There are only two great plays: "South Pacific" and put the ball
in the basket.
--former coach and ref Charley Eckman
South Pacific closed on Broadway 42 years ago. From all
available evidence, the final curtain may also be coming down on
putting the ball in the basket.
That sound you hear across the land is not string music but
percussion quintets in dissonant concert. Take Connecticut's
Antric Klaiber, a 6'10" freshman whose given name bears a
disconcerting resemblance to Antarctic. He missed the first 20
shots of his college career before finally scoring on Dec. 30
against Hartford, and to do so he had to throw down a dunk.
Klaiber has a soul mate of sorts in Indiana senior center Todd
Lindeman, a 44.9% foul-shooter this season who clanged seven of
his eight free throws in a game against Michigan on Jan. 23. No
wonder NBA scouting director Marty Blake, who sees as many
college games as anyone, says, "Shooting is really awful. And
sometimes it's worse than that."
Worse than awful? That would be Temple against UMass last
Thursday, when the Owls missed 50 of their 63 shots, including
all 16 three-pointers that they attempted, in a 59-35 loss. And
Michigan State against Wisconsin on Jan. 17, when the Spartans
missed their first 13 shots and made only 4 of 26 in the first
half of a 61-48 loss. And Vanderbilt against Alabama on Jan. 3,
when Vandy, one of four teams to make at least one three-pointer
in every game since the shot was introduced in 1986-87, failed
to convert a three until 1:50 remained in the 80-71 loss--by
which time the team had bricked 19 consecutive treys. And
Morehead State, which lost to Kentucky 96-32 on Dec. 16 while
shooting ... brace yourself now ... 13.8%.
Sure, Morehead-Kentucky was a shameless mismatch, ugly from the
moment it was scheduled. So were Chicago State-Missouri (the
Cougars shot 26.2% in a 117-45 loss on Dec. 2) and
Cornell-Kansas (the Big Red sank 12.0% of its shots in the
second half of a 100-46 loss on Jan. 2). But even well-matched
opponents are laying bricks at a rate worthy of a Commodores
song. Maine and Vermont shot a combined 34.7% in the Black
Bears' 77-48 victory on Jan. 9, as the Catamounts' Eddie Benton,
the eighth-leading scorer in the nation going into the game,
went basketless in 10 attempts. New England winters can be cold,
but that was ridiculous. "I saw one game where a kid I was
scouting went 2 for 12, and the only two shots he made were
dunks," says Blake.
Shooting is so uniformly hideous these days that all this
off-the-marksmanship hardly seems to matter. Delaware shot 29.6%
against New Hampshire on Jan. 6 and won. Virginia beat Richmond
on Dec. 9, even though it shot 5 for 29 in the second half. Even
ball-control Temple--could all those 6 a.m. practices have left
the Owls permanently bleary-eyed?--has beaten a No. 1 team
(Kansas) and a No. 2 (Villanova) despite shooting a paltry 37.8%
from the field for the season.
Where are the shooters like Mike Evans, who, while playing guard
at Kansas State in the 1970s, launched 900 jumpers a day during
the off-season? Guys like UCLA's Lynn Shackleford, Providence's
Joe Hassett and George Washington's Brian Magid, who all had the
misfortune of playing pre three but whose classic jumpers bore
the mark of untold hours of careful nurturing? "The Rick Mounts
and the Austin Carrs don't exist anymore," says Pitt coach Ralph
Willard. "I went to the ABCD Camp [for top high school players]
this summer and after two days turned to someone and said, 'How
many three-point shots have you seen made?' The whole game for
kids is to take it to the hole and try to dunk on somebody."
Field goal percentages began to trace their nearly uninterrupted
decline a dozen years ago (chart, page 62). This season, when
the NCAA released its midyear statistical analysis of games
through Jan. 14, overall field goal shooting had fallen once
again, to 43.8%, which was the sorriest since 1968-69.
