Tag Archives: NCAA Basketball

March Madness – From Pistol Pete to a Magic Carpet Ride

I didn’t begin to grow my hair, longer than the crew cut I sported at the time, because of the influence of rock groups I listened to, like Steppenwolf and Cream, who were popular at the time. It was due to a basketball player who was my idol, “Pistol” Pete Maravich. I loved the way Pistol Pete’s shaggy brown hair flopped as he brought the ball up the court for his team, the LSU Tigers.

Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity back in 1966, so Pete’s first year as a starter for the Bayou Bengals was the fall of 1967. And there were very few games that were televised back then, but when there was a game on television I was watching. I couldn’t wait for Saturday afternoons and the SEC game of the week.

I was also a sophomore on our high school’s team in ’67 (we didn’t have a varsity and junior varsity). We had an “A” team and a “B” team and I was on the “B” team.

The problem was, we had to cut our hair to play sports at Wilcox County High School in Camden, AL. I began to let mine grow in 1968 which was my second year on the “B” team (that team went 17-0 by the way). But come November and basketball practice, whack, we had to get that hair cut. Mine wasn’t trimmed short enough so I had to go back and get it snipped again. And friends, it wasn’t very long to begin with.

The fall of 1968 was also when I had my first kiss, my first taste of whiskey, and my first cigarette. I’ve since given up the cigarettes.

So those were heady days. And as the lyrics to the Grateful Dead’s Uncle John’s Band go, “Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?”

It has now been 50 years since Pistol Pete Maravich was in his first varsity season down in Baton Rouge. I was fortunate to witness him play the first game in what became Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in Auburn on January 11, 1969. The home team Tigers won that game, 90-71. Sorry Pete.

And, it is noteworthy that LSU never made the NCAA Tournament during Maravich’s playing days. They did receive an invitation to the NIT his senior year.

March wasn’t exactly bursting with madness back in those days. In fact, there were only 23 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But, the UCLA Bruins were in the middle of a three-year title run under the tutelage of John Wooden and the leadership of their star center, Lew Alcindor, who was later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Yes, it’s a long way from those 23 teams, from 50 years ago, to the field of 68 that we grapple with today, and there are 10 of the usual suspects (North Carolina, Princeton, West Virginia, Dayton, Virginia Tech, Kansas, Louisville, New Mexico State, SMU, and UCLA) in both sets of brackets.

But interest is at a fever pitch, in the year 2017, and we are all caught in the throes of what is now termed “March Madness.”

The “Sweet 16” will have begun play by the time you read this, and here is the way I see it shaking down.

In chronological order:

Sweet 16

Michigan over Oregon

Gonzaga over West Virginia

Kansas over Purdue

Arizona over Xavier

North Carolina over Butler

South Carolina (Welcome Cinderella!) over Baylor

UCLA over Kentucky

Wisconsin over Florida

 

Elite Eight

South Carolina over Wisconsin

Gonzaga over Arizona

Kansas over Michigan

UCLA over North Carolina

 

That leaves us with a Final Four of:

South Carolina vs. Gonzaga

Kansas vs. UCLA

 

So let’s fasten our seat belts as we approach the final turn on that magic carpet ride… ”March Madness.”

 

E-mail Bird at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Autull.

Improving the NBA Draft Process for Everyone Involved

The NBA Draft process has been the subject of great debate over recent years, as many feel the rules set in place by the NCAA make the lives of players and coaches more difficult than they need to be. The current rules state that a player is allowed to enter the draft after one year of collegiate basketball or professional basketball overseas.

One recent adaptation to the rules state that a player is allowed to return to school after declaring for the draft if that player decides to not immediately hire an agent. Additionally, the NCAA passed a rule that allows players ten days to decide if they wish to remain in the draft after taking part in the NBA Draft combine. These recent changes to the rules are a step in the right direction as a player can return to school if they feel their draft stock can be improved after inquiring and participating in the combine.

While the NCAA’s recent rule changes benefit the players and their families, more could be done to help make this life changing decision as seamless and nerve preserving as possible. Acclaimed college basketball writer and analyst Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports proposed the following rule amendments that not only help the players and their families, but college coaches as well. While not all of Davis’ proposals will see the light of day, they are all thoughtful and helpful suggestions that benefit everyone involved in the arduous process that is the NBA Draft. 

