Both teams left layups on the rim. They telegraphed passes. In
the space of a minute, each muffed a simple high-low pass in
the half-court. One even had to call a timeout because it had
made the junior high blunder of having no one to inbound the
ball to in the backcourt. But in their ineptitude during the
NCAA title game last spring, Indiana and Maryland probably did
basketball a huge favor.
If you're going to make a mess of the game, you might as well
make a Monday-night, prime-time, billion-dollar mess of it. That
way no one can gainsay the problem, for it's out in the open for
all to see.
And college basketball has a problem. This isn't meant to
question the desire or intensity of the Hoosiers or the Terps, or
to indict the coaches and the players who entertain us from
Madness to Madness, Midnight through March. But it is a plea that
the game be played with a touch less madness and a lot more
crispness. College ball is full of recruiters and motivators,
Armani-wrapped type A personalities with jaws set on driving
their players to win that Next Big Game. The game fairly bristles
with slashers, ankle-breakers, ath-uh-letes with both ups and
upsides. What college basketball is short on are teachers and
students--that is, elders who would rather impart the timeless
wisdom of the game than jet off to another speaking gig, and
youngsters who can perform subtler basketball arts than busting
the one move that leads SportsCenter.
Doubt that old school has become uncool? The evidence is
everywhere. The Lithuanian Basketball Federation is so alarmed at
the regression of its players who go to the U.S. that it has
decreed that no one in its development program may play college
ball without its permission. Last spring Jared Jeffries,
Indiana's star forward of a season ago, failed to sink a jump
shot for the first 41 minutes of a predraft workout with one NBA
team. (That didn't dissuade the Washington Wizards from selecting
him with the 11th pick.) In September, during the fourth quarter
of its loss to Argentina at the world championships, the U.S.
team--the pride of the American hoops educational
system--surrendered baskets off inbounds plays on two straight
November 25, 2002
Meanwhile, lest their multimillion-dollar investments go for
naught, more and more NBA teams are hiring "teaching assistants,"
former college coaches like Tim Grgurich (UNLV) of the Phoenix
Suns and Pete Carril (Princeton) of the Sacramento Kings.
Moreover, the Big Man Camps offered by Hall of Famer Pete Newell
are booked to capacity. In other words NBA draft picks have to
attend remedial classes to learn the basic footwork that used to
be a staple of any college practice.
"When I see NCAA players come here, I'm stunned," says former
Delaware coach Dan Peterson, who spent 14 years working the
sidelines in Italy and lives in Milan. "They have no moves, no
shot, nothing to go to. They're all looking for the spectacular
dunk and have no interest in anything else. They're always out of
position, constantly taken to school by smarter European players.
It's embarrassing. The Italian federation used to invite an NCAA
coach to its main clinic. They haven't invited one for years."
Newell, who won the NCAA title at Cal in 1959 and coached the
1960 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, can pinpoint when the
basics began to disappear from college basketball. In the early
1970s the rules committee voted to permit a screener to march
right up to a defensive player and lay a pick on him, without the
three feet of clearance previously required. That touched off a
vogue in motion and flex offenses, which call for players to move
and screen, usually in and around the lane. With the middle
clogged up, fewer college players can make crisp, effective moves
with the ball. Nor do they bother to learn the footwork those
moves require, like the rocker step and the drop step. "Footwork
enables a player to get space to take a shot, and none of the
foot skills we teach are part of the motion or flex," Newell
says. He believes that many high school and college coaches
install motion offenses because they can't or won't spend the
time on teaching individual skills, particularly for post
players. It's a shame, Newell says, to think that the next Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar may be wasting away somewhere, setting screens.
If the college game is "overcoached and undertaught," as Newell
has long lamented, who's to blame? Coaches, who are so busy
wheedling another two-and-through studhorse to sign a letter of
intent that they can't find the time to develop the one they
already have? Or players, who take the toadying of recruiters and
hangers-on as affirmation that they have nothing left to learn?
Whoever the culprits, it's the NBA that winds up with the result,
and as the worlds revealed, it's not pretty. "We're getting kids
who look at you as if you're speaking a foreign language when you
tell them to run a give-and-go," says Dallas Mavericks president
of basketball operations Donn Nelson. "They're raced through the
system on God-given talent. They spend two years in college for
all the wrong reasons, and boom, land on NBA doorsteps. It's a
travesty. They can run and jump and dunk over you, but they can't
play five-man basketball."
