The Big Ten bore

The Big Ten and other major Division I conferences are holding their men’s basketball tournaments this weekend. (If you flip through your channels and you see something other than college basketball, something is wrong with your TV.)

If you watch the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis (quarterfinals today, including Wisconsin vs. Indiana at 1:25 p.m.) on the Big Ten Network, and semifinals Saturday and the final Sunday on CBS), you’ll discover what the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen discovered:

Of the 32 conferences that play Division I basketball, the Big Ten has either been the slowest or second-slowest in seven of the last eight years (in conference games) according to kenpom.com, a statistics website. For the entire regular season, the Big Ten is even slower than the Ivy League, which plays as if peach baskets were still in use. …
Somewhere along the line, everything changed. The famed “Hurrying” Hoosiers of the 1940s and those outrageous scoring machines of the ’60s melted into the same kind of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality that has long defined the conference’s less-than-flashy football teams. “I wish I had some answer,” said Dan Dakich, a former Indiana player and interim coach who is now an ESPN analyst. “I don’t.”

Cohen suggests it’s because of — or, depending on your perspective, the fault of — Dakich’s college coach, Bobby Knight, who focused on defense first. Cohen interviewed former Purdue coach Gene Keady, who said of his former archrival, “When certain coaching styles are winning, we emulate them. He changed the formula.”

It’s probably better to blame Knight than Clintonville’s and Ripon College’s own Dick Bennett, who didn’t start coaching in the Big Ten until the mid-1990s. Before Bennett came to Madison, he coached at UW–Stevens Point and UW–Green Bay. Lacking access to great athletic talent, he recruited locally and focused on defense. (How much did Bennett focus on defense? He would tell his players on the floor that if they were gassed to rest on offense.) Bennett brought that style of basketball from Green Bay to Madison, which culminated in the Badgers’ 2000 Final Four team.

Another example is Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose first UW paychecks were for serving as an assistant coach for Bill Cofield in the late ’70s and Steve Yoder in the early ’80s. Ryan’s first UW–Platteville teams were known, believe it or not, for playing up-tempo basketball — his first UWP teams would bring in five players at a time. The term “up-tempo” describes nothing about UW basketball today.

(Here’s a thought to make you wonder: UW fired Cofield after the 1981–82 season. Ridgeway native Tom Davis, who played at UW–Platteville and got his master’s degree at UW–Madison, was the basketball coach at Boston College. In five seasons, the Eagles won 100 games and earned two NCAA tournament berths and one National Invitational Tournament berth. He was known for pressure defense and necessarily playing a lot of players. But instead of hiring Davis, UW hired UW–Eau Claire coach Ken Anderson, then after Anderson quit three days after taking the job, hired Yoder, then the Ball State coach. Davis went to Stanford, then to Iowa, where his teams played in nine NCAA tournaments and two NITs in 13 seasons, usually beating UW like a drum in the process.)

The problem is that other coaches in Wisconsin and farther turned Bennett’s necessity into a virtue, as if teams giving up fewer points showed them to be better coaches than teams scoring more points — as if losing 40–36 was preferable to losing 60–54, or 80–72. (The halftime score of Wisconsin’s last 2000 game, the Final Four semifinal against Michigan State: MSU 19, Wisconsin 17.)

Why is this a problem? It’s not merely because I prefer watching a style of play closer to Grinnell’s Flying Circus than plod-and-pound. For the non-participants in the games, sports is entertainment. That means your favorite basketball team competes with every other potential entertainment or recreational activity for the disposable income dollar.

Intercollegiate athletics at the Division I level has become an increasingly expensive operation. Since most college sports don’t make money for their colleges, the revenues generated by football and men’s basketball (along with women’s basketball in some schools and men’s hockey in others, including Wisconsin) have to fund all the colleges’ other sports. That’s why tickets cost as much as they cost (to which can be added the mandatory–voluntary contribution to keep said prime tickets), and sports stadiums have become two- or three-hour marketing opportunities as much as venues for the games. Fans who don’t go to games don’t spend money at the games.

Fans prefer winning first and foremost, of course. Since two  teams play, each game features a winner and a loser. There are relatively speaking fewer sports purist who appreciate moving without the basketball, boxing out for rebounds, and free throw shooting as there are fans who want to be entertained, preferably with winning basketball. (The way to guarantee high attendance, I suppose, is for basketball officials to do everything they can to assure that the home team wins.) Teams that neither win nor play an entertaining style draw what Madison TV sports anchor Jay Wilson used to call the “Faithful 5,000” — the four-digit attendance numbers for UW basketball games in the 1980s.

The National Football League figured this out when it changed rules to promote passing in 1978, and then several times thereafter. The Packers’ 2011 regular season was a microcosm of what the NFL wants to see, and apparently what fans want to see given NFL TV ratings. The more-points-are-better approach has filtered down into college football as well, as demonstrated by the past two UW seasons.

As recently as the late 1970s, the three-point shot was a goofy idea from the late American Basketball Association. As recently as the early 1980s, shot clocks were something found only in the National Basketball Association. (For one season in the 1980s, the National Collegiate Athletic Association allowed conferences to set their own shot-clock and three-point-shot rules, which was bizarre to watch to say the least.)

The 45-second shot clock and the 20-foot three-point-shot were instituted to promote more scoring, or so the NCAA thought. The irony is that the season with the highest per-game scoring average, 77.2 points per game per team, was in 1972, when college basketball had neither three-point shots nor shot clocks. In contrast, teams have not exceeded even 70 points per game in the past eight seasons. That shows that teams eventually adjust to the new set of rules.

It also makes those who watch more than a few games a year wonder what has happened to basic basketball skills. The theory of the three is that a team that hits a third of its three-point shots will have the same offensive output as a team that hits half of its shots inside the arc. A team that did nothing but shoot threes and went for fast-break layups would theoretically combine the shot with the biggest bang for the buck with the highest-percentage shot. (Teams that drive to the basket go to the free throw line more often.) The irony of the three-point shot is that it has led to fewer mid-range shots — 10 to 15 feet or so. The bigger irony is that the three-point shot and the shot clock has not led to more offense.

Cohen reports that the NCAA basketball rules committee is considering further tinkering with the rules: “Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, the committee’s chairman until this year, said there’s been discussion of experimenting with a wider lane and shorter shot clock.”

One way to increase scoring would be for referees to actually call the game as its creators intended. All you need do is look at a tape from the 1980s or earlier to see the difference in what contact is now allowed. Michigan State is famous for using football pads to beat on its players during practice. Basketball isn’t supposed to be a contact sport, but watch what happens under the basket, and you’ll see that Big Ten games are more like football — or, in the case of the Spartans, muggings — than basketball.

Calling the game as its creators intended would lead to sharply higher foul counts and much longer games, at least at first. It wouldn’t necessarily lead to much more scoring given the continuing free throw shooting slide. But eventually coaches and players would adjust, and the game would be played as it was intended to be played.

The Big Ten’s slowness of pace  may help explain why the Big Ten hasn’t been successful in the NCAA tournament for several years. The Atlantic Coast Conference actually plays basketball. No one would consider Duke or North Carolina to be run-at-all-costs no-defense teams, and yet games involving the Blue Devils and Tar Heels actually approximate the way basketball is supposed to be played. Speed usually overcomes brute force.

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