Everybody’s bracket was busted. Cinderella’s slipper finally fell off when Butler only put up 41 points (on a paltry 18.8% shooting) against UCONN in the ugliest NCAA final ever. What does all that mean?
The disparity in college basketball is at an all time high. The Final Four participants seeds were 3, 4, 8, and 11. That comes to an average seed of 6.5, a full point higher than the previous high mark. Compare that to 2008, when four #1 seeds made it. So I ask, what is so different this year?
People always compare the college game to the NBA. While there are some qualitative arguments made why one is better than the other (“There’s no defense in the NBA” or “The college game has more passion”), certain quantitative facts stand out. The average NBA team puts up around 99 points during those “boring” regular season games. Since 2005, the college game’s two best teams face off in the NCAA championship game and they average 68 points each. Accounting for the fact that the NBA plays for 48 minutes a game (as opposed to 40 in college), we get 2.06 points/minute/team in the NBA versus 1.7 points per minute for college’s best teams. To put that number into perspective, it comes to this: The average NBA team would outscore the best NCAA team by 18 points a game. Again, what is so different?
I believe there are two crucial factors that contribute both to the low scoring nature and the current absence of elite teams found in the college game.
“One and Done” Rule
This is the largest factor causing the current state of college basketball. In 2005 the NBA prohibited players from jumping to the pros straight from high school. But long before that, the best players in college basketball were not been sticking around for 4 years (thank you Tyler Hansbrough for being the exception). Players like John Wall, Blake Griffin, and Derrick Rose get to live the college life for one year, get up the hopes of their respective fan bases, and then get selected as the #1 NBA draft pick, picking up millions of guaranteed dollars in the process. All three of those players just mentioned left college without a degree, and without a championship.
This talent drain of the most gifted athletes contributes to the lower scoring nature of college hoops as well as giving the little guys a fightin’ chance. When a team full of role playing seniors and talented freshman mesh each year anew, there are bound to be hiccups and setbacks to team cohesiveness, especially in the pressure filled month of March. In step teams like Butler, VCU, and even Notre Dame that feature experienced 20-somethings that know the ins and outs of the college game and know how to react to situations they’ve seen before.
Some coaches thrive on the one-and-doners. John Calipari seems to have a completely different team every year at Kentucky. Out goes one class of talented freshman to the NBA (last year five, yes, five UK players got drafted in the first round) and in comes another herd of 18 year olds with baby faces, NBA dreams, and AAU handlers that bring a black cloud to the program. This black cloud may result in NCAA-sanction-rains, or perhaps a tornado will appear and suck up the programs coach just before the rains fall down. That was a direct reference to Coach Calipari, who has been taken three different teams to the Final Four, yet has had two of those runs vacated due to controversy surrounding Marcus Camby and Derrick Rose. This season has just come to a close, so maybe he still has a shot of getting this year’s appearance wiped off the record books.
I think the best formula for championships lies in between. Each year, bring in a couple players that will have to work hard for a few years to make it to the NBA and bring in one “Diaper Dandy” that would have gone straight out of high school. I think Roy Williams has done a great job with this recruiting style. He’s had his fair share of one-and-done players, but many have been on Championship teams (Marvin Williams in 2005, Ed Davis in 2009). The trick is to get an elite level talent that needs a few years to really mold into the prototypical NBA GM’s fantasy. Sometimes you’ll get that diamond in the rough that is incredible at the college level but the NBA scouts say “His game won’t translate”. The Hansbrough brothers are perfect examples. Tyler spent four years at UNC, averaged 18+ppg each season, yet never got the respect from NBA mock drafts. Last month, he averaged 17 points/game for the playoff bound Pacers. His brother Ben spent a couple of up and down years in the SEC before transferring to Notre Dame. This year, as a senior, he was picked Big East Player of the Year over Kemba Walker, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player and projected NBA lottery pick.
Until this rule changes to something similar to the NFL’s or MLB’s eligibility rules, the experienced mid-major teams will continue to have a shot against the big guys, but I think they will continue to falter at the finish line, like Butler has done two years in a row.
Fouls and Physicality
The NBA is certainly a scorers league. The creme rise to the crop and the world’s best players end up spread out amongst the league. While this fact alone leads to the level of skill on display in the NBA being far superior to that of college, the NBA rulebook has helped along the way. Some things, such as the shortened shot clock and automatic double bonus free throws automatically lead to higher scores. Others are a bit more subtle. Key differences in the rulebooks have kept the games high scoring and kept their stars safe. Some of these NBA-specific rules include the “Defensive 3 Second Violation,” hand checking, and prohibiting certain zone defenses. Calling “ticky-tack” fouls on the perimeter has led to a smoother, less physical style of play in the NBA compared to when Alonzo Mourning and Charles Oakley were roaming the paint looking to lay down some pain.
