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Fast Times

Nov. 22, 2004
Nov. 22, 2004

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Nov. 22, 2004

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Fast Times

Damn the turnovers and full steam ahead! Today's coaches covet speedy players like never before, and swifties such as East Tennessee State's Tim Smith are changing the game--in a hurry

Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins knew a lot about Tim Smith, had heard a lot about Tim Smith and had seen a lot of Tim Smith on videotape before his Bearcats faced East Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Atlanta Regional last March. So it was with little shock, but plenty of awe, that Huggins watched the 5'9", 155-pound lefty grab a loose ball in the corner, race the length of the court in less than five seconds, slice through a trio of much taller Bearcats defenders and glide in for a nifty reverse layup that gave the Buccaneers a 57--56 lead with 12:48 left to play. ¶ "He's the fastest guy we've played against since I've been here," says Huggins, who's entering his 16th season as Cincinnati's coach. "What we saw on tape didn't do him justice. He makes you guard him with your whole team." ¶ Despite Smith's 26-point, five-assist, four-steal performance, the Bearcats escaped with an 80--77 victory. In the second round, however, they faced another speedy point guard--Illinois's Dee Brown, nicknamed the One-Man Fast Break--and the Illini ran them out of the gym, winning 92--68. It was no coincidence, then, that in September, Huggins secured an oral commitment from Devan Downey, a 5'10" jitterbug from Chester (S.C.) High, who may be the fastest point guard in the high school class of '05. Huggins concedes that he has had "enough of playing 6'7" guys at the point. The game has changed. The whole idea of basketball is to get easy baskets, and you need to have speed to do that." ¶ Huggins is one of the many coaches who feel a pressing need for speed. The pace of college basketball is quicker than ever, and if teams don't adapt, they'll find themselves left behind. Says Roy Williams, who first as coach at Kansas and now at North Carolina has been one of the foremost practitioners of the hurry-up approach, "Everything is more designed now toward a faster game, not a walk-it-down-the-floor, throw-it-in-the-post, let-him-be-surrounded game."

This is an article from the Nov. 22, 2004 issue Original Layout

Of course, it's hard to play throw-it-in basketball if there's nobody in the post to throw it to. The quickening of the game hastened by the implementation of the shot clock (before the 1985--86 season) and the three-point shot ('86--87)--both of which put a premium on wide spacing and brisk ball movement--accelerated in the mid-1990s, when high school seniors and college underclassmen began their mass exodus to the NBA, robbing colleges of their best big players. In May 2001 the NCAA rules committee (which Williams chaired) made it even harder to play Slowball by clamping down on excessively physical play.

Speed has long had an honorable role in college basketball. John Wooden's UCLA dynasty helped patent the up-tempo style. More recently the press and the resulting transition game meant success for Arkansas (1994), Kentucky ('96) and Connecticut ('99 and '04). Their foes, amply impressed, have followed suit. When Lute Olson's Arizona team won the '97 title, the Wildcats' swift three-guard lineup was considered innovative. Today it's commonplace. Last year Mark Gottfried's eighth-seeded Alabama squad deployed a four-guard lineup to make the Elite Eight, upsetting No. 1 Stanford in the Phoenix Regional's second round 70--67 despite being outrebounded 49--29.

Such is the state of play that even Purdue coach Gene Keady, an old-school grinder if ever there was one, will field a team this season featuring smaller, sleeker players. "We're going to play like we did when I coached in junior college, when we had good athletes and not many big guys," Keady says. "Our fans are always bitching about our not running enough, so we're going to run more."

one day when Tim Smith was at Newport News (Va.) High, his coach was having trouble getting his players to complete their wind sprints within a certain time limit. "I knew I was faster with the ball," Smith recalls. "So I told him, 'Give me the ball, and I'll make the time.'" The coach was dubious, but he gave Smith the ball and, sure enough, Smith made the time. Asked why he thought he was faster with the ball than without, Smith replies, "I guess because I'm trying to get somewhere with it."

Smith's alacrity has brought him a long way from Newport News, where he grew up idolizing another speedy, diminutive point guard from nearby Hampton: Allen Iverson. Though Smith's height scared off most suitors--East Tennessee was the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship--many coaches are increasingly willing to overlook physical shortcomings if a player possesses superior speed. "NBA guys talk about having size at every position," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser says. "We like to have quickness at all five positions." Coaches have different methods of judging this trait. Thad Matta, who takes over this season at Ohio State after spending the last three years at Xavier, counts how many dribbles it takes a guard to push the ball up the floor, while Gary Williams of Maryland favors guys who simply have a knack for getting to the ball in a hurry. No matter: They're all finding that it's easier to recruit players to a running system. "Even the kids who are Clydesdales think they're Seabiscuit," Prosser says.

