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Original Issue

Time To Play Bombs Away

Despite confusion and controversy, experimental rules are giving major college basketball the scoring boost it wanted

Strange things are happening in college basketball this year. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith is telling his team it's O.K. to pull up on the fast break and take a jump shot. In one game, Virginia's Ralph Sampson grabbed an offensive rebound, dribbled away from the basket and tried a corner jumper rather than turn, dribble once and stuff. Generally speaking, in fact, the Atlantic Coast Conference, which used to have CAUTION, DON'T SHOOT stamped on its basketballs, has become a Spalding launching pad. Word is that World B. Free wants to be traded to Clemson.

Elsewhere in this season of widespread rules experimentation, Jacksonville University lost a game because Forward Tom Terrell wears size 19 sneakers. Officials are having frantic confabs as they seek unanimity on calls. What is this, the NFL? Three-point jump shots are being called both "home runs" and "hat tricks." What is this, major league baseball? The NHL?

Everybody has a one-liner on the three-point shot. Indiana's Bobby Knight: "The place for the three-point shot is between the reptile cages and the lion cages in the Lincoln Park Zoo." Maryland's Lefty Driesell: "I'm 51 years old and I can make that shot." North Carolina State's Jim Valvano: "My mama came out of the stands the other night and knocked in three of four from 19 feet."

As in any good drama, the rules changes have created heroes (e.g., Guard Scott Simcik of Alabama in Birmingham, who probably wouldn't be playing except for his 57.1% three-point shooting), villains (every official who has failed to recognize a three-point attempt) and tragic figures (Guard Dereck Whittenburg of North Carolina State who broke his right foot while attempting a three-pointer in the second half of a game against Virginia after he had made seven such shots in a 27-point first half). And for comic relief there's Terrell, the freshman with the oversized sneakers. Jacksonville Coach Bobby Wenzel thought for a split second that Terrell's buzzer-beater had sent his team into overtime against South Florida on Jan. 8, but the tips of Terrell's size 19s were judged across the line so the shot counted only two points instead of three. "If he had been a size 12, it would have been a tied game," lamented Wenzel.

Those are the kinds of wondrous things we've been hearing and seeing, and enough conclusions have been drawn already to permit an educated guess as to what will happen in April when the NCAA Rules Committee makes plans for next year. To the chagrin of traditionalists, there will be continued experimentation in 1983-84, but it won't include as many leagues as it has this year—12 of the NCAA's 29 major conferences. "If we made a mistake, it was in granting too many conferences the right to experiment," says Ed Steitz of Springfield College, editor and national interpreter of the NCAA Rules Committee. "Next year I think you'll see the committee minimizing the experimentation."

There will continue to be some variations in rules from conference to conference, but 1983-84 will not be the officials' nightmare that this season has been, with four different three-point zones and three different shot clocks in use. You can bet Ralph Sampson's NBA signing bonus that the 30-second clock used in the ACC and Ohio Valley Conference will be ditched (in favor of the 40- or 45-second clock), as well as the ACC's three-point distance of 17'9" from the top of the circle to the center of the basket. The most distant three-point line this season is in Big Sky country—how appropriate—where a 22-foot heave is required.

The ACC has been the focus of controversy because it adopted the most radical changes—the brief time span of a 30-second clock and the closest-in three-point line. Oddly, the ACC's penchant for freezing the ball had been the strongest reason for the experimentation in the first place. Now the conference is so permissive on offense that Jerry Falwell may well be planning an investigation. Jerry might want to start with the North Carolina-Virginia game of Jan. 15, which the Tar Heels won 101-95. Quite a contrast to the famous UNC-UVa stall-ball game of last year, which Carolina won 47-45.

Indeed, game scores last year in the ACC averaged only 118.5 points. Through 24 conference games played by last weekend, that figure had soared to 149.3, a 26.0% increase. According to the most recent NCAA statistics, scoring is up 14.1% in the four other conferences with both a shot clock and a three-point line. In the four with a line only, scoring is up 9.6%, and in the three with a clock only, scoring is up 6.2%. Among the rest of the Division I leagues and major independents, scoring is up 4.0%. Taken all together, standpatters and experimenters. Division I teams are averaging 142.6 points per game, an improvement of 7.3 points over last year's final mark, which was the lowest in 30 years. The offensive-minded rulesmakers are getting what they wanted.

