College basketball no longer is dominated by sky hook towering zones and three-second calls. Instead, The game has been taken over by a bunch of little guys who fire in 30-footers like they were layups, dive into balconies for loose balls, pass with the magic of Bob Cousy and shoot with more accuracy than George Mikan ever could.
This is the year of the guard, where the sky giants of the past like Abdul Jabbar, Walton, Benson and Gilmore have been replaced by Lee, Hassett, Ford, Williams and the rest of the under 6-foot-6 set. In the process, they've brought as much excitement to the game as the revitalized dunk shot.
Not that these little guys can't dunk. Michigan's Rickey Green, for example, specializes in spectacular length-of-the-court drives that end in elbows in-the-hoop stuffs. And Green is only 6-foot-2.
But these wonderful guards would rather stay out on the perimeter, away from the pushing and shoving of the tall trees, and pop in jumpers with the precision of master diamond cutters.
If you are Joe (Sonar) Hassett of Providence, the perimeter means anything inside the midcourt line. Hassett has been known to swish in five or six straight shots from outside the old ABA three-point circle. And that's before he gets warmed up.
What makes this year of the guard so fascinating is the variety of little guys making an impact.
Need a penetrator? How about Green, who races down the court like a world-class sprinter and needs only a quarterstep to burst by an opponent.
Need a one-on-one pressure player? How about Marquettes' Butch Lee, who utilized his bag of tricks to score 35 points against the American Olympic team at Montreal this summer while playing for the Puerto Rico squad.
Need a coach on the court? How about North Carolina's Phil Ford, who sometimes can tell what's on Dean Smith's mind before Smith can blurt it out.
Need a shooter? How about Portland State's Freeman (Free) Williams, he of the 71-point effort this season against Southern Oregon, in which he made 20 of 28 second-half shots, most from beyond 20 feet.
If that list isn't satisfactory, there is always Houston's Otis Birdsong, Minnesota's Ray Williams, George Washington's John Holloran, North-western's Billy McKinney, Georgetown's Derrick Jackson, Holly Cross's Ron Perry, Wake Forest's Skip Brown, Illinois' Mike (55 per cent from the Field) Glenn. DePaul's Ron Norwood, Utah's Jeff Jonas, Duke's Tate Armstrong, Rutgers' Ed Jordan, Purdue's Bruce Parkinson, Hotstra's Rich Laurel, Arkansas' Ron Brewer and Arizona's Herm (The Germ) Harris.
Or there is Ricky Sutton, king of the small colleges, a mere 6-footer who has topped the scoring statistics in both the NAIA and the NCAA's Division III the last two seasons.
Sutton is a black, city player from New Jersey attending almost all-white Lyndon State College in Lyndonville, Vt. He is a guard who lines up frequently as a forward, yet still takes mostly 25-footers because, he says, they seem like layups to him. He is a 55 per cent shooter from the field who thinks he become more accurate as he moves farther from the basket.
Sutton averaged 36 points a game last year as a freshman and 37 this year. Take away a seven-point game in December and he'd be around 40 points an outing. He has hit for 60 in one game, 50 in another and has been known to make 16 of 20 shots in a half. He sat out 15 minutes of a game yet still scored 48 points.
His coach, Skip Pound, encourages him to take his longe-range bombs. Just a bit better shot selection, Pound thinks, and Sutton could be hitting 65-70 per cent from the field. And Pound isn't talking about more layups, just fewer 40-footers.
The major college answer to Sutton is Portland State's Williams, who followed his 71-point game with outings of 59, 46 and 41. His 39-point average probably would be at least a couple of points higer if players still took free throws every time they were fouled.
Only two other major college players have scored more points in a game (Frank Selvy's 100, Bill Mekvy's 73) and just three have averaged more a game (Pete Maravich, Selvy and Johnny Neumann). And Williams most likely could have hit for more than 71 in that game; he was removed with 90 seconds left because no one was aware how close he was to making history.
Williams is no mad bomber. He makes just under 50 per cent of his tries, including 34 of 49 in the Southern Oregon game. At 6-4, he is also strong enough to drive for layups, although he admits to a weakness: he loves to see shots swish in from downtown.
"When he goes up," said Portland State's Larry Sellers, "he is able to adjust his left hand under the ball to get more-power. He almost shoots a two-handed jumper from way out." And how far is way out? "Oh, he'll go out to 35 feet. In the Southern Oregon game, the later it got, the further out he shot."
For those who like their guards to do more than shoot, North Carolina's Ford is a prototype all-America.
Ford's game contains no apparent weaknesses. He is quick, he can accelerate with the ball, he can drive, he can pull up for the 18-footer, he is a master at directing the fast break and he is a dedicated defensive player.
"Sometimes he is so good, it's scary," said his coach, Dean Smith. "He is the most coachable player you could ever have. Sometimes I have to stop from telling him something like, 'Phil, that was a bad shot' for fear he'll stop shooting."
He also has the endurance of a John Havlicek. Despite the reckless pace of his performances, Ford never seems to tire. "I have always been able to play hard and catch my breath quickly," he said. "I never wanted to leave games in high school so I learned not to show I was fatigued."
Ford was the driving force behind last summer's Olympic team victory. Ironically, many of this season's best guards point to their failure to make the Olympic squad as motivation for their outstanding play the last few months.
Houston's Birdson, for example, was so bitter about being cut at the Olympic trials - and passing up a pro contract offer in the process - that he has torn up the improving Southwest Conference. His 849 points is a season record and he long ago broke the league career scoring mark.
"The only way to stop him," said Texas coach Abe Lemons, "is to put a 24-hour guard on him."
Providence's Hassett wouldn't mind playing Tate Armstrong, the man who beat him out for the last Olympic spot, in a one-on-one game.Anytime.
But the Olympic coaches questioned Hassett's tendency to shot 25-footers when most mortals would have tossed a pass. He still will fire from near the locker room but his shot selection has improved enough to let him hit 50 per cent of his tries.
Hassett's delight is a zone defense. Let an opponent move into one, and he turns on his sonar. Against Villanova's zone last week, he was perfect on six of his first seven attempts and the Friars were safely in front for the rest of the night.
Marquette's Lee has even overwhelmed coach AL McGuire with his one-on-one talents. McGuire has never let another player free-lance quite as much in his 13 years at the school, and Lee has responded by averaging 20 points a game. Only two other McGuire coached Warriors have topped that mark (Dean Meminger and Jim Chones).
Lee, who learned his game on the New York playgrounds, is particularly clever at twisting his body in midair, which allows him to avoid charging fould and shed less athletic defenders. After one particular scintillating drive-and-hang earlier this year, even McGuire was impressed.
"I didn't think that fat little kid could stay in the air that long," he said about his chunky guard. "Now, if he could only stay away from the candy bars, think what he could do."
But even with their size, Lee and his mates at guard are 3 treat for basketball fans everywhere.