There are even martyrs to the cause, like Bobby Cremins of ACC doormat Georgia Tech. "The changes are definitely terrible from Georgia Tech's standpoint at this time," said Cremins, whose outmanned team often controlled the tempo with prolonged stalls last season and figured to do more of the same in 1982-83. "But what's more important, this season or the game of basketball over the long haul?"
But was college basketball heading for trouble over the long haul? If high-scoring games are your thing, the answer is unequivocally yes. Scoring in Division I went down for the seventh straight season in 1981-82 as teams combined for only 135.08 points per game. (See chart, page 45.) Moreover, the drop from 1980-81 to '81-82 was a significant 5.07 points, continuing a recent trend of dramatic point reductions. The key statistic is field-goal attempts. As recently as 1973, teams tried 139.2 shots per game. By last season that figure had fallen more than 20%, to 111.2.
Certainly stall ball has had something to do with the dramatic downturn in field-goal attempts. Every time a North Carolina beats a Virginia 47-45, as happened in the nationally televised finals of last year's ACC tournament, the average comes down and the cries for change go up. But the reduced number of field-goal attempts also has something to do with better basketball. The accuracy part of the chart clearly shows that teams are shooting less but enjoying it more. They're taking more time to find the good shot. And the good shot is coming from closer range. Field-goal accuracy isn't high because today's shooters are all that much better than yesterday's—if they were better, foul-shooting percentage would be better, too, but that has remained relatively unchanged for 20 years. Field-goal percentages are on an upswing because shots are being taken closer to the basket.
That's why Orlando Phillips of Pepperdine shot 64.6% from the field last season, and why Mark West of Old Dominion shot 61% and why Larry Micheaux of Houston shot 60.4. All three are among the top 10 returning percentage shooters, yet Micheaux has the best free-throw mark among them at 57.6.
The other part of the equation is defense, which has also improved—or, at least, changed. Teams are shooting less for two reasons: They're unwilling to throw up a prayer, and it takes time to penetrate today's sophisticated zone defenses. But let's not kid ourselves. The pressure to win—or to keep the score close against overwhelming odds—has in many cases taken the life out of the game by taking the air out of the ball. "If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side." James Naismith wrote that in his Rules for Basket Ball, printed in 1892 in Springfield, Mass.
Naismith, who by all accounts was a true sportsman, probably wouldn't have objected to rules that helped, say, Georgia Tech upset Maryland 45-43 last year. That's stall ball at its best—it sometimes helps a big underdog "shorten" a game to the point that a few timely baskets can result in an upset. In practice, though, the better teams usually win slowdowns, too. But Naismith might have carted his peach baskets back to the farm if he'd watched last year's North Carolina-Virginia ACC final. That game was to this experimental season what the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to World War I—the spark that set off a long chain of events.
"Everybody who watched it on TV realized we wouldn't have a very marketable product if our games were played the way that one was," says Providence Coach Joe Mullaney. "People in the stands whose team has the lead may not mind the four corners, but the stall has a big negative impact on an outsider watching on television in some place like Montana."
Or in East Longmeadow, Mass., home of Dr. Ed Steitz, editor and national interpreter of the NCAA's rules. Steitz said his phone "rang constantly" for three days. "That game fostered more clamor for a clock than any single game in my 25 years on the rules committee," says Steitz. "It was the catalyst of the decade as far as rule changes go."
The game matched the nation's No. 2 team, eventual NCAA champion North Carolina, against then third-ranked Virginia. The Tar Heels won after Smith ordered them to sit on a one-point lead for most of the final seven minutes. And Cavalier Coach Terry Holland let them sit on it by refusing to order Virginia out of its zone. For the fans, it was like buying a ticket for a Horowitz concert and hearing him play scales. The game clearly showed that stall ball is at its worst when it's used by good teams, not bad ones. But remember that Smith violated no rules; in fact he's a strong proponent of experimentation. He has always said that, by forcing the action, a clock will help talented teams like his more than bad teams.
The ACC voted in the clock and the three-pointer early in May, around the same time that the Missouri Valley approved its three-pointer. This was about a month after Steitz had announced the results of a questionnaire he had mailed at midseason to 2,800 college coaches and referees: The response was overwhelmingly against a clock and a three-point shot. But the willingness of two leading conferences to experiment undoubtedly had a domino effect on the rest of the country. Keep things as they are and watch a bunch of offensive-minded recruits head elsewhere was the feeling throughout the land. It's amazing the impact a few blue chips can have on a coach's mind.