Wednesday, April 6, 2011

It's The Ball, Stupid

Man, how about that game on Monday night! Whooo, boy! Like watching Michael Vick drown one of his dogs.


Oh, I'm the one who strangled, dunked, and electrocuted innocent dogs made to fight to the (near) death?


You know I'm right, though. The NCAA Championship game WAS as tough to watch as a Mike Vick dog drowning. It was so bad, my wife came in and started talking tax returns during the second half, and my only reaction was: "thank god, something to take my mind of this abomination!"

First and foremost, credit UConn and Calhoun. They were the best team last night, last month, and they deserved to win. They won the whole thing almost entirely without 3-point air superiority, which in today's era of "Pop-a-Shot" basketball, is almost unheard of.

Calhoun is a coaching giant in the college ranks, who singlehandedly built this dynasty in the Connecticut woods. He's prickly, and unlikeable outside of Storrs, and so what? He wins.

What will the legacy be when all of the Nate Miles stuff finally falls out of the closet? Tough to say. I don't think it'll be as bad as some are saying. He's shady. Just like Calipari, Pitino, Pearl, Sampson, and many others in the game today.

I know this, however, he better not retire. If he suddenly retires, and ducks that 8-game suspension next year, then he's a coward. I hope he gets slaughtered for that in the mainstream sports media, if that's the case.

For Butler, and ride along fans like myself, it was a tough one to endure. Brad Stevens and the boys threw a perfect defensive game at UConn in the first half. They led by 6 points coming out of the first minute of the second half, and that was shooting a paltry 22%!

Who could envision it going so cold, so quick after that?

In the end, it was the lowest scoring NCAA Final ever, the Bulldogs shot the worst percentage in a final, ever, and ratings suffered accordingly.

Be honest, who among us didn't wander off mentally to dream about how Kansas v. Ohio State would have looked instead?

So the key question many people are asking today, is just HOW can two supposedly "good" teams shoot the ball like spastic band members who put their instruments down for five minutes and picked up a rack of game balls?

Well, as usual, I have a few theories.

Plain and simple, the tenaciousness of today's modern "D" makes getting any shot off, difficult, much less a good one. There was one play when Butler had a wide open pull up jumper, and a UConn player just snuffed it out cleanly from 22 feet away. That highlight doesn't exist in 1982.

When the defense isn't especially suffocating, many teams still don't know how to execute plays designed to get a quality shot. Butler is better at it than many other schools with NBA talent, but offensively, teams are less skilled.

These are big things, that don't get talked about alot, because they SOUND petty and stupid, but they are not.

The task of shooting in a football stadium  and getting a good feel for depth perception and space, can only be understood if you have done it yourself once or twice. Long ago, when I was the play-by-play voice of UC Santa Barbara and traveled with the team, I had the chance to chuck up a few jumpers during road shootarounds in NBA sized arenas like the Thomas and Mack Center.

Now, these weren't even football stadiums, but to somebody who is only accustomed to shooting in a high school gym, the basket seemed weirdly CLOSE to you while shooting, because the space BEHIND it was so  vast, in a relative sense.

This is only magnified for college players inside a massive football dome.

And I'm not the only one who knows this. Jeff Borzello of CBS Sportsline runs some actual numbers on the phenomenon.

Fact: of the 18 Championship Game participants since the NCAA went to all-domes-all-the-time in 2003, only 4 of them have shot better in that game, than there season average.

In fact, championship shooting percentage has been 40% or BELOW, for 8 of those 18 teams!

When teams outshoot their season average in the title game, it's rarely by more than a whisker.

Above Average Shooting in Title Game

Below Average Shooting in Title Game

Of course, there are caveats to this big trend.

a. Teams defend hardest with title on the line. Granted.
b. Regular season shooting % includes many non-conference blowouts.
c. Players do get nervous on such a big stage.

Okay, all that has to be considered.

But also, consider this. In my many years of watching the Final Four, it has become quite obvious that the refs would rather cut off heat to an old lady in the winter than foul anybody out, or even get them in serious "foul trouble" early on. This leads to very ROUGH games, to say the least.

Also, the biggest factor in some of these crappy shooting games, is the BALL itself! The NCAA - a bunch of bureaucrats, remember, with little athletic sense - INSIST on using a BRAND NEW basketball, with a cute/fancy little logo of that year's Final Four on it.

So instead of a well worn "pumpkin" as Clark Kellogg would say, we have a slick, lighter than normal "new ball" that just doesn't feel right to the players.

Anybody who has played even low-level YMCA pick up basketball, understands this. It is why, there is often much bickering about what ball to use before everybody agrees to "run it back." The usual winner - at least at the gym I used to belong to - was the heavier, genuine leather ball that had good usage and break in. It absorbed sweat, felt hefty in your palm on the dribble, and was easy to control.

I saw the same thing the one year I worked on the Washington Bullets scorers table as the clock operator. Darrell Walker was the un-official home court "ball king" who would go through the rack of pumpkins, bounce a few vigorously just before tip off, and then present his choice to the lead referee.

Almost always, the ref deferred to Walker, so long as the ball didn't appear irregular in any way. In every case, each "game worthy" NBA ball, was marked with a small "X" along one of the channels, just so there was some accounting of the "best" pumpkins.

Remember when the NBA decided to change to a new "synthetic" leather ball without player approval? Right. That lasted all of what, 6 months?

When you see things like Shelvin Mack lose the handle on his dribble just jogging the ball up court, or Andrew Smith missing a 2 foot layup, or Shawn Vanzant shooting a 4 footer that goes 2 feet and catches nothing but air - THAT'S THE STUPID BASKETBALL!

Hell, I could see the stupid shiny logo on the ball from my TV at home! Wake up, NCAA! Use proper equipment!

All of this is not to excuse make for Butler, because UConn players struggled with the ball as well, if you watch the game tape with a keen eye. It's just ridiculous that this has been going on for years, and the NCAA still doesn't get it.

If you insist on being piggish and playing in football stadiums for more revenue (and my solution is just to double the price of every ticket and go back to real basketball arenas, you would still easily sell out) then the least you can do play with a proper piece of equipment.

A well broken in basketball, that isn't a greased pumpkin.

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