First, extending the withdraw date until after the draft could greatly improve the college game. That way, players who did not hear their name called could opt to return to school, given they are in decent enough academic standing. This could be especially useful in smaller conferences where players often end up playing overseas due to being unable to realize their NBA dreams. In addition, most coaches are not able to fill the thirteen available scholarships, which makes extending the withdraw date a legitimate benefactor for everyone involved.

Secondly, not allowing for draft prospects to compete against one another in an organized setting prior to the draft is counterintuitive. Pre-draft workouts are routinely conducted at an extremely slow pace, plus it fails to judge a player’s ability to execute in high pressure situations. While some might consider this unnecessary, getting a sense of how the draft prospects compete against one another is not only valuable to the players, but draft scouts as well as it can give greater insight than individual workout. In addition to this, there is no harm in allowing for players to receive a small compensation for these exhibition games. Given that paid internships are usually explored by college students during their undergraduate careers, NBA Draft prospects should be allowed the same opportunity. 

Thirdly, allowing for players to formally interact with agents could allow for regulations to be placed on a practice that already exists despite its illegality. Agents are typically seen as sources of violation in the eyes of the NCAA. If the NCAA was to work alongside agents in educating players and their families about the business nature of the game, the draftees would be better off as they would be provided with a formal education as to how the business of basketball operates.  

While the NCAA might oppose some of the rule changes suggested, each change would not only benefit the players and their families, but the NCAA as well. The NCAA working in conjunction with agents and players would drastically improve the college game, something any fan of collegiate sports can get behind.

Email Alec at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alec_kwait.

Image via Flickr/Brent Soderberg

New NBA Early Entry Rules are a Good Thing, but will they Change Anything?

The NCAA took a step in the right direction, when they implemented a new rules allowing college basketball players additional time to decide whether or not to enter the NBA Draft.  In the new environment, players will be able to wait until 10 days after the NBA combine to determine if they will stay or go.  In theory, this should provide ample time to get valuable feedback from scouts, NBA teams, college coaches, along with family and advisors, in order to make the best decision.  The question is whether or not the players will do just that?

Immediately after the college basketball regular season ended, a significant number of players (both expected and unexpected), put their names into NBA Draft consideration.  Sam Vecenie from CBSSports.com began ranking all of the early entrants this past Friday.  It makes sense that just about anyone and everyone should test the waters.  With the ability to withdraw after the NBA Combine, as opposed to the previous set up which required a decision to be made a month before, players should have all the information they need.

However, one of the first things college underclassmen need to do – or not do – is hire an agent.  Year after year we see players who really have no business doing so, not only enter the draft, but immediately hire an agent.  You would think that with more time at their disposal, players will be more likely to wait until they’re confident in their draft status before taking that step.  Will they though?  Looking at Vecenie’s list, there are 20 players who have already hired agents.  Now some of those will definitely be drafted in the first round, but many are listed as “second round to undrafted” status.  The rules are designed to provide options, and hiring an agent completely removes those options.

It will be interesting to see how the new rules impact players’ evaluations of the sheer draft numbers.  There are only 60 draft slots, and with the additional time to assess draft status, before the deadline, everyone will know whether or not they are among those 60.  This should lead to many players rushing back to campus.  Will that actually happen?  Similar to the practice of hiring an agent, it always seems that underclassmen either ignore the numbers or simply choose not to look at them.

Prior to the new rules, assessing the numbers should’ve been a pretty simple exercise.  Check out a couple of NBA Mock Drafts like this one from Draft Express and see if your name is listed.  If your name isn’t listed in the first round, head back to school.  Or, if your goal was simply to be drafted, check the second round as well, and if not listed, head back to school.  Again, this doesn’t happen.  New-found patience is unlikely to be learned via the updated rules.

With all of the critical feedback which should be coming the way of the players, hopefully it will sink in and lead to clearer thinking.  So few draft slots are available that the math should be first grade simple.  The underclassmen rankings alone should provide a stark reality.  Add in the fact that those rankings, along with the mock drafts, don’t account for 15-20 college seniors who will be in the mix, along with 10-15 international players who will also be drafted.  Prior to the deadline, there should be plenty of information available to any player testing the waters, whether or not they fit into one of those draft slots.  It will be interesting to see if they use it to their advantage, or completely disregard the numbers.