Until he was hurt, N.C. State's Whittenburg was certainly doing his part for high scoring. At the time of his injury he had made 23 of 40 three-point attempts for a remarkable 57.5%. But not even Whittenburg approves of the ACC's dinky three-point distance. "Where it is now, it's become too big a thing in every game," says Whittenburg. "The three-pointer, as I see it, should be more of a factor in a close win, not in each game." You've just heard Exxon come out against corporate tax breaks.

However, the offensive uprising in the ACC does have its supporters, with Dean Smith hoisting the banner. While the game has changed profoundly in the ACC, it has not in conferences like the Big East, which adopted a 45-second clock and no three-pointer.

"I think that's what experimentation is all about, to see what's good for basketball," says Smith. "I believe these rules are good for the game."

But even if the scores are different in the ACC, the balance of power isn't. Versatile teams that can go inside or outside, or play up-tempo or slowdown, as North Carolina can, are winning. Weak teams that use the three-point shot out of desperation or necessity, such as Clemson, are losing. Strong teams that don't use the three-point shot, like Virginia, are winning. Confused teams that don't know how to use the three-point shot, like Maryland, remain confused.

But the experiments have made a difference in the standings elsewhere. Akron University was the projected pits of the eight-team Ohio Valley Conference, but it was tied for third place last Sunday, mostly on the strength of its three-point shooting. Led by Guard Joe Jakubick, who was 34 of 82, the Zips have attempted and made more three-pointers than any other team in the country. Jakubick is the country's second most prolific three-point scorer, trailing Georgia Tech's Mark Price (35 of 91) and leading South Alabama's Michael Gerren (29 of 60) and University of California-Irvine's George Turner (27 of 56).

On the other hand, defending PCAA champion Fresno State, which used its tough man-to-man defense and a possession offense to go 27-3 overall and 13-1 in the conference last year, has been hurt by that league's 30-seconds-past-midcourt clock; Fresno was 12-6 and 3-4 through last week.

And defenses have been changed by the three-pointer. In previous years, most teams sitting on a lead near the end of the game would go to a zone, much as NFL teams go to the "prevent." But this year man-to-man is still being played at the end because a three-point sharpshooter can put the opposition back into contention. The carefully crafted traditional defenses, such as Idaho's matchup zone that Coach Don Monson learned from Jud Heathcote, have had to change with the times, too. "We're in a defense that has been good to us for years and all of a sudden we're trying to protect against a three-point play and we're spreading ourselves out," laments Monson.

Surprisingly, though, there have been remarkably few games in which the outcome has turned on a three-point shot. North Carolina has benefited twice: Jimmy Braddock's shot beat Maryland 72-71 on Jan. 12 and Sam Perkins tied Wake Forest last week with 1:08 left while Smith was yelling for a time-out. The Heels then won 80-78 on two free throws. Occasionally the late moments of a game produce a no-guts, no-glory situation. Trailing Idaho 57-55 late in a Big Sky game on Jan. 13, Northern Arizona chose to go for a three-pointer and victory rather than the higher-percentage two-pointer for a tie. Rick Rodriguez missed the shot and Idaho hung on. Idaho, incidentally, has not made any of its seven three-point attempts this year.

The effect of the shot clock cannot be measured as neatly as that of the three-point basket. First of all, the most meaningless stat in all of this experimental business is how many times the shot clock expires. The answer is hardly ever. But so what? Even a team of eighth-graders would know enough to throw up some sort of shot with time running out.

It surprises no one that scoring hasn't changed dramatically in the three conferences (Southeastern, Southwest and Big East) that have only a shot clock. The time limit is 45 seconds in each of these conferences, and even the most conservative of coaches, like Fresno State's Boyd Grant, has said that a 40- or 45-second clock wouldn't change the game profoundly, though a 30-second one might.

