and won six ACC Titles. It is the model program in college basketball, and it is the founder of the dribble, drive, kick attack. So, it’s natural that every other program wants to copy the Blue Devils, right? Well, there’s two big problems: 1) very few programs can attract the talent for the system Duke attracts; and 2) No other program in America has Coach K implementing the system.

So, while dribble, drive, and kick works just fine for Duke, it’s not the answer for the game as a whole. Think about it this way: If I see Brad Pitt wearing a shirt with horizontal stripes and I overhear a woman saying how great he looks in that shirt, should I run out and buy the same shirt? The answer is, of course, a resounding “no”. Why? Brad Pitt is thin with movie star good looks. Horizontal stripes work for him. I’m fat with a face for radio. If I’m wearing stripes, they better be vertical. Some people have the gifts to pull off certain things, and some don’t. If you don’t recognize when you don’t have the gifts to wear horizontal stripes, you aren’t just hurting yourself, you are hurting all those people that have to look at you. Similarly, if you don’t have the talent to run the dribble, drive, kick offense, you aren’t just hurting yourself, you are hurting the fans that you are asking to pay to watch you. And, if you can’t figure that out, ultimately, nobody is going to be left watching you. Don’t believe me? Just check the college basketball ratings and attendance numbers.

Before signing off, let me just make two last points: 1) In the Tech/Clemson game, Clemson actually did a fairly nice job moving the basketball and getting it in the hands of their best post player, Jerai Grant. Consequently, he scored 20, and Clemson shot 57% from the floor. So, maybe there is hope. 2) As those of you that know me well know, I love basketball more than any other sport, and I have spent most of my life as a die-hard college basketball fan. So, this is a topic I really care about and would not only invite conversation and debate on this topic, but I would really enjoy it. In other words, feel free to rip me with impunity.