Item: Cole Field House on Wednesday. Maryland, trailing North Carolina State, 6-4, begins a stall that lasts more than three minutes. During the delay, referee Dan Wooldridge is so bored he turns his back on the game and asks someone at the press table for a deck of cards.
Item: Raleigh, N.C., on Feb. 10. North Carolina State trails No. 1-ranked Virginia by one point. State holds the ball for the final 4:28, supposedly working for a good shot, before Dereck Whittenburg puts up a 25-footer with three seconds left. The shot misses.
Item: Salt Lake City on Feb. 19. Utah refuses to play against Brigham Young's zone defense, so BYU switches to man-to-man to keep the fans from growing restless. But Utah chooses not to play, anyway, passing the ball around for more than three minutes before shooting.
Scoring in the college game is lower than it has been for 30 years. Nearly everybody is holding the ball longer, running less and taking fewer shots. Atlantic Coast Conference teams are no exception.
There are various reasons offered by coaches and players, including the proliferation of zone defenses, overcoaching and the fear of being fired.
"I can't stand it," said Maryland's Mark Fothergill. "But that's the way the whole nation is playing. These days, you blow one possession and it can kill you."
Red Auerbach, general manager of the Boston Celtics, says the slower pace is bad for the college game. "Send these games to a neutral city where there are no alums and students who get in free, and let teams start collapsing into zone defense and stalling; by the second game you couldn't get enough people to fill a phone booth."
"We shouldn't panic just yet," said Brigham Young Coach Frank Arnold, the chairman of the National Association of Basketball Coaches' Officials Committee. "Coaches will have to sit down this summer and try to figure out why the scores are dropping so . . . find some quick-striking offense that can attack any zone. We have to give the game a year or so to correct itself, but we simply cannot continue with this trend."
The trend is not new. Scoring has dropped every year since 1975, according to the NCAA statistics office. A midseason survey of nearly 4,000 Division I games showed an average of 135 points per game scored. That's down nearly six points per game from midseason of last year and 17 points from 1975.
Field goal attempts also have dropped for a fifth consecutive season. Scoring is so low this season that the NCAA had to alter the minimum requirements for its leaders in team and individual catgories.
"Long Island leads the nation with 89 points per game, but that figure wouldn't even get you into the top 20 in some seasons," said Jim Van Valkenburg, the NCAA's director of statistics. "We used to ask the conference to submit teams averaging more than 80 points, but this year we couldn't fill a top 20, so we had to start asking for teams averaging 75 points."
One statistic that hasn't been affected, however, is television ratings. NBC says its ratings are almost identical this year to last year. CBS, which is carrying college basketball for the first time, says its ratings are slightly below NBC's.
Many coaches whose teams traditionally have run, like Maryland's Lefty Driesell, have found the slower tempo to be an equalizer against better teams.
"Pass, pass, pass . . . everybody is standing around passing the ball, passing up a shot they'll take eventually," Driesell said early in the season.
Then Maryland was routed twice by more talented teams. Driesell found that by joining the stallballers, he could stay close with teams like Virginia and North Carolina and have a chance to win. Maryland lost to the Cavaliers, 45-40, in overtime last month, and probably will use a slowdown offense as well when the teams play at Cole Field House today at 2 p.m.
In the last six weeks, Maryland has done as much stalling and standing around as any team in the ACC. "I'll do what I have to do to win," Driesell said recently. "And when everybody else is holding the ball, there isn't a lot of running we can do, anyway."
A number of other coaches also are abandoning their personal philosophies. It's good for job security.
"There is a tremendous pressure on coaches to win," said Gerry Gimelstob, coach at George Washington. "Maybe things will open up again when coaches, like professors, are granted tenure."
"The pressure on college coaches to win has gotten so ridiculous, we're just playing everything closer to the vest," said William and Mary Coach Bruce Parkhill. "I sometimes get the urge to play faster, the way I want to personally. But I have to be fair to the kids. I would prefer the quicker tempo, pressing and running for 40 minutes. But I've got to do what's in the best interest of the team. I've got to win."
Teams with modest talent, like William and Mary, can be expected to stall against better teams. But it's difficult to understand why top-20 teams like North Carolina, Wake Forest and North Carolina State slow it down.
"It's the better teams that are holding the ball," said Al McGuire, an analyst for NBC-TV and a former Marquette coach. "College basketball games are now 34 minutes instead of 40. The team with the ball now plays the last minute for the final shot of the half, instead of the last 20 seconds. And the second half is only 15 minutes because the team that's ahead sits on the lead the last five minutes.
"Michigan State started this whole thing by winning the national championship on national television with that matchup zone (in 1978-79).Coaches are great copiers, so everybody is going with zones now."
"It takes time to probe the zone, solve it and shoot against it," said Arnold, whose Cougars are averaging 17 points per game fewer than last season. "Zone defenses (which cover up individual weaknessess and keep players out of foul trouble) are dictating the tempo of the game more than people think. We're trying to push the ball upcourt before defenses get a chance to mess around."
Some people blame the coaches, period.
"Coaches are starting to think people are coming to watch them and their strategies, rather than coming to watch the kids play," McGuire said. "The coaches get into these chess matches and forget the value of the game itself."
"I go and scout a kid nowadays, and the game doesn't have enough movement for me to even tell if a kid's quick," Auerbach said. "How can you find the next Julius Erving when a kid gets grabs a rebound and looks to break downcourt, and the coach says, 'HOLD IT . . . Slow it up, right there.' Certain talents are going to deteriorate if this keeps up."
An obvious solution to speeding up the game is the shot clock. The Sun Belt Conference, the only Division I league using a clock (45 seconds), did its own research on national scoring.
Of the five major conferences surveyed, the Sun Belt is first in scoring, with 142 points per game, nearly seven higher than the national average. The Big East, Georgetown's conference, is second with 138 points; the Pac-10 is third with 132. The Big Ten and ACC, generally considered the top two conferences in the nation, lag far behind with 119 and 118, respectively.
The Sun Belt decided to adopt the shot clock five years ago, when South Alabama Coach Cliff Ellis' team held the ball against heavily favored New Orleans in the tournament championship game. His team lost, 22-20.
"I'm the reason we've got the clock, and I'm in favor of it," Ellis said. "From a coaching standpoint, it takes away some of the strategy. But if a family spends 25 bucks to see a game, they should see basketball. We've got to entertain, and it's not entertainment when the fans have to come and see teams sit and hold and wait for the final two minutes to see what happens."
"I'm not for the clock," Arnold said, "but I'll be a registered voter in favor of it if the game doesn't correct itself soon."
"I wouldn't mind the clock," said Gimelstob, "but suppose two coaches decide to stall down to 28 seconds (on a 30-second clock) or 43 seconds (on a 45-second clock). You'd have fewer possessions than you have now--no more than 20 for each team--and the scores would be just as low or lower."
"I don't know what can be done about it, but I hate playing for or against it," said Kenny Arnold, Iowa's senior point guard, who initiates the stall when directed by Coach Lute Olson.
"It's boring, you get lazy and lackadaisical playing it, and you're just not as alert as you are in a quick-tempo game. And what's most important, the fans boo. Somebody better start listening to them."