"In the post, the referees allow the defensive man to use his hip to push the offensive man out of position," says Dayton coach Jim O'Brien. "That's the NBA's defensive philosophy. There's constant contact, and they don't call it. Every team does it, including us, because you can get away with it."
But coaches have to accept some of the responsibility for the slam-dancing atmosphere under the basket. While officials are calling the game loosely, coaches are pushing their players to take full advantage of the freedom.
"It's pretty hard on the refs when we're teaching what we're teaching," says UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian. "On offense, we teach our guys how to pin their men, that is, pin them without getting caught fouling. If you know what you're doing, you can do a lot in there that won't get called. If our guys are pinning properly, for instance, it's as easy for the ref to call the foul on the defensive man as on the offensive man. I'm not sure there's a whole lot more the officials can do."
Ironically, the emphasis on strength at the expense of skill exists because the average player's skill has improved so dramatically. "Players have gotten so good that if they get the ball in the low post it's an automatic bucket or a foul, so you better do all you can to push them out of there or keep the ball from getting in," says Stanford coach Mike Montgomery.
A basic tenet of Providence's defensive philosophy, according to Barnes, is that "strength negates talent. If you get a great athlete against you who can really run, really jump...well, he's not going to run quite as fast or jump quite as high if he's got a body on him all the time."
So what will it take to swing the pendulum in the other direction? First, either all college players' television sets will have to be taken away or the NBA will have to begin all its TV games with a warning: Kids, don't try this yourselves. The pro game, with its no-holds-barred style of play, has influenced the way college players approach the game.
"Guys in college today grew up watching Moses Malone put his rear end into people and back them practically from the foul line to the baseline," says former Iowa State center Victor Alexander, now a rookie with the Golden State Warriors. "Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, all the great inside players use their strength. It's a game of muscle in the NBA, so when you're in college, you figure, If it's good enough for the pros, it's good enough for me."
Several remedies have been suggested, including widening the lane, which would force offensive players to post up farther from the basket and make it less important for defenders to push them out. But not everyone is convinced that such a move would have much effect.
"Widening the lane won't help at all if referees don't start to call the three-second violation and stop people from camping in there," says TCU coach Moe Iba. "The reason it's so physical now is that centers are being taught not only to post up on the low block, but to back into the paint and to catch the ball within two feet of the goal. If you have somebody really working on them while they're doing that, they have to stay in there longer than three seconds, but it's hardly ever called. I have told our players we're going to start playing in the lane until somebody calls it, because everybody does it."
Then there's the three-point line, which was instituted four years ago, in part to relieve the congestion under the basket. It has worked to some extent, stretching defenses and keeping teams from packing everyone into the middle, but the memo a mano mayhem still goes on.