There is dribbling, lots of dribbling, in college basketball these days. There is bumping and banging, lots of bumping and banging. Not to mention all the grabbing and tripping and colliding.
If this was roller derby, it would be OK.
But this is NCAA hoops, and it’s downright ugly.
There is little running the court, or soaring through the air, or crisscrossing through the lane, all the things that make this such a beautiful game. No, more often than not it’s just organized mayhem, with plenty of stalling thrown in for good measure, which not surprisingly makes everyone look like the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.
The college game, quite frankly, is in need of a major overhaul.
“Our game is brutal to watch right now,” said Jay Bilas, an analyst for ESPN.
In case you haven’t noticed – and how could you not? – scoring hasn’t been this low since at least 1982, and one has to go all the way back to the early 1950s to find another season that beats this one for offensive ineptitude. Field-goal percentages are at 1960s levels. Three-point shooting has never been this bad since the long-range line was added in the 1980s.
Some people want to blame the players, saying they’re not as good as they once were, not as fundamentally sound, that the good ones don’t stick around long enough to make an impact on the game.
The players are as good as they’ve ever been. Sure, it hurts when someone takes the one-and-done route, but that’s not the major issue confronting the game. No, this is about coaches who paralyze their players with overcoaching, about referees who are reluctant to call all the fouls they surely see, about a scattered system of governance that makes it difficult to address the problems with a broad stroke.
So, while professional leagues such as the NBA, the NFL and even the NHL have taken significant steps to clean up their sports and boost scoring, college basketball has gone the opposite direction.
“It’s organized fouling,” Bilas said. “The referees feel like they can’t call it all, and they don’t call it all. The result is we’re having wrestling matches instead of basketball games. It doesn’t take long, if you’re really watching, to see what’s happening and say, ‘Oh my god, this is awful.’”
Northern Illinois set an NCAA record by scoring only four points in the first half of a 42-25 loss to Eastern Michigan, and it’s not at all that unusual for teams to be held under 50 points. The elite programs aren’t immune to these sort of games, either. In January, Kansas scored fewer than 70 points in six consecutive games for the first time since the mid-’70s. And guess what? The Jayhawks won all six of them, content to run the shot clock and rely on their stifling defense.
Even teams that prefer to run-and-gun can sometimes look like they’re playing in quicksand. North Carolina State, for instance, is tied with Duke for the Atlantic Coast Conference scoring lead at 78 points per game. But the Wolfpack lost to Maryland 51-50, and fell to Virginia 55-52.
“Our game,” coach Mark Gottfried said, “is tremendously more physical than it used to be. I think it’s a gradual thing, year by year by year by year. All you have to do is grab a tape from the ’90s or the mid-’80s, and you can watch it and you’ll say, ‘Wow, there’s very little contact.’ ”
Anyone can see the game is more physical than ever, but you can’t tell by listening for sound of the whistle. Incredibly, fouls have dipped to a per-team average of 17.6, nearly a half-foul less than last season and on pace to be the fewest in history, going back to 1948.
“These games are ridiculous,” Bilas said. “The amount of contact that’s allowed – the hand-checking, the arm bars, the dead-on pushing, the body checks on the shooter, the contact after the shot is released. Guys are getting knocked down and it’s not called.”
Certainly, there needs to be more shooting. This season, teams are taking an average of 55.2 shots per game, which is roughly on par with the past few seasons but pales in comparison to the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, when the average was generally in the high ’60s.