I’m surprised the teams playing in the NCAA Tournament don’t take the floor wearing overcoats.
We are, after all, in an official Ice Age of college basketball.
It’s appalling. It’s depressing. It is certainly painful to watch. Did someone legislate offense out of basketball when we weren’t looking? Offensively speaking, things were better not just 10, not just 20, not just 30 (actually, that was a deviant year), not just 40, not just 50, but, yes, 60 years ago. How can that be?
This is 2013. The athletes are themselves better than ever. So why should the theme of so many NCAA Tournament games be “first one to 60 wins”?
You think I was kidding about there being more scoring 60 years ago? Consider this. In the 1953 NCAA Tournament, which consisted of just 21 total games (therefore 42 individual team opportunities), individual teams broke 80 10 times and 90 once. There were seven games in which a team failed to score 60.
In 52 2013 tournament games played through Thursday, there were just 10 scores that broke 80 and one over 90. There had been 37 teams unable to break 60, nine unable to break 50, and one (Montana) scoring an embarrassing 34 points.
I’m not a big math whiz, but those numbers tell me that in 1953, 24 percent of the teams were able to break 80, while in this year’s tournament the number is under 9 percent.
And make sure you’re sitting down for this one. Just 20 years ago, the year of the infamous Chris Webber timeout, the numbers reflected a completely different college game, and all for the better.
In the 63 games played in the 1993 tournament, a team broke the 80-point barrier 43 times. Teams hit 90 a total of 17 times. Four teams actually broke 100. There were just 17 teams scoring under 60.
I turned to an expert for some interpretation. This gentleman won two NCAA titles. This gentleman submitted the greatest individual effort in a championship game, making 21 of 22 shots while scoring 44 points as UCLA whipped Memphis, 87-66, to win the 1973 title.
Take it away, Bill Walton.
“The game,” he thunders, “is over-coached and under-taught. It is over-thought and under-played.”
Walton is totally in agreement that the athletes are better than ever. He just wishes the coaches would let them play.
“Here is what John Wooden said to us before every game we ever played at UCLA,” Walton recalls. “He would say, ‘I’ve done my job. Now you have to do yours. Once the game starts, I can’t help you.’ ”
Tell that to the coaches who roam the sidelines, screaming, yelling, imploring, screeching, waving their arms, stomping, and even, in the case of Memphis’s Josh Pastner, executing a rather impressive cheerleading legs-extended leap or two.
They certainly think they can have an immediate impact on what the players they supposedly coached-up will do on the court. Wooden, it should be pointed out, sat on the bench for 40 minutes (Mike Krzyzewski, not surprisingly, is no roamer, either), rising only to address the team during a timeout
Here’s something Walton’s UCLA teams did: They passed the ball.
“The rule at UCLA was that if you’re dribbling, you’re not dribbling to set yourself up,” Walton explains. “You’re dribbling to set someone else up. One dribble was OK. Two, you’re passing the ball. There is so much mindless, senseless, purposeless dribbling going on in today’s game.”
I see a hand up in the back of the room. You say, “Hey, aren’t the defenses better today than ever?”
Yes, yup, OK, some credit must always be given to the defense. But it is a total fallacy that playing good, sound defense and executing aggressive, intelligent offense are somehow mutually exclusive concepts.
Defense matters, yes, but truly efficient basketball requires a balance between defense and offense. The sad fact is that defense has become predominant in the minds of far too many coaches, at every level, and it is strangling the life out of the game. There are far too many coaches who are happier when their team has the ball than when it doesn’t.
This thought crystallized for me on the afternoon of Nov. 24, 2003, when after watching Boston College’s exhilarating 84-81 conquest of a nice Wichita State team in the championship game of the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, I sought an affirmation of what a terrific early-season game this was from Shockers mentor Mark Turgeon (currently at Maryland).
“Coach,” I said, “I know you lost, but wasn’t that a great game? No dead spots. And do you know what the score was at the first media timeout?”
He said no. I told him it was 19-18.
Turgeon looked at me and uttered a statement that will serve as the final test someday as to whether or not I’ve gone senile. For when the day comes when I can no longer quote this reply verbatim, that will be an indication I have lost it.
“I guess,” he said, his voice dripping with condescension, “that’s OK if you like offense.”
Well, gee, Coach, yeah I like offense. And let me remind you that no one ever fell in love with this sport because he or she liked seeing someone stop another someone from scoring. They fell in love with the sport because it was fun to see the ball go through the orange rim.
Has anyone ever accused John Wooden of not caring about defense? Don’t be ridiculous. But in the 10 championship games his UCLA teams won, they averaged 84.6 points.
How about Bob Knight? Doesn’t he make you think about defense? In 1987, the occasion of his third NCAA title, the Hoosiers averaged 89.2 ppg in the tournament. In 1981, his championship team had tournament games of 99 and 87. Holding the ball does not constitute good defense.
I mentioned 1983. That was a year similar to this one. In 102 individual team opportunities, there were only eight teams reaching 80 and three over 90. There were 41 under 60. But we bounced back nicely in 1993 and we were just fine in 2003, with 26 scores over 80 and eight over 90 and just 19 under 60. Clearly, we’ve regressed.
Oh, and keep in mind that the 1953, 1963, 1973, and 1983 totals were all accomplished without the benefit of the 3-pointer. Can you imagine how pathetic it would be now if we didn’t have the foolish thing? But you don’t want to get me started on that, and how counterproductive the 3-pointer really is. We’ll table that.
This is mainly about coaches. They don’t trust the players. No one thinks as John Wooden did. True rim-to-rim fast breaking that doesn’t come out of steals is extinct. When I saw Michigan’s Mitch McGary actually throw a two-hand, overhead, Wes Unseld-style 50-foot outlet pass last week, I wanted to file adoption papers. I told Walton and I could hear him tearing up over the phone.
“That was the most fun I had in basketball,” Walton sighed. “Throwing those outlet passes.”
I feel truly sorry for the young’uns who like this game. I wonder what they would think if we could take them back to 1970 and Jacksonville’s four-game march to the national championship game: JU 109, Western Kentucky 96; JU 104, Iowa 103; JU 106, Kentucky 100; and JU 91, St. Bonaventure 83.
That would be OK with me. Unlike Mark Turgeon, I love offense.
Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.