By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA — There is dribbling, lots of dribbling, in college basketball these days. There is bumping and banging, lots of bumping and banging. Not to mention all the grabbing and tripping and colliding.
If this was roller derby, it would be OK.
But this is NCAA hoops, and it’s downright ugly.
There is little running the court, or soaring through the air, or crisscrossing through the lane, all the things that make this such a beautiful game. No, more often than not it’s just organized mayhem, with plenty of stalling thrown in for good measure, which not surprisingly makes everyone look like the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
The college game, quite frankly, is in need of a major overhaul.
“Our game is brutal to watch right now,” said Jay Bilas, an analyst for ESPN.
In case you haven’t noticed — and how could you not? — scoring hasn’t been this low since at least 1982, and one has to go all the way back to the early 1950s to find another season that beats this one for offensive ineptitude. Field-goal percentages are at 1960s levels. Three-point shooting has never been this bad since the long-range line was added in the 1980s.
Some people want to blame the players, saying they’re not as good as they once were, not as fundamentally sound, that the good ones don’t stick around long enough to make an impact on the game.
The players are as good as they’ve ever been. Sure, it hurts when someone takes the one-and-done route, but that’s not the major issue confronting the game. No, this is about coaches who paralyze their players with overcoaching, about referees who are reluctant to call all the fouls they surely see, about a scattered system of governance that makes it difficult to address the problems with a broad stroke.
So, while professional leagues such as the NBA, the NFL and even the NHL have taken significant steps to clean up their sports and boost scoring, college basketball has gone the opposite direction.
“It’s organized fouling,” Bilas said. “The referees feel like they can’t call it all, and they don’t call it all. The result is we’re having wrestling matches instead of basketball games. It doesn’t take long, if you’re really watching, to see what’s happening and say, ‘Oh my god, this is awful.’”
Northern Illinois set an NCAA record by scoring only four points in the first half of a 42-25 loss to Eastern Michigan, and it’s not at all that unusual for teams to be held under 50 points. The elite programs aren’t immune to these sort of games, either. Last month, Kansas scored fewer than 70 points in six straight games for the first time since the mid-’70s. And guess what? The Jayhawks won all six of them, content to run the shot clock and rely on their stifling defense.
Even teams that prefer to run-and-gun can sometimes look like they’re playing in quicksand. North Carolina State, for instance, is tied with Duke for the Atlantic Coast Conference scoring lead at 78 points per game. But the Wolfpack lost to Maryland 51-50 and fell to Virginia 58-55.
“Our game,” coach Mark Gottfried said, “is tremendously more physical than it used to be. I think it’s a gradual thing, year by year by year by year. All you have to do is grab a tape from the ’90s or the mid-’80s, and you can watch it and you’ll say, ‘Wow, there’s very little contact.’”
Anyone can see the game is more physical than ever, but you can’t tell by listening for sound of the whistle. Incredibly, fouls have dipped to a per-team average of 17.6, nearly a half-foul less than last season and on pace to be the fewest in NCAA history, going back to 1948.
“These games are ridiculous,” Bilas said. “The amount of contact that’s allowed — the hand-checking, the arm bars, the dead-on pushing, the body checks on the shooter, the contact after the shot is released. Guys are getting knocked down and it’s not called.”
But this isn’t necessarily a knock on the refs. With 32 Division I conferences overseeing the officials (at least until they get to the NCAA tournament, when the national governing body takes over), there’s too many masters and not a clear way to implement the sort of widespread changes that are needed in the way the game is called.
Which brings us to a few of the changes that are needed ASAP to get the game back on track:
— Consolidate the referees under one sanctioning body. It’s vital that everyone be held to the same standard. For instance, if hand-checking is going to be a point of emphasis, then everyone should get the memo, regardless of what league they’re playing in. At the very least, Bilas said, the major conferences should come together on this issue.
— Follow the rule book. A bunch of new regulations aren’t needed; there’s plenty of things that aren’t being called already. No one wants see the game become nothing more than a free-throw contest, and it may take a year or two for the message to sink in. But it will.
— Reduce the 35-second shot clock. This is more of a step to show the fans that college basketball is serious about addressing its problems, and likely would have less impact than the first two steps. But going with the NBA’s 24-second clock or, at the very least, the 30-second clock already used in the women’s game would undoubtedly create more possessions.
Certainly, there needs to be more shooting. This season, teams are taking an average of 55.2 shots per game, which is roughly on par with the past few seasons but pales in comparison to the 1950s, ’60s and early 70s, when the average was generally in the high 60s.
Which brings us to another matter that can’t be addressed through legislation: coaching.
Unlike the NBA, this will always be a game that’s more about the guys wearing suits than those out on the court. And too many of the suits have decided that winning is all that matters, even if the style they’re using is ruining the game.
Check out Alabama, which hasn’t scored more than 60 points in its past eight games but is tied for second in the Southeastern Conference. Coach Anthony Grant actually sounds proud of his team’s offensive woes, saying an “ugly win beats a pretty loss any day of the week.” Maybe so, but it shouldn’t be every day of the week, which is what the sport is becoming.
Or listen to Georgetown coach John Thompson III, who insists that the game is just as good as it’s ever been. “I don’t think the level of play is down at all,” he said. “I think defenses across the board are better now, but I don’t think the fact that the scoring has gone down means that the game is any less exciting.”
We beg to differ.
Heck, there are even some coaches who find it tough to watch. And judging by all the empty seats we’re seeing at arenas around the country, there are plenty of fans with the same mindset.
“A couple of nights ago, I’m watching an SEC game and there’s 5 minutes to go in the half and one team has six points or eight, something like that,” Gottfried said. “Just as a fan watching the game, that’s not a lot of fun.”