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Billy Reed: No longer mesmerizing, today's college basketball could use some changes

In more than 50 years of covering college basketball, I have never gone to a game hoping to see a defensive battle. Never. I have gone to games dreading a defensive battle. But I have never looked forward to that 52-49 scrum when both teams look as if they’re afraid to shoot. And when they do finally let go off the ball, it’s more apt to be Anvil Chorus than string music.

I love offense. I love teams that push the ball up the floor. I especially love pure shooters, guys who can knock down the three from just about anywhere. If Christian Laettner’s game-winning jumper is the main reason many think the 1992 Duke-Kentucky game was the best ever, so was the final score: Duke 103, UK 102 in overtime. Today even the best teams hit 100 only against the cupcakes on their schedules.

I put the blame squarely on the coaches. They emphasize defense because it’s easier to teach and control. Anybody with a good work ethic can play defense, right? But offense is a different matter. Offense brings into play those mortal enemies of coaches, creativity and imagination. So they run various versions of the motion offense until somebody either heaves up a three-pointer or barges into the lane like a heat-seeking missile.

The shot clock, which was designed to speed up play and put some juice back into the game, hasn’t really made much of an impact. We still have too many games where teams full of superb athletes struggle to make 50 or 60 points. We still have too many games that turn out U-G-L-Y because really good shooters are about as rare as cheerleaders in long wool skirts.

Of the top 10 career scoring averages in NCAA Division I history, all came between the seasons of 1954 and ’73. It’s not surprising, of course, that nobody has approached the record 44.2 average that LSU’s Pete Maravich posted from 1967-‘70. But is it asking too much for somebody to produce a scorer like Idaho State’s Willie Humes, who averaged 31.5 for his career? But the star system is pretty much dead in college basketball because college coaches don’t like any player to be bigger than they are.

When I get together with other veteran ink-stained wretches to discuss the state of college hoops, we invariably yearn for the days when the game, at its best, was closer to ballet than sumo wrestling. We wax poetic about Seattle’s Elgin Baylor gliding to the hoop; about Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson backing his man into the paint and hitting one fallaway jumper after another; about Purdue’s Rick Mount knocking down jumpers from downtown West Lafayette.

But rarely does anyone rhapsodize over defense. Other than Bill Russell and a handful of others whose names don’t come readily to mind, we don’t remember players for their defense. Maybe defense wins games, as coaches likes to insist, but offense is what gets arenas rocking and announcers shouting. We all love basketball as Showtime. Unfortunately, the emphasis on defense has led, invariably, to an equivalent decrease in entertainment value.

Please understand, I’m not suggesting we go back to the days where everybody seems to favor the “matador” defense. But I would like to see more balance. I can’t believe coaches are spending as much practice time on shooting as they do on man-to-man principles. If they were, surely we wouldn’t see so many low scores and dismal shooting percentages. And don’t get me started on free throws. Of the teams given the best chances of winning the NCAA title, Wisconsin is 11th nationally in free-throwing shooting, Virginia 21st. Don’t forget this when filling out your brackets.

Unfortunately, I don’t see more balance coming anytime soon. With so much money at stake, coaches have become extraordinarily conservative. So they emphasize defense because it can win for them when the offense isn’t there (as it frequently isn’t these days). One other thing they like to do is coach every dribble and pass on offense. This distracts players and inhibits their freedom to think and create and get into an offensive flow.

I’m not sure when coaches became so defensive oriented. In the Big Ten, it probably was when Bob Knight came to Indiana in 1972 and decreed that his team would never be known as the “Hurryin’ Hoosiers.” And I must also point the finger at the late Dean Smith. In the early 1980s, when he had some of the greatest athletes in America, Smith employed the “Four Corners” delay game so frequently that it forced the adoption of the shot clock.

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John Wooden’s championship teams at UCLA were fun to watch because they always had balance. On defense, they could smother teams with their 2-2-1 full-court zone press or their aggressive man-to-man (it was easy to be aggressive with Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton guarding the basket). And on offense, they scored at will off the fast break or Wooden’s trademark high-post offense.

At its best, basketball should be mesmerizing. Like jazz, each game should have its rifts and rhythms. It needs great soloists hitting the high notes. Sadly, however, too many of today’s games, even those involving the most talented teams, are exercises in torture, much like the hip-hop music that reverberates through arenas before games. (O.K., I’m Old School and proud of it.) And I don’t care what today’s coaches say, great defense does not compensate for the lack of offensive splendor.

One of my favorite players to watch this season is Kentucky freshman Devin Booker. A son of Melvin Booker, the Big Eight player-of-the-year for Missouri in 1994, Booker is a balanced player. But what sets him apart is his sweet stroke from the outside. If he played on a team where he was the focal point of the offense, he could easily average 30.

I only hope that we’re in the midst of a trend, or phase, and that the rules will be amended again to bring more offense back into the game. I appreciate a well-timed block or steal. But more than that, I miss the flair of the scorers and shooters whose artistry has been the essence of the college game.


Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.

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