Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Decay of the College Game

About three weeks ago, in my NCAA Tournament preview, I promised that I would write something about the malaise of college basketball as compared to the NBA. Several of my similarly basketball-crazy friends have more or less stopped watching college basketball because for them it isn't very entertaining anymore, and to that end they are right. But why is that? We are experiencing probably the deepest talent pool in NBA history, and yet the college game is full of rockfights in the fifties and low sixties. Most NBA players still come from the American college ranks, and even if they only stay a year or two, they should still theoretically be making the game better with their presence. Where have we gone wrong? (Although the recent tournament, which by and large was full of exciting, good basketball, provides some hope.)

First of all, I do not believe that you can blame the one-and-done rule for the decline of the college game. There are 335 Division I teams with something like 4300 total players, and last year just 42 of them forfeited their remaining eligibility to pursue a professional career, of whom a mere nine were freshmen.* That works out to less than one percent of all possible scholarship players (I realize not all coaches carry the maximum thirteen) who left, and just one one-and-done player per every 37-plus teams. Even if the early entries are typically among the best players in college, losing the top one percent each year should not be dragging everybody else down, especially because every year there are new top-shelf recruits, plus improvement from many of those lower on the totem pole. It's also hard to swallow that argument when the best program since the one-and-done rule was instituted before the 2006 NBA draft (Kentucky) is also the program with the most one-and done players in that time; thirteen, well more than double the next highest school (Kansas and Ohio State with five apiece).**

*Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle, Noah Vonleh, Zach LaVine, Tyler Ennis, and James Young.

**Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Daniel Orton, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter (who never even suited up for a game), Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Randle, and Young for Kentucky. Xavier Henry, Josh Selby, Ben McLemore, Andrew Wiggins, and Joel Embiid for Kansas. Greg Oden, Daequan Cook, Mike Conley, Kosta Koufos, and Byron Mullens for Ohio State.

One aspect of the game that is partially to blame is the rule book (and how it is enforced). It feels like every year there is talk about how the officials are going to crack down on all of the clutching and grabbing that goes on, and every year they give up on the emphasis before Christmas, and it's right back to ugly basketball.* This plays directly into the hands of a high number of coaches, who want their players to muck up the game and keep it close, and thus instead of entertaining basketball we are treated to an unending parade to the free throw line during the last two minutes of every game. Which brings me to my next point.

*Additionally, as Jay Bilas points out during more or less every game that he broadcasts, it is simply too easy for help defenders to slide over and take charges, which discourages good, attacking offensive play.

The vast majority of college basketball coaches, apart from the odd exception here and there like Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, are big-time micro-managers who obsess over every detail of their team, both on and off the court. On the court, this leads more toward teaching their system and less toward simply teaching good basketball concepts. It's the athletic equivalent of teaching to the test, rather than teaching the subject matter. This approach makes the game less entertaining because basketball, at heart, is like jazz; the sport is at its best when there is a framework within which the players are free to improvise. Leave the heavily scripted playbooks to football; too many coaches (especially those who play slow because they believe - wrongly in my view - that it is the best counter to beating more talented teams) effectively put their players in jail, at least when running a halfcourt offense. My good friend Charlie played for just such a coach at the Division II level, and would emphatically agree that it makes the game much less fun for both the players and the spectators.*

*"Emphatically" is the correct adverb. Charlie doesn't trade much in subtleties.

Why are so many coaches teaching to the test, so to speak? In large part because so many of their rank-and-file players are entering the college game unprepared, and THAT is the biggest problem of all. And why are so many freshmen (your B-listers and below in particular) unprepared? Because of the simple fact that in youth sports in this country, we value winning too much over player development, and so players don't get the instruction that they need. Travel basketball (mostly AAU) has become the default exposure vehicle for prospective players, and as the attention paid to recruiting has increased, so too has the number of tournaments that teams try to play in across the country. More and more tournaments, and more and more travel, means less time for practice and instruction, and so a lot of AAU teams are glorified pickup teams cobbled together from a group of players in a particular region, and not necessarily a TEAM. To work on fixing this broken system, it's instructive to look at another sport; soccer.

