The 1982-83 regular season will be remembered as the one during which college basketball turned its gyms into labs and its players into experimental mice.
The mice in five conferences will be set loose in a maze of three-point lines (diagram, page 44) and asked to shoot before shot clocks of all varieties sound their alarms (chart, page 46). The mice in four leagues will have only the three-point maze to deal with; in three other conferences they will need only to peek at a clock. In the nation's remaining 16 major conferences, there will be no changes so the players will be men, not mice. For this year, anyway.
There are, moreover, Pavlovian rewards for good mice. If they keep their wits about them, they'll probably score more points this season, which could add up to more cheese in their pro contracts. The laboratory scientists, meanwhile, will be charting the progress and/ or regress of the mice. What will be the result? A permanent shot clock? A permanent three-point line? Both? Neither? More personality defects among jump-shooting mice?
"I don't think you'll see any great changes," says Indiana Coach Bobby Knight. "But ask again at the end of the season." For now, we can worry over this question: Why so many changes in the first place? After all, the major college game has enjoyed steadily increasing attendance over the years, and the Louisiana Superdome was sold out (61,612) for the 1982 NCAA final. This season there's a Ralph Sampson here, a Pat Ewing there, Keith Lees, John Pinones and Sam Perkinses everywhere. There are a number of strong contenders for the No. 1 spot, and a few mysteries. Can Dean repeat (see page 102)? Can Bowie play (page 56)? Can Bradley get a bid (page 73)?
With all this going for it, why would the college game go out and redesign itself in the mold of the troubled NBA? Would Mercedes-Benz ask its customers to road-test a remake of the Corvair? Isn't this the same thing?
It is. "I really think the rulemakers are fooling around with what's already a pretty good game," says Boise State Coach Dave Leach, whose league, the Big Sky, will use the three-point shot. "Certainly, in my estimation, the pros haven't done anything with their 24-second clocks or three-point plays to improve the game. I don't know that we need to do that same kind of experimentation to find out the same answers."
It isn't. "Some people are saying the new rules will make our game too much like the pros," says North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano, whose conference, the ACC, will be playing with a 30-second shot clock and a three-point stripe that will be a paltry 17'9" from the center of the basket at its nearest point. "Nothing could be further from the truth. The pros can only play man-to-man defense, but we can play any kind we want."
The debate goes on with no pattern, which is why there are four different three-point lines and six shot-clock variations. Some conferences adopted their new rules unanimously, while in other leagues there were polar differences of opinion. Coaches known for stall ball, like Dean Smith of North Carolina, voted for a shot clock. Coaches known for their running game, like Jerry Tarkanian of University of Nevada-Las Vegas, voted against it.
There are zealots who can't wait to get the new rules cranked up, like Gary Williams of Boston College in the Big East (shot clock). "We have an action image that we ought to foster," says Williams. There are others who face the season with a kind of dread, like Tex Winter, whose Long Beach State team is one of many that will play under at least two sets of rules. For the most part, the new rules apply only in intraconference games, but a few teams have agreed to play by their opponents' new rules in nonconference games. Others will opt for the standard NCAA rules. "Not only is [the diversity] a problem for the players," says Winter, "but what about the officials who may work in two or three conferences?"
And there are reluctant revolutionaries, like Idaho's Don Monson of the Big Sky. "I think changes in the game are inevitable," he says. "I was against the clock, and yet maybe it should be tried. But let somebody else pioneer the thing."
There are even martyrs to the cause, like Bobby Cremins of ACC doormat Georgia Tech. "The changes are definitely terrible from Georgia Tech's standpoint at this time," said Cremins, whose outmanned team often controlled the tempo with prolonged stalls last season and figured to do more of the same in 1982-83. "But what's more important, this season or the game of basketball over the long haul?"
But was college basketball heading for trouble over the long haul? If high-scoring games are your thing, the answer is unequivocally yes. Scoring in Division I went down for the seventh straight season in 1981-82 as teams combined for only 135.08 points per game. (See chart, page 45.) Moreover, the drop from 1980-81 to '81-82 was a significant 5.07 points, continuing a recent trend of dramatic point reductions. The key statistic is field-goal attempts. As recently as 1973, teams tried 139.2 shots per game. By last season that figure had fallen more than 20%, to 111.2.
Certainly stall ball has had something to do with the dramatic downturn in field-goal attempts. Every time a North Carolina beats a Virginia 47-45, as happened in the nationally televised finals of last year's ACC tournament, the average comes down and the cries for change go up. But the reduced number of field-goal attempts also has something to do with better basketball. The accuracy part of the chart clearly shows that teams are shooting less but enjoying it more. They're taking more time to find the good shot. And the good shot is coming from closer range. Field-goal accuracy isn't high because today's shooters are all that much better than yesterday's—if they were better, foul-shooting percentage would be better, too, but that has remained relatively unchanged for 20 years. Field-goal percentages are on an upswing because shots are being taken closer to the basket.