There’s a real opportunity for both the college and NBA games to improve because of the new early entry rules.  Hopefully, given the additional time to assess players, NBA organizations will be able to more accurately project which players are ready for the jump, and provide honest feedback to those who aren’t.  This, in turn, should lead to players, and their circle of support, honestly evaluating their draft stock.  In theory, if more underclassmen return to school for further development, the college game will benefit not only from their skills, but also from their experience.  This year’s NCAA Tournament showed that experience is critical to success.

In the long run, the NBA should benefit as well.  First, with more “draftable” players available, teams will be getting better quality right away, rather than drafting projects and waiting on development.  Second, those players who returned to school should be that much better when they do enter the draft in two to three years.  With more finished products being drafted in the future, NBA rosters will be made up of more substance and less potential.  This won’t stop NBA front offices from mis-evaluating players based on hype, but it should reduce how often it occurs.

My hope is that this will lead to a higher quality NBA.  One which more closely resembles the glory of the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  This will all be contingent however, on whether or not all parties involved actually maximize the value of these changes.  More than ever, the ball will be in the court of the college underclassmen to use the information provided, and be honest with themselves when they make their draft decisions.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo via Flickr/Brent Soderberg

Has College Basketball Lost Its Appeal?

March Madness. All you have to do is say those two little words and you conjure up memories for most red-blooded Americans who like to watch college basketball. When I think of college basketball I remember watching The Big East Conference or at the time the Pac-10 Conference game of the week every Saturday when I was a teenager. I could look at most teams and name just about every player on most rosters or at the very least be familiar with all the players’ names. Oh, how times have changed.

I don’t get the same amount of joy watching college basketball anymore. To me, it’s a difficult game to watch. People are going to say “the game is pure” or “they play it because they love the game” or “it’s the same game it’s always been.” You want to know what I say to that? To put it appropriately, I call BS.

The product is not very good at all in my opinion. People like a good product on the court or field when they go watch their teams, but right now they are not getting their money’s worth.

Everybody knows that the NBA is a players’ league. Well, NCAA college basketball is a coach’s league and let’s just say that the coaches are micromanagers of their players. Every possession is grinded out like they are trying to figure out if there was somebody on the grassy knoll. The players are not allowed to freelance too much because that means lost possessions to the coach and it probably means that the player will find himself on the end of the bench or seated right next to their coach getting an ear full of discipline. So to the player it doesn’t benefit them in any way to play a little loose and free. The free movement of basketball isn’t there for college basketball because the college coaches want to play the game in a phone booth and not out in the open like it should be.

After watching Pac-12 (Pac-10 as a youngster) basketball all my life and in person the last couple of seasons it is readily apparent that players don’t have the same skill set they once had. Oh, sure, there are the occasional anomalies that come with that ability to do everything, such as Jahlil Okafor. But, for the majority of players coming into college basketball they have one skill they can do. Some have good ball-handling, some are decent shooters, some rebound or play solid defense, but there are not players that leave college being better players than they were when they came into college basketball. Why?

Let’s be honest about what has happened in big time Division One college basketball. The one and done player is killing the game. Many of these players are just not ready to play on the Division One level, but have talent so the coaches are pressured to play these kids and suffer through the growing pains. The other aspect of college basketball is that it’s just a minor league for the NBA. When players have the opportunity to leave after a semester in college, the product on the floor will suffer greatly. These players are not ready for the professional ranks after four months in college.

College basketball is to the point of being unwatchable to many sports fans like myself. It’s slow, can be ugly, and it is unskilled. For the people that tell me that a 54-50 defensive ball game is fun to watch, I just roll my eyes. If I want to see two people mugging each other I will just watch the next episode of “Law and Order”.

There are wrestling matches in the paint, secondary defenders getting charges off stupid calls, guards playing hand to hand combat at the top of the key, officials with quick whistles slowing the game down to a crawl, and cutters trying to avoid collisions. When you add all this up, it’s not a shock as to why the visual of college basketball is so brutal these days.

“We are getting the game we deserve right now. College basketball is antiquated in the way they do things.” Said Jay Bilas, ESPN analyst and former Duke Blue Devil.

For the average fan, college hoops is boring to watch and the NCAA is not willing to change many things up to improve the product on the floor.

