ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.
The electricity, intensity, and passion of that wonderful game we call college basketball has left the domed Tropicana Field, site of this year's NCAA Final Four. All that remains is the exhaustion of the emotional competition.
Yet, nobody is too tired to already begin thinking about doing it all over again in 2000, in Indianapolis. Such is the appeal of a tournament in which the 64 best teams get invited and each loser sits down, until, at the glorious end, the sole victor stands.
This year, of course, Connecticut is the standee, by virtue of its 77-74 win here Monday over mighty Duke, still shocked to find itself sitting.
The tournament is a fine example of a major competition in which seemingly minor participants - Gonzaga, Miami of Ohio, and Southwest Missouri State this year - have a chance against the big boys.
The game has to be special, because too many of the changes inflicted on it in recent years have damaged it.
This is not to say that what we need is to get rid of iron rims with nets and return to peach baskets.
But, as good as the game is, it once was better and could be again. Far better.
Here are the problems and solutions:
*Players are allowed to be way too physical. Basketball is supposed to be a game of finesse and strategy, of shooting and running. Originally, and for decades, it was a game of elegance. It has become a mugging in the park.
The rules have been allowed to be so ignored that a defensive player keeping his hands on the offensive player is not only allowed but practically endorsed. There is continuous grabbing, slapping, pushing, elbowing. It's not basketball. It's neo-football without pads.
Solution: Enforce the rules.
*This style of defense leads in turn to constant whistles for fouls by officials trying - and failing - to maintain some sense of traditional order and decorum. Watching players shoot free throws from 15 feet is the most boring thing in sports, worse even than watching field hockey. UConn and Duke shot a combined 2,104 free throws this year. Be still our hearts. It makes no sense to allow the sport's worst feature to become a key feature.
Solution: There's talk of perhaps allowing a team to choose to continue possession after one of its players is fouled rather than shooting the free throw. Even better, except in say the last three minutes, a foul might automatically give a point or two to the fouled player's team.
*There are a numbing number of timeouts, what with full timeouts, 20-second timeouts, and television timeouts. No wonder the players typically pay scant attention to their coaches during the breaks. They've heard it all a zillion times.
Particularly offensive is allowing players to call timeout as they fall or even soar out of bounds. Somewhere James Naismith is slapping his forehead in disbelief.
Solution: Rework the entire timeout structure so there are substantially fewer. It's tricky with the understandably necessary television timeouts, but wise heads can figure it out. Plus, decree that to call a timeout, a player and the ball must be under control and firmly in bounds.
*The single biggest reason players are becoming so quick off the dribble is that they are allowed to violate the rules by carrying the ball. This is done by putting the hand under the ball to initiate and continue the dribble rather than keeping the hand atop the ball to bounce it, as the rules state.
This gives the offensive player a huge advantage, which generates more fouling and more free throws.
Solution: Enforce the rules.
*The three-point shot has led to an avalanche of long jump shots at the expense of the skill and planning needed to run legitimate and endlessly fascinating offenses closer to the basket.
Solution: Eliminate three-pointers.
*Players and coaches do far too much talking, talking, talking. Just shut up and play. Every tiny happening doesn't need comment. Every foul doesn't need protest.
Solution: Enlist support of coaches to zip all mouths. And be freer with technical fouls.
All these things, combined with frenetic but often mindless substituting, contribute to interrupting the flow of a game that flourishes with continuity.
Seldom are there more than three times up and down the court without a stoppage. But on those rare occasions, it is pure joy to watch.
All the rules big shots need to do is watch the game carefully. With everything that happens, they need to ask, "Is this helping the game?"
If not, they've got their answer regarding the next step.
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