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Empty Baskets
Kelli Anderson
February 10, 1997
Shooting is lousy, defense is unyielding, and scoring is way down, Memphis blues, Pacific's lucky phone call
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February 10, 1997

Empty Baskets

Shooting is lousy, defense is unyielding, and scoring is way down, Memphis blues, Pacific's lucky phone call

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Drop In the Bucket
After point totals reached a meager 138.7 a game in the 1985-86 season, the three-pointer was introduced to give the game a lift. Eleven seasons later, scoring is almost back to where it started.

'86

138.7

'87

145.5

'88

147.8

'89

151.4

'90

149.8

'91

152.9

'92

147.6

'93

147.2

'94

150.0

'95

147.6

'96

144.2

'97

140.4

Clemson 51, North Carolina State 42
North Carolina State 44, Penn State 41
Auburn 43, Tennessee 35

Those scores were not culled from pre-Korean War college basketball reports or from recent ACC and SEC football results. They are final scores from this basketball season, and they're not the only examples of how meager scoring is these days. According to the NCAA's midseason statistical analysis of games through Jan. 12, the average number of points scored per game has dropped from 145.3 at midseason last year to 140.4 (chart, opposite). That's part of a decrease of more than seven points from the end of the 1994-95 season. If the trend continues, it will constitute the biggest two-year decline in nearly 40 years.

Why all the low scores in an era that has the bonus of the three-point shot, the prod of the 35-second clock and the reward of extra foul shots under certain circumstances? For one thing, shooting is even uglier than it was last season—field goal accuracy has fallen from 43.9% at the end of last season to a 32-year low of 43.3%, and three-point and free throw shooting also continue to decline, to 33.7% and 66.5%, respectively. That, in turn, leads coaches once again to blame the NCAA's 20-hours-a-week limit on athletic participation, the panic-inducing shot clock and the siren's song of the ESPN SportsCenter highlight reel. "Guys either want to shoot threes or take it all the way to the basket for a dunk," says Washington coach Bob Bender. "The medium-range shot is a lost art form."

But those pet peeves aside, most coaches say that improved defenses are the biggest reason for declining scores. In 1993-94, Marquette set the record for the lowest field goal percentage allowed by a team, 35.8%. At last count four teams—Marquette, Wake Forest, Connecticut and Wisconsin—were bettering that mark. "Every clinic I speak at now, everybody wants to talk about defense," says Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. "It used to be offense: 'What do y'all run?' It isn't like that anymore."

As for recruiting, the kid who can press all night is getting longer looks, says Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, because "some coaches feel they can win quicker that way."

And with more defensive-minded athletes come more sophisticated defenses. "Almost everyone plays some form of man-to-man, but within that basic defense, there might be at least 100 ways of playing it," says Washington State coach Kevin Eastman. Adds Bender, "Even with zones, there are so many matchup principles in them now—there are no straight zones—that it's making it more difficult for the stationary shooters to be as effective."

Another thing stifling the effectiveness of shooters is videotape. Some coaches use it so extensively that their players go into a game knowing how many times an opponent will dribble—and with which hand he'll do it—before pulling up to shoot or pass. "We all see so much tape and break it down so well that scouting is much more advanced than it was 10 years ago," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "Today you not only know what a kid's favorite moves are, you know what his favorite gum is." And there you have it, the real reason scores are looking so old-fashioned: modern technology.

Mighty Pacific

Pacific's 16-game winning streak, which ended last Saturday in an 80-76 overtime Big West Conference loss at New Mexico State, can be attributed to a number of things, including a gritty defense and good three-point shooting (37.9% at week's end). But the biggest reason is what coach Bob Thomason calls "the miracle that fell into our laps."

On April 3, 1995, assistant Tony Marcopulos was eating lunch at his desk when the phone rang, and on the line was Michael Olowokandi, the 7-foot, 265-pound son of a London-based Nigerian diplomat. Olowokandi was athletic enough to hold the British national secondary school records in the triple jump and the long jump, but he had decided that his future was in basketball, even though he had played the game for only two years at the intramural level. He was told that if he wanted to advance in the sport, he should play for a college team in the U.S. So he went to the library and picked up a Peterson's Four-Year Colleges guide. "It just happened to open to Pacific, that was the first school I saw," says Olowokandi. It turned out that Pacific, a private college with a yearly tuition of $23,786, had no scholarships left to offer, but Marcopulos extended Olowokandi an invitation to try out at his own expense.

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