The up-tempo, let's-get-small game has become so popular that coaches are afraid to sell any other brand of snake oil. "You tell players you're going to run," says SMU's Mike Dement, "whether you do it or not."
Adds Rice's Willis Wilson, "If you say you're going to be a ball-control, tempo team, people hammer you in recruiting."
Coaches claim that they have not abandoned the search for the aircraft carrier, the USS Ewing that can power them to a national title. But almost all agree that the classic big man, conspicuous though he may be, is hard to find. "When you do have big men, they're lumbering and awkward and take a long time to develop," says Utah's Rick Majerus. And nowadays the NBA comes along and plucks away a promising pivotman as soon as he begins to lose that awkwardness.
Post players, who themselves have been seduced by speed and three-point shooting, must share part of the blame for their own reduced role. "The big man hasn't responded since the game was taken away from him," says Bill Walton, a classic center who won two NCAA championships with UCLA in the early '70s. "When I was growing up, I wanted to be like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Lew Alcindor. Today's big kids have Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan as their models, even though their bodies and skill levels should tell them to be somebody else." Somebody like, say, Walton, a not particularly fast 7-footer who became a versatile giant while playing with his back to the basket.
Then, too, some college teams have erred by cutting their own big people down a peg. It's one thing to rely on three-point shooting and quickness when you have players like Simon and Bibby, or like Tony Delk and Antoine Walker, who led Kentucky to the NCAA title in 1996. It's quite another when you have a player like, say, Georgetown's Victor Page, who was unreliable as both a shooter and a slasher before leaving school early. No coach has had more success going small and quick than Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, and we think he'll be successful again this year (page 104). But Coach K's decision to sit 6'10" center Greg Newton toward the end of last season and use a lineup that averaged just 6'5" may have hurt Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament, where the Blue Devils were badly outrebounded in a loss to Providence.
Look for a few trend-bucking teams this season. Wake Forest, where coach Dave Odom brought in three big men all over 6'8", promises to be more physical and will try to win by going big. So, perhaps, might Kentucky. The return of Jamaal Magloire and Nazr Mohammed and the addition of freshman Michael Bradley (6'10" centers all) has new coach Tubby Smith talking about "a twin-tower situation" that might slow down the 40-minute track meets the Wildcats ran under coach Rick Pitino.
By and large, though, expect to see small and quick teams, teams that play up-tempo offense and extended, aggressive defense, teams that either don't have a true center or tell him to stay the heck out of the way. "The way the game is played today," says Louisville assistant Jerry Eaves, "you're better off without the big man."
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