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John Day column: College basketball lacks rhythm, scoring


Associated Press national writer Paul Newberry referred to it as “roller derby on sneakers’’ in a recent column decrying the ugliness of college basketball this season.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, one of the game’s prominent voices, put it even more succinctly, “Our game is brutal to watch right now.”

Even some of the top coaches in the country have spoken out about how the game has deteriorated into basically a wrestling match. “Our game is tremendously more physical than it used to be,’’ North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried was quoted as saying. “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.’ ’’

I’ve been covering Syracuse and major college basketball for more than 30 years and, regrettably, I agree with those folks. Today’s game, at times, is unwatchable. There is so much banging and bumping, not to mention grabbing, hand-checking and downright mugging going on that it’s almost impossible to ever find an offensive rhythm, even for the good teams.

And because so much more physical contact is allowed these day, the thing that attracts fans the most, scoring, hasn’t been this low since at least 1982. You have to go all the way back to the ’50s, way before there was a shot clock, to find another season that tops this one for offensive ineptitude.

Field-goal percentages are at 1960 levels. And 3-point shooting has not been this bad since the arc was installed in 1987.

Bill Raftery, who coached at Seton Hall in the halcyon days of the Big East Conference and has been a TV analyst for the last 30 years, bemoans how far his beloved game has slipped.

“It’s unfortunate that we’ve taken a lot of the skill out of the game because of the physical play that is now allowed,’’ Raferty said at last Saturday’s Georgetown-Syracuse game at the Carrier Dome. “We had some of the most physical teams ever in the league back in the day with Georgetown and Syracuse, and they still found a way to score a lot of points without players killing each other.’’

So why have we come to this? It’s a combination of things, all of which have merged into the perfect storm.

Some skeptics blame the players, saying they aren’t as good as they used to be. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Today’s players are bigger, quicker, more athletic and in better shape than their counterparts of the past two decades.

The major problem is they aren’t being allowed to play “their game.’’ Said Newberry: “This is all 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.’’

“The referees feel like they can’t call it all, and they don’t call it all,’’ Bilas said. “That’s why we have wrestling matches instead of nice, flowing basketball games. It doesn’t take long, if you’re really watching, to see what’s happening For example, Northern Illinois set an NCAA record by scoring only four points in the first half of a 42-25 loss to Eastern Michigan.

Last month, Kansas scored fewer than 70 points in six straight games for the first time since the mid-’70s. And they won all six.

And during a four-game span early in the season, Georgetown, which is currently leading the Big East, was held to 37, 46, 48 and 45 points in four out of six games.

And even such perennially high-voltage teams as Syracuse are not immune to low-scoring contests. The Orange scored a Dome-record low of 46 points against Georgetown last Saturday. They have also been held to 55 points or fewer in two other losses, and have actually won four games in which they have scored less than 56 points.

In Big East games alone this season, SU is averaging just more than 64 points, seven less than a year ago.

“It’s just so tough to score inside anymore because of all the contact,’’ SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins said. “We try to teach our guys to work through the contact. But’s it’s tough when they know they are going to get hammered and a foul is probably not going to be called.’’

Physical play is one thing. But you couldn’t tell by listening for the sound of the whistle. Amazingly, fouls have dipped to a per-team average of 17.6, nearly a foul less than last season and on pace to be the fewest in NCAA history, going back to 1948.

When Bilas played for Duke from 1982-86, “you knew that when you got hit shooting, it was an automatic foul. Today, you’ve just about got to knock a guy into the stands to get a foul. The hand-checking, arm-bars, the dead-on pushing, the body checks on shooters. Guys are getting knocked down and it’s not called.’’

Syracuse’s Brandon Triche, one of the strongest guards in the country, said the officiating is even much different than when he came to college four years ago.

“You knew just how much contact you could get away with,’’ Triche said. “Today, it’s every man for himself.’’

That’s the crux of the issue for me. A defender can cross-body a driver and not draw a foul. But a defender at mid-court reaches and touches a dribbler’s arm without knocking the ball away and the whistle blows.

Several years ago, as they do each season, the NCAA vowed to “strictly enforce” a certain rule on the books. This time it was hand-checking. Well, that lasted until about January. Now, defenders continually not only hand-check all they want, they ride dribblers like a jockey on a horse.

Is this the officials’ fault? They certainly must be held accountable because coaches and players have no recourse if a bad call affects the outcome of a game. Some officials serve multiple conferences, and the way they work one is not necessarily the way they work another.

But with 32 Division I conferences overseeing officials, there are, as Newberry suggested, “too many masters and not a clear way to implement the sort of widespread changes that are needed in the way the game is called.’’

One way to make officiating equal everywhere is quite simple: Follow the rule book. Officials are criticized for calling a certain play one way, and ignoring the same call seconds later. The block-charge call will always be the toughest to judge. But don’t ignore three seconds, travelling, illegal screens, or other rules.

And in my mind, the 3-point shot, while adding excitement, has actually helped destroy offensive rhythm as we knew it. Instead of making the extra pass and getting a better shot, most teams “settle’’ for jacking up a three. And if you can’t do that, simply take it to the basket and get mugged. The mid-range game has all but disappeared, adding further to the lack of consistent scoring.

Georgetown coach John Thompson III insists the reason for the drop in scoring is “defenses across the board are better now. I don’t think that means the game is less exciting.’’


SU’s Michael Carter-Williams has been selected to the list of 30 top candidates in consideration for the 2013 Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year Award.

Ranking second in the nation in assists per game, the sophomore guard is averaging 7.9 per game, while reaching double figures 10 times. He also ranks fourth nationally in steals, with 2.9 per game.

The selections were made by the Atlanta Tipoff Club’s Board of Selectors. In late March, the Naismith Trophy voting academy will narrow down the list to four finalists.

Fans will have the opportunity to help determine this year’s winner by texting their vote for Carter-Williams. Voting will open to fans on Monday, March 25 and is open to all participants will all other wireless carriers, in addition to presenting sponsor AT&T. This year’s trophy will be awarded on April 7 in Atlanta.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University for the Times. He can be reached at

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