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If we were to search for the moment when college basketball as we knew it began to wobble on its axis, we could look at a day in El Paso in 1988. That's when UTEP assistant coach Rus Bradburd, just back on campus after watching Miners point guard Tim Hardaway score 50 points in a Chicago summer-league game, approached his boss, Hall of Famer-to-be Don Haskins, with a proposal. UTEP had a couple of big men, Antonio Davis and Greg Foster, who would go on to play a combined 26 seasons in the NBA. Why not use those ready-for-big-time bodies to set screens to help spring Hardaway, then a senior, for sallies to the basket?
"Oh, hell," growled Haskins, a disciple of hidebound coaching patriarch Hank Iba. "Hardaway's dribbling the ball enough already."
Only upon reaching the NBA would Hardaway unleash on defenders the fullness of the crossover move that became known as the UTEP Two-Step. That little Chicago guard still left his mark on the college game, for he, Allen Iverson and others would wind up firing the imaginations of a generation of young players. And the kids who worked up their own moves in countless summer league games soon began to transit the college game, revolutionizing it in the process.
How did college hoops, once a pageant of motion and flex offenses, of big men who could post up or drop step while around them other players dribbled, passed and shot, become a specialist's world of drive-and-dish guards, wing shooters and wide-bodied pick setters haunting the free throw line? How did a sport featuring teams of sleek, interchangeable parts—think Louisville's 1980 NCAA champs—turn into the game we see now, with guards bouncing off defenders like bumper cars, then peeling off body padding in locker rooms postgame? How did we go from one generation being told never to set a screen on the ball—and to pass, for crissakes, not dribble—to the current state of affairs, in which coaches yell, Beat him off the bounce.
Much of this transformation is the result of a cascade of consequences from the introduction of the three-point shot in 1986. Other changes followed from NBA and international trends filtering down—and from cultural memes bubbling up. "It's the AAU influence and the international influence," says Northeastern coach Bill Coen. "We're getting big men who can dribble and shoot like Europeans. Nobody wants to be considered a center with his back to the basket."
With ball screens all over the pro game, in the Olympics and at the grassroots, many college coaches simply threw up their hands. "A good coach adjusts to his personnel, and to the culture as well," says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "You watch AAU ball all summer, and it's hard not to say, 'Maybe we should try that.'"
For years coaches insisted that the center touch the ball at least once before anyone launched a shot. Eventually a few noticed that during three seasons with Shaquille O'Neal, LSU never advanced beyond the second round of the NCAAs.
And here we are. Says Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, "Now you've got to make plays instead of running plays."