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The Past Was Fast
Luke Winn
November 12, 2012
In 1990, Loyola Marymount and LSU played a legendary warp-speed game—257 possessions! 289 points!—the likes of which big-time hoops will never see again
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November 12, 2012

The Past Was Fast

In 1990, Loyola Marymount and LSU played a legendary warp-speed game—257 possessions! 289 points!—the likes of which big-time hoops will never see again

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Amid the early chaos there was clarity on one thing, and that was who was winning the Shaq-Gathers battle. The stakes were immense for Gathers, a tireless worker who was obsessed with becoming a lottery pick. He knew the crowd included some two dozen NBA scouts, all of whom adored Shaq and most of whom were still debating whether Gathers's running-based, devoid-of-a-jumper game—even though he had led the nation in scoring and rebounding the previous season—could work in the NBA. "It was critically important for Hank to do well against Shaq," Peabody says. "It was the next step."

The next step, he meant, in getting over the setback of Dec. 9, 1989, when Gathers fainted during a game against UC Santa Barbara, was hospitalized and later diagnosed with an exercise-induced heart abnormality. He missed two games and returned on Dec. 30 after being prescribed the beta-blocking drug Inderal. But because Inderal had a Kryptonic effect—it made him too sluggish to thrive in the System, where max effort was essential—Gathers successfully lobbied his doctors to get his dosage reduced. When CBS color commentator Quinn Buckner stated that Gathers's 44-point effort against St. Mary's two days before the LSU game was due to his having "gone down on his medication," there was no mention of the risk involved. Nearly everyone was naive to the risk.

The only immediate, evident problem was the mercilessness of Shaq, whom Roberts described last month as "a young deer, sprinting everywhere." Shaq stole the first post entry to Gathers. He blocked Gathers's first shot against him, and the second. The third, to be fair, O'Neal only deflected, but he fully rejected the fourth and the fifth. Gathers sneaked in a few fast-break dunks amid the block party, but that didn't make it any less painful to watch.

All this drama came before the second TV timeout, during an 8½-minute stretch that featured 28 possessions per team and ended with LSU leading 27--23. That was the beauty of the speed game. So much action, yet so much room left to develop the plot.

Contextual Timeout No. 1: Points and Pace

Naturally, the first graphic CBS displayed was a list of Division I's highest-scoring teams. Loyola was No. 1.

The Lions, James Brown said, were "giving new meaning to the word up-tempo." They would finish the season averaging 122.4 points per game, a D-I record that still stands.

Up-tempo did indeed have a different meaning in 1990 than in 2012. Possessions per game is the truest measure of tempo, and a side-by-side comparison of the five highest-scoring teams in the final 1989--90 and 2011--12 AP polls (chart, right) shows a striking contrast in that regard. In 1989--90 four of the top five scoring teams averaged more than 80 possessions per game; in 2011--12 just one broke 70.

The averages for all D-I teams follow this pattern of deceleration. Statistician Ken Pomeroy (www.kenpom.com) used the NCAA's historical data to plot tempo-and-efficiency trends over the years; the chart at right shows the path since the establishment of the three-point line in 1986--87. The stark reality is that the 2012 season was the slowest and lowest-scoring in that era. And there is no easy explanation for this trend, no singular root cause. To blame it all on the 35-second shot clock, introduced in '93, would be folly, since teams were scoring more when they had 45 seconds. Lowering the clock even further, to 30, would push the tempo a little but is unlikely to affect the physical, restricting manner in which current teams play defense.

When John Adams took over as the NCAA director of officials in 2008, his biggest priority was to restore "freedom of movement" to college hoops, which he believed had become more bruising even than the NBA. Adams has made strides, but the freedom one sees in LSU-Loyola—a game that flowed like a river after a rainstorm—is still not evident in 2012. Modern defenses are fine-tuned to restrict fluidity. For an example, look at the highly influential Pack-Line scheme that Dick Bennett used to pull off NCAA tournament upsets with Wisconsin--Green Bay (in 1994) and Wisconsin (in 2000); its containment principles of walling off fast breaks and cutting off drivers have spread to such schools as Arizona, Xavier, Virginia and Butler. "Packing" has become far more common than full-court pressing or even half-court pressuring.

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