Further, the clock has not made a big difference in field-goal accuracy. The prevailing theory was that, without a clock, teams had time to work the ball inside for the best possible shot. That was one reason shooting accuracy has been so high (around 48% the last five years).

This isn't to say, however, that the clock hasn't made any difference. Though college basketball remains a game of upsets, in experimental areas those upsets can no longer be achieved with the refrigerator. On Jan. 15 a fired-up Texas team shot out to a 10-0 lead over heavily favored Houston. "If it hadn't been for the clock," said Texas Coach Bob Weltlich, "we never would have shot the ball again." But shoot it they had to, and Houston won easily 77-52.

Defenses have changed, too, though not according to a set pattern. Clock opponents feared that teams would sit back in a zone because 1) the clock would not give the offensive team enough time to get a good shot and 2) an offensive team couldn't hold the ball to draw a defensive team into a man-to-man. Tennessee Coach Don DeVoe says this is exactly what's happening. "It's not as much fun coaching under the new rule," says DeVoe. "I felt all along the 45-second clock would take a lot of coaching out of the game, and it has."

On the other hand, some coaches are initiating more full- and half-court pressure to further limit the time an offensive team has to get into its pattern. But in the ACC, where one might have thought that defenses would have to change radically to adapt to more aggressive offenses, there have been only slight defensive adjustments. It's still basically a zone league, though the zones are playing tighter on the ball. That's because while the three-point shot begs for man-to-man coverage, the 30-second clock says zone.

Actually, a subtle rule change may have a greater effect in the SEC than the shot clock. The five-second close-guarding infraction, which used to force a jump ball if the offensive man did not make a move toward the basket, has been eliminated. Without that, strong point guards like Ennis Whatley of Alabama or Tyrone Beaman of Tennessee can almost single-handedly control tempo, clock or no clock. "Now we can afford to wait on something to open up inside," says Beaman. "I figure if we wait long enough, [Forward] Dale Ellis is going to shake loose sometime."

The most interesting theory about the clock is that it has helped the good rebounding teams. This is most prevalent in the SEC, where strong rebounders like Auburn and Florida are doing better than expected and a weaker rebounding team like Alabama is doing worse. It's based on the premise that a clock creates more possessions, more attempts, more misses and, thus, more rebounds.

The most obvious product of the clock and the three-point shot has been confusion. For one thing, the rules won't even be in effect during the NCAA tournament. For another, NCAA scoring averages count all field goals as two points in the ranking of individual scoring leaders. Charles Bradley of South Florida leads the country with a 28.9 average by the NCAA standard, but with full credit for his 24 three-pointers (in 48 attempts) his average is 30.2. But the confusion is most evident on the court: Did the clock run out or didn't it? Is that the three-point men's line you shot behind or the three-point women's line? Sorry, the scorekeeper missed the referee's three-point signal altogether.

There have been dozens of confirmed cases of experimental chaos, but none worse than what happened to Fresno State in its Jan. 22 PCAA game against UC-Irvine at the Anaheim Convention Center. Irvine was leading 74-71 when Fresno's Mitch Arnold made a three-point jump shot with 14 seconds left. Both officials signaled for three points, but the scoreboard operator was slow in recording the third point. Instead of a tie, the scoreboard had Irvine ahead 74-73 with time running out. Fresno's Tyrone Bradley glanced at the scoreboard, saw his team behind by one and fouled Irvine's Ben McDonald, who made two free throws to ice the win. Fresno Coach Grant was screaming at his team not to foul at the time, but Bradley didn't hear him.

Right about then, Grant felt as if the three-point shot was somewhere between the reptile cages and the lion cages. Maybe it should stay there.


In the eight conferences with shot clocks, long stalls are out and comebacks are in.


The ACC has the shortest three-point distance in the country, a mere 17'9" for shooters like N.C. State's Terry Gannon.


Bradley leads the nation with a 28.9 (30.2?) average.


Quick, Turner's open for a three-pointer.


Smith and Perkins are putting the new rules to good use.