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Just Do It Right
Alexander Wolff
November 25, 2002
College basketball has a fundamental problem: lousy fundamentals. Everybody can jam, nobody can hit a jumps shot How to fix it? Go back to basics
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November 25, 2002

Just Do It Right

College basketball has a fundamental problem: lousy fundamentals. Everybody can jam, nobody can hit a jumps shot How to fix it? Go back to basics

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Both teams left layups on the rim. They telegraphed passes. In the space of a minute, each muffed a simple high-low pass in the half-court. One even had to call a timeout because it had made the junior high blunder of having no one to inbound the ball to in the backcourt. But in their ineptitude during the NCAA title game last spring, Indiana and Maryland probably did basketball a huge favor. If you're going to make a mess of the game, you might as well make a Monday-night, prime-time, billion-dollar mess of it. That way no one can gainsay the problem, for it's out in the open for all to see.

And college basketball has a problem. This isn't meant to question the desire or intensity of the Hoosiers or the Terps, or to indict the coaches and the players who entertain us from Madness to Madness, Midnight through March. But it is a plea that the game be played with a touch less madness and a lot more crispness. College ball is full of recruiters and motivators, Armani-wrapped type A personalities with jaws set on driving their players to win that Next Big Game. The game fairly bristles with slashers, ankle-breakers, ath-uh-letes with both ups and upsides. What college basketball is short on are teachers and students—that is, elders who would rather impart the timeless wisdom of the game than jet off to another speaking gig, and youngsters who can perform subtler basketball arts than busting the one move that leads SportsCenter.

Doubt that old school has become uncool? The evidence is everywhere. The Lithuanian Basketball Federation is so alarmed at the regression of its players who go to the U.S. that it has decreed that no one in its development program may play college ball without its permission. Last spring Jared Jeffries, Indiana's star forward of a season ago, failed to sink a jump shot for the first 41 minutes of a predraft workout with one NBA team. (That didn't dissuade the Washington Wizards from selecting him with the 11th pick.) In September, during the fourth quarter of its loss to Argentina at the world championships, the U.S. team—the pride of the American hoops educational system—surrendered baskets off inbounds plays on two straight possessions.

Meanwhile, lest their multimillion-dollar investments go for naught, more and more NBA teams are hiring "teaching assistants," former college coaches like Tim Grgurich ( UNLV) of the Phoenix Suns and Pete Carril ( Princeton) of the Sacramento Kings. Moreover, the Big Man Camps offered by Hall of Famer Pete Newell are booked to capacity. In other words NBA draft picks have to attend remedial classes to learn the basic footwork that used to be a staple of any college practice.

"When I see NCAA players come here, I'm stunned," says former Delaware coach Dan Peterson, who spent 14 years working the sidelines in Italy and lives in Milan. "They have no moves, no shot, nothing to go to. They're all looking for the spectacular dunk and have no interest in anything else. They're always out of position, constantly taken to school by smarter European players. It's embarrassing. The Italian federation used to invite an NCAA coach to its main clinic. They haven't invited one for years."

Newell, who won the NCAA title at Cal in 1959 and coached the 1960 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, can pinpoint when the basics began to disappear from college basketball. In the early 1970s the rules committee voted to permit a screener to march right up to a defensive player and lay a pick on him, without the three feet of clearance previously required. That touched off a vogue in motion and flex offenses, which call for players to move and screen, usually in and around the lane. With the middle clogged up, fewer college players can make crisp, effective moves with the ball. Nor do they bother to learn the footwork those moves require, like the rocker step and the drop step. "Footwork enables a player to get space to take a shot, and none of the foot skills we teach are part of the motion or flex," Newell says. He believes that many high school and college coaches install motion offenses because they can't or won't spend the time on teaching individual skills, particularly for post players. It's a shame, Newell says, to think that the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may be wasting away somewhere, setting screens.

If the college game is "overcoached and undertaught," as Newell has long lamented, who's to blame? Coaches, who are so busy wheedling another two-and-through studhorse to sign a letter of intent that they can't find the time to develop the one they already have? Or players, who take the toadying of recruiters and hangers-on as affirmation that they have nothing left to learn?

Whoever the culprits, it's the NBA that winds up with the result, and as the worlds revealed, it's not pretty. "We're getting kids who look at you as if you're speaking a foreign language when you tell them to run a give-and-go," says Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations Donn Nelson. "They're raced through the system on God-given talent. They spend two years in college for all the wrong reasons, and boom, land on NBA doorsteps. It's a travesty. They can run and jump and dunk over you, but they can't play five-man basketball."

That lesson is writ large in March, when college players ought to be acing their finals. If you're awaiting a for-the-ages performance by an elite senior talent—valedictories like Jack Givens's 41 points in the 1978 NCAA tide game—you'd best settle in. "Teaching nowadays is a matter of convenience," says Oregon State coach Jay John, a former assistant to master teacher Lute Olson at Arizona. "The demands for executing the right way aren't as stringent. Now everybody wants to dunk or shoot the three, but nobody has the footwork to do the other stuff."

To be sure, class still convenes at a number of schools (box, page 62). Alumni of teaching camps such as Howard Garfinkel's Five-Star in the East and Herb Livsey's Snow Valley in the West wear whistles on campuses around the country. As fundamentals have become rarer, schools that do emphasize them can make old school a selling point. In 1999 Gonzaga lured Dan Dickau, a transfer from Washington, with the promise that he'd develop—and Dickau blossomed so fully that another Huskies guard, Erroll Knight, has mushed eastward to Spokane, where he'll be eligible next season. "When Erroll approached us about transferring, his reasons were the same as Dan's," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "He wanted to be around a group of guys who would go shoot at 10 o'clock at night."

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