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Beyond the ARC

Nov. 17, 2008
Nov. 17, 2008

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Nov. 17, 2008

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Beyond the ARC

Tougher shots from behind a new men's three-point line and more stay-in-school stars to cheer mark a 2008--09 season that has several schools with men's and women's teams in national contention

YOU CAN tell a lotabout a society from its iconic arcs. The ancient Romans built an empire on thecurved supports of their bridges, aqueducts and architecture. The reign ofNapoléon in Europe is commemorated by the majestic Arc de Triomphe in Paris.And modern-day America has given the world two symbols that are recognized inevery corner of the planet: the golden arches of McDonald's and basketball'sthree-point arc. (Talk about a civilized society!)

This is an article from the Nov. 17, 2008 issue

Now imagine thatthe golden arches suddenly appeared in, say, lime green. You'd still recognizethe symbol, of course, but it would seem strange—jarring, even—and you mightwonder if the new look signified a groundbreaking change. The same sort ofthoughts might occur to you at the start of the 2008--09 college basketballseason. In what could be the most significant rule change to the men's gamesince the three-point line was installed 22 years ago, the arc has been movedback a foot, from 19'9" to 20'9".

This is good newsfor court-painting companies, but whether it's beneficial for basketball is upfor debate. Talk to coaches and you'll hear all sorts of opinions on the newline. Connecticut's Jim Calhoun thinks it will create more spacing (good newsfor those who like open, flowing games) as defenses are stretched thin tryingto double-team the post and still prevent open threes. But Tennessee's BrucePearl argues that the lane will be more congested as teams lay off shooters,inviting them to take lower-percentage treys. Says Vanderbilt's KevinStallings, "It won't affect your offense much if you have good shooters,but it will affect you a lot if your shooters aren't very good." Meanwhile,Kentucky's Billy Gillispie says the line will have unintended consequences onthe women's game, which kept the 19'9" line but now has to deal with asecond arc on the floor. Pitt women's coach Agnus Berenato doesn't see it as anissue. "Our line is navy, the men's is white," she says. "Playerswill just have to get used to it. It comes down to focus anddiscipline."

Long story short:Nobody knows what the impact will be. "I don't think it will besignificant," says North Carolina's Roy Williams, who has never had muchuse for the three-pointer anyway. But the experience of the best young Americanshooters suggests otherwise. In the last three tournaments for college-agedmen's teams, the U.S. shot just 30.3% from the 20'6" internationalthree-point distance—compared with the average of 35.2% from the 19'9" linein Division I last season.

THE NOTION ofchanging arcs applies to more than just the three-point line this season. Thecareer arcs of college players are going through their own transition games.North Carolina senior forward Tyler Hansbrough is the first men's nationalplayer of the year to come back to school since Shaquille O'Neal in 1990--91,and Psycho T is only the most visible example of the latest trend. The nation'stop teams are filled with well-established stars, from North Carolina(Hansbrough), Connecticut (center Hasheem Thabeet) and Davidson (guard StephenCurry) on the men's side to UConn (forward Maya Moore), Oklahoma (centerCourtney Paris) and Maryland (guard Kristi Toliver) on the women's.

In fact, if you'relooking for transcendent one-and-done freshmen, this season won't be for you. Afew newcomers could make a major impact—USC forward DeMar DeRozan, Louisvilleforward Samardo Samuels, Memphis guard Tyreke Evans—but don't count onfantastic freshmen hogging the headlines as they have since 2006--07, when theNBA's age-minimum rule kept high schoolers from jumping straight to the league."It's not like the group that came in last year," says Memphis coachJohn Calipari. "There were 11 [one-and-done] guys last year. I think thisyear there will be two or three."

Speaking ofchanging career arcs, it's an odd turn of events when neither of last year'stop-rated high school seniors is playing college basketball this fall. WhetherElena Delle Donne and Brandon Jennings are isolated examples or harbingers ofsystemic change remains to be seen, however. Delle Donne, a 6'5"guard-forward from Wilmington, Del., signed with UConn but left Storrs duringsummer school and is now playing volleyball at Delaware. It's possible thatDelle Donne may herald a wave of athletes rebelling against extremespecialization in youth sports—or she may just have been a kid who wasdesperately homesick.

As for Jennings,the 6-foot point guard from Compton, Calif., signed with Arizona but failed tomeet the NCAA's minimum academic requirements. So he became a pioneer,following the advice of former shoe company czar Sonny Vaccaro and agreeing toa three-year deal worth about $1.2 million annually with Virtus Roma of theItalian pro league. The best-case scenario for Jennings: He'll excel overseasfor a season and then jump to an NBA team in 2009 (after that team buys out hiscontract). The potential negatives are just as real, including underperformingin a sink-or-swim environment. Either way, he'll be an important test case, onethat players and college coaches are following closely.

"I think you'llsee a guy or two every year going to Europe," says Alabama coach MarkGottfried. "It could be a great player who just doesn't want to sit inclass every day. He'd rather be making a million dollars." UConn's Calhounisn't so sure. "There's too much to be gained by playing collegebasketball," he says. "You get discipline and an education in collegethat you won't get from a professional team. And Tyler Hansbrough is ahousehold name because of college basketball."

Michigan Statecoach Tom Izzo has a team that's a good bet to reach next spring's Final Fourin Detroit, but he isn't afraid to call Hansbrough's Tar Heels "a biggerlandslide favorite than even Florida" was before its repeat title in 2007."When I scheduled them, I figured they would be losing four guys," saysIzzo, whose Spartans meet North Carolina on Dec. 3. "What the hellhappened?"

Maybe it hassomething to do with the 40--12 hole that the Tar Heels fell into againstKansas in last April's national semifinal, when they lost 84--66. Maybe theirstars saw this season's weak freshman class and realized their draft statuswould be higher in '09. Or maybe they just want to win, as their coach mightput it, a dadgummed frickin' championship. Just as long as that's not the onlyreason. "I talked to each guy about two things," says Williams, whovows never again to read the Carolina Blue fanzine after it asked whether lastseason's 36--3 team was a failure. "Don't come back if it's only to win atitle—or if you think we'll get you 30 shots a game. We're about one thing: ourteam."

With all the talkof elite players like Hansbrough serving their full four-year terms, it's onlynatural in this election season for SI to hail the men's and women's"running mates" on our preview covers. More than ever, it seems,basketball powerhouses of both genders are emerging on the same campuses: notjust old standbys such as Connecticut and Tennessee but also at places likeArizona State, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh. AtLouisville the women's basketball team enjoys the same kind of financialsupport—and, increasingly, fan support—as the men's does. "We're seeingwomen's basketball [programs] become much more aggressive," says Louisvilleathletic director Tom Jurich, whose school is building a $238 million arena tobe shared by its men and women. "It's a highly visible sport, a lot of ourgames are televised, and we get great crowds. Women's basketball is a high,high, high priority for us." And for one campaign, at least, the men's gameshares what makes the women's game so appealing: star-power staying power thathas produced Hansbrough-style figures past (Tennessee's Candace Parker, UConn'sDiana Taurasi) and present.

The result is anelectricity that's arcing through college basketball, no matter how many arcsmay be on the floor.

Whose Line Is It?

With the addition of a new men's arc, woe are thecollege teams that have to play in NBA arenas.

NBA (23'9")

NCAA Men's (20'9")

International (20'6")

NCAA Women's (19'9")

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONDAVID E. KLUTHO (COURT); GAIL BURTON/AP (TOLIVER); JOHN BIEVER (CURRY); PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGINGLong Ballers While Toliver (20) can still put it up from 19'9", Curry will be firing away from a foot farther out.ILLUSTRATION