Basketball was meant to be a game of finesse and beauty and maneuverability. In its purest form, the game has a flow to it, an elegance.
—FORMER UCLA COACH JOHN WOODEN
You want to know the theory people play with today? Coaches tell their kids, "All five of you guys go ahead and foul at once, because they can only call one of 'em."
—VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH COACH SONNY SMITH
Someone dug an old game film out of the providence College archives last season, and coach Rick Barnes, who happened to walk by while it was playing, saw the ancient images flickering on the screen. The footage was from 1973, when the Friars were playing Maryland in the East regional final of the NCAA tournament.
Barnes stopped for a brief glance, but something made him stay. It wasn't so much that the film was filled with future NBA players—Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes and Kevin Stacom for Providence; Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and John Lucas for Maryland—it was the style of play, the movement and spacing of the players. The arms and legs under the basket weren't nearly as intertwined as those Barnes is used to seeing in today's game. Cutters slid through the lane without looking as if they were running a gantlet, without having to dodge knees, elbows and forearms placed in their paths. The players were gliding through a smoother, freer game.
November 25, 1991
"It was much more of a pure game," Barnes says. "There wasn't as much body on body, like you see today. There was very little contact, and what there was, was called by the refs. From a technical point of view, it was great to watch. Sometimes you don't realize just how much the game has changed until you look back and see what it was."
College basketball has evolved over the last few years from controlled traffic to bumper cars. Strength and power are in; finesse is out. For all the recent trumpeting about New Age, run-and-gun, transition basketball, there's far more physical contact than there was 20, even 10 years ago, when the game was truly a noncontact sport. Granted, what Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton and other great centers of the past practiced in the paint wasn't exactly ballet, but it's obvious that if they were playing today, they would be performing in a far more permissive—read: brutal—atmosphere.
Bulk has become as important as height for anyone who hopes to score most of his points from near the basket, which is why athletes who might have been linebackers and defensive ends in another era are now power forwards and centers. Oklahoma State's Byron Houston (6'7", 235 pounds), Southern Mississippi's Clarence Weatherspoon (6'7", 240), Murray State's Popeye Jones (6'8", 260) and Wake Forest's Rodney Rogers (6'7", 235) are fine low-post players whose strength makes them especially well suited to today's game. Teams aren't looking for the next Ralph Sampson; they're looking for the next Larry Johnson.
Partly this is the natural evolution of the game, as inevitable as the growth of a child. Today's players are too big and too fast to be constrained by the old standards of acceptable contact. "Everybody's taking his players and putting 10, 15 pounds of muscle on them with weights and nutrition," says Louisville coach Denny Crum. "Suddenly, you have a bunch of agile 225-pounders jockeying for position, and refs are not going to be able to call the game the same way they once did."
Nearly everyone agrees that these bigger, faster athletes are leaning into, banging and pushing one another more than ever before, yet the number of personal fouls called in college basketball has remained relatively constant for the past two decades. According to the NCAA, in 1970 Division I teams combined for an average of 38.6 fouls per game. By 1990, the average had increased by only one foul, to 39.6.
Fortunately, there are no indications that increased contact has led to more fighting, and it would be hard to argue that today's more physical style has turned off the fans. Attendance figures (which reached a record 34 million in 1990-91) and TV coverage (more games are televised than ever) indicate that the popularity of college basketball is at an alltime high. But the emphasis on strength is threatening the flow and beauty of the game, the aesthetic appeal that Wooden talked about. "It's like a rugby scrum out there," says Xavier coach Pete Gillen.
Houston coach Pat Foster calls the '90-91 season "the most physical year ever." LSU center Shaquille O'Neal nearly jumped to the NBA on the assumption that if he was going to get beaten up regularly by opposing teams, he might as well get paid for it. Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs describes the game's current style as "push and shove, block and tackle." After a typically rough Missouri-Oklahoma State game last season, Tiger coach Norm Stewart said, "Byron Houston had four takedowns and two reversals. Don't those count for two points each?"
Nowhere is this mutual pounding more evident than in the low post. A typical encounter took place last season between 6'9", 225-pound Anthony Avent of Seton Hall and 6'7", 240-pound Marvin Saddler of Providence. Avent set up on offense with his back to the basket, staying so low that he was almost sitting on the court. He leaned back into Saddler with such force that he would have gone skidding out-of-bounds had Saddler taken a step back. Not that Saddler had any intention of doing so. Instead, he tried to move around Avent to guard him from in front, which was hard to do because Avent's right arm was hooked around Saddler's hip in an effort to pin him back. At the same time, Saddler was digging his left knee into Avent's backside and inching him forward the way you might push a box that was too heavy to lift.
Referee Tim Higgins took a few steps back and forth along the baseline, occasionally craning his neck to get a better view of the action between the two men, like a boxing ref observing fighters in a clinch. Eventually Providence regained possession of the ball, and Avent and Saddler nearly fell to the floor trying to untangle themselves.
No foul was called, and by the current standards, probably none should have been. No advantage was gained by either player. The mugging was mutual. Play on.
