Bobby Knight and the Game of Basketball

Bobby Knight recently argued against the three-point line and the use of a shot clock in college basketball. For this he was oft condemned and run through the meat grinder of various internet boards, including ones that support my beloved Louisville Cards (Beat Boise!). These people considered Knight obsolete or just an old fogy with nothing left to add to the game–a man, like Denny Crum, who has been passed by.

Of course, I disagree with those assessments–except, maybe for the last one, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Bobby Knight, like Crum, and like John Wooden before them both, knows what the hell he’s talking about (Wooden is, of course, another “old hack” of a coach who says he no longer enjoys the game of college basketball because of what it has become). These three coaches have 15 National Championships between them. They know a little bit.

None of them are very happy with the current game.

For the record, here is a link to the excerpt of Knight’s point of view.

Of course, this is not Knight, or Crum, of Wooden’s blog, so I want to talk a little about the subject, and what it means to me.

The last few weeks I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching chunks of old games. Two of my favorites are:

Dream Game End
Dream Game OT

Watch these clips. Sure, they’re great because the represent what I consider the best moment in the history of UL/UK basketball. But mostly I want you to watch the game flow itself–look at the way defense was played on the inside. It’s all about intelligence and positioning. It’s about quickness and athletic grace. Now, go watch any modern clip. Watch the game inside the paint. Nasty, eh? Today’s game of college basketball is just a mini-version of the pro game. It’s a wrestling scrum. Also, watch the offense. See how patient everything feels. There is no shot clock beating in the back ground. The guard sets things up. His team mates move where they are supposed to. Realize that if a shot clock existed in this game, it never would have buzzed–so it wasn’t needed in order to speed up the game itself. The mere existence of the clock, however, would have changed the feel of the game.

Don’t want to see a Louisville game? Well, how about Villanova’s run to the 1985 championship?

Villanova was an 8-seed who used a strategy that primarily consisted of running their offense until they got a great shot, no matter how long it took. They won 66-64. Though they did not often “hold the ball,” several of their possessions ran over 50 seconds. They shot 78%, mostly due to intelligent shot selection. Their strategy is no longer available, of course, since the 35 second shot clock would make them speed up their offense.

Here’s a really interesting clip of that game. Watch the whole thing. Pay attention.

End – First Half

I love this clip because it directly shows how the defense really should be the one initiating the action. Watch how the game is flowing so gloriously, watch how the open inside game allows for athletic alley oops and slicing drives. Then come the final two minutes and see how Rollie Massimino out-coaches John Thompson and gives his kids an edge by using the fact that Georgetown won’t play defense to his advantage. Making the other team play defense the way you wanted them to was once a really useful strategy. These days, a coach really can’t force an opponent out of a zone–especially if his guys struggle to hit a few shots. In the old days, there were ways to attack things assuming you could take your time.

In a recap of the situation, Harold Pressley, Villanova’s star, said:

We had lost those two (regular-season) games because they got us to play their tempo,” Pressley said. “They forced us into quick shots – not bad shots, but quick shots. Once you started doing that you were doomed.”

Think about that quote. See how it plays with Knight’s opinions. Consider what it means to have a “basketball IQ.”

For me, the shot clock and the three point line have fundamentally changed the game of basketball, and in a terrible, terrible way. Those two rules make the game one-dimensional. They change the goal of an offense from “get a great look close to the basket,” to “get an open look with your toes on the three-point line.” Defensively, it means that you have to extend yourself. Your guards and outside presence need to be able to put intense pressure on the ball when it’s 20-feet from the bucket. Yes, this would logically open the inside…except, of course, that coaches then adjusted and begin driving their big guys to get more physical in their approach to shutting down the inside game.

This is about when the term “Good No Call” entered our lexicon, and then became uttered about 10 times a game.

I hate a “Good No Call.” It’s a bad phrase and a misguided rule of operation. The reason it’s a bad deal is that the rules also say a player is able to break the rules four times and remain in the game. Railing against referees is always fun, but I’ll refrain from going to far on it today except to say that even with the 3-pointer and shot clock, the game would be more open if the referees just called all the fouls all the time. Players would foul out for a few games, but they would adjust.