The NBA went through some changes to make the game more visually appealing to its fans. The fans and even people inside the NBA made complaints about how the game became ugly. So the NBA listened to them and over the last 20 years or so, the NBA has been a leader in making its game better. They have cracked down on hand-checking, flopping, backing players down in the lane, and for those actions, it is why the NBA is more visually appealing to fans now. It’s certainly more appealing to me.

The NCAA is suffering through a time where people are not paying attention to college basketball like they used to. Overall attendance is down, ratings are down, and scores are down. Teams are averaging about 67.2 points per game, the lowest average total since 1952, which tells me that college basketball players don’t have the offensive repertoire as they once did. They are certainly more athletic, but that doesn’t mean they are better overall players than their predecessors. Attendance is also down at college basketball games. Overall attendance is down for the seventh straight year and down roughly 360,000 people. In 2006 college basketball attendance averaged 5,237 people and now it averages 4,817. That may not seem like a lot, but to a school to lose roughly 500 paid people to a game means lost revenue that is difficult to recover.

What is driving these fans away? Are people being turned off by one and done players? The drop in skilled players? Maybe. To go along with the drop in attendance, the television ratings have also been declining. ESPN which carries a ton of games has had their viewing of college basketball drop by six percent in the last year. Has conference realignment affected this? I would say yes because the new conferences have taken away some very good rivalries which mean a lot to the fans of those schools, but to presidents of those schools it’s all about the money. Some type of change has to be made for college basketball to return to what it once was and the NCAA has to spearhead that change.

What can be done though? It’s not like the NCAA is an organization that likes to change things. It almost seems like the NCAA have to be dragged kicking and screaming toward that change for it to actually occur.

The NCAA has changed the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds to help out scoring, but when there are a lack of shooters in college basketball that point disappears. As I stated earlier, scoring is down to lowest levels in about 50 years, so what other changes does the NCAA need to look at to increase their ratings and slumping attendance?

Here are just a few ideas.

  1. Take away the possession arrow and replace it with the jump ball. I have hated this possession arrow rule since its inception, so I wouldn’t mind seeing it disappear.
  2. Move the three point line to the NBA distance which would open up the court for penetration.
  3. Get rid of the one-and-one free throw and make every foul the double bonus. This would eliminate the constant fouling at the end of many games.
  4. Make the 10 second backcourt time limit eight seconds.
  5. Put in the defensive three second rule.

Take those for whatever you want, but I think they would better the college game. They would open things up, provide for more movement, and make players play some better defense. No matter how much the NCAA likes to throw out the student/athlete story line, the NCAA is a business and if the product is inferior, the NCAA has to step in and improve it. I’m not saying that change will come anytime soon, but it needs to happen otherwise people will continue to walk away from college basketball.

Image: google

NCAA Tournament: East Region Notebook

As usual, there have been some crazy upsets in the NCAA Tournament this year. Nothing that has come out of the East Region has been too surprising. The most surprising game was that Stephen F. Austin beat West Virginia, but Brad Underwood would have his guys ready. Saturday kicks off another round of exciting games.

Indiana vs. Kentucky

This game starts at 4 p.m. today. This is going to be one of the top three games of the weekend. Two of the nation’s top point guards will face off.  It will be a battle of Indiana’s offense who shot 65 percent their first game of the tournament and hit 10 3-pointers. Against the Wildcat defense, who had an NCAA Tournament single game to watch and I wouldn’t be surprised if Indiana won.

http://espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/preview?gameId=400872166

North Carolina vs. Providence

North Carolina will face Providence at 8:30 today. This will be a great matchup, but UNC has length on offense and defense to beat the two best offensive players on the Providence team. Johnson is big inside and they do not have an answer for him. I see UNC winning this game.

http://campusinsiders.com/news/north-carolina-vs-providence-prediction-03-17-2016

Notre Dame vs. Stephen F.  Austin

Notre Dame and Stephen F. Austin will face off tomorrow at 1:40 p.m. Notre Dame surprised people when if came back to beat Michigan in the second half. Stephen F. Austin beat West Virginia pretty big on Friday night. If Thomas Walkup has the same night he did on Friday, The Lumberjacks will win the game.

http://campusinsiders.com/news/notre-dame-vs-stephen-f-austin-picks-03-18-2016

Wisconsin vs. Xavier

Wisconsin will take on Xavier tomorrow night at 7:40. The Badgers first game was very low scoring. In order to beat Xavier they need to have a better offensive game. Xavier had a very high scoring game against Weber State. This matchup isn’t a very good one for Wisconsin because Wisconsin struggles against the three and Xavier can hit threes. Xavier should easily win this game.

http://winnersandwhiners.com/games/ncaab/3-20-2016/wisconsin-vs-xavier-32016-prediction/

Purdue at Maryland: A Moral Victory for the Boilermakers?