There was a time when the play of Eastern teams and Big Ten schools was considered rougher than that of the rest of the country, but regional differences have now all but disappeared. In a California-Arizona game last season, Cal center Brian Hendrick and Arizona center Sean Rooks had several interesting skirmishes. At one point Hendrick came down the floor and tried to post up just outside the lane, but Rooks beat him to the spot, and the two bumped shoulders. They stood there for several seconds, pushing against each other like two men trying to move blocking dummies—and all the while they were oblivious to the action going on around them.
When New Mexico played Brigham Young last season, Lobos senior center Luc Longley and BYU freshman center Shawn Bradley locked horns for the first time. Longley proved more skilled in physical battle, and at one point he sent Bradley crashing to the floor as they fought for position. "He gave me a piece of advice later on," Bradley says. "He said to get used to it, because that's how the game is played."
But why? John Guthrie, the Southeastern Conference supervisor of officials, lays part of the blame on his own profession. "There aren't a whole lot of officials who officiate post play on a consistent basis real well," he says. "It's undoubtedly the most difficult area to officiate right now, tougher than the charge or goaltending."
For several seasons, the NCAA has tried to address the problem. The most recent attempt came during the off-season, when Division I officials attending the NCAA's six regional clinics were told about so-called absolutes—fouls that, according to veteran Big Eight and Big Ten referee Jim Bain, "officials are now directed to call every time. Offensive post people backing into a defender—it's a foul. The defender putting a knee in the back or a forearm in the rear—it's a foul, it's absolute. The NCAA recognizes the need to get the post cleaned up."
Many coaches are skeptical. "Every year at the committee meetings and rules seminars the NCAA says this is the year they're going to clean up the post, and every year it seems like it gets more physical," says Southern Mississippi's M.K. Turk.
Then again, most coaches believe officials are to blame for just about everything but the federal budget deficit. "There wasn't as much pushing and shoving 20 years ago, because you called the foul. It's as simple as that," says North Carolina coach Dean Smith. "I think we've got to get back to that."
"In the post, the referees allow the defensive man to use his hip to push the offensive man out of position," says Dayton coach Jim O'Brien. "That's the NBA's defensive philosophy. There's constant contact, and they don't call it. Every team does it, including us, because you can get away with it."
But coaches have to accept some of the responsibility for the slam-dancing atmosphere under the basket. While officials are calling the game loosely, coaches are pushing their players to take full advantage of the freedom.
"It's pretty hard on the refs when we're teaching what we're teaching," says UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. "On offense, we teach our guys how to pin their men, that is, pin them without getting caught fouling. If you know what you're doing, you can do a lot in there that won't get called. If our guys are pinning properly, for instance, it's as easy for the ref to call the foul on the defensive man as on the offensive man. I'm not sure there's a whole lot more the officials can do."
Ironically, the emphasis on strength at the expense of skill exists because the average player's skill has improved so dramatically. "Players have gotten so good that if they get the ball in the low post it's an automatic bucket or a foul, so you better do all you can to push them out of there or keep the ball from getting in," says Stanford coach Mike Montgomery.
A basic tenet of Providence's defensive philosophy, according to Barnes, is that "strength negates talent. If you get a great athlete against you who can really run, really jump...well, he's not going to run quite as fast or jump quite as high if he's got a body on him all the time."
So what will it take to swing the pendulum in the other direction? First, either all college players' television sets will have to be taken away or the NBA will have to begin all its TV games with a warning: Kids, don't try this yourselves. The pro game, with its no-holds-barred style of play, has influenced the way college players approach the game.
"Guys in college today grew up watching Moses Malone put his rear end into people and back them practically from the foul line to the baseline," says former Iowa State center Victor Alexander, now a rookie with the Golden State Warriors. "Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, all the great inside players use their strength. It's a game of muscle in the NBA, so when you're in college, you figure, If it's good enough for the pros, it's good enough for me."
Several remedies have been suggested, including widening the lane, which would force offensive players to post up farther from the basket and make it less important for defenders to push them out. But not everyone is convinced that such a move would have much effect.
"Widening the lane won't help at all if referees don't start to call the three-second violation and stop people from camping in there," says TCU coach Moe Iba. "The reason it's so physical now is that centers are being taught not only to post up on the low block, but to back into the paint and to catch the ball within two feet of the goal. If you have somebody really working on them while they're doing that, they have to stay in there longer than three seconds, but it's hardly ever called. I have told our players we're going to start playing in the lane until somebody calls it, because everybody does it."
Then there's the three-point line, which was instituted four years ago, in part to relieve the congestion under the basket. It has worked to some extent, stretching defenses and keeping teams from packing everyone into the middle, but the memo a mano mayhem still goes on.
"The three-point line has made people defend the perimeter more aggressively," says Barnes. "What that means is that the low-post defender has to push his man out even farther if he wants to get help."
Widening the lane and enforcing the three-second rule would help college basketball regain a purer style of play. But changing the officiating, particularly around the basket, would be the most important step. Players and coaches adjust their styles nightly to fit the circumstances, and there's no reason why they couldn't rebalance the scales that weigh skill and strength. The game will never again be played quite like it was in Wooden's day, and perhaps it shouldn't be. Perhaps the guiding principle should be to make sure that 20 years from now, it will be a game the old coach would still recognize.