If April is the cruelest month, as the poet said, it's because the NCAA basketball tournament is over. Most of March is given to colleges, with 48 teams qualifying, or being invited, for the pool from which will emerge the undisputed national champion. None of this football nonsense of airy polls full of supremacist blather. March is, for hoop freaks, the nicest month.
By April Fool's Day, we will know everything. We will know which team won the NCAA. We'll know who is coach of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. We'll know, from listening to experts in this month of intensive basketball, whether colleges should adopt the pros' 24-second clock and so kill Slowball.
Why wait a month for answers? Taking them in reverse order . . .
1. Not only should colleges reject a shot clock, the pros, if half-smart, would junk theirs.
The clock makes every game look alike. There is no time to run a pretty play with five options. Instead, as time flees, the game becomes a one-on-one skirmish. Even Julius Erving going one on one becomes a bore because no defensive player can handle indefinitely the great offensive players of the NBA.
Ennui is chased away only in the excitement of the last quarter. The 24-second clock was designed to speed up the game, making it more interesting. Well, the NBA now is a sprint to nowhere, with wonderful plays happening so quickly that the extraordinary becomes the routine. The clock defeats its own purpose.
This is no brief for Slowball. Basketball should be played at speed. But why put a limit on possession? If it takes 31 seconds to get a high-percentage shot against a zone, such patience and discipline deserves reward, not punishment.
It is maddening to see a team hold the ball only to taunt a superior opponent. Nevertheless, a hurry-up-and-shoot clock is too high a cost for the elimination of the rare outright stall. Not only does the clock legislate against patience, it also reduces a coach's choice of legitimate tactics with which to give his mediocre team a chance against a powerful team.
Anyway, Slowball is a phase that colleges will outgrow. With everyone realizing basketball can mean big TV dollars, coaches are too cautious. They won't risk a killing mistake. They also want to orchestrate every play, so folks at home know who's in charge.
Some foolish coaches say Slowball is a result of Michigan State's winning the NCAA in 1979 with a matchup zone. They say coaches copy success and therefore created today's maze of zones. These coaches need be reminded that last year Indiana won its second NCAA championship with the same man-to-man it always used. Coaches use zones because they are easier to sell to players.
Good teams playing boldly apply so much defensive pressure it is impossible to hold the ball long. Slowball exists only when the defense allows it life. The problem with Slowball is not with offense, which mostly is looking for a good shot, but with defenses that sit back and watch.
Maybe there should be a 30-second clock on the defense.
2. My brain says Terry Holland is the ACC's coach of the year, because even with Ralph Sampson no one expected Virginia to be ranked No. 1 late in February. My underdog-lovin' heart says the top brain is Lefty Driesell, who did more with less.
Without a true center, without a power forward and without a shooting guard, Maryland three times in four games played the ACC's best teams to a virtual draw.
Maryland lost at Virginia in overtime, lost at North Carolina by three and beat Virginia in overtime. It lost to Carolina at Cole by 16 points in early January, after which lesson Driesell made a decision that turned his season around.
All right, 5-9 in the ACC and 15-11 overall isn't much to brag on. But if Driesell played Fastball all season, he might have been 1-14 and 11-16. Once he sold his players on Slowball, Driesell turned his one offensive weapon--freshman Adrian Branch--into enough to beat Virginia. By using Slowball to reduce the chances to be outplayed, Maryland made an interesting season out of one that a 24-second clock would have made a disaster.
All Virginia had to do was play such good defense that Maryland couldn't hold the ball. Maryland's discipline and patience was so well taught, though, that Virginia's defense was ineffectual.
Some numbers: 13 times this season Lefty's team scored fewer than 60 points; in the previous nine seasons it scored fewer than 60 only 12 times. Six times Maryland scored fewer than 50 points; in Lefty's other 12 years here, Maryland scored fewer than 50 only five times.
"All them times Dean came into Cole and held the ball," Lefty said once this season when someone criticized him for slowing down games, "everybody said, 'Dean's a great coach, Dean's a genius, Dean's God.' I hold the ball one game and everybody's saying, 'Lefty's a dog.' "
Don't put no leash on Lefty today.
3. As for the NCAA winner, a cautious fellow could draw up a list: Memphis State, Tulsa, Georgetown, North Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, De Paul, Oregon State, Louisville and Minnesota.
Throwing caution aside, the list narrows to four teams: Georgetown, North Carolina, Kentucky and De Paul.
Getting ahead of April Fool's Day, a guy says: North Carolina.