Purdue entered their game this past weekend against #4 Maryland with something to prove. The Boilermakers hadn’t beaten a ranked team this season, and were looking to make a statement by winning on the road against the Terrapins.

Now that the results are in, let’s take a look at what went down in College Park on Saturday, and evaluate where Purdue’s 72-61 loss to Maryland leaves them in the Big Ten race, as well as the national picture.

Maryland entered this game with an impressive resume, including a 14-0 conference record at home since joining the Big Ten, and an overall 25-game home winning streak.

For the first 34 minutes of game action, however, the Boilermakers were making a case that they belong. Purdue and Maryland were engaged in a back-and-forth contest that the Boilers were leading 51-47 with six minutes remaining. Purdue was doing a nice job on the interior, led by centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, and the Boilermakers’ defense was holding a potent Maryland offense in check.

At this point in the contest, Maryland increased their defensive intensity, particularly on the inside. Purdue was unable to get the ball to their post players, and the Boilers also committed several turnovers as they tried in vein to get the ball inside to Hammons or Haas.

Maryland’s defensive tactics left Purdue with no choice but to fire away from the outside, and the results were disastrous. Purdue’s perimeter players couldn’t make shots all game long (3-25 from three-point range), but they were particularly ineffective in those last six minutes. The Terrapins put Purdue away with a 25-10 run to end the game, spoiling the upset hopes of the Boilermakers.

Some say there is no such thing as a “moral victory,” but even if that is the case, some losses are better than others. In the case of Purdue’s defeat at hands of Maryland, they showed they can compete on the road with one of the best teams in the country. On the flip side, they once again failed in crunch time against a quality opponent.

The jury is still out on how the Boilermakers stack up against the best of the Big Ten and the nation, but in order to move from a team just outside that top tier to being considered one of the “elite” teams, Purdue is simply going to have to beat one or more of those quality opponents.

In order for this to happen, Purdue’s outside shooting must improve. When teams clog up the paint defensively, the Boilermakers have to hit enough perimeter shots to keep the defense honest, and that hasn’t been happening. Purdue’s inconsistent outside shooting has been a thorn in their side all season, but it’s been even more evident against top competition.

The Boilermakers have now proven they can play with anybody, but there is a big difference between making a good showing and closing out key games with a victory. Purdue has yet to take the next step of finishing off a ranked opponent, but they’ll have more opportunities to do so, starting tonight when they host #8 Michigan State.

Purdue is a good team, but they don’t look like a Big Ten contender or a team that can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament at this point. The only way the Boilermakers can change that perception is to break through against an elite opponent, but that’s going to take a complete, 40-minute performance that Purdue has yet to put together this season.

It’s time to put up or shut up…the clock is ticking.

Can Purdue Compete With the Big Ten Elite?

The Purdue Boilermakers are in the midst of a successful basketball season. They currently stand at 19-4 on the year, 7-3 in the Big Ten, and have held a national ranking through all 23 games thus far. Purdue has done a nice job taking care of business against lesser foes, with only one real upset loss, that being to Illinois on January 10.

As good as all that sounds, there is one flaw in the Boilers’ resume: they are 0-2 against Top 25 competition this season.

The only two games they’ve played against nationally ranked opponents were against Butler on December 19 and Iowa on January 24. The game with Butler was tight throughout, but the Bulldogs prevailed 74-68. Purdue held a halftime lead at Iowa, but were outclassed in the second half and fell to the Hawkeyes 83-71.

The Boilermakers have only been able to test themselves against two ranked teams, but the fact that they lost both contests is a red flag. Purdue has been ranked as high as 9th in the nation this season, but they have yet to beat anyone of similar caliber.

