The NCAA men’s college basketball field is as wide open as it has been in years. In fact, the parity of the top 64 teams — those who will make the first bracket in the NCAA tournament — is a historic anomaly. There have been six teams to hold the No. 1 spot atop the AP poll this year, which is just one fewer than the all-time record. In 16 weeks this season, only one team — Oklahoma in week 11 — has held a unanimous No. 1 spot. Nearly four teams per week have dropped from the top 25 rankings.
Though there is no lack of high-profile talent and coaching near the top, there is a feeling out there right now that any team could lose on any given night. And for good reason, given how closely matched the ranked teams are.
This demonstrates that the major rule changes adopted by the NCAA in the offseason are having a real effect. But moreover, it shows that the revolution that has taken the NBA by storm has come to college basketball. Higher scoring, faster pace of play, more three-point attempts and more assists are staples of the small-ball era of Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors that is currently sweeping through the NBA. All these numbers are now trending strongly in the same direction in the college game.
Some coaches have adjusted better to the new style — or their systems were already better suited to a smaller, faster game — but no coach has figured out a way yet to dominate the rest of the field. In the past, John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, who started out the season at No. 2 but have since dropped to No. 22, were able to crush the rest of the NCAA en route to multiple March Madness titles by implementing a system built around size. Calipari would recruit a huge, shot-blocking center — such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Nerlens Noel or Anthony Davis — and tall, athletic wings — such as Karl-Anthony Towns or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — who he used to completely stifle opposing defenses and force opposing offenses to take bad outside shots.
For a long time, Calipari’s method seemed nearly unbeatable. Now, in the blink of an eye, it is on the way out. A Warriors-esque change in the game to emphasize guard skills, perimeter shooting and running the fast break has hit college basketball as an effective response to the front-court-dominated style that has held sway. This has been helped along by the shorter shot clock and quicker whistles on hip-checks and pushes, but it is also a function of the periodic and rapid changes that occasionally sweep the culture of the sport. This year, the teams that most exceed expectations are those with a small lineup with one center and four perimeter players. They use depth and outside shooting to win games that they likely would have lost in years past under the slower, more bruising rules.
Jay Wright’s No. 3 Villanova Wildcats and Jim Larranaga’s No. 7 Miami Hurricanes are prime examples. Villanova and Miami protect the rim with their 7-foot centers Daniel Ochefu and Tonye Jekiri while running the floor and letting the three-ball fly. On defense, they lock down and take away the outside shot, forcing the other teams to play deep into the shot clock and look for a good shot, making it very difficult for their opponents to comeback quickly.
However, many teams look confused on offense and frustrated on defense, failing to develop the skills needed to move the ball quickly enough to be effective in the new shot-clock’s timeframe and hacking shooters and hip-checking ball handlers so that the officials are forced to call them for fouls.
Although certain ex-coaches and ex-players, including John Thompson Jr., Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson, may deride the officiating and style of the new game as unfair or too soft, the current coaches and players need to recognize that, whether they like it or not, this is college basketball’s new path; they can either adapt to it or cling dogmatically to their former ways, pining for the “good old days” of low-scoring slugfests and 50-point games. Traditionally, college coaches enjoy a lot more job security than their counterparts in the NBA, but even this is not likely to help college coaches who fail to adapt to the game’s current trends.
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