College basketball's last few minutes sure are fouled up

Phil Jackman

December 03, 1990|By Phil Jackman

The most dominant player ever in basketball was Wilt Chamberlain. He could score, rebound, block shots and possessed a body resembling the U.S. Department of Agriculture building in Washington.

Wilt averaged 30 points and 23 rebounds while playing 45.8 minutes per game over 14 NBA seasons. He could run and pass and was a good (if argumentative) post-game interview. He was a beanpole who so frightened the hoops establishment coming out of high school, officials doubled the width of the three-second lane.

He had a flaw, though, and in today's college game it would assure one thing: The Stilt would have a select seat on the bench (if he hadn't been banished from the gym) in the late going when most games are decided.

Wilt could not shoot a foul shot. Oh, he could toss them up there all right, one time going so far as to underhand the ball up toward the rim with one hand. Save for the night he tallied 100 points in Hershey, Pa., when he shot 28-for-32 from the stripe, his efforts as often as not would bounce away harmlessly or hit a front-row spectator on the head.

In one and the same game, he might shoot three or four different ways, including moving off to the right 2 feet behind the foul line for what looked like his rendition of Parry O'Brien putting the shot.

As great as Chamberlain was everywhere he played -- high school, college, Globetrotters and pros -- if he were playing at Kansas today, he'd often end up as the goat. He would be fouled every time the Jayhawks had the ball no matter what the score in the last few minutes.

Foul shooting -- that's what it's all about in college hoops these days. The balance is gone out of the game that used to be so much more interesting than the current edition.

Time was when a game had an ebb and flow with shooting, playmaking, board play and defense the determining factors. There weren't that many work stoppages and it didn't take the better part of an hour to play the last few minutes.

A guy put a stopwatch on a game the other night and it took 12 minutes to complete the last 36 seconds. The reasons are fouls )) and free throw shooting. And, of course, timeouts.

Some random statistics: Maryland plays West Virginia and 51 fouls are called. Michigan State-Bowling Green, 50 fouls. Wake Forest-Tulane, 49 fouls. Iowa State-North Carolina, 45 fouls.

Most of the intrusions interrupting play occur during the last six minutes or so, transforming what was once a game with some character and flow into a foul-shooting contest. If fans stopped -- and thought about the tedious conclusion of a preponderance of games these days, would they bother to show up in the first place? Fortunately, they have short memories.

It's difficult to ascertain where the blame lies in the current situation. As in most cases, there seems to be enough to spread around among the coaches and the men who set the rules.

First off, and in an attempt to further enhance an already popular game, the three-point shot was introduced so that "no lead was ever safe." In addition to cutting down on the traditional values of ballhandling, passing and getting into position to take a high percentage shot, the rulesmakers made the shot (19 feet, 9 inches) far too easy, almost a gimme.

Coaches noted that a connection rate of 40 percent of three-point attempts is equal to 60 percent of two-point shots. When they saw their defenses being spread out, they concluded that fouling would become as big a part of the game as any other single factor.

In the past, fouling was thought of as a physical mistake rarely having any sustained strategic value. But nowadays, fouling the opposition, particularly its weak foul shooters, is often the difference between winning and losing.

A guy might be a superior player with good all-around skills, but if he can't step up and drop freebies in crunch time, he can forget about being in the lineup at the end of games.

Game long effort is devalued for the team in the lead if it can't make free throws, and penalties become rewards as the losing team closes in as time stands still amid constant whistles.

The parade between foul lines kills the action, neutralizes athletic ability and dictates maddening strategy. In addition, too many games grind to a halt as timeouts totaling close to a hundred (including the TV variety) enter into the picture.

Making matters worse last year was the Big East Conference awarding a sixth foul to players, a new rule decreeing that a player gets three free throws if he's fouled while attempting a three-pointer and teams not moving off the one-and-one until the opposition commits its 10th foul of the half.

Of course, the answer to cleaning up the late-game wreckage would be to allow the offended team to retain possession of the ball. That sounds too much like a solution to fly, however.

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