Opportunity knocks in these next two conference games for Purdue. They will pay a visit to #8 Maryland on February 6, then host Michigan State (currently 12th in the polls) on February 9. These games are very important in establishing what kind of team the 2015-16 Boilermakers truly are.

Purdue is clearly a good team, but how good? Are they a Big Ten contender and a team expected to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, or are they a middle-of-the-road Big Ten team who will make an early exit from The Big Dance (assuming they get there at all).

In their past Top 25 match-ups with Butler and Iowa, the Boilers have played well in stretches and had leads, but were unable to close those ballgames strongly enough to post a victory.

The recent signs have been promising for Purdue, as the team as been playing well and winning. Center A.J. Hammons has been a key factor for the Boilers of late, stuffing the stat sheet to the tune of a career-high 32 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots in Purdue’s win at home against Nebraska on January 30.

In short, the potential is there. When Purdue is on their game, they have an inside-outside combination that few teams around the country can match. Purdue’s front line is among the biggest and most talented in college basketball, and they have several wing players who can knock down shots when the defense collapses on the Boilermakers’ big men.

What Purdue needs to prove is that they can put it all together against top-flight competition, and they’ve yet to do that. These next two games will be a great litmus test for Purdue, but if that’s not enough, they also have games coming up later in February against #19 Indiana, and a return match with Maryland at Mackey Arena.

So, by the time the Big Ten season is nearing an end in late February, we’ll know what kind of team the Purdue Boilermakers are. The chance to prove they belong will be there, now, let’s see what they can do with it.

A Slew of Stretch 4’s

A couple of weeks back I was watching the Oklahoma/Kansas game on Monday night, and casually tweeted that a handful of college basketball teams have legit, post playing big men; and the rest have a slew of stretch fours.

I really hadn’t thought about it much since. Then last Thursday, I was watching my own Louisville Cardinals playing against Pitt. During that game, Chinanu Onuaku – who has made major strides during his sophomore season – was breaking out these exquisite, two-dribble, drop-step, finish with the slam, post moves. It was a thing of beauty.

Watching this throwback skill set brought that thought back in to my head. It really made me wonder why the true back-to-the-basket, low block operators have become practically extinct? And will they ever return?

I’m reminded of this as I watch Syracuse attempt to knock off Duke in Cameron Indoor. The Blue Devils, trailing by five with less than three minutes to play, are spread all around the three-point arc. Their lone big man Marshall Plumlee, has not shown for the ball one time anywhere near the paint. After three wayward bombs from beyond the arc, the Devils are bailed out by Brandon Ingram; their frosh stretch four, who’s able to tip in one of the rebounds. That possession would have been much simpler if they had one capable post player.

Getting back to the point, first and foremost, I don’t believe we’ll ever see a day where the low block is a primary focus. Gone are the days of Sampson, Ewing, Olajuwon, Mourning, and O’Neal. Hell, I’d take Rik Smits. But it is shocking that more coaches in the college game don’t devote more time to developing at least one guy to do the job.

The lack of a true post presence is part of the reason we see such ineffective half court offensive execution. Some teams are aware of their inefficiencies to the point that they force transition, just to avoid playing in the half court. That becomes a problem when the game does become a half court battle. Defenses can force the opposition to the perimeter, leading to poor shot selection.

It may seem counterintuitive, but having a vacancy in the post also is a major factor when teams struggle against a zone defense. The thought process is typically to shoot a team out of a zone. Simply put, shoot threes and make them all, so the zone gets busted. That’s a nice idea, until the shots don’t drop. You need a pivot in the middle, who can catch the ball low, and swing it opposite.

Those zone-busting jumpers are suddenly a lot cleaner looking. The threat to score inside that defense also forces that zone to collapse. Think of a guy like Tim Duncan moving from block to block, and rotating up to the free throw line within that zone. We were treated briefly to a couple of those guys last season, in Jahlil Okafor and Karl Anthony Towns; but they weren’t around long enough to make post play trendy again.

After making my initial statement, I should actually amend it. In addition to the slew of stretch fours who are power forward size, but float around the perimeter and primarily play facing the basket; there are now an abundance of guys I’d describe as “activity forwards”.

What I mean are players whose offense is predicated on athleticism and activity, rather than an array of offensive weapons and excellent footwork. Players that come to mind are Jameel McKay, or Montrezl Harrell last year. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great guys to have. However, most of their scoring is derived from put backs, dunks, and being on the end of easy passes, off of guard penetration.