Those rules seem subtle, but I think the NBA and NCAA have it backwards. The college game is incredibly physical. With less talented athletes, poorer shooting percentages, and a shorter three point line, the college game should gear their rules to be less allowing of physical play. Meanwhile, the better skilled NBA stars should be forced to work a bit harder for each open shot. It’s no coincidence that the Lakers and Spurs have dominated the NBA Playoffs for the last decade or so. Each year in college meanwhile, more and more contact is allowed to pass as natural play. That’s why a league like the Big East can be anointed the best in the nation in a year in which they have very few standout stars. Teams like Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Syracuse had few NBA-skillset players, yet they won by grinding out tough, physical wins. Yet when they made it to the NCAA tourney in which familiar Big East officials didn’t oversee each game, they underperformed in epic fashion. Sure UConn won it all, but that was more based on a magical run rather than acting as evidence that the average Big East team is better than the rest of the country’s best.
Having physically assertive players is by all means good for the college game. My problem is when this physical play lies right on the fringe of the rulebook. I blame Duke. They don’t necessarily cheat (although as a Tar Heel I should be required to say they do). But what they do is take full advantage of the rules that are presented to them. All teams are guilty of seeking every legal (and sometimes illegal) advantage in their favor to win, but Duke does so in such an egregious manner that it must be commented on. They play tenacious perimeter defense, hand-checking and slapping at ball handlers at every opportunity. When roles are reversed and they are being defended however, they make damn sure that the officials are put to a decision: when a Duke player falls down or flails his arm wildly about after having a ball stolen from him, the ref can’t simply look the other way. And screens. My god the screens! A legal screen, by definition, is one in which your feet are set, those very feet are no more than shoulder-width apart, and your elbows/hips/knees aren’t extending beyond your body. Due to the increased physicality of the college game, Duke is able to violate all three of those criteria and almost never get called. Whatever masculine brownie points Duke gets for playing physical, they lose all credibility when it comes to flopping. If somebody drives down the lane, you can be sure as hell there will be a Duke player waiting under the basket for him to draw an offensive charge. Sometimes they attempt to draw the charge even without any contact. If a defender is nearby when a Duke player is shooting meanwhile, he’ll just fall like a fainting goat trying to draw the shooting foul. Now I’m sure a lot of you are discounting my argument due to my Carolina heritage. Allow me to retort with some YouTube evidence.
Not only does Duke flop at any possible inkling of contact and get away with moonwalking, but their fearless leader, Coach K, is constantly in the referees’ ears with his patented arguing. It amazes me that referees give Coack K any respect after he allows the style of play demonstrated in the videos below. Coach K’s reaction to the first blatantly intentional elbow was “there was no intent” and that “it was unfortunate those people were in the game” because “the game was over before that.”
But despite my obvious disdain for Duke, there is a serious problem arising from the “race to the bottom” in college officiating. As more and more fouls slides by as “good physical play,” the actual quality of basketball in college will continue to suffer. Players will continue to push the boundaries of what is considered fouling until a flagrant foul evolves into what is considered a simple foul and a bar-fight cheap shot becomes a flagrant foul. Big men will continue to get abused down low and guards will get open-hand slapped on the perimeter. Meanwhile, teams understand that in certain situations, they can force the officials to make a decision when a charge or flamboyant-arm-flailing has occurred. I love a good defensive minded team, but one that gets defensive stops the right way: by moving their feet, working as a team, and cleanly blocking shots.
So what can we do to make the college game elevate to a skill level similar to the NBA while keeping the spirit and tradition we all love? Here are my suggestions, in order of importance.
- Change the NBA Draft eligibility rule. Instead of having NBA ready talent disrupting college rosters on their way to riches, model the draft after Major League Baseball. If Lebron James and Dwight Howard type man-children are ready to step in immediately and contribute to an NBA team right out of high school, by all means let them go. Other kids have grown up in such extreme poverty that even a million in guaranteed money is worth the risk of falling out of the league after their first contract due to a lack of readiness. Let them get their money while it’s available. However, if a talented player feels he needs a bit more polishing and can delay his payoff by going to college, he needs to stay their at minimum two years. That way his college coach has adequate time (away from handlers and bad influences) to instruct him and best showcase his skills in a mutually beneficial manner within that basketball program’s system. Not only that, but after two years he should be half way along his path to a college degree (even more if he attends summer sessions). If he goes pro after two or three years, the probability of him returning to complete his degree improves exponentially. The one-and-doners simply stop going to class in their second semester because all that matters for the season is their first semester grades.
- Stricter review/evaluation of referees’ performance. Conference tourneys and the early rounds of the NCAA were mired with referee error. If referees were held more accountable for their in-game performance, we would see the most astute and consistent officials working the most important games. Referees would be forced to call fouls by the book and as a result, we’d see the overly physically aggressive nature of teams decrease. They would be forced to rely on speed and teamwork for defensive stops rather than brutality.
- Rule Changes. I love the game of basketball as it is and I don’t want them to mess with it too much. However, the fact that their is a rule stating their is an imaginary semicircle under the basket in which a charge can not be drawn is ludicrously stupid. Just paint the damn circle in. The fact that they have a rule but no line just leaves more judgement up to the officials for absolutely no benefit. I also think the game would be more fluid with an NBA 3-point line and defensive 3-second violations.
These changes would not only enhance the showcase of skill in the college game, but they would cut down on thuggery and the “race to the bottom” I described before. The little mid-majors might get squeezed out a bit but I’m willing to risk that happening.
Besides, if Cinderella’s slipper was a perfect fit, why did it fall off in the first place?