Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma stirred things up recently by suggesting that a lower rim in women’s college basketball might help create more offense. Many reacted with predictable scorn but a few other coaches thought it wasn’t a bad idea.
Now, what to do about the men?
Scoring in Division 1 men’s basketball reached historic lows in several categories last season, continuing a downward trend. Teams averaged the fewest points per game since 1982, before the shot clock became a fixture. Field goals attempted and made, possessions and even free throw attempts continued to decline.
The game has slowed down and become less interesting to those who understand the difference between tenacious defense and poor offensive execution. Reasons are varied, although it took Robert Morris coach Andy Toole about a millisecond to produce his own favorite.
“It’s a lack of skills,” he said flatly. “That’s exactly what it is, a lack of skills. It’s a changing culture from the fundamentals of the game.”
Said longtime ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, “Kids are not shooting the ball as well from 15 feet and beyond. Most of them are trying to emulate the guy who can fly to the rim and dunk. Fundamentals have really deteriorated when it comes to shooting.”
This explanation is not entirely new, and neither are past periods of offensive lulls. The scoring drought of ’82, for example, produced a chorus crying for a shot clock to prevent teams from hoarding the ball as a stall tactic or to wait out the perfect shot.
At the time, only the Sun Belt Conference used the shot clock. Scoring had stagnated. Besides teams milking the game clock, zone defenses, increasing conservatism among coaches and parity also were mentioned as factors.
“The very nature of a team sport has been subverted, as five-man efforts to make field goals has been replaced by one-man efforts to make foul shots,” an article in Sports Illustrated complained.
The powers-that-be apparently listened, because everybody had the shot clock the next season. And voila, scoring went up for the first time in eight seasons. But then it went back down again. With the shot clock issue now off the table, parity again was cited, although in a 1984 newspaper article, legendary coach and TV analyst Al McGuire blamed Indiana coach Bob Knight.
“He wins the title in ’81 with defense, he’s successful with a Vince Lombardi-style of conservative basketball and other coaches start to follow,” McGuire said.
With adoption of the 3-point shot in 1987, scoring began to climb. In 1990, Loyola-Marymount and head coach Paul Westhead re-defined the concept of run-and-gun as the Lions scored an astounding 122.4 points a game. Oklahoma, the top-ranked team that season, averaged more than 100 and several other teams surpassed 90 points a game.
Last season, Iona led Division I in scoring at 83.3 points a game, one of just seven teams to average better than 80. A decade ago, 20 teams averaged 80 points or more.
“I think that defenses are better,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, hearkening back to McGuire. “I think there’s just more emphasis placed on defense, I really do. Teams are spending much more time emphasizing defense and different types of defense.”
True enough, said Toole, because it’s easier to teach good defense than good offense.
“When it comes to footwork, when it comes to making shots, when it comes to passing ability, those skills have declined,” he said.
Robert Morris last season finished 159th in the nation in scoring and 260th in field goal percentage. Yet the Colonials made it to the Northeast Conference tournament finals and won 26 games because defense provided the only means of survival.
“I would love to play good offensive basketball and score 70 or 80 points,” Toole said. “But when you look at our team’s field goal percentage or assist-to-turnover ratio, it’s a lot easier to teach guys to defend. You can give them a formula and make them almost robotic in the way they pressure the ball. But it’s a lot harder to each them offense because offense is a feel thing.”
Toole, one of the youngest college coaches at any level, sounds like a much older man when he decries video games and iPhones — or the way they’re used — as contributors to the problem. A relentless tweeter, Toole is certainly not averse to modern technology. What he doesn’t care for are distractions.
“There’s a lack of time spent on working on the skills of the game,” he said. “It takes a long time to learn to be a good shooter. Our guys are probably better shooters on (the video game) NBA 2K.”
A gym rat as a kid, Toole said he attended basketball camps every summer for years, and so did many of his friends. “We loved the game and we wanted to get better,” he said.
Today, he said, kids (when not playing video games) compete on multiple traveling teams but miss out on instruction. “They spend more times playing games and less time in the gym working on their games,” said Toole.
First-year Duquesne coach Jim Ferry agreed.
“When we were younger, we went to camps,” he said. “Now the onus is on winning and losing. It’s not the same when you’re gonna play again in three hours.”
Voicing a time-tested argument, Vitale said coaches, who are playing more deliberately, also are shackling offenses.
“They don’t have the flexibility to allow the kids to demonstrate their talent,” he said. “There are a lot of restrictions out there. It takes away from the running and jumping skills of the players.”
Ferry cited coaches’ conservatism in the face of the college basketball’s ever-increasing growth, exposure and, especially, profits.
“I think the game has become a bigger business than ever,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake. I think a lot of coaches have more control offensively. Salaries are higher, everybody wants to get into the NCAA Tournament. Many coaches don’t give as much freedom because they want to control everything.”
But Ferry played a wide-open style at his previous job, LIU-Brooklyn, mainly because he had the players to do it. The Blackbirds won the Northeast Conference the last two seasons with a talented and seasoned group. In 2011-12, they ranked third nationally in scoring, averaging nearly 82 points a game.
“Kids have to trust each other,” he said. “You can play at a very fast pace.”
Few dispute that players leaving early for the pros robs college teams of continuity and experience. “Younger teams are not gonna be as good offensively,” said Dixon, adding that increasing numbers of transfers also has an effect.
“I can’t think that would help offensively,” he said.
Right now, little seems to be helping.
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7810