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:

and part 2 here:

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.