That lesson is writ large in March, when college players ought to
be acing their finals. If you're awaiting a for-the-ages
performance by an elite senior talent--valedictories like Jack
Givens's 41 points in the 1978 NCAA title game--you'd best settle
in. "Teaching nowadays is a matter of convenience," says Oregon
State coach Jay John, a former assistant to master teacher Lute
Olson at Arizona. "The demands for executing the right way aren't
as stringent. Now everybody wants to dunk or shoot the three, but
nobody has the footwork to do the other stuff."
To be sure, class still convenes at a number of schools (box,
page 62). Alumni of teaching camps such as Howard Garfinkel's
Five-Star in the East and Herb Livsey's Snow Valley in the West
wear whistles on campuses around the country. As fundamentals
have become rarer, schools that do emphasize them can make old
school a selling point. In 1999 Gonzaga lured Dan Dickau, a
transfer from Washington, with the promise that he'd develop--and
Dickau blossomed so fully that another Huskies guard, Erroll
Knight, has mushed eastward to Spokane, where he'll be eligible
next season. "When Erroll approached us about transferring, his
reasons were the same as Dan's," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "He
wanted to be around a group of guys who would go shoot at 10
o'clock at night."
Moreover, there's still plenty that's appealing about the college
game. Games are intense, disputed by players stoked by
Rockne-esque rhetoric and rebounding drills conducted in football
gear. (Defense and rebounding do win games--NCAA titles, even.)
And outcomes have never been more unpredictable, with the close
three-point line imperiling even a double-digit lead in the final
minutes. But that same chip-shot trey has turned the game into a
gimmicky spectacle that prizes little more than a penetrating
point guard, a shooter or two who can linger at the three-point
line, and a few bodies to set screens. Meanwhile, for coaches,
the college schedule is a four-month sprint, with no guarantees
beyond the current season. "If I'm a coach in college, I'd only
be worried about the next game, because next year my best player
might be off in the NBA," says Javier Imbroda, coach of the
Spanish national team at the world championships. "And I'm
thinking just like the player: Get the best contract I can. Then
win, so I can get another. Always to win, never to develop."
If basketball skills are an endangered species, shooting is the
game's snail darter. Good shooting follows from sound technique
and constant repetition and requires the investment of time by
coaches and players alike. Alas, says Indiana coach Mike Davis,
"We've got a lot of players who think they're doing you a favor
by coming into the gym in the off-season and working on their
As for passing, it's seen as a namby-pamby skill, hardly worth a
second thought. "Bill Walton was one of the best passing centers
of all time, but [at UCLA] he wasn't allowed to pass on the run,"
says John Nash, who has served as general manager for three NBA
teams. "He had to come to a stop before he passed." (Perhaps not
coincidentally, Bill's son Luke, a senior All-America forward for
Arizona, is rated the best--and most fundamentally sound--passer
in the college game today.)
Dribbling is as good as ever, but it's an individual skill and
may even contribute to the scarcity of smart collective play.
"The game used to be played more off the pass," says Vanderbilt
coach Kevin Stallings. "Now it's played more off the dribble."
Crafty skills, too, like good spacing and the pick-and-roll, have
begun to vanish from the college game. Says South Carolina coach
Dave Odom, "It's all about assembling the five best players and
giving them the ball and getting out of the way."
Not that many coaches have much choice. Look at a sideline
refugee like Pat Kennedy, who has fled down the ladder, from
Florida State to DePaul to Montana, always one step ahead of some
posse that wants him gone. Small wonder that he has left behind
all sorts of underdeveloped talent, like ex--Blue Demons Bobby
Simmons and Lance Williams.
Or take UCLA. Four seasons after he signed with the Bruins,
center Dan Gadzuric, the gemstone of the 1998 recruiting class,
led NBA scouting director Marty Blake to declare despairingly
that "his skills run the gamut from A to B." (Like Jeffries,
Gadzuric has found a home in the NBA, with the Milwaukee Bucks.)