Three-point shooting, down every season since the trey's
introduction in 1986-87, is currently at a low of 34.1%.
Further, college players are making a mess of the most
controllable shot in the game. After topping out at 69.7% in
1978-79, foul-shooting declined steadily to 67.6% last year and
this season was down another full point at midseason to a
look-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth 66.6%. For the first time since
the '57-58 season, college kids can't even make two out of three
Guarded or unguarded, close in or far out, why can't Johnny
shoot? Theories abound, but most take into account some
combination of the following: the increase in three-point
shooting, a renewed emphasis on defense and the introduction of
the shot clock in '86-87.
During its first season the three-point shot constituted one of
every six field goal attempts. Now one of every 3 1/2 shots is a
trey. As three-pointers have become a higher percentage of total
shots attempted, overall field goal percentage has dropped
correspondingly. But the trey is a 19'9" chippie, usually taken
when the shooter is open--yet players barely make one of three.
And heavier reliance on the three-pointer should create scoring
opportunities inside, leading to improved two-point shooting
that would offset all those missed threes. Yet that's not what
Remember the "high-percentage shot" of which coaches once spoke
so reverently? It used to be taken from a spot close to the
basket. With the 20-footer suddenly considered a high-percentage
shot because of its increased value, defenses have adjusted.
"People who were once willing to give up outside shots to stop
people inside are defending perimeter shots much better now
because they have to," says Villanova coach Steve Lappas.
And they're doing so with a different kind of player. The trey
was supposed to put a premium on the guy with the pure jump
shot. It has, to be sure, but it has also spawned a
corresponding need for the raw athlete who can help out on
defense in the paint and still recover in time to man the
perimeter--and play the pressing, man-to-man defense preferred by
the tone-setting programs like Arkansas, Cincinnati, Georgetown,
Kansas, Kentucky and Massachusetts. "I've got 100 letters from
kids who can shoot the lights out, averaging 18 to 20 points a
game in high school," says Nevada coach Pat Foster. "But they
can't play at this level because they're not athletic enough. To
keep up you have to play a kid who may be a bricklayer but who
can play defense and rebound."
In the meantime, as teams try to run their offenses against
pressure D, they face the additional concern of the shot clock,
which was cut from 45 seconds to 35 starting with the 1993-94
season. St. Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour is normally the most
Job-like of coaches, but his legendary patience is limited by
the clock. "You used to be able to work until you got the shot
you wanted, maybe wait until the other team made a mistake,"
says Spoonhour. "Now you come down the floor, go from one side
to the other, and it's time to shoot. So now we shoot the first
clear look." And if a team doesn't avail itself of that first
opportunity, woe unto it. As Long Beach State coach Seth
Greenberg says, "Who in college has a lot of guys who can create
a good shot with five seconds on the clock?"
Combine a shot clock with pressure defense, and throw in the
temptation of the three-pointer, and gas gets sent to a game's
engine. Coaches can't exert their customary control. Under these
more hurried circumstances, more shots are let fly, and often
the wrong guys wind up taking them. And then, amid all that
sloppiness, there's a whistle, a foul ... quiet ... and more
rude noise in the form of a clanked free throw. Small wonder,
says UConn coach Jim Calhoun: "You've been running a 100-yard
dash, and then you're asked to play six bars on the piano of a
concerto by some great composer." Through last weekend 11 of
Iowa's opponents had shot less than 60% from the line this
season, a fact that sounds like a setup for a wisecrack about
the Hawkeyes' great free throw defense. In fact, 94-foot
pressure is a sort of free throw defense and deserves some of
But surely Johnny deserves some of the blame. Several years ago
during a preseason meeting, Louisville coach Denny Crum asked
his players how many had practiced free throws over the summer.
No one raised his hand. Has Purdue coach Gene Keady ever asked
his players that question? "Hell, no," says Keady. "I don't want
to get embarrassed. I know they didn't."
There's no excuse for the current state of free throw shooting.