Activity forwards usually have their footwork exposed when faced with a good defender, thus the offense doesn’t run as smoothly.  They also don’t sit low enough on their defender when trying to establish position.  More often than not, they aren’t very good passers out of the post, so they don’t find open shooters. There’s an increasing population of these guys in the college game.

Even though it is somewhat of a dying art, consistent post play is a key ingredient to making a title run. Last year Duke had Okafor, and Wisconsin had Frank Kaminsky. In 2013 Louisville had Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan. Stretching back a bit further, North Carolina had Tyler Hansbrough in ’09, and the back-to-back Florida championship teams had Joakim Noah and Al Horford.

On the flip side, teams that pull major upsets usually have at least one legit big man who keeps finding offense when things get tough. Think Taylor Coppenrath for Vermont, George Mason’s Jai Lewis, or Kyle O’Quinn for Norfolk State.

And upset victims in many instances are perimeter oriented teams, without a consistent post scorer. Iowa State was a glaring example last year of a team that couldn’t find simple buckets when they needed them, because they weren’t accustomed to scoring down low.

I know it’s a bit early, but as you begin to put together your dark horse teams that will make a run to the Final Four; and identify those that like ripe for an early exit, think post play. The low block may never again be a focal point in college hoops, but it will always be critical to long-term success.

New College Basketball Rules Narrow the Gap

During the past offseason, college basketball decided to make some changes to the rules they already had in place. Because fans complain about slow play and would rather see up-tempo basketball, the rules were altered to mimic the NBA a little more. The NBA has been the definition of fast-paced, no defense basketball, and that’s what the NCAA wants to move towards. Now, this is mainly due to the NCAA wanting more people following college basketball and they thought that making the game higher scoring would bring more fans in.

While it is most certainly too early to see any difference in the amount of people watching basketball, I can already see major differences in these basketball games. Before I go on, I want to preface my next thought by saying that basketball has always been a sport where the underdog has a great chance of winning. However, because of the new rule changes, I believe the gap between powerhouse programs like UNC and Kentucky and smaller schools like VCU or Butler have narrowed, by a large margin.

My hypothesis has been supported by the sheer amount of smaller teams winning against the bigger schools. Teams such as Northern Iowa, Tulsa, George Washington, and Wake Forest are finding it easier to keep up with the big schools late in the game. The reason for this has multiple facets, but its’ foundation lies in the fast-paced, frequent shooting environment that the rules have created. Of course, there are always small schools that take down the big guys, but it doesn’t usually happen this early in the season. Even though the SEC is a weaker conference overall, they are having the same problems with small schools, early. The likes of Georgia, Mississippi State, and other teams have also seen what these small schools can do.

I believe that the new rules will let teams that can shoot and are smaller to play to their strengths, allowing them to steal games that they otherwise wouldn’t. Since you shouldn’t just take this all on my word, here are specific thoughts on some of the new rules.

First, we must start off with the shortened shot clock. I wrote last year that decreasing the shot clock would, in turn, lead to higher scoring games and more shots/possessions for teams. So far this season, I think my logic has held strong because some of the early college basketball scores are straight out of the NBA. Teams have to take more shots and are getting more possessions than ever before. This gives smaller teams that focus on shooting an advantage. I have seen many teams already reach the 100-point mark, and Butler’s 144 points to start the season were just insane.

Although a couple programs with high scoring games doesn’t mean a whole lot, if you look through some scores this season, you will notice an uptick in points. Instead of seeing 50 or 60-point slugfests, I am noticing more games that consistently reach the upper 80s and low 90s. That was rarely seen last year, especially if you weren’t a powerhouse that played up-tempo and could shoot.

Since the games are higher scoring this year that means teams need to shoot the ball better if they hope to score. This is where the smaller schools catch up. They pride themselves in shooting the ball more so than a bigger team that usually focuses on playing above the rim.

The next rule that plays a large role in the new version of college basketball is the movement of the restricted arch farther towards the free throw line. While the move isn’t major, it was changed to four feet from the goal this year, which will create a different defensive game for many teams. If you were Kentucky last year, then you would have hated these new rule changes, mostly because it means that defensive studs have a tougher time protecting the rim. Since the arch is farther out, defensive players will have to play their game higher up in the paint, which could keep them from playing good help defense or getting to some shots on the low block.