The need for speed is also having a decided impact on player development. Today's strength and conditioning coaches are concerned with developing flexibility and "core" strength--the core being the abdomen and hips, which are the power sources for speed. Teams are bringing in speed experts like Jackie Ansley, the founder and owner of Performance Training, based in Knoxville, Tenn. "I try to take stress off knees, shins and ankles and teach players to load their hips," Ansley says. "That's where the explosive energy comes from."

The faster-paced game has its pitfalls, most notably those pesky turnovers. Smith, for instance, has averaged 4.0 turnovers during his two seasons at East Tennessee State. But Bucs coach Murry Bartow--who compares Smith to yet another Newport News native, Michael Vick--says he can live with the miscues because with Smith "the good outweighs the bad." Bartow also points out that his players' speed boosts their number of deflections, which the coach's assistants track during games. The practice of monitoring that statistic was popularized by Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who over time has figured that a team that gets 35 deflections in a game and shoots 40% from the floor will win 95% of the time. Not surprisingly, Pitino's best deflectors were his '96 NCAA champs at Kentucky, who averaged 42 per game.

On balance, then, even the most controlling coaches have become quick converts. They realize that in today's game speed kills opponents for these reasons:

•Speed leads to easy baskets. Or as Kansas coach Bill Self calls them, "points you don't have to earn." For the same reason that football coaches love receivers who turn six-yard slants into 40yard touchdowns, basketball coaches covet players who can manufacture scoring opportunities without needing their coach to draw up a play. Self this season will boast arguably the fastest pair of wings in the country in 6'5" sophomore J.R. Giddens and 6'4" senior Keith Langford, as well as a speedy point guard in Aaron Miles. "Aaron is like an ice-cream truck. I'm just following him, trying to get one of the little sandwiches," Giddens says. "When I'm moving at top speed, I might not need but one or two dribbles before I can throw it down."

Langford concedes that he isn't the 100meter-dash type, but with the help of former Jayhawks forward and current director of basketball operations Danny Manning, he has learned to explode to the basket as well as any forward in college basketball. "Danny said those first two or three steps are what separate you," Langford says.

With coaches aware of how often an easy basket can decide or blow open a critical game, smallish, skilled, supersonic point guards like Smith; Illinois's 6foot junior Brown; Oklahoma's 5'7" sophomore Drew Lavender; Oklahoma State's 5'11" senior John Lucas; Wake Forest's 6foot sophomore Chris Paul; and Washington's 5'9" junior Nate Robinson are in demand. Smith's baseline-to-baseline bucket against Cincinnati was reminiscent of 5'10" Tyus Edney's end-to-end dash for the open layup that gave UCLA a second-round NCAA win over Missouri in '95, a play that helped send the Bruins to their title that year. To reach the hoop, Edney had to traverse some 90 feet in 4.8 seconds.

•Speed forces defenses to double-team. In the NBA teams tend to make the opponent double-team by dumping the ball into the post. In college they usually do it through dribble-drives from the perimeter, making a defender leave his man to stop the ball--which often leads to wide-open three-point opportunities. "Years ago, when the defenses were more packed, swinging the ball was the way to play," says Washington State coach Dick Bennett. "As people started to get into the passing lanes, the offenses started to need more penetration."

According to Smith, the key to penetrating is to have an immediate countermove that shakes off an overplaying defender. "I can change directions so quickly that I can just make [what looks like] one quick move, and it will actually be two," he says. Such maneuvers are all too familiar to Smith's admiring Buccaneers backcourt mate, 6'4" junior Ben Rhoda, who occasionally tries to cover Smith in practice. "He's so fast he sets his own picks," says Rhoda.

On the flip side a defense must find an equally fast countermove, which is made easier if it has a player with the lateral quickness to move in a flash from the low block to the three-point line. Syracuse's 6'8" senior forward, Hakim Warrick, needed only a split second to cover that very space in the closing seconds of the 2003 NCAA final, when he swatted Kansas guard Michael Lee's three-point attempt at the buzzer to seal the Orange's 81--78 win. "I didn't realize how much ground I made up on that play until I saw it on tape," Warrick says.

Besides possessing superior lateral quickness, Warrick also has long arms, which makes him even more disruptive in Syracuse's matchup zone defense. "It helps if you've got close-out speed, especially in this zone with all the moving we have to do," he says. Though the sinewy 220-pound Warrick describes himself as "always naturally quick," he works to get even faster by putting himself through sprint drills on the track at Syracuse's Manley Field House. "I really depend on my quickness because most of the time the guy I'm guarding is going to outweigh me," Warrick says.

