Before Miami began its surprising run to the 2012-13 ACC regular-season title, coach Jim Larranaga viewed Shane Larkin as a defensive specialist. The speedy sophomore was part of the “Blitz Brothers,” a group of harassing perimeter disrupters charged with creating energy and easy buckets.
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That was a good thing, because as a freshman the year before, Larkin had trouble scoring on anything but the simple shots. His field goal percentage was a spindly 36 percent, and he converted just 32.3 percent of his 3-pointers. Larkin could create havoc on defense, but he was a liability when he put the ball in the air.
Last summer, Larkin went to work, and by the end of the ’12-13 campaign, he was a first-round draft choice known as much for his offense as his play at the other end. He scored 14.5 points per game, nearly double his previous season’s output, shot 47.9 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from behind the arc.
“Shane spent last summer working on his mid-range game and floaters,” Larranaga says. “His jump shot improved dramatically, and he became a much better offensive player.”
It’s hard to blame Larkin for entering Miami as an incomplete player when the ball was in his hands. Only rarely are freshmen ready to score big when they arrive on campus. They’re young. They’re raw. But these days, there’s something else at work.
They haven’t really worked on their offensive games.
“Kids don’t develop skills in summer (while in high school),” Larranaga says. “They play a lot of games, but they don’t work on their shooting.
“The amount of time it takes for a player to become a good shooter is hours and hours every single day. Kids aren’t doing that anymore.”
Larranaga isn’t alone in his assessment of the state of shooting among college players. Coaches all over agree that skill development suffers as the AAU wave washes across the teenage basketball community. Its impact — along with a collection of other factors — has led to a historic drop in offensive effectiveness throughout the college game.
Last season, teams averaged a meager 67.5 points per game, the lowest since 1951-52. Three-point shooters succeeded at a 34.05 percent clip, the worst since the shot was introduced in 1986-87. Assists (12.82 per game) reached a 20-year low. And fans were subjected to some games that made them run, screaming, to the box office for refunds. The halftime score of the Miami-Maryland game was 19–14. Arkansas and Vanderbilt were in a 21–11 tussle at intermission of their game. And how about this final score: Georgetown 37, Tennessee 36.
Last season, teams averaged a meager 67.5 points per game, the lowest since 1951-52. Three-point shooters succeeded at a 34.05 percent clip, the worst since the shot was introduced in 1986-87. Assists (12.82 per game) reached a 20-year low.
“The skill level of players is really low,” Villanova coach Jay Wright says. “You have to work on (ball-handling) skills, footwork and shooting technique before you can teach a player your system. No system is effective without fundamentals.”
The skills are lacking. But there are other factors, beginning with how physical defenders — particularly those on the perimeter — are allowed to be. Last season, only 17.68 fouls/team were called, an all-time low. And the 19.76 free throws/team/game were the lowest number since 1975-76. Defenses are more sophisticated. Scouting has advanced to the point where coaches can break down rivals almost to the individual dribble. The glut of transfers kills program continuity, and the continued departure of top players after one season drains the game of some of its more accomplished offensive players. Players are bigger and more athletic and therefore more capable of defending larger swaths of the court.
Add it up, and you have a problem that can’t be solved by merely sticking kids in the gym and asking them to launch 500 jumpers a day, although it would be nice to give that a try, too. If college basketball is to escape its current state of drudgery, there must be a commitment on many levels to change. A model exists in the NBA. In 1998-99, teams averaged a puny 91.6 points per game, as rules allowed defenders to bludgeon rivals as they negotiated hoopward. After that season, the league called for an end to contact against ball-handlers on the perimeter and eliminated the process of “re-routing” of players with the ball. In other words, pushing a ball-handler away from the basket ended. Two years later, the defensive three-second violation debuted. And referees were directed to call the fouls. As a result, movement returned to the game, and scoring went up.
In '99-00, teams averaged 97.5 points. Last year, the average was 98.1 on 45.3 percent shooting. Though down from the 100.4/46.1 percent high-water mark in 2009-10, it is a marked improvement on the league’s dead-ball era. If the college game is to climb out of the mire and flow freely, it must address a variety of concerns. Rules can help. The rest is up to players and coaches.
“To win a championship, you have to play good offense,” Missouri coach Frank Haith says. “Louisville needed that against Michigan and Wichita State, because those teams were capable of scoring a lot of points.
“Louisville is a multiple defense team. Very few teams press, then play zone and then morph into a matchup zone. But at the end of the day, their offense got them through. You still have to have the ability to score.”
Like most coaches, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo tries to teach his players the right way to do things on the court. He preaches smart, team-oriented basketball that strives to have the unit working together toward a common goal. But despite his urging, pleading, and yes, yelling, Izzo is often helpless against a power more alluring than hardwood purity.
“We live in such a selfish society,” he says. “Everybody is looking out for their own interests and aren’t making people better.”
Izzo is not making a grand statement about the state of American culture, although he does raise an interesting point about our unwillingness to help others. In this case, he’s referring to how self-interest hurts a basketball team’s ability to score. We hear all the time about how point guards can “set up” teammates, but Izzo questions whether that is the primary motivation of those who play the game or merely a last resort.