This all ties into the 3-pointer and the shot clock because the two ideas have fueled a massive movement to a single style of play–that being one that seeks athletic defenders who then mill around in a quick-minded offense that looks for either a dunk or a 20-foot-shot. Gone are Bobby Knights glorious movement offense and the Wooden/Crum approach of inverting your guards (because you really don’t want outside shooters down on the blocks any more). The dribble drive is now practiced well by only a few guys who are both quick enough to get around their perimeter defenders and strong enough to hold their own against the thugs who await them in the paint–most inside/outside play is now about the entry pass, very much like the NBA. Going to the hole now requires a warrior rather than an athlete. Or, perhaps, the term “athlete” itself has changed to be overwhelmed by the warrior flavor over the poetic.

In addition, interior passing–a staple of the high-low game favored by Crum and Wooden in particular–is on the decline due to the ruggedly physical nature of game in the paint. It can still work if you have the right players in there–Louisville’s David Padgett is all-the-rave about his passing, but you don’t see it nearly as much as you once did. Actually, I suggest we have had several point centers in just Louisville’s history (Rodney McCray being perhaps the best of my personal memory), but they were so prevalent across the world of basketball that they didn’t stand out as particularly odd or noteworthy. I view the fact that Padgett stands out in today’s game is a measure of how this part of the overall game of college basketball has degraded.

Finally, this also means defenses have it relatively easy in today’s game. They really just need to be able to play hard for 20-25 seconds at a time. Or, actually, if they are playing a team that panics or isn’t mature, they can play 10-15 seconds of good defense and then let the shot clock force their opponent into a cruddy shot. So the defensive Xs and Os that guys like Knight, Crum, and Wooden once laid down are also very different. Coaches teach maximum intensity for short bursts now. In the old days, a Villanova-type offensive strategy would feel this pressure, and run the offense for 40-50 seconds. Eventually, if their ball security skills were good enough, the defensive intensity would fail and a lay-up or alley–oop might well present itself.

In all of these ways, the game has “passed by” these older coaches, though I struggle to use that term since it suggests the game has gotten more sophisticated or better in some fashion that these guys couldn’t possibly understand when in reality it has become far less dynamic and not nearly as athletically beautiful as it once was. The ability to shoot the 12-15 foot shot has gone by the wayside because it is now the worst possible shot to take (and hence the shot that most defenses are geared to try to force). The use of the lob pass is a relic because it’s really rare that a guy can run free through the lane without getting a forearm shiver that stops his momentum.

For my money, this change is bad. When I was a kid I used to love coming home late at night and turning on that fledgling station known as ESPN and seeing delayed broadcasts of teams that ran tons of weird systems–Ivy League games with their myriad of screens and hundreds of passes, the fanciful strategies of the Dale Browns of the world, the Cincinnatis who tried to actually hold the ball all game to get UK out of their zone and lost something like 24-15 because Joe B Hall wouldn’t play man-to-man to force the action. I thought the 4-corners was a fascinating offense, and caused most teams who ran it a lot more trouble than benefit. I was almost always happy to see someone go to it when they were ahead of us. But it was a great, great offense for a team like UNC when they had someone of Phil Ford’s talent run it. To me, that was something that made college basketball fascinating.

The game today loses something because it is one-size fits all. The best offensive strategy is obvious–shoot the uncontested three. The defensive strategy is also obvious–hard pressure for 25 seconds. The refereeing has morphed over time to an NBA-like approach. Everything is pointed to the team with the most athletic/strongest players winning almost all the time (not every time, of course, but a lot more times than it used to be when the game was more about quickness and grace than about speed and muscle).

Obviously, there are those who think it’s a great game. And of course, I still watch it. I mean, what’s a guy supposed to do in March? But I admit I feel bad for the kids who have no memory of what basketball was like in the 70s and 80s.

For me, that will always be how the game was meant to be played.

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