Thrill of Victory

What's wrong with college basketball?

Earlier this week, I asked a panel of five writers and broadcasters who cover college basketball extensively to give me their thoughts on the state of the game. Today’s blog focuses on the major issues that are hurting the game. This is part two of a three-part series.

Individualism and declining skills
The common wisdom is that players just don’t shoot the ball as well as they once did. In a sense, that’s true; field goal percentages have fallen a few points in recent years, but field goal percentage is also a product of the skill and intensity of the defenses faced.

The only way I really know to test true shooting acumen is in uncontested shots, which of course leads one to study the free throw. Free throw percentages have generally been between 67 to 70 percent in the college game for the last 50 years, and although I don’t have a figure for that this year, I can tell you that the 173rd-best foul-shooting team of the NCAA’s 347 teams this year (Florida Atlantic) is hitting 69.2 percent of its shots as of today.

In other words, the best evidence suggests that the players shoot as well as they ever have. Something must have changed; it’s got to be something within the style of play or the way is called, and I think it’s both.

Go back and watch games from the 1980s. Teams threw the ball quickly around the perimeter quickly; the pace at which players caught the ball and looked for the next guy is nothing like it is today in a lot of games I see today. The instant a pass hit a player’s hands a couple of decades ago, he was already looking to get it to a teammate.

Better passing skill back in the day provided for better looks, which led to better percentages. As the saying goes, use it or lose it, and because players don’t pass as much, they don’t seem to be as good at it. Look no further than the virtual disappearance of the bounce-pass, which was once a big part of the game.

Fans today act like players of decades ago rarely missed open looks, but go back and watch video; it’s simply not true. They missed them as well, they just seemed to have more of them.

Passing has instead been replaced the one-on-one game. Rather than wait for a teammate to find you with a pass, so much of the game is predicated on taking a defender off-the-dribble and creating a shot, even when it’s not a good shot.

Chris DiSano, president of and an analyst for Cox Sports New England, thinks that the seeds of declining fundamentals are sown before players hit college.

“To me – I’ve heard college coaches that I know offer the same take which I agree with – it’s that the AAU, showcase culture has replaced the instructional culture that used to exist at the lower levels. Twenty years ago, there were a number of camps around the country that were very drill-oriented and instructionally focused. Many of those camps have now given way to tournaments and other events whose primary purpose is to showcase top talent rather than coach it up,” DiSano says.

“The result is a game that is largely driven by athleticism and explosiveness rather than skills and basketball I.Q. So college coaches are forced to spend the first couple of years instructing fundamentals much more so than they would have five, 10 or 20 years ago.”

Chris Dortch, editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, offers a very similar analysis.

“Somewhere along the line, the teaching of basic skills declined. Perhaps it was when the game began to be taken over, during the summer skills-building time at least, by AAU coaches and tournaments. Seems like the high school coaches aren’t as vital a part of a player’s entourage as they used to be,” Dortch says.

The other issue is defense and the way the game is officiated. Players are being asked to play through a level of contact that was almost unfathomable 25 years ago, especially in the post and on the ball. Combine that with better athleticism across the board through advanced strength and speed training, and it’s the perfect storm for offensive decline.

“This is a huge factor in the low-scoring games we’ve seen in recent seasons,” Dortch says. “Players can run and jump, they’re stronger, quicker, faster … but Johnny can’t score.”

The “one-and-done” rule
This in some ways goes hand-in-hand with the rise in individualism; a number of players are only in college for one year until the rules allow them to turn pro. For starters, that doesn’t allow as much for cohesive teams, since rosters turn over so much faster.

We also don’t get to see the elite players for nearly as long. I recently watched some old CBS footage of the network picking its “All-‘80s” college team. The network’s five players were Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Danny Manning, Isiah Thomas and James Worthy. Ewing and Manning stayed in college for four years; Jordan and Worthy, three; and Thomas, two. All but Manning made the NBA’s Hall of Fame, and even then Manning had a productive 15-year career.

Under the current culture, we’d be lucky to see any of those five stay beyond one season. Last season, there were 66 college players who declared early for the draft, with nine being freshman.

The incentive to play team ball often runs counter to the one to shine one’s NBA resume. Yes, John Calipari’s Kentucky team proved that you can sometimes build a cohesive team of one-and-done players, but that doesn’t always work – his similarly-built team for this season may not even make the NCAA Tournament.

However you slice it, former Kentucky and Vanderbilt beat writer Brett Hait agrees that it’s not helping the quality of play.

“Reformation of the college game needs to start by someone doing away with the one-year rule, whether it comes from the NCAA or the NBA. The charade needs to stop,” Hait says.

Other factors
Dortch cites advanced video scouting as something that’s hampering game play. He raises an interesting point, as this allows teams to scout offenses better than ever before. Ball screens are prominent in the game today, and I recently heard former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl saying that ball-screen defenses are far ahead of offenses right now.

Perhaps the increased footage available has something to do with that.Some think there are too many time outs, and I’d agree. There are already four media time-outs per game, plus up to five time outs per team. That’s 18 potential time outs in a 40-minute game. If you ever wonder why games seem to lack an offensive flow, there’s one big reason.