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Fast Times
SETH DAVIS
November 22, 2004
Damn the turnovers and full steam ahead! Today's coaches covet speedy players like never before, and swifties such as East Tennessee State's Tim Smith are changing the game--in a hurry
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November 22, 2004

Fast Times

Damn the turnovers and full steam ahead! Today's coaches covet speedy players like never before, and swifties such as East Tennessee State's Tim Smith are changing the game--in a hurry

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Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins knew a lot about Tim Smith, had heard a lot about Tim Smith and had seen a lot of Tim Smith on videotape before his Bearcats faced East Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Atlanta Regional last March. So it was with little shock, but plenty of awe, that Huggins watched the 5'9", 155-pound lefty grab a loose ball in the corner, race the length of the court in less than five seconds, slice through a trio of much taller Bearcats defenders and glide in for a nifty reverse layup that gave the Buccaneers a 57--56 lead with 12:48 left to play. � "He's the fastest guy we've played against since I've been here," says Huggins, who's entering his 16th season as Cincinnati's coach. "What we saw on tape didn't do him justice. He makes you guard him with your whole team." � Despite Smith's 26-point, five-assist, four-steal performance, the Bearcats escaped with an 80--77 victory. In the second round, however, they faced another speedy point guard-- Illinois's Dee Brown, nicknamed the One-Man Fast Break--and the Illini ran them out of the gym, winning 92--68. It was no coincidence, then, that in September, Huggins secured an oral commitment from Devan Downey, a 5'10" jitterbug from Chester ( S.C.) High, who may be the fastest point guard in the high school class of '05. Huggins concedes that he has had "enough of playing 6'7" guys at the point. The game has changed. The whole idea of basketball is to get easy baskets, and you need to have speed to do that." � Huggins is one of the many coaches who feel a pressing need for speed. The pace of college basketball is quicker than ever, and if teams don't adapt, they'll find themselves left behind. Says Roy Williams, who first as coach at Kansas and now at North Carolina has been one of the foremost practitioners of the hurry-up approach, "Everything is more designed now toward a faster game, not a walk-it-down-the-floor, throw-it-in-the-post, let-him-be-surrounded game."

Of course, it's hard to play throw-it-in basketball if there's nobody in the post to throw it to. The quickening of the game hastened by the implementation of the shot clock (before the 1985--86 season) and the three-point shot ('86--87)--both of which put a premium on wide spacing and brisk ball movement--accelerated in the mid-1990s, when high school seniors and college underclassmen began their mass exodus to the NBA, robbing colleges of their best big players. In May 2001 the NCAA rules committee (which Williams chaired) made it even harder to play Slowball by clamping down on excessively physical play.

Speed has long had an honorable role in college basketball. John Wooden's UCLA dynasty helped patent the up-tempo style. More recently the press and the resulting transition game meant success for Arkansas (1994), Kentucky ('96) and Connecticut ('99 and '04). Their foes, amply impressed, have followed suit. When Lute Olson's Arizona team won the '97 title, the Wildcats' swift three-guard lineup was considered innovative. Today it's commonplace. Last year Mark Gottfried's eighth-seeded Alabama squad deployed a four-guard lineup to make the Elite Eight, upsetting No. 1 Stanford in the Phoenix Regional's second round 70--67 despite being outrebounded 49--29.

Such is the state of play that even Purdue coach Gene Keady, an old-school grinder if ever there was one, will field a team this season featuring smaller, sleeker players. "We're going to play like we did when I coached in junior college, when we had good athletes and not many big guys," Keady says. "Our fans are always bitching about our not running enough, so we're going to run more."

one day when Tim Smith was at Newport News (Va.) High, his coach was having trouble getting his players to complete their wind sprints within a certain time limit. "I knew I was faster with the ball," Smith recalls. "So I told him, 'Give me the ball, and I'll make the time.'" The coach was dubious, but he gave Smith the ball and, sure enough, Smith made the time. Asked why he thought he was faster with the ball than without, Smith replies, "I guess because I'm trying to get somewhere with it."

Smith's alacrity has brought him a long way from Newport News, where he grew up idolizing another speedy, diminutive point guard from nearby Hampton: Allen Iverson. Though Smith's height scared off most suitors--East Tennessee was the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship--many coaches are increasingly willing to overlook physical shortcomings if a player possesses superior speed. " NBA guys talk about having size at every position," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser says. "We like to have quickness at all five positions." Coaches have different methods of judging this trait. Thad Matta, who takes over this season at Ohio State after spending the last three years at Xavier, counts how many dribbles it takes a guard to push the ball up the floor, while Gary Williams of Maryland favors guys who simply have a knack for getting to the ball in a hurry. No matter: They're all finding that it's easier to recruit players to a running system. "Even the kids who are Clydesdales think they're Seabiscuit," Prosser says.

The need for speed is also having a decided impact on player development. Today's strength and conditioning coaches are concerned with developing flexibility and "core" strength--the core being the abdomen and hips, which are the power sources for speed. Teams are bringing in speed experts like Jackie Ansley, the founder and owner of Performance Training, based in Knoxville, Tenn. "I try to take stress off knees, shins and ankles and teach players to load their hips," Ansley says. "That's where the explosive energy comes from."

The faster-paced game has its pitfalls, most notably those pesky turnovers. Smith, for instance, has averaged 4.0 turnovers during his two seasons at East Tennessee State. But Bucs coach Murry Bartow--who compares Smith to yet another Newport News native, Michael Vick--says he can live with the miscues because with Smith "the good outweighs the bad." Bartow also points out that his players' speed boosts their number of deflections, which the coach's assistants track during games. The practice of monitoring that statistic was popularized by Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who over time has figured that a team that gets 35 deflections in a game and shoots 40% from the floor will win 95% of the time. Not surprisingly, Pitino's best deflectors were his '96 NCAA champs at Kentucky, who averaged 42 per game.

On balance, then, even the most controlling coaches have become quick converts. They realize that in today's game speed kills opponents for these reasons:

?Speed leads to easy baskets. Or as Kansas coach Bill Self calls them, "points you don't have to earn." For the same reason that football coaches love receivers who turn six-yard slants into 40yard touchdowns, basketball coaches covet players who can manufacture scoring opportunities without needing their coach to draw up a play. Self this season will boast arguably the fastest pair of wings in the country in 6'5" sophomore J.R. Giddens and 6'4" senior Keith Langford, as well as a speedy point guard in Aaron Miles. "Aaron is like an ice-cream truck. I'm just following him, trying to get one of the little sandwiches," Giddens says. "When I'm moving at top speed, I might not need but one or two dribbles before I can throw it down."

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