Penetrating offenses will encounter other such lateral hazards this season at Wisconsin (6'5" junior forward Alando Tucker), Wake Forest (6'9" senior forward Jamaal Levy), Mississippi State (6'4" senior guard Winsome Frazier) and Stanford (6'6" senior forward Nick Robinson).

•Speed gets you rebounds. Yes, size still matters, but today's college big men need to be light on their feet to be effective on the glass. Oklahoma's Kevin Bookout, a 6'8" junior, is a former All-America shot-putter at Stroud (Okla.) High who arrived in Norman weighing 260 pounds and played at 275 last season. He will begin this season at 258. "He came in one day talking about how much better he was jumping," Sooners strength coach Darby Rich says. "I said, 'Yeah, when you take that 20-pound book pack off your back, you can jump higher.'"

By contrast, Channing Frye, a 6'11" senior at Arizona, has added 26 pounds since arriving in Tucson at a wiry 222, but he has averaged 7.2 rebounds over his career by being what Lute Olson calls "a quick jumper and a good repeat jumper." Frye developed those skills by running hurdles on a track while carrying a one-pound ball over his head. He also learned running techniques from former Wildcats strength coach Brad Arnett. "We worked on knee-drive, stopping and going, moving your arms," Frye says.

Playing at Arizona, Frye has no choice but to run. It is his responsibility to inbound the ball after an opponent's made basket. That puts him several paces behind the Wildcats' slew of quick guards who are pushing upcourt. "If I want to see the ball again, I have to catch up," Frye says. His ability to beat his opposite number down the floor pays off, not only in dunks and easy layups but also in tiring out and neutralizing stronger foes. "Banging physical dudes is not my game," Frye says, adding this warning: "You can be as big and strong as you want, but if you can't keep up with me running down the court, you won't be able to use your size effectively."

•Speed helps you win the style war. Last March, Mike Anderson, Alabama-Birmingham's second-year coach, brought the No. 8--seeded Blazers to their first Sweet 16 since 1982. Anderson played for Nolan Richardson at Tulsa and was his assistant there and at Arkansas. Anderson has implemented Richardson's signature 40 Minutes of Hell to lethal effect: Last year the Blazers led the nation with 11.6 steals per game. That enables UAB to create a fast tempo against foes who would rather play slow. "We want our opponents to make quick decisions as well as the wrong decisions," Anderson says. "We went fast last year. We want to go faster this year."

In an effort to simulate hellish game conditions, Anderson's practice drills usually are conducted full-court, not (as is the usual custom) half-court. Likewise, Olson's practices at Arizona feature scrimmages in which each side is required to get the ball past midcourt in 2.5 seconds. At Connecticut, Jim Calhoun conducts five-on-five workouts in which teams are permitted to score only on fast breaks. "We want to play fast but also under control," says Calhoun. "That's what separates good teams and great teams."

Roy Williams will certainly field a fast team this year at North Carolina--and potentially a great one, which is why SI is picking the Tar Heels to win the national championship. They have the required jet-quick point guard (6'1" junior Raymond Felton), a quartet of slashing wings with superior lateral quickness (6'5" senior Jackie Manuel, 6'4" junior Rashad McCants, 6'9" senior Jawad Williams and 6'9" freshman Marvin Williams) and a center (6'9" junior Sean May) who can run the floor with the best of them. "We are going to run," Roy Williams says. "If you are going to stop us, you better be prepared to run with us."

Even Tim Smith might find it difficult to chase down North Carolina this season. He did, however, catch up with his childhood hero last summer when mutual friends introduced him to Iverson in Newport News. They became, shall we say, fast friends. "We talked for a good 45 minutes that night, and whenever he was in town, I'd kick it with him," Smith says. "He stressed to me that basketball isn't about size and strength. It's all about heart."

Heart and speed: Tim Smith has both, and like coaches and players across America he can feel the pulse of college basketball quickening.

"When I'm moving at TOP SPEED," says Kansas fireball Giddens, "I might not need but one or two dribbles before I can throw it down."

Speed helps on defense, too: Pitino figures that a team that gets 35 DEFLECTIONS and shoots 40% will win 95 % of the time.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhoto illustrations by Howard SchatzBLUE STREAK The searingly fast Smith proudly boasts that he can get up the court quicker with the ball than without. COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhoto illustrations by Howard SchatzSUPERSONIC By beating other centers downcourt, Frye not only collects easy baskets but also preserves his body. COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhoto illustrations by Howard SchatzINCOMING FLEETWhen the Jayhawks get running, Langford (left) and Giddens have buckets of fun. COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhoto illustrations by Howard SchatzSUDDEN STOPS His quickness on defense honed by track drills, Warrick can blanket the area from the low block to beyond the arc.