That's why Orlando Phillips of Pepperdine shot 64.6% from the field last season, and why Mark West of Old Dominion shot 61% and why Larry Micheaux of Houston shot 60.4. All three are among the top 10 returning percentage shooters, yet Micheaux has the best free-throw mark among them at 57.6.
The other part of the equation is defense, which has also improved—or, at least, changed. Teams are shooting less for two reasons: They're unwilling to throw up a prayer, and it takes time to penetrate today's sophisticated zone defenses. But let's not kid ourselves. The pressure to win—or to keep the score close against overwhelming odds—has in many cases taken the life out of the game by taking the air out of the ball. "If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side." James Naismith wrote that in his Rules for Basket Ball, printed in 1892 in Springfield, Mass.
Naismith, who by all accounts was a true sportsman, probably wouldn't have objected to rules that helped, say, Georgia Tech upset Maryland 45-43 last year. That's stall ball at its best—it sometimes helps a big underdog "shorten" a game to the point that a few timely baskets can result in an upset. In practice, though, the better teams usually win slowdowns, too. But Naismith might have carted his peach baskets back to the farm if he'd watched last year's North Carolina-Virginia ACC final. That game was to this experimental season what the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to World War I—the spark that set off a long chain of events.
"Everybody who watched it on TV realized we wouldn't have a very marketable product if our games were played the way that one was," says Providence Coach Joe Mullaney. "People in the stands whose team has the lead may not mind the four corners, but the stall has a big negative impact on an outsider watching on television in some place like Montana."
Or in East Longmeadow, Mass., home of Dr. Ed Steitz, editor and national interpreter of the NCAA's rules. Steitz said his phone "rang constantly" for three days. "That game fostered more clamor for a clock than any single game in my 25 years on the rules committee," says Steitz. "It was the catalyst of the decade as far as rule changes go."
The game matched the nation's No. 2 team, eventual NCAA champion North Carolina, against then third-ranked Virginia. The Tar Heels won after Smith ordered them to sit on a one-point lead for most of the final seven minutes. And Cavalier Coach Terry Holland let them sit on it by refusing to order Virginia out of its zone. For the fans, it was like buying a ticket for a Horowitz concert and hearing him play scales. The game clearly showed that stall ball is at its worst when it's used by good teams, not bad ones. But remember that Smith violated no rules; in fact he's a strong proponent of experimentation. He has always said that, by forcing the action, a clock will help talented teams like his more than bad teams.
The ACC voted in the clock and the three-pointer early in May, around the same time that the Missouri Valley approved its three-pointer. This was about a month after Steitz had announced the results of a questionnaire he had mailed at midseason to 2,800 college coaches and referees: The response was overwhelmingly against a clock and a three-point shot. But the willingness of two leading conferences to experiment undoubtedly had a domino effect on the rest of the country. Keep things as they are and watch a bunch of offensive-minded recruits head elsewhere was the feeling throughout the land. It's amazing the impact a few blue chips can have on a coach's mind.
So this is what we have:
If 47-45 bores you, does 88-42 sound better? That's what a shot clock could do. It tends to increase the number of possessions a team has during the game, and the whole premise of a lesser team's stalling tactics is to reduce the good team's number of possessions.
"Only good teams can hold the ball," says SMU Coach Dave Bliss. "Bad teams aren't good enough to hold it. I don't think our clock here in the Southwest Conference will make the lesser teams play faster, because they aren't good enough to hold it anyway."
The consensus, though, is that only a 30-second clock has the potential to drastically alter the college game. Most observers agree with Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton when he says of his league's 45-second clock, "I think 999 out of 1,000 times it will have no bearing on the game." Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski even advances the theory that a 45-second clock could slow down games because teams "would have a tendency to run 30 or 35 seconds off before they'd look for a shot."
The example of the Sun Belt Conference, which has had a 45-second clock for four years, seems to support Sutton. The clock has gone off only 19 times in 164 league games, an average of about five a year. And both Fresno State's Boyd Grant and Princeton's Pete Carril—coaches at Possession U West and Possession U East, respectively—say their teams usually shoot within 45 seconds.
The clock may have the biggest impact on defense. At least that's the opinion of Grant, who sees Armageddon when he stares at the hands of a shot clock. "What we've done is very helpful to those who don't play defense at all," says Grant. Or those who play only zone defense, which many consider the real bane of the college game. The theory is that a shot clock doesn't afford the offense enough time to set up and extend the defense. "The defense will just stand back under the basket, and you're going to have to take the outside shot," Grant adds.
That logic may fall apart in conferences—Grant's Pacific Coast Athletic Association being one of them—where there's also an easily make-able three-point shot that discourages the use of the zone. Smith and others in the ACC wanted a clock only if a three-point shot was also voted in. The pressure of both a clock and a three-point line could result in more teams' applying full-court pressure. If a defense can constantly force an opponent to use precious seconds just getting into its half-court offense, that 30 seconds or even 45 seconds is going to seem brief indeed.