UCLA coach Steve Lavin knows the importance of teaching, for he
breakfasts from time to time with John Wooden and grew up working
at his own family's basketball camp in Northern California. But
Lavin always seems to be one loss to Cal State--Northridge from
being talk-radioed into unemployment, and the Bruins' roster is
in such perpetual turmoil it's a wonder their staff has a chance
Or look at Iowa State. The Cyclones play harder than tungsten and
rebound like banshees, and the man who drives them, Larry
Eustachy, bagged three coach of the year awards after a 32-5
finish in 1999-2000. But Ames isn't turning out finished
basketball players. Two recent Iowa State products, guard
Kantrail Horton and forward Martin Rancik, have played for
Olympia Milan, in Italy's Serie A, to withering reviews. "Horton
is the only player I've ever seen commit two double dribbles in
the same game," says Peterson. "Rancik is from Slovakia, but he's
a product of American basketball--two years of high school and
four of NCAA. NBA talent, but Mini-Basket mental attitude and
know-how in game situations."
"I'll never take another player right out of college," said Toni
Cappellari, Olympia Milan's then general manager (he's now
assistant G.M.), after his team avoided being relegated to the
second division only by eking out a victory in its final game.
Indeed, Europeans have never held U.S. college basketball in such
low esteem. "I watch hundreds of tapes of college games," says
Antonio Maceiras, general manager of F.C. Barcelona. "The word
I'd use to describe the typical college player is raw. I see a
guy with a good body and athletic ability but not a polished
Here's are some other reasons Why Johnny Can't Play.
KIDS DON'T PRACTICE "When I recruit, I'll ask a kid, 'Where can I
watch you?'" says St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli. "If he
doesn't have a game scheduled, he doesn't have an answer."
THE SUMMER SCENE "When I was growing up, summer camps were about
teaching and learning," says Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry
Brown, who won the 1988 NCAA title at Kansas. "Now they're about
playing games." In fact, high school kids rarely even attend
teaching camps anymore because they're too busy pinballing around
the country for tournaments, usually under the direction of a
coach who's more impresario than instructor. Of course, the
colleges themselves are partly to blame: Recruiters faithfully
spend July at these very events to ogle prospects, who certainly
aren't trying to impress with snappy reverse pivots and sharp
THE NBA INFLUENCE The pros set the stylistic tone for every other
level. "For years we played an isolation game that catered to
selfishness and one-on-one play," says Nelson. "We corrected that
with our recent rules changes [permitting zone defenses], but
it's not going to fix itself overnight." Until it does, the
Rawlings-o-centric view of the world--I'm not on offense until I
have the ball, and not on defense until my man has the ball--will
RULES AND REGULATIONS "The NCAA has a book this big telling you
how many hours you can practice," says F.C. Barcelona forward
Rodrigo de la Fuente, a native of Madrid who played at Washington
State. He's alluding to the rule that prevents players from
devoting more than 20 hours a week to their sport in season,
games included. De la Fuente says the result is intense
practices, but not nearly enough fundamental and tactical work.
Unless colleges return to their old role as hoops conservatories,
even a player who stays on campus for four seasons will simply
track the same flat learning curve. One salutary development
would be to emulate the philosophy of top European clubs. "In
Europe, when you're young, they think of you as a total
ballplayer," says de la Fuente. "It doesn't matter if you're 6'1"
or 6'10". I'm almost 6'7", but I played some point guard because
my coach said, 'It will help you.'"
A few recent changes offer some hope. The NCAA now permits
coaches to work on individual skills during the off-season with
up to four players at a time, albeit for only two hours a week.
As the NBA has tweaked its rules, the Mavericks, Kings and New
Jersey Nets have prospered with old-school offenses, and the
Houston Rockets and the Minnesota Timberwolves this season have
adopted elements of the venerable Princeton system, which
stresses movement away from the ball. This should cause a more
collective brand of ball to trickle down to the game's lower
Meanwhile, virtually everyone with a gripe about the game has a
proposal for fixing it. "Identify the top 50 high school players
in each NBA city," says Nelson. "Then get the best high school,
college and pro coaches to spend time with them in the summer,
even if it's just a three-day weekend."
