Sunday, March 16, 2014

When College Basketball Was Special (A Rant)

1982 National Champs- Perkins, Black, Jordan, Doherty & Worthy
There was a time- a long ago, far away time now- when there was no sport in our nation that could rival college basketball. At least as a kid growing up in North Carolina that was sure how it seemed to me. The rivalries, the competition, the drama, the strategy- it was amazing to be a fan. As mentioned here many times, I was primarily a fan of the UNC Tar Heels, but I also always cheered for other Atlantic Coast Conference teams any time they weren't playing my Heels. And back in the days of my youth there was nothing more exciting than the ACC Tournament. Tickets were harder to get than those for the NCAA Final Four. That same tournament will conclude in my hometown of Greensboro today, but it is just not he same anymore. The women's tournament was held last weekend and Notre Dame won the championship. Notre Dame is in the ACC? And this week teams like Syracuse and Pittsburgh were competing for the men's title. Next year Louisville joins the league as well. And I don't like it. Not one little bit. Those are supposed to be Big East teams- and we HATE Big East teams. But those changes are just the tip of an iceberg that began forming many years ago. So if you will allow me, I'd like to rant a bit about all of the changes in college hoops in the past 40 years and how they have ruined the game for me. I know I'm an old man yelling Get off my lawn! to a world that really doesn't care, but so be it. I'm still gonna yell. Here are some things I really miss about the old days...

  • The ACC Tournament Meant Something - It is hard to remember now, but there was a time when the ACC was the ONLY league with a conference tournament. Equally hard to remember is that only one team from each conference received a bid to the NCAA tourny. That bid went to the ACC tounament champion. not the regular season champs. So if you wanted to keep playing, you had to win. And there were years when 2 or 3 of the 10 best teams in the country were from the league, and only one of them played into March. Now that was pressure! And it made for great basketball. Perhaps the greatest college game ever played was the 1974 ACC title game in which NC State beat Maryland 103-100 in overtime. NC State went on to win the national championship. The third best team in the country went to the NIT. Amazing drama.
  • Players Stayed With Their Teams - While there have been players turning pro early for many years, the trend of players going to the NBA straight from high school and later the ridiculous "one and done" is a fairly recent one. In the old days you knew the players and the teams. Even the greatest players- Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and so many others- stayed three or four years. You watched them grow and improve. Plus you got to watch great players play with other great players more frequently- and thus the teams were better. Can you imagine any scenario today where James Worthy (a junior) and Sam Perkins (a sophomore) would have still been at UNC to play with freshman Michael Jordan in 1982 and win a national championship together? All were first round draft picks. The older guys would have been in the NBA before MJ ever got there.
  • Teams Stayed With Their Conferences - I realize it's mostly about football and all about money, but I really hate all of the conference realignment and the break-ups of so many traditional rivalries. I hate that Maryland is leaving the conference. And the new additions do not excite me. Of course, I'm so old school that I still think of Florida State as an ACC "outsider" and wish South Carolina would come back! 
  • And I Knew Everything - I could tell you players on every team in the nation. I could tell you who the top recruits were and where they were headed. And when the NCAA tournament started I picked with some sense of knowledge. I was still wrong, but I felt like I knew what I was doing. Now I might as well use a dartboard. I very rarely get excited anymore- unless UNC and Duke are playing.
  • TV Games Mattered - Growing up in NC in an era before ESPN the only college games we saw were ACC games on the Jefferson Pilot ACC Network (What's happening, Holly Farms!). There would be one, maybe 2 games a week. The broadcast team of Jim Thacker & Billy Packer did every game, and because the ACC was so deep and so talented in those days every game mattered. The ratings for those local broadcasts often beat network programming in a day and time when we only got 3 channels. Now I can watch Podunk State play Whatsamatta U. every night on 3 different channels. It's just too much.
  • No shot clock. College basketball used to be so much about strategy and exploiting weaknesses in the other team. The shot clock ruined so much of that. I loved seeing Carolina go four corners. I loved the year (1968) a NC State team with NO talent held the ball the entire game and beat a good Duke team 12-10 in the semifinals. I remember Villanova milking the clock and beating an unbeatable Georgetown team for a national championship. That was the last game played without a shot clock. The clock made the game faster and more about who has the best recruits. If I wanted to watch the NBA, I would. And I don't!
  • Players Could Actually Shoot - I expect to see a repeat of the 12-10 score any day now, because that's how bad the shooting has become in college hoops. Take away the dunks and some teams would have a hard time scoring. In the past even average players had better mid-range jump shots than today's stars. The 3-point shot helps with scoring averages, but most of the guys shoot around 33% on those. Carolina used to shoot 70% as a team- for the season- on a regular basis. No more. And players could actually make free throws! I miss when all non-shooting fouls in the bonus were 1 and 1, because it put a premium on great free throw shooters. Plus it changed strategy at the end of games, The famous 1983 NC State team of the late Jimmy V would have never survived past the second round of the NCCA tourny under today's rules. I would love to see them go back to an emphasis on good shooting and great passing. Learn to throw a bounce pass, people!
  • Dean Smith Was Constantly Changing the Game- About 75% of the things you see teams and coaches do in games today (changing defenses, foul line huddles, acknowledging assists with a point, multiple substitutions, saving timeouts until the end of the game) were innovations of the great Dean Smith at UNC. He will never get all the credit he deserves as a coach and for recruiting Charlie (Great!) Scott to be the first African-American player at a southern university. The man changed the game. It's just not the same without him on the sidelines.
  • Refs Could Call All the Fouls -  College basketball used to actually be a non-contact sport. Fouls were fouls. Players played defense by moving their feet and having quick hands, not by banging bodies all over the floor, Now if they called all the "fouls" the games would take 4 hours and all the players would foul out. The ACC held on to old school basketball longer than most, but eventually getting bullied by the Big East and the Big Ten in the tournament caught up with them too.
  • There Was A Single Standard For Greatness- John Wooden and UCLA dominated college basketball from the mid 60s until the mid 70s. They were always the team to beat. Their players graduated, they were brilliant passers and shooters, and their famous 2-2-1 full court zone press just wore teams out. You always knew that the NCAA championship went through Westwood. And they were so good and so classy that you didn't mind. 
  • And the ACC Was Always There - How good was the "classic" ACC over the years? This good: between 1962 and 2005 the ACC was represented in the final four 33 times by 7 different teams, including national championships for UNC (3), NC State (2), Duke (4) and Maryland. That's the ACC I knew and loved and remember. And while the new version of the league may end up being that kind of dominant, it will not be the same. Not for me.
I feel better now. And I feel better at least knowing a REAL ACC team will take home the championship and get the league's automatic bid today. But the truth is this- in the 70s,  80s and 90s I would have been glued to my TV for the ACC Championship game no matter who was playing. Today I may watch. but only so I can cheer for UVA to beat Dook. The old passion is gone. I try not be stuck in the past. But that's a past I truly miss.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3/16/2014

    I just about grew up not knowing there were other conferences besides the ACC. Well in North Carolina you don't exist as a college unless you are in the ACC. The ACC has become a Basketball Conference driven by Football. I also miss the Big Four Tournament.
    Sincerely, David Fields


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