“Oh, wowsie wowsie woo woo. Miserable day, isn’t it?”
The words of the old Flintstones cartoon character Bad Luck Schleprock often seem to sum up the state of college basketball, according to the narrative we’ve heard so many times this year. Not that many today remember him (unfortunately, Flintstones reruns on TBS went away long ago), but Schleprock was literally followed by a rain cloud most places where he went. According to what we have regularly heard this year, you might suspect Schlep is courtside at nearly every single Division I game this season.
Earlier this week there was yet another story about the “epidemic” the sport is facing. It focused on attendance (which is down for college football now as well, it should be noted) but again continued the theme at the sport is in grave danger of falling off the map. Tuesday night, though, we were treated to a pair of NCAA Tournament games that were far more representative of the actual state of the sport than the gloomy picture we have been painted too many times now.
In the first game of the First Four, Hampton defeated Manhattan 74-64 in an entertaining contest that featured a lot of possessions, if not always the cleanest play. The two teams combined for 31 turnovers, but the Pirates shot nearly 50%, passed the ball very nicely (20 assists on 26 made field goals) and did almost all of their work inside the arc, attempting only seven three-point shots.
That opener was a solid start to the Big Dance, but it was undeniably upstaged by the nightcap. In a matchup of 11 seeds, BYU started the game with 49 points in the first half and built a 17-point halftime lead on Mississippi. The Rebels rallied in the second half by scoring 62-yes, 62-points in the second half to come back for a 94-90 victory.
That’s right: the sport that supposedly is in crisis mode, in the second game of its prize event, had a contest with both teams scoring at least 90 points. And they did it with-gasp-a 35-second shot clock.
Both BYU and Ole Miss shot at least 45%, and this despite cold spells for each team. The Rebels attempted an incredible 80 field goals, while the Cougars were 15 of 29 from three-point range. Tyler Haws finished his prolific career with 33 points (who says we don’t have great senior players in the sport?), while Mississippi had six players score in double figures. The final minutes were back and forth, with the teams trading huge shots from outside and getting up and down the court repeatedly.
Neither game was perfect, but both were very entertaining. Other than some slight sloppiness, they both were worthy of the tradition of March. Certainly there was nothing about them that would’ve been enhanced by rule changes.
We’re not ostriches with heads stuck in the sand; it’s undeniable that there are rough edges to sand with the game today, or at least two big ones (one of them being overly controlling coaches; the other starts with “freedom” and ends with “movement”). But it cannot be said enough: if the rule makers of college basketball are thinking about big changes to the rules themselves this offseason (as opposed to, say, re-emphasizing rules that are already in the book, like they did briefly last year), then they better be considering them VERY carefully and VERY deliberately. And if Tuesday night didn’t prove that, then not sure what will, because there wasn’t much to improve in these particular contests.
There was plenty of offense, plenty of freedom for teams to score. And they did.
About though prickly edges, it should be noted that Hampton, Manhattan and Mississippi also all were very aggressive defensively on Tuesday. (As one might guess by their 62 points allowed in the second half, BYU was not). Both games were too rough and ragged for long spells. That had nothing to do with the shot clock, nor the quality of the players, and everything to do with what they were allowed to do.
Reaching in, slapping and the like were regularly allowed by officials. In other words, defense was rewarded, even if it wasn’t always within the rules. When that is what is rewarded, then that’s what players are going to do. When players do that regularly, games become ragged. It’s that simple.
If you want to cut the raggedness out, you don’t let the games get sloppy to begin with. When the law is laid down early enough and consistently, players will adjust. You reward offense, not slapping and reaching. Then you’ll have a cleaner game with a better pace, better offensive play and scoring, and everyone will be happy. And the best part is, you’ll have left the shot clock alone and preserved the option for teams to have differing styles and to play more the way they want to play, not the way they are forced to play.
We can only hope that games like Tuesday’s spur more teams to turn their players free offensively. But the truth is, there are some of those teams out there. Fans will enjoy watching Boise State and Dayton play on Wednesday, and teams like Iowa State, North Carolina and Notre Dame but also Eastern Washington and Stephen F. Austin will be offensive treats for fans on Thursday. Whether there should be more is up for debate, but part of the fun of college basketball is that not everyone plays the same way.
Teams have plenty of freedom to play however they want. The current rules aren’t doing a single thing to prohibit Ole Miss and BYU from playing the way they did Tuesday, and they aren’t prohibiting teams like Virginia or Northern Iowa from playing their way, either. Having teams playing different styles is a good thing. We may not have the perfect balance, but Tuesday showed again that we’re not nearly as far away as some think.