From his aerie in Italy, Dan Peterson wants to see the NCAA
repeal freshman eligibility. "If that means these kids won't go
to college, fine," he says. "Let them cast their lot with the
NBDL [the NBA's National Basketball Development League]. But
let's get guys who want to stay for four years, to improve
know-how, skills and teamwork, and give the fans someone to
Orlando Magic senior vice president Pat Williams would lock
college kids in a theater and screen looped film of the Villanova
weave from the 1950s. "That was the prettiest sight," Williams
says. "It made you dribble less, pass more and look for the open
man. I'd have coaches study the Princeton offense too, and have
Pete Carril go around the country giving clinics. At 92 John
Wooden would pack every gym. He'd show players how to lace up
their shoes because that's where the game starts, with your
To see real teaching, not just coaching, it's best to drop down
to the substrata of the college game, where basketball must be
taught (because no one here gets by on talent alone) and can be
taught (because everyone here knows he has something to learn and
stays in school long enough to do so). Leave an early wake-up
call and you can make practice at Division II Metro State
College, in downtown Denver, where coach Mike Dunlap assembles
his team at six each morning (6:30 in the off-season).
For the next hour the Roadrunners won't touch a basketball, and
Dunlap will fill the air with phrases that would sound like
Etruscan to the typical Division I player. He'll speak of rip
pivots and swim moves, of "squeezing the floor" and "sprinting
your pass," of the carefully drawn distinction between a push
foot and a reach foot. "Hit, reach, pull!" he says. "Throw your
head through the hole!" Then, finally, something wholly
understandable: "You've got a great booty, Mark. Use it!"
It's remarkable how much can be done on a basketball court with
your feet and without a ball. "I've heard these things for four
years," says senior forward Patrick Mutombo. "Jump stop. Front
pivot. Dip your shoulder. Low to ground and eyes to rim. I
believe in what we do here."
You're going to have to get up pretty early to outdo the
Roadrunners, who have won two of the last three NCAA Division II
titles. "With guys playing 50 to 80 games a summer, what's
missing isn't talent or movement," Dunlap says. "It's footwork."
Dunlap, 45, coached for five seasons at Division III California
Lutheran and for three in Australia. He sponged up all he could
during pilgrimages to the feet of Newell, Wooden and that other
early riser, Temple coach John Chaney, whom Dunlap calls
"brilliant with his language, brilliant with his feel." From
Newell he learned to appeal to a player's intellect. "Pete Newell
asks players questions," Dunlap says, "the way Socrates did."
From Wooden he learned the Five Laws of Teaching: Tell them, then
show them. Have them demonstrate. Then correct them and have them
repeat. Dunlap swears by those last two: correction and
From Bud Presley, a guru of defense who coached at California's
Menlo College for 12 years, he learned that players at any level
will do what they're asked if they feel they have a competent
instructor. "Our guys are fascinated because they know we're
competent," says Dunlap.
For all the vivid analogies he uses to lay out what he wants, for
all the humorous touches that leaven his lessons, Dunlap is like
any coach. Sometimes he gets pissed off. When sharp words cause
the shoulders of one Roadrunner to sag, Dunlap jumps in
reassuringly. "Don't get depressed," he says. "You're a wonderful
player. You just haven't had an education."
Five Terrific Teachers
Even while college basketball purists bemoan a decline in the
caliber of play, there are still beacons: coaches who place
fundamentals first and foremost. Here's a quintet of the best
instructors of the basics.
ROY WILLIAMS, KANSAS If the Jayhawks run 10 drills in a practice,
six or seven will relate to their vaunted transition game and its
multiple options. Williams, a longtime assistant to Dean Smith at
North Carolina, also brought a bit of behavioral conditioning
from Chapel Hill: If any Jayhawk flubs that day's point of
emphasis, the entire team runs.
LUTE OLSON, ARIZONA The favorite drill of the professorial Olson
(left): Four defenders have to stop four offensive players three
times in a row, thereby developing a range of techniques, from
denial to double-teaming to switching.
GARY WILLIAMS, MARYLAND Williams signs players who weren't named
McDonald's All-Americans, then takes that chip on their shoulder
and paints it blue. With an offense that requires players to be
interchangeable, says assistant Jimmy Patsos, "big men are taught
guard moves, and guards learn post moves."
BILLY DONOVAN, FLORIDA If the Gators are kings of the individual
workout, it's because that's how Donovan went from pudgeball to
player at Providence. Between classes he'll take three or four
players and work on shooting and footwork.
JOHN CHANEY, TEMPLE The wise Owl produces sound guards by
teaching them the footwork that will give them the most
unobstructed view of the floor. ("Using your feet to see," is the
way Nate Blackwell, the former Temple backcourtman turned
assistant coach, puts it.) Chaney's most effective pedagogical
tool--a sharp tongue--keeps his guards from turning the ball