"Why not become at least a 70 percent free throw shooter?" asks
Miami Heat scout Chris Wallace. "In what other sport can you pad
your scoring average that way? I mean, after a penalty, [Florida
quarterback] Danny Wuerffel doesn't get a free pass from the
50." Alas, players don't particularly want to be recognized for
shooting fouls anymore. Twenty points may look good in the box
score--but who nowadays even reads the newspapers in which box
scores appear? We're in the video age, and the goal is to make
film at 11 with as baroque a move as possible. As Utah coach
Rick Majerus points out, "When have you seen a 17-foot jumper on
As coaches around the country rue the endangerment of the jump
shot, they finger other culprits:
Malpractice. "To be a good shooter, all you have to do is
practice," says Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. "It doesn't
take any special talent." And few 18-year-olds these days take
the hundreds of thousands of 20-footers needed to eye it and
fly it with confidence. Same with free throws. "My son Jerry
holds the single-season free throw shooting record at Fordham,
at 87.7 percent," says Ernie Hobbie, a shooting coach known as
the Shot Doctor, whose kid was a guard for the Rams in the early
'80s. "If he missed a free throw during a game, he would not
leave the gym that night until he had shot 200 more. Who today
will do that?"
The NCAA limits practice time to 20 hours a week, so a coach
like Arizona's Lute Olson can't muster his team, which as of
Sunday was shooting 62.3% from the line, for remedial work. But
don't absolve coaches entirely; they allot those 20 hours as
they choose. "Coaches spend so much time on team offense or team
defense or putting in tricky plays," says Greenberg. "But a
tricky player is better. And the trickiest player is the one who
can put the ball in the basket."
Kids these days. "There aren't enough role players in our
society," says Fordham coach Nick Macarchuk. "Guys are taking
shots who shouldn't be. When I played, I knew I couldn't shoot.
Nobody had to tell me. So I got rebounds to help my team. Now if
I recruit a kid and say, 'I like the way you reverse the ball'
or 'You set good picks,' he's not going to come play for me."
The message from Michael. "Who's their main idol?" asks
Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "Michael Jordan. I tell players
who want to be creative like him, 'That's not creative, that's
impossible.' There's only one Michael. And they overlook how
strong he is in the fundamentals." Even Magic Johnson is more
workmanlike than his Showtime reputation might suggest. How many
kids know that he was an above-average 78.5% free throw shooter
as a freshman at Michigan State and then worked his way up to
91.1% by his 10th season in the pros. Asked how he did it, Magic
had a simple response: "150 shots a day."
The endless summer. As the most talented players go through
their mid-teens, they spend their lengthy off-seasons on the
cattle-call circuit of camps and tournaments, often in the
charge of thinly credentialed "coaches" who wouldn't know a
hitch in a shooting stroke from one on a trailer. "Everything is
up and down," says Clark Kellogg, the ESPN analyst who starred
at Ohio State in the early '80s. "There's never any time to stop
and work on individual skills. Even the camps have gotten that
way. When I went to camp, I'd say we spent at least 70 percent
of our time on fundamentals." Now, it seems, kids think
F-U-N-D-A-M-E-N-T-A-L-S is exactly nine letters too long. They
want to know one thing: "When are we scrimmagin'?"
Eight million mangled rims in the Naked City. As recruiters
mine the big cities for talent, they're signing kids steeped in
the style prevailing there today--a style that calls for taking
the ball hard to the hole. That hole, because of strapped city
budgets, is often a bent rim with no net. In the quiet of the
tidy parks and hermetic rec centers of suburbs and small towns,
by contrast, players have the luxury of honing their jumpers
under controlled conditions. This isn't a racial point; many of
the sweet shooters in the game today are black athletes, but
small-town ones: UConn's Ray Allen, Stanford's Dion Cross,
Kentucky's Tony Delk and Mississippi State's Darryl Wilson hail
from, respectively, Dalzell, S.C. (pop. 400); Woodson, Ark.