Every four years when the World Cup rolls around, the sports journalism industry starts the conversation about "Will this be the year that the United States has a World Cup breakthrough?" We've already had one breakthrough, back in 1994 when we hosted an extremely successful tournament and made it to the knockout stages (which no one predicted we would). Before 1994 we were a complete afterthought in global soccer, and now are a consistently good team that can threaten any traditional world power on a good day. And the method for being a tough out has been the same as long as I've been paying attention to soccer: an athletic defense that hangs tough and clears out attacks; one, maybe two really good attacking players (your Clint Dempseys and Landon Donovans); and an elite, world-class goalie who cleans up after everyone else's mistakes. That's been the model for a quarter century, and it has its basis in the style that the vast majority of youth and high school coaches have typically employed in this country, which is to keep the ball at the other end of the field as much as possible (because then it's more likely a goal will be scored on that end), and make sure that you have your best and biggest athlete in the net for those occasions when the ball is in YOUR half of the field. Think about it; our national team has for years just played a more polished version of the same tactics that your average parent-coach teaches ten-year-olds on the weekends.*

*A couple of years ago I wrote about the impact that Richie Burke, who was the head soccer coach at National Cathedral School while I was coaching volleyball, basketball, and softball there, had on my growth as a coach. He is very demanding when it comes to fundamentals and strategy, and it showed on those NCS teams; they were frequently just playing a different game than their opponents, one that was both more tactically sound and more aesthetically appealing. I'll say it again; Richie is an amazing coach.

Well, when Jurgen Klinsmann came on board to head the US national team, he also set out to destroy and rebuild the way that the game is taught at all levels in the United States. Klinsmann recognized that we have reached our ceiling in world soccer unless we fundamentally alter the way that the game is taught, even though we can provide more than enough world-class athletes to play on our teams after accounting for all those athletes who wind up choosing basketball, football, or baseball. That's one reason why Klinsmann has leaned heavily in the past year or two on the sons of American servicemen who grow up in Germany learning the appropriate skills at a young age; their developmental path is the one he wants everyone to eventually take. The only American star (apart from the Germans) who didn't grow up in the heavily flawed system was Dempsey, who mostly honed his game playing with Latino immigrants in Texas.

It's much harder to recognize the structural deficiencies within American basketball because the top of the system is still very strong and looks like it will be for some time. We still produce a preponderance of the best players in the world, and USA basketball has built some structure into the various national teams after it became crystal clear in 2002 that cobbling together an All-Star team two weeks before an international tournament just wasn't going to cut it anymore. However, that approach of emphasizing more opportunities for practice and growth within teams has not yet been filtered down to the club and recreational league level, which it needs to. And for that, USA Basketball needs someone who can make those changes across the spectrum, or at least encourage them to be made. Mike Krzyzewski has completely changed the culture of the USA national team and the U-21, U-19, and U-17 teams below it. But he is also the head coach at Duke, an incredibly time-consuming gig, and he's almost seventy years old with a pair of fake hips; it might be a little much to expect him to travel around the country year-round doing workshops for youth organizations when he can charge them a few thousand to come to Durham instead.

Youth basketball at all levels should resemble the European model more, where the process of development is more important than the end result of winning or losing games. That would result in more skilled and higher-IQ players, and a better product at all levels of the game, but especially in college basketball. I hope that more coaches out there will commit to putting in the instructional time necessary to ensure that their players are doing all that they can to get better, even if they're not ticketed for a five-star recruiting ranking. Which leads me to some exciting news; for the first time in four years, I will be back on the bench, coaching eighth and ninth grade boys' AAU basketball. I will do everything I can to make it a fun, developmental experience for all of my players, and hopefully do my part to help change the culture of youth basketball coaching.