THE THREE-POINT SHOT
Obviously, teams with good long-range shooters will see more man-to-man defense when playing under rules providing for a three-point goal. A defense simply can't afford to let one bomber three-point it out of a game. Today's math lesson: A bombardier with two field goals can achieve the same effect as a center with three dunks—six points. And a three-point shot is likely to be as psychologically devastating to the defense as a slam can be.
But some coaches even dispute the notion that the deployment of man-to-man defenses will increase. Creighton Coach Willis Reed, for example, feels the Missouri Valley Conference's shot is close enough—19'9" from the center of the basket—to be adequately covered by a zone. Only a shot of more than 21 feet would force a change in defense, he believes. Bradley Coach Dick Versace points out that defenses won't change that much until offensive players demonstrate they can make the three-point shot. This is further proof that the experiments will only make good teams better.
For example, North Carolina, if zoned, can go to Michael Jordan or Matt Doherty or Jim Braddock for the three-point shot. If manned, the Heels can bang it inside to Sam Perkins. Good teams have particular strengths, to be sure, but they also have the players to do other things well. One three-point marksman won't turn a bad team into a good one. One three-point marksman can make a good team a better one.
The three-point shot could have two specific consequences. The first is of questionable benefit to the game—players may be pulling up and firing more long-range shots off fast breaks. The pull-up jumper is a good idea for a good shooter, a bad idea if a Keith Lee is filling a lane on a three-on-one.
What all of college basketball will be waiting for is the first four-point shot off the break. That's where a guy like Arkansas' Darrell (Sky) Walker takes off from behind the three-point line, soars through the air to jam and draws the foul. Could it happen in the ACC where the shortest distance prevails? "I've seen Dr. J do it from about a foot inside the circle in the pros," says Coach Bob Zuffelato of Marshall. If that practice becomes commonplace, coaches may start recruiting long-jumping types like Carl Lewis instead of three-point shooters.
The second consequence is of unquestionable benefit to the game—if it happens. The three-point shot will help unclog the middle. "Players are getting so big, and inside play is getting so brutal," says Coach Les Robinson of The Citadel in the Southern Conference (three-pointer), "that it's getting hard to officiate. I hope this change will put more emphasis on the perimeter. The big men will still be major factors, of course, but it would help most schools if some of the importance of the big men could be reduced."
Adds Northwestern Coach Rich Falk: "We had to do something to open up the offensive end of the court, to make defenses get out of the paint. It had become very difficult to get penetration via the dribble. This had made basketball in the paint more of a football game. Now we might see more use of two genuine guards, instead of one point guard and a big wing player." Falk's point is valid in a conference like the ACC, where the dime-store three-pointer will definitely be part of every offense. Falk may be overstating the case in the Big Ten because a 21-foot shot isn't so easily made.
In the Big Sky (22 feet) the three-pointer shouldn't result in profound change, just as the NBA's 23'9" three-point distance hasn't. The Southern Conference used a 22-foot three-point shot the last two seasons. The overall three-point percentage was 29.9, and the shot was generally a loser's weapon; teams that didn't try a three-pointer won 85% of the time. "If any of our players look down for the stripe or step back to be in three-point range," says Montana's Mike Montgomery, "that's the quickest way to get a seat next to me."
The experiments are in for this season. Conferences that want to tinker further with either the clock or the three-point line will have to petition the rules committee. Steitz's goal is uniform rules throughout college basketball, but this is unlikely to happen next year because some of the non-experimenting conferences will undoubtedly want to do some testing of their own in '83-84.
The vast differences in rules from conference to conference are disconcerting, and should be, to any true fan of the game. Even in the five conferences that have both the clock and the three-pointer, no combination is exactly the same. The catalogue of excuses offered by coaches from experimenting conferences after they've lost nonconference or tournament games in which there's no clock and no three-point shot will be long and heartrending...and somewhat valid.
Steitz feels there might well be a clock eventually, "but I don't see it under 45 seconds." He also thinks it won't be "departmentalized"; that is, the clock will run throughout the game on a team's entire possession, as in the SEC this year, and not be started after the ball crosses midcourt (the PCAA rule) or shut off in the last four or five minutes (seven conferences). Steitz thinks the three-point shot is a good possibility, too, but it's a "question of the distance." And also whether it is measured from the center of the hoop (six conferences) or the front plane of the backboard (three).
There are other possibilities to explore. Utah Coach Jerry Pimm, who's on the rules committee, suggests an arc inside which all offensive players must remain once they've crossed it. This would serve to compress the court and combat spread offenses. Tarkanian thinks the elimination of the hash mark would reduce wholesale stalling. How about a 60-second clock? And the one-point basket for inside shots? Or is that the 60-point basket and the one-second clock?
Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, PCAA, Southern
Big Ten, Sun Belt
19 feet 9 inches
17 feet 9 inches
Points per game per year
Field goal percentage per year
Scoring (red) and shooting accuracy (blue) have been going in opposite directions.
IT'S TIME TO PLAY BEAT THE CLOCK
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In front court only
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