Thrill of Victory

Is college basketball in decline? Five experts weigh in

I love college basketball. My first big memory was as an 8-year-old watching Indiana State, led by Larry Bird, play Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the NCAA title game. (“They call him “Magic,” because his passes are like magic,” my father told me.) There were dozens of trips to Memorial Gym to watch Vanderbilt. Every March, I’d race home from school as fast as I could to watch the Southeastern Conference and NCAA Tournaments. In college, I’d generally catch three or four games in person each week between my alma mater (Lipscomb) and Vandy just down the road.

When the good life ended and the 9-to-5 life began, I never failed to save a couple of vacation days for the first two rounds of each year’s NCAA Tournament. I still fill out tournament brackets religiously every March, obsessing over every little detail of every game in hopes of finding that upset that no one else has picked.

So, to say that college hoops is in my blood is an understatement. But to say that I still find myself as enthralled with the games as I once was is unfortunately not true.

Before I go further, I realize it’s easy to idealize the “good old days” of any sport; the tendency of sports fans to do this without any critical thinking has been around as long as sport itself. That’s not what this is about. In some ways, the game is better; for starters, there are better athletes now than there have ever been, and I think we can all agree that basketball is better off without those hideous shorts that couldn’t even fully hide an average-sized pair of boxers now.

But whether you think college basketball is better or worse on the whole, it is undeniably a different game. In 1990-91, just a few years after the advent of the 3-point shot, teams averaged 76.1 points per game and shot 46.1 percent from the field. As of Feb. 1 this season, those numbers had fallen to 67.7 points and 43.3 percent.

I have spent a lot of the last week thinking about what made college basketball different in my formative years then than it is today. I also asked four of the more astute writers and broadcasters their opinions of what’s changed the game; they are, in no particular order, Mitch Light and Braden Gall of Athlon’s (Light is Athlon’s managing editor; Gall doubles as a host of Sirius XM’s College Sports Nation), president and Cox Sports New England commentator Chris DiSano, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch and former Vanderbilt and Kentucky beat writer Brett Hait, who has worked locally for as well as The City Paper.

I prefaced each conversation by saying that I thought that the physical nature of the game (in my opinion, there’s too much grabbing and holding) had led to the game’s downfall, and wanted to see if they agreed or disagreed. The first thing I learned from talking to these five is that beauty is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

“I don’t think the game has declined at all. It’s still the best sport going. Now certain aspects of the game have declined,” Dortch said. “Scoring is the most notable. And there are several reasons for that. As you said grabbing and holding is a factor. I think advanced strength training is a factor. Sometimes the games have become football on wood.”

Gall voiced a similar opinion to Dortch, and even took it a step further.

“I understand why fans and media members are harping on the physicality of college basketball and why they think it hurts the game. But this season has been absolutely loaded with exciting, dramatic finishes each and every week,” Gall said. “The games are competitive and we seem poised for a March Madness that could be one of the most wide-open and most entertaining in years. Calling more fouls might open up the game, I agree, but I don’t see the current balance and parity as a bad thing. I am more excited about the tournament than ever before.”

Perhaps because we’re the same age, Light’s take is almost identical to mine.

“I love college basketball, but I do believe the game has some issues. It’s true there are still some great games — we have seen a bunch in the past few weeks — but overall the quality of the product is declining. My biggest issue is the way the game is officiated. There is too much clutching and grabbing allowed, both on the perimeter and on cutters trying to run through the lane,” Light said.

“It’s very difficult to run a motion offense nowadays because the defense is allowed to hold so much. The game needs to be cleaned up, and it can be. If the officials called it tighter, players would adjust.”

DiSano and Hait seemed to share the sentiment that the game’s not getting better, though for different reasons.

Hait pulled no punches; an excerpt from a quote he e-mailed me today said, “… the quality of play at the college level is now as bad as I’ve ever witnessed, making it nearly unwatchable in many cases.”

DiSano’s reasoning revolves around the current AAU culture that dominates the game, while Hait primarily blames the current “one-and-done” rule that results in a mass exodus of talent after a player’s freshman season.

Some of the other experts I surveyed mentioned these things, as well as some more major issues I haven’t yet touched. I’ll have more of that on Wednesday, which will be Part 2 of a three-part series that will conclude on Friday.