All of these rules are rewarding shooting teams and hurt big, defense-dominated teams.

The last rule that has affected game play this year is the new hand-checking rule. Referees were told to be more adamant about calling hand checking around the perimeter, but also near the paint. Most of the time, when you drive the ball, someone smacks your hand, even if it isn’t a foul. This year, referees will be on the lookout for these small fouls, and they will be calling them with a higher frequency due to the new rules. This will allow for less contact around the rim, which could be a problem for the teams whose defenses live to block shots and play hard defense. Instead of your big guy altering a shot by way of contact, the opponent will be shooting free throws, which again, is a massive advantage for shooters and high scoring teams.

College basketball has become more about how many shots you make than who plays better defense and that is fine. College basketball has always been behind the other sports in popularity, especially if the tournament isn’t on. Hopefully, with the new rules, more fans will begin to pay attention and bring the sport more into the spotlight. Don’t expect a change overnight however, as most people won’t even be watching college basketball until football season ends. Although I am not usually in favor of changing the whole complexion of a sport, I think this could be the start of something great for college basketball.

 

(Photo Courtesy of SD Dirk/Flickr)

Notre Dame’s Final Four Bid: No Cigar

Close, but…well you know how that saying goes. Last night was fun, despite Notre Dame losing an emotional heartbreaker. It was fun to see social media light up with basketball fans around the country (except one state) root for Notre Dame. Even on TV I heard the “Let’s Go Irish” chants ringing through the arena.

However, not all that glitters is gold and the Fighting Irish came painfully short of a huge upset against the heavily favored Wildcats. The loss ends an unforgettable run in the NCAA tournament that saw the Irish reach the elite eight for the first time since 1979.

Fighting to the End

I would say by the time this column goes live, I feel a lot better about the outcome of the game last night. “Gut-wrenching” is a word I would use to describe what happened. I was so proud of the team. The Irish were not intimidated whatsoever, weathered numerous emotional moments and at time at times, really took it to Kentucky. In the end, the depth of Kentucky ended up being a problem Mike Brey and the Irish could not solve.

Considering the beatdown that West Virginia received Thursday night, many fans wondered how Notre Dame would fare against the overall number one seed in the tournament. The three point threat of Notre Dame allowed the Irish to work the ball around and the Irish defense kept the game close. Center Zach Auguste had a great game, considering the size disadvantage, scoring 20 points with numerous highlight slam dunks. Notre Dame played a gutsy game and Kentucky had a difficult time pulling away.

Looking back, there really is not a whole lot Notre Dame could have done different. They played a tremendous game and even led the majority of the game. Ultimately, the talent of Kentucky was too much to overcome. Notre Dame had no answer for Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns, who single handedly killed the Final Four dreams of the Irish. I’m not going to go into a lot of depth of how Kentucky won or get into the stats of the game. I am more interested in what this means to the Notre Dame basketball program moving forward and reflect on a tremendous season that was for the Irish.

Notre Dame is not really known for basketball. The football program (rightfully so IMHO) garners a majority of the attention. It has been 36 years since Notre Dame went deep in the NCAA tournament. There were times over the past few years I wondered if Mike Brey had the chops to take the Irish to the Sweet 16 or later. I am glad to be proven wrong.

This team, was the best team Mike Brey has had at Notre Dame. When Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant came back this year, they did so to go to the Final Four and win a national championship. Despite coming up short in that regard, Grant and Connaughton led the Irish to a 32-6 record and this year’s ACC tournament championship, including two wins against both Duke and North Carolina, as well as Michigan State and Louisville.

Notre Dame basketball has nothing to be ashamed of. The loss last night was painful, but a reminder for all that the games have to be played and nothing is handed to any team. 32 wins and an Elite Eight is a exceptional season for any team. The future looks bright for Mike Brey and the Irish. Steve Vasturia, Demetrius Jackson and Bonzi Colson all return to Notre Dame next season. All three made meaningful contributions in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.

In his post game press conference, Mike Brey said his team left all they had on the court. At the end of the day, that’s about all you can ask. Saturday night Notre Dame certainly lived up to their nickname, the “Fighting” Irish.

Photo Credit: Tom Gilbert from Flikr (original image). Creative commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/