Put the ‘Basket’ Back in ‘Basketball’ — Please
Women’s college basketball needs the run ‘n gun-treatment.
by Clay Kallam
Something needs to be done.
I just finished watching Cal and UCLA play a game that was advertised as basketball – but I’m not exactly sure what it was. After 32 minutes, the length of a high school game, it was 22-18, UCLA.
Let’s stop and think about that for a minute. Most high school games feature no elite athletes, and no Division I players – and most high school games post 22-18 scores at halftime. But this, this was a Pac-10 game, a BCS game, a televised game, and this collection of outstanding talent (at least four McDonald’s All-Americans) couldn’t even muster more than 40 points between them in 32 minutes.
The final score, thanks to a late offensive explosion, was 44-32 in favor of UCLA. That’s right, 44 points not only good enough to win a major college game, it was good enough to win it by 12 points. The mind reels …
Earlier this week, I watched most of Notre Dame and Rutgers, and oh my, was that ugly. Great athletes for Rutgers who are incapable of the simplest offensive moves; skilled players for Notre Dame rendered helpless by the Scarlet Knights’ athleticism. In short, a recipe for insomnia.
And, not coincidentally, a recipe for the swift decline in interest in women’s basketball. Part of this is, of course, cyclical. There are times when defense dominates, and then offenses adjust. There are times when there’s just not a lot of offensive talent.
But this defensive death spiral is more than just a particular turn of the tactical wheel – it is a serious problem that must be dealt with. Coaches are paid to win, not entertain, and they will do what delivers the most victories. Right now, that path to victory is clear: Recruit athletes, regardless of skill, and run them like attack dogs against opposing offenses. The superior athleticism will render the offense hopeless, and eventually the superior athlete will score off some offensive rebounds, get some steals for easy layups, and now and again, deliver an actual basketball move.
To put it another way, athleticism erases skills. A 6-1 athletic wing who can’t make a jumper, can’t really dribble with her left hand, and has more turnovers than assists, will dominate a skilled 5-10 wing who isn’t as quick, as strong, as fast or as tall as the defender. All her patient hours in the driveway, honing that three-point stroke, working on that crossover, are useless in the face of this superior athlete. The fact that the superior athlete’s skill level is much lower is irrelevant, because some offense will still come from the lesser skills, while very little production will come from the lesser athlete.
So if I’m a college coach, with a nice salary, solid health plan and a mortgage to pay, what strategy will guarantee my employment the longest? Playing an uptempo game that relies on skill, or going with a defensive scheme that makes offenses disappear?
The answer is, sadly, all too clear. The best tactic is to recruit athletes and let them erase superior skill, and hope to win 50-48. That’s good for the coaches, maybe, but it’s terrible for the game, and if this trend continues, the entertainment value of women’s basketball will stay on a downward course, and TV games and large crowds will get rarer and rarer.
So what to do? First, add a 10-second limit, forcing teams to get the ball over halfcourt in the same amount of time the men do. This will force coaches to attack the ubiquitous 2-2-1 don’t-steal-it-but-slow-the-tempo press many colleges favor. Now, there are a bunch of high-percentage patient passes, and eventually the ball gets into the front court after 15 seconds of careful deliberation – which still leaves 15 seconds to run an offense.
So second, shift the shot clock to 24 seconds. There’s nothing magical about 30 seconds, except that it’s the number the women’s game started out with. FIBA has gone to 24 seconds, and so has the WNBA, and both games improved because of it. It makes pressure defense more attractive (especially if coupled with a 10- or 8-second backcourt rule), and it forces offenses to be more aggressive, and look to score. It also puts more of a premium on having players on the court who can dribble, pass and shoot. As it is, a patient, unskilled player can be reasonably effective offensively; with a 10-second backcourt rule, and a 24-second clock, patience won’t work nearly as well.
Traditionalists will cringe, and those who hate the WNBA (and why anyone would is a mystery to me), will claim that it will ruin the game, and make women’s college basketball not nearly as special as it is now.
Well, if a 22-18 score after 32 minutes is special, or 14-8 at halftime is special, or watching Rutgers play anyone is special, then I’m not exactly sure what there is to protect. The trend, after all, is clear, and it’s not as if the broader sporting world feels any burning need to support women’s basketball – if the game is boring, it will decline in popularity, and if it declines in popularity, it will get less TV exposure and less administrative support.
Maybe that’s OK with the purists and those who treasure defense, but basketball is a game that’s supposed to be fun to play and fun to watch – and the way things are going, the college version is neither.
Something needs to be done.
For more from Clay Kallam, and more on women’s basketball, go to Full Court Press.