(pop. 300); Brownsville, Tenn. (pop. 10,019); and Kennedy, Ala.
Nineteen years ago, in this magazine's 1977 College Basketball
Preview, we remarked on the upward creep of shooting
percentages. "It seems everybody, everywhere, can shoot the
lights out," SI's Kent Hannon wrote, and he went on to quote
Crum as saying, "The day has come when great shooting can beat
great defense." But college basketball was an entirely different
game then, with no clock, no three-point arc and a pervasive
ethic of ball control--of working for the best shot possible, for
it would be worth two points regardless of whence it was
launched. This trend continued until 1983-84, when such
tyrannosaurs as Georgetown's Patrick Ewing and Houston's Hakeem
(then Akeem) Olajuwon prowled the college hoops landscape and
field goal percentage topped out at 48.1% (and, not
coincidentally, field goal attempts bottomed out at 111.1 per
game). The cognoscenti marveled at the Hoyas' ability to hold
opponents under 40% from the field. And then the clock and the
three-point shot changed the game forever.
It's worth asking: Does it really matter that the game has
turned to slop? College basketball is more popular and
unpredictable than ever, and--when three-pointers occasionally go
in--more exciting, too. But if Americans are to continue as proud
curators of the sport they birthed and popularized, they'll have
to do so without being the world's best at basketball's most
essential act, at least for now. "Shooting is all we practice,"
says 6'10" Gerrit Terdenge, a German who's now a freshman at
Fresno State. "All the European coaches, but especially the
Yugoslavs, stress that big players should be able to shoot like
During last July's Junior World Championships in Athens, the
flower of the college game's current youth, players like Georgia
Tech's Stephon Marbury, North Carolina's Vince Carter, Cal's
Tremaine Fowlkes and Louisville's Samaki Walker, represented the
U.S. and finished a dismal 4-4, placing seventh in the 16-team
field. Their 18- and 19-year-old peers from Australia, China,
Croatia, Greece, South Korea and Venezuela all fared better than
the U.S. in every shooting category: two-pointers,
three-pointers and free throws. "Overseas they play basketball
in its simplest form," says Oklahoma's Sampson, who coached that
U.S. team. "They penetrate and kick it out to the open man.
Their game is about making jump shots. Our players are more
athletic, so we do a great job of slashing to the basket and
making plays. But then, we're in-to degree-of-difficulty
basketball." And, one of these quadrenniums, witnessing some
Dream Team's nightmare comeuppance.
Chauvinistic Yanks once derided foreign players as "mechanical."
Americans should be so mechanical. It's no accident that coaches
refer to the elements of shooting as mechanics. "Shooting is a
con game," Hobbie likes to say. "Confidence. Concentration.
Control. Consistency. Conditioning."
What's a nation at risk to do? Convene a blue-ribbon commission
to study why Johnny can't shoot? Convert all bent or netless
rims to level, decently dressed ones? Convince ESPN to run clips
of each night's cleanest-swishing free throws? Consider awarding
four points for a 15-footer and only one for a dunk? Condemn
players who fail to take at least 500 practice shots a day to
watching Antric Klaiber and Todd Lindeman in a
sure-to-be-marathon game of H-O-R-S-E?
Whatever, let's do something--anything. Because right now one
word describes the substance coming off the fingers of
collegiate shooters: concrete.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH [Drawing of basketball players throwing bricks at basket]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH U.S. players are starting to lag behind other nations in shooting. [Drawing of U.S. basketball players holding bricks as basketball players from other nations shoot basketballs at basket]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH A shorter shot clock and more aggressive D are leaving shooters cold. [Drawing of basketball player attempting to shoot rectangular-shaped basketball over arms of opponents]
COLOR CHART: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH [Chart not available--line graph showing free-throw %, field goal %, and 3-point field goal % from 1980-1996]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTHOne coach likens foul-shooting to having to play a concerto after running a 100-yard dash. [Drawing of basketball player playing grand piano at free throw line]