Answering the questions of today's game - part 1
College Basketball Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Summer offers the time (and column space) to tackle some of the game's hot-button issues and dig deeper into the nuances lost in the shuffle of the nation's mad dash from November to early April.
Coverage is results-driven in-season, and rightfully so, as there is so much to sift through courtside and on the DVR. The dog days provide the necessary retrospective on college basketball's many pressing issues now and moving forward.
We know North Carolina is staring down the barrel of each team's best shot for reasons discussed in From the End of the Bench's Summer Fine 15 (see column for the entire power poll). These questions and answers are more about the glue that holds the game together, not the chess pieces deployed once the ball is tipped.
Below is the first installment of a two-part series with the conclusion coming next week. Agree or disagree with anything you read? Let me know on Twitter (@jtrex0830) or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The most thoroughly presented points will be included in part 2.
1. The business side of the game has been discussed ad nauseam with arguments on "pay-for-play" shouted from the rafters and supporters on each side dug deep in cement. This question looks at the big picture of a more corporate game. What does it mean for tomorrow's coaching contingent, the pressures and pitfalls they face?
Answer: I tackled the "pay-for-play" argument in last season's inaugural column, outlining the foundation of each side's tenets. In a broader sense, the entire discussion highlights the game's trip on a high-speed line to board rooms instead of locker rooms, which is a very dangerous tight rope for the NCAA compliance department. Big-time manufacturing companies are in bed with certain programs, Oregon and Nike for example, and other organizational cash cows use their financial clout and the influence of boosters to rattle the cages of high-school prospects and put significant pressure on coaches to sell.
Recruiting used to include a tour of practice facilities and a lunch under the shade trees. Now, each visit is hyped with prestige and money, some clean but plenty dirty. Coaches are intrinsically to blame for bending (and breaking) rules in the cut-throat pursuit of a guard with a sweet stroke or a big man who can bench press Tom Izzo a hundred times over.
Yet, maybe, just maybe, the atmosphere they are placed in bears some of the responsibility and the focus if the NCAA is serious about cleaning up collegiate athletes. Coaching is second fiddle to recruiting, and many young coaches now pay their dues knocking on doors and kissing babies (you get the drift) in a sell-sell-sell mode instead of spending time plotting X's and O's and understanding what it takes to make men out of kids.
Because in the end that's what these high schoolers are. Kids. Not chess pieces of athleticism used to plot the next career move, garner the next pay raise. The money in the profession has become too large, the pressure too predicated on a narrow measure of success.
If you don't believe me, read ESPN.com's recent survey of the game's elder statesmen and what they think of the game's next line of coaches. Many wonder aloud if the new breed are prepared to actually coach once they have hoarded a collection of runners and jumpers.
The NCAA has recognized this and taken a few baby steps to fix the problem, creating strict rules on staffing sizes and job descriptions, making it harder to near impossible for a school to employ that seventh or eighth "recruiting coordinator" who doesn't sniff the actual player maturation and game management sides of coaching. It's a start.
And all is not lost. For every Bruce Pearl there is a Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart, two 34-year-olds with unique coaching gifts. Stevens, a strategist, Smart, an inspirer, neither just a salesman. Again, however, much of that comes with coaching at mid-major schools on the outskirts of the recruiting war, where the only blood shed is on the floor. One wonders if the same virtues that made Stevens and Smart so successful will withstand the eventual pressure of big-business major college basketball. We can only hope.
Until then, the NCAA needs to stay aggressive, curb AAU influence and take steps to make it easier for these major programs to have stronger institutional control. Cut the way-too-long summer recruiting period, levy heavy penalties against programs who have recently broken rules to set an example of intolerance, and return some of the "college" to "college basketball."
Business will never leave the game. It's too big, too financially linked to the game's growth, but progressive steps can help shift the focus back to coaching and teaching these players instead of just selling them. Time will tell.
2. One of the main rule tweaks before last season involved one of college basketball's great TV dramas: the charge, or in many cases, the flop. At times, it seemed like a continuous replay of Shane Battier out there. Help defenders should be rewarded for proper fundamental position, but far too often officials are charge-happy when defenders slide underneath an already- airborne offensive player. What would you do to fix this problem?
Answer: The NCAA took a step in the right direction last season, prohibiting secondary defenders from taking charges under the basket. Yet, coaches were right when they worried about no parameters to define "under the basket," instead giving another piece of judgment to officials already, in my opinion, saddled with too much interpretive responsibility. It seemed to work, out of the mouths of many, "fine" last season, but both coaches and referees alike are still clamoring for a line like the NBA uses to distinguish the area.
The restricted area in college basketball is smaller than the NBA's prohibited space, which extends three feet from the hoop, and this makes it even harder to determine if a player is standing under the basket.
I vote for widening this area to the NBA dimensions, as players are showing up in school NBA-ready in size and strength nowadays anyway. If the discussion involves a safety issue, this can only help the cause. Also, a definitive line on the court will take the guess work out of the call and provide a buffer for referees if a crucial charge-block determination affects a game late in the NCAA Tournament.
3. Tournament expansion was THE issue going into the 2010 season with bracket fanatics, hoops purists and the like vehemently opposed to massive expansion while coaches clamoring for stronger job security hoped the March Madness doors would open to half of the Division I contingent. Instead of blowing up a bracket goldmine, the decision makers implemented another marketing tool and money earner, the "First Four", with little fanfare. What did you make of the first foray of four in Dayton?
Answer: I think the final outcome received so little debate because most people, myself included, were bracing for a March Madness Armageddon with expansion to upwards of 120 teams. Instead, the governing body reserved the right to revisit the issue in the future and added three more teams into the field. One of those teams, Virginia Commonwealth, made the Final Four, which can only lead to the future marketing slogan:
From the First Four to Final Four. Anything's possible.
Seriously, talk about validation for what I thought was nothing more than a gimmick to line the pockets of a few more powers-that-be. And VCU's trip to the Final Four came in a year when we all couldn't stop talking about the ridiculously weak bubble. The main result of the Rams' ride is that media outlets, and in turn the general public, may give the Dayton soiree more credence this coming season, including perhaps a new due date for tournament brackets at most major sports sites.
The NCAA was searching for relevancy with its new idea, and it received it right off the bat. In a bottom line business, that is a monumental success to me.
Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out
Your Hoops Bracket." Click
HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on
an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State
Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the
Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.