The Lost Art of Scoring: Revisiting the 1990 LSU-Loyola epic
LSU-LMU's 298 point game makes me yearn for the days of high-scoring matchups
Uptempo has come to mean radically different things in 2012 than it did in 1990
The 2012 season was the slowest and lowest-scoring in modern era college hoops
An envelope, a portal to the past: Inside was evidence of the lost art of scoring. The return address belonged to Ben, a reader who had emailed during the offseason to ask if I was interested in anything from his college game-DVD collection. He had an incredible trove of footage and was feeling generous.
Out slid a stack of burned Memorexes, each in a hand-labeled paper sleeve. Ben also included a note. It said that the Feb. 3, 1990 game I requested -- No. 20 Loyola Marymount at No. 16 LSU on CBS -- was "epic." It only had one overtime, but it required three DVDs and the sum total of the final score was 289. Two-hundred eighty-nine!. This was acceptable usage of "epic."
I didn't plan to watch the DVDs four times, but that's what happened. The "System" that Loyola coach Paul Westhead ran -- full-court pressing, fast-breaking on prescribed routes, shooting within seven seconds of gaining possession -- had considerable replay value. As did the duel between a rambunctious-and-lithe, 17-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and a scowling-and-sturdy, 22-year-old Hank Gathers, who would be gone from the world in 29 days, and was unknowingly making his final national TV appearance. When viewed through a 2012 lens, the broadcast has that big, ominous cloud hovering over it and many little quirks inside -- such as the ways CBS play-by-play man James Brown said Shaq's name, as if the O-apostrophe part did not exist: "shah-KEEL-ah-NEEL," or "shah-KEEL-the-NEEL."
Those pronunciations did not endure. Nor did the style of LSU's white Converse high-tops or Loyola's white Reeboks, or the brand of sports drink served on both benches, a regional concoction called "10-K." I wondered if there are any ex-Tigers who insist on its superiority to Gatorade.
But above all, I wondered why the game resembled absolutely nothing that I cover as an adult. I miss the fast basketball from my childhood. Loyola cannot serve as the emblem of that era -- even then, the 122-points-per-game Hank and Bo (Kimble) Show was extreme -- but other elite teams were paying little mind to the 45-second shot clock in '89-90 and scoring at prolific rates. Eventual national champ UNLV broke the 100-mark 16 times that season. The team sitting atop the final AP poll, Oklahoma, did it 15 times. That was the last great period of scoresheet-stuffing, and the sport has been decelerating ever since.
Another season of the Control Era opens in two weeks. To steel myself for a winter of 60-point scores, I ditched standard preview duties in favor of diarizing a 22-year-old game that hit the 140s. Present-day plodding inspired a lament for the death of triple digits.
To get themselves on CBS, the extremists acquiesced to an extreme itinerary. "When we first saw the schedule," Lions guard Tom Peabody recalled, "guys looked at coach Westhead and asked, 'Are you out of your mind?'" It called for Loyola to play St. Mary's on Thursday night in Los Angeles (a 150-119 win), fly to Baton Rouge at 7:10 a.m. Friday, practice in the afternoon, play LSU at 1 p.m. Saturday, leave immediately afterwards on a return flight to L.A., land around midnight, and host San Francisco at 5 p.m. Sunday. As daunting as it seemed, Westhead said that once his players were in the middle of it, "they weren't fazed at all. They were so accustomed to running every day that it didn't even enter their minds to get tired."
Meanwhile, LSU coach Dale Brown, always more gunslinger than tactician, was not one to let conventional wisdom -- that he'd be best-served by playing slow enough to let 7-footers Shaq and Stanley Roberts post up the 6-7 Gathers -- get in the way of good television. To Brown, the only honorable way to beat the System was to let virtuoso guard Chris Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and his giants run with the System. Thus the game opened with a burst of mostly sub-nine-second possessions, giving Brown the discombobulating sensation, on the sideline, that he was "a sock tumbling in the dryer."
Amid the early chaos there was clarity on one thing, and that was who was winning the Shaq-Gathers battle. The stakes were immense for Gathers, an obsessive worker who was obsessed with becoming a Lottery Pick. He knew the crowd included 20-25 NBA scouts, all of whom adored Shaq, and most of whom were still debating whether Gathers' running-based, devoid-of-a-jumper game -- even though he led the nation in scoring the previous season -- could work in the NBA. "It was critically important for Hank to do well against Shaq," Peabody said. "It was the next step."
The next step, he meant, in getting over the setback of Dec. 9, 1989, when Gathers fainted during a game against UC-Santa Barbara, was hospitalized and later diagnosed with an exercise-induced heart abnormality. He missed two games and returned on Dec. 30 after being prescribed the beta-blocking drug Inderal. But because Inderal had a Kryptonic effect -- it made him too sluggish to thrive in The System, where max effort was essential -- Gathers successfully lobbied to get his dosage reduced. When CBS' color commentator, Quinn Buckner, stated that Gathers' 44-point effort two days prior to the LSU game was due to him "back[ing] off some of the medication," there was no mention of the risk involved. Nearly everyone was naive to the risk.
The only immediate, evident problem was the mercilessness of Shaq, whom Roberts described as "a young deer, sprinting everywhere." The first post entry to Gathers was stolen by Shaq. Gathers' first shot against Shaq was blocked. So was the second. The third was, to be fair, only deflected, but Shaq fully rejected the fourth and the fifth. Gathers snuck a few fastbreak dunks in amid the block party, but that didn't make it any less painful to watch.
What must be noted is that all this drama -- 28 possessions' worth, with LSU up 27-23 -- was packed into the first eight-and-a-half minutes. That was the beauty of the speed game. So much action, yet so much room left to develop the plot.
Naturally, the first graphic CBS displayed (at right) was a list of Division I's highest-scoring teams. Loyola was No. 1.
The Lions, James Brown said, were "giving new meaning to the word uptempo." They would finish the season averaging 122.4 points per game, a D-I record that still stands.
Uptempo had a different meaning in 1990 than it does in 2012. Below is a side-by-side comparison of the five highest-scoring teams in the final '89-90 AP poll with the five highest-scoring teams in the final '11-12 AP poll. To the right of each team's scoring average is its number of possessions per game, which is the truest measure of tempo:
The contrast is striking. In '89-90, there were four ranked teams averaging more than 80 possessions per game; in '11-12, there was just one ranked team that broke 70.
The averages for all D-I teams follow this pattern of deceleration. Statistician Ken Pomeroy recently used the NCAA's historical data to estimate decades' worth of tempo-and-efficiency trends; the full chart appears on his site, but below is the path from the advent of the three-point line ('86-87) to the present:
The stark reality is that the 2012 season was the slowest and lowest-scoring in the modern era. The 35-second shot clock can't be all to blame, because teams were scoring more when it was 45. Referees' allowance of overly physical defense has had a real impact. Coaches, warier of job security in a bigger-money era, have become more conservative. They have sacrificed pace for slightly higher efficiency. To run is to give up control, and to try to really, really run -- like Loyola did, training as if it were a track team -- is to risk losing games and losing players.
"Plenty of coaches agree in the offseason that they're going to run more next year," Westhead said. "Players' eyes light up, and there's kind of an approving smile on their faces. But between the first day of practice and the first game, everyone is over it. Accommodations have been made.
"The running game is too hard for the players. ... And if they aren't fully committed to it, it's doomed to fail."