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Basketball was meant to be a game of finesse and beauty and maneuverability. In its purest form, the game has a flow to it, an elegance.
You want to know the theory people play with today? Coaches tell their kids, "All five of you guys go ahead and foul at once, because they can only call one of 'em."
Someone dug an old game film out of the providence College archives last season, and coach Rick Barnes, who happened to walk by while it was playing, saw the ancient images flickering on the screen. The footage was from 1973, when the Friars were playing Maryland in the East regional final of the NCAA tournament.
Barnes stopped for a brief glance, but something made him stay. It wasn't so much that the film was filled with future NBA players—Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes and Kevin Stacom for Providence; Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and John Lucas for Maryland—it was the style of play, the movement and spacing of the players. The arms and legs under the basket weren't nearly as intertwined as those Barnes is used to seeing in today's game. Cutters slid through the lane without looking as if they were running a gantlet, without having to dodge knees, elbows and forearms placed in their paths. The players were gliding through a smoother, freer game.
"It was much more of a pure game," Barnes says. "There wasn't as much body on body, like you see today. There was very little contact, and what there was, was called by the refs. From a technical point of view, it was great to watch. Sometimes you don't realize just how much the game has changed until you look back and see what it was."
College basketball has evolved over the last few years from controlled traffic to bumper cars. Strength and power are in; finesse is out. For all the recent trumpeting about New Age, run-and-gun, transition basketball, there's far more physical contact than there was 20, even 10 years ago, when the game was truly a noncontact sport. Granted, what Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton and other great centers of the past practiced in the paint wasn't exactly ballet, but it's obvious that if they were playing today, they would be performing in a far more permissive—read: brutal—atmosphere.
Bulk has become as important as height for anyone who hopes to score most of his points from near the basket, which is why athletes who might have been linebackers and defensive ends in another era are now power forwards and centers. Oklahoma State's Byron Houston (6'7", 235 pounds), Southern Mississippi's Clarence Weatherspoon (6'7", 240), Murray State's Popeye Jones (6'8", 260) and Wake Forest's Rodney Rogers (6'7", 235) are fine low-post players whose strength makes them especially well suited to today's game. Teams aren't looking for the next Ralph Sampson; they're looking for the next Larry Johnson.
Partly this is the natural evolution of the game, as inevitable as the growth of a child. Today's players are too big and too fast to be constrained by the old standards of acceptable contact. "Everybody's taking his players and putting 10, 15 pounds of muscle on them with weights and nutrition," says Louisville coach Denny Crum. "Suddenly, you have a bunch of agile 225-pounders jockeying for position, and refs are not going to be able to call the game the same way they once did."
Nearly everyone agrees that these bigger, faster athletes are leaning into, banging and pushing one another more than ever before, yet the number of personal fouls called in college basketball has remained relatively constant for the past two decades. According to the NCAA, in 1970 Division I teams combined for an average of 38.6 fouls per game. By 1990, the average had increased by only one foul, to 39.6.
Fortunately, there are no indications that increased contact has led to more fighting, and it would be hard to argue that today's more physical style has turned off the fans. Attendance figures (which reached a record 34 million in 1990-91) and TV coverage (more games are televised than ever) indicate that the popularity of college basketball is at an alltime high. But the emphasis on strength is threatening the flow and beauty of the game, the aesthetic appeal that Wooden talked about. "It's like a rugby scrum out there," says Xavier coach Pete Gillen.