“Guards aren’t giving the ball to the guy when he has a chance to score,” Izzo says. “They try to ‘get mine, get mine, get mine’ and when they can’t, they give it up to someone who isn’t as open as he was earlier.”
That leads to poorer attempts and fewer points. And it is exactly what defenses want to see. Instead of working for the right shot, players who handle the ball are hoping to create something for themselves first. When that doesn’t happen, they pass — sometimes reluctantly, as the shot clock slithers toward zero — into the midst of a defense that is happy to strangle the desperate attempt.
“I think decision-making has a lot to do with it,” Izzo says. “Players are completing passes, but they’re not putting guys in shooting position. It’s like throwing a bomb in football. Do you hit the receiver in stride, or is the pass underthrown, and the receiver has to stop, catch it and get tackled?”
When that happens, the advantage goes to defenses that are already enjoying more robust success, thanks to a variety of circumstances. One is the type of player being recruited by top teams. Longer, quicker athletes are being found on the outskirts of defensive sets, and what used to be open shots are now contested. “In the past, defenders couldn’t help in the paint and then get out on the shooter,” Wright says. “Guys can do that now.”
It wasn’t that long ago that if a player drove the lane, and a defender stepped up to impede his path, the ball-handler would dish a bounce pass to a cutter along the baseline for an easy bucket. Now, according to Wright, “the big man can stop the penetration and get back to block the layup.”
Teams are more adroit at stopping the 3-pointer, too. That explains the continued drop in the success rate. It helps that defenders are allowed to body ball-handlers and cutters along the perimeter — “It’s hard to score when you’re getting knocked around,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim says — and that the priority for teams is to stop the long ball, not the mid-range jump shot. Wright says that players on the weak side used to provide help when drivers beat their men. That isn’t so prevalent anymore. “They fake help and stay with the shooter,” he says. “That layup isn’t worth as much as a 3-pointer.”
In order to play the kind of defense that recovers quickly on the interior and can move out to the perimeter to thwart 3-point attempts, teams are recruiting long-armed athletes and hoping they can turn them into productive offensive players. Often, those players can drive to the basket, but when the avenues are cut off, they have no countermoves.
“There used to be a lot of stories about people shooting in the summer, but guys are now more interested in getting to the basket and dunking,” Boeheim says. “We work on shooting more than ever before. We recruit guys who are great athletes, but they can’t shoot.”
If coaches know that their own players can’t shoot well, it’s reasonable for them to believe that opponents’ eyes aren’t so sharp, either. So, they create schemes that focus on thwarting rivals, rather than opening the game up. If teams practice defense first and prefer players with skills that benefit that philosophy, they aren’t to be all that effective at the other end. “I think it’s always been true that you can stay with anybody if you defend well,” Boeheim says. He uses last year’s Marquette team, which was excellent defensively (40.4 opposing field goal percentage) but somewhat challenged at the other end (29.6 percent 3-point) as an example of how defense can carry the day. Marquette tied for first in the Big East and reached the Elite Eight. Of course, Boeheim’s one to talk. His Orange have been strangling rivals with their zone for years. Last year’s Final Four run was fueled by a nasty D that surrendered only 58.7 points per game and allowed rivals to make a mere 36.9 percent of their shots.
Watching the Orange and Louisville reach the Final Four with their zones could well lead to a rush to that style of play. It’s hard to replicate the types of athletes those teams have, but their strategies are transferable. The Cardinals’ multiple defenses (press for 10 seconds, pure zone for 15 seconds, matchup for 10) are pretty advanced, but expect more teams to embrace the zone ideal.
That is if they’re able to keep their players on campus long enough to teach it. Every year, there is a large contingent (about 450 in 2013) of players who transfer in search of more playing time, greater compatibility with coaches and a variety of other reasons. Haith believes that hurts teams’ abilities to create productive offensive cultures.
“Kids are coming in with lesser skills and also aren’t sticking around to develop them,” he says. “It’s a microwave society. Everybody wants it quick and fast, and the patience isn’t there. You see very few veteran teams. Guys don’t stick around and go through things.”
Solving the problem won’t be easy, but there are some steps that could help. Emulating the NBA’s move to clean up contact along the perimeter would be a good idea. “Because of the physical play on the perimeter, pushing guys out, and bumping cutters across the lane, the flow of the game has been disrupted,” Haith says. Coaches aren’t worried about the rough stuff inside. “Inside guys are used to being physical,” Boeheim says. They want freer movement away from the hoop. If refs were to call fouls on defenders who bump and disrupt, offenses would have more room to operate.
Players have a responsibility, too. Their desire to drive to the basket and finish spectacularly has robbed them of the skills needed to be complete offensive players. That doesn’t just mean the jump shot. Larranaga says he and his staff teach how to come off a down screen, how to make a “V” cut and how to take a dribble to get past a defender and then hit a floater. What were once basics are now advanced basketball theory.
One thing that won’t change is the emphasis coaches put on defense, or the information available to coaches preparing for games. “Scouting is so much better now,” Izzo says. That means no matter how much is done to help create more room and a steadier stream of offensive movement, the players had better be in the gym, too, working on their skills.
If not, fans had better get ready for more games in the 30s.
-By Athlon Sports contributor Michael Bradley.