SI Vault
 
The Sky's The Limit
Alexander Wolff
November 29, 1993
Tar Heel Rasheed Wallace heads a squadron of first-year big men who, because of their remarkable range and mobility, promise to take the game to new heights
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 29, 1993

The Sky's The Limit

Tar Heel Rasheed Wallace heads a squadron of first-year big men who, because of their remarkable range and mobility, promise to take the game to new heights

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

At tiny Emery High, where he was one of only 106 students, Robinson averaged 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks over his last two seasons. But he was Gulliver in Lilliput. "In high school I'd get double-and triple-teamed," says Robinson, who sank 15 three-pointers as a senior. "I had to go outside if I wanted to be part of the game." Now he's taking on another challenge, the withering pace of Hawgball. "Here he knows he's got to run or he won't get to shoot," says Richardson.

If he plays in the NBA some day, Robinson says, "I'll be real honored—and real prepared." To be sure, we'll see most of these young men in the pros. But will we ever see them in the Final Four? Such young NBA All-Stars as Mourning, O'Neal, Brad Daugherty, David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo never played in one, much less won an NCAA title. "Even a great center has to have the other pieces to the puzzle," says Gillen. "He's not like Atlas, who can carry the world on his shoulders." But the early elimination of so many impressive big men in recent NCAA tournaments still raises a question: Considering the rules of the college game today, are coaches making the best use of size when they get it?

No factor has had more impact on the evolution of the big man than the three-point shot. "It opened up the game and greatly influenced the way kids want to play it," says Kansas coach Roy Williams. In the early '80s, before the three-pointer was introduced, most successful centers were 6'10" and solid. The average Final Four center stood 6'10¼" in 1982, 6'10" in 1983, 6'11½" in 1984 and 6'11¼" in 1985. But since the three-pointer became part of the game, in 1986-87, the average height has been barely 6'9". This suggests that because defenses are now more spread out, the shot has both diminished the advantage of a single huge player and rewarded the more agile, smaller front-courtman who can operate in the unclogged lane. (Of course a team that has complementary outside shooting can still effectively use a big man in traditional fashion. Without an outside threat, though, O'Neal took such a beating from collapsing zones that he left LSU early for refuge in the NBA. But with Donald Williams showering threes for Carolina in last year's tournament, Montross won a national championship.)

For all their complaints about the unwillingness of today's big kids to go low and bang, coaches must accept some blame for not forcing them to. The vogue in motion offense over the past dozen years has created a generation of post players who would sooner work on their jump shot than on their power move, but it has also spawned coaches who couldn't teach classic center play if they wanted to. Hall of Famer Pete Newell, the professor of the post and a former coach at Cal, believes that's a particular shame, because the three-point shot should make big men who play close to the basket more effective than ever. "What prevented Ewing and Olajuwon from being real offensive forces in college was the massed defense that motion brings," says Newell. "They had no room to develop jump hooks and turnarounds. The three-point shot un-massed the defense by stretching offensive movement out. Coaches are slowly realizing the value of dumping the ball inside. We should be getting back to more post offense with good outside shooting."

About now you're asking, Isn't there something wrong with this picture? Just as the evolving importance of the outside shot cries out for throwbacks down low, here comes a boatload of camp boomers enamored with playing outside. Their drift away from the paint stems from the new generation's fixation on Magic and Michael and the pro game. But in the NBA you get only 24 seconds to shoot. In the colleges, where you have 11 extra seconds to build a basket, it behooves a team to go into the post at least once per possession, if only to get the defense to collapse so the ball can be kicked back out for a three.

Montross contemplates a universe of possibilities when he fields an entry pass: Do I whip the ball back out to Donald Williams beyond the arc? Or lay it off to Brian Reese slashing to the hoop? Or do I wheel and power to the basket myself? Of course a player in such a position must be a rare athlete and decision-maker, and most schools can't expect to land a Montross, or even a rough cut like Reeves. What's more, for every big lug who blossoms like Reeves, there's one who wilts. When Western Kentucky took out favored Seton Hall in the second round of last spring's NCAAs, the Hill-toppers were able to pull lumbering Luther Wright, the Pirates' 7'2", 270-pound center, away from the hoop, where they pick-and-rolled him silly. Wright didn't score a basket, was too slow to discharge his defensive responsibilities and was benched after 12 minutes in which he looked utterly clue-free. "Going in, everybody was asking, 'How are you going to stop Luther Wright?' " says Willard. "My thinking was, Who is Luther Wright going to guard on our team?"

But even if Seton Hall couldn't afford to use Wright in its most important game of last season, the Pirates could less afford not to recruit him out of high school three years earlier. Given the chance, the coach at Cabinet U is still going to sign 6'2" Janet Reno to the scholarship and ask 4'10" Robert Reich to walk on.

The question is whether coaches even know how to teach the dying art of the post. It pains Newell to think that the next Bill Walton is being wasted somewhere, shuffling aimlessly through the key, setting screens in a motion offense. "Sure, you want the big man to rebound and outlet the ball," he says. "But is he just a workhorse, supplementing the other men around him? I remember the first time I saw [7'6"] Shawn Bradley play. [BYU was] running motion, and he spent most of his time 15 feet from the basket!"

Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton is a rare and fortunate coach. Since the three-point rule came along, he has won with Reeves and with another All-America in the middle, 6'6" Byron Houston. Given the choice, he'll take Reeves. "With Reeves, you can pound the ball in or shoot the three-pointer. You're not locked in one way or another."

In other words, you're versatile. Maybe not versatile in the way that camp boomers fantasize, but versatile in a team sense, inside and out. Or, to put it in terms they would understand, in 2Defwayz. Solid and stationary though he may be, Montross is a monument to why the Tar Heels won one championship. And why they should win another.

1 2 3