That old Dublin spiritualist William Butler Yeats didn't know
much about college hoops, but he was right about one thing: The
center is not holding. The landscape recently has been littered
with the large carcasses of supposedly dominant pivotmen who
have failed to lead their teams to the Final Four, never mind a
championship. And as we head into the 1997-98 season, the first
one in five without Wake Forest's Tim Duncan, the Center Who
Stayed, the talk is of guards and forwards. Especially guards.
Quick, athletic, NBA-type slashing guards such as Arizona's
Miles Simon (page 96) and Texas Tech's Cory Carr. Sharp-shooting
guards such as Duke's Trajan Langdon and Purdue's Chad Austin.
Classic quarterback guards such as Rhode Island's Tyson Wheeler,
Clemson's Terrell McIntyre, Eastern Michigan's Earl Boykins and,
of course, Mike Bibby, Simon's Wildcat running mate. And even
muscular swingmen who can step out to the perimeter, players
such as 6'6" Vince Carter of North Carolina, 6'7" Matt Harpring
of Georgia Tech and 6'9" Pat Garrity of Notre Dame.
Of the 25 players listed as preseason favorites for the Wooden
Award, which goes to the nation's top player, 13 are guards, and
only four are centers. And the most realistic candidate of those
four big men, Kansas's Raef LaFrentz, is a mongrel in the
Christian Laettner/Marcus Camby mold: a 6'11" player who will be
just as comfortable--probably more so--facing the basket and
playing power forward in the NBA.
"My feeling is, a quick, athletic kind of player will give a
seven-footer more trouble on one end than the seven-footer can
create on the other," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. Indeed,
Olson's sleek, compact Wildcats machine--with interchangeable
perimeter pieces, athleticism and speed at every position and
with no true center--is the showroom model that has everyone
oohing and aahing right now. Says Fresno State's Jerry
Tarkanian, "Any coach in the country would rather have a quick
guy than a big, slow guy."
But it's not just big, slow centers who have failed to make the
ultimate impact on the college game of late. Duncan, after all,
was mobile, athletic, brainy enough to dictate tempo and good
enough, we might add, to be starting alongside David Robinson on
the San Antonio Spurs this year. But Duncan never took Wake
Forest to the Final Four and even lost to Stanford--led by
quicksilver 5'10" guard Brevin Knight--in the second round of
last season's NCAA tournament. Shaquille O'Neal never led LSU to
the Final Four. Nor did Alonzo Mourning or Dikembe Mutombo do it
for Georgetown, even though both would go on to be NBA All-Stars.
Indeed, only one school in the past decade has built its offense
around a classic back-to-the-basket center and made it to the
Final Four: Oklahoma State, with Bryant Reeves, in 1995. Yes,
Eric Montross and Serge Zwikker of North Carolina were big
centers whose teams made the Final Four (Montross's won the
championship, in '93), but neither player was the focal point of
the Tar Heels' offense, as Big Country was for the Cowboys.
Reeves even broke a backboard while performing a Bunyanesque
dunk during a Final Four practice session in Seattle. That may
have been the last meaningful punctuation mark delivered by a
Did teams stop building around the classic center, or did the
big man turn himself into a vestigial organ, forcing coaches to
rely more on the little man's speed and quickness? It's a
difficult "chicken-or-the-egg question," as Iowa coach Tom Davis
puts it. But there's no doubt when the trend began: in the
mid-1980s, after Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas defeated Akeem
(now Hakeem) Olajuwon's Houston Cougars in the 1984 final, the
last NCAA championship showdown that revolved around two classic
The season after the Ewing-Olajuwon duel, college basketball
adopted the 45-second shot clock. The season after that, it
added the three-point line, a strip of paint 19'9" from the
basket. Together those two innovations changed the game.
Theoretically the three-pointer can help the big man, since it
forces the defense to guard the perimeter. For example, the
outside shooting of Oklahoma State's Randy Rutherford certainly
helped free up Reeves (and Reeves's inside scoring did likewise
for Rutherford). But gradually the three-point shot became a
seductive end in itself. Big men who once would have been
encouraged to learn a hook shot began drifting out to the
three-point ring. Laettner was the headline-grabbing prototype.
Teams such as Louisville and Georgetown fell behind the times
when they didn't attract quality three-point shooters.
Then the game got even faster. Beginning with the '93-94 season,
the rule makers changed the highest number on the shot clock
from 45 to 35. Say goodbye, setup offense. Say goodbye, big man.
A team that builds its offense around a classic center generally
requires more than 35 seconds to function effectively against a
zone defense. The post-up man needs time to get himself free on
the blocks, and his teammates need time to reverse the ball and
find the opening inside. It's an art and a science. Remember
Georgetown's offense when Ewing was at its center? Ewing would
work himself around the post area, holding up one long arm while
fending off a hefty defender or two with the other, demanding
the ball. Think of the Georgetown offense a decade later, with
the now departed Allen Iverson running it. Iverson is a gifted
guard, but even if he had known how to throw an entry pass into
the pivot, it's doubtful he would have deigned to.
Guards got so powerful in the college game that another rule
change has been made for this season. Actually, it's the return
of an old rule: Referees will again be whistling the five-second
call when a dribbler is closely guarded, meaning that ball
handlers can no longer stay out on the perimeter and monopolize
the offense. The intention of the call is to open things up a
little more, but its effect could be that the big man will be
taken even further out of the game. Now more guard types will be
needed to come to the perimeter and receive the ball before the
five-second whistle forces a turnover. At the same time, teams
will put a premium on applying that five-second pressure with
small, quick defenders. This will only add to the current
popularity of extended pressure defenses that disrupt offensive
sets and reduce the role of the big man. "On teams with only one
ball handler, that guy's going to have to give the ball up,"
says Arizona's Simon, "and with our quickness we're going to be
in the passing lanes."
Simon says, Think quick! And teams will. Coaches love trends,
and when teams such as Duke, Arkansas, Kentucky and Arizona
started succeeding by shooting threes and playing pressure D,
everybody wanted to do it. You'll see the same style this year,
and not just at Arizona. No one taller than 6'7" will be
starting at Louisville, where veteran coach Denny Crum says,
"We're going to try and play as fast as we can." You'll see it
at South Carolina, where the Gamecocks won an SEC championship
by going small with a three-guard offense last year, and you'll
see it at Florida, where, interestingly, coach Billy Donovan
feels that a small team can even have a rebounding advantage.
("It's hard to get a piece of a small guy," says Donovan, a
small guy who starred at Providence.) And you'll certainly see
it at Connecticut. "Just like Arizona had three guards, UConn is
going to have three guards," says Khalid El-Amin, a blue-chip
freshman point guard who signed on at Storrs despite the
presence of incumbent point man Ricky Moore.
The up-tempo, let's-get-small game has become so popular that
coaches are afraid to sell any other brand of snake oil. "You
tell players you're going to run," says SMU's Mike Dement,
"whether you do it or not."
Adds Rice's Willis Wilson, "If you say you're going to be a
ball-control, tempo team, people hammer you in recruiting."
Coaches claim that they have not abandoned the search for the
aircraft carrier, the USS Ewing that can power them to a
national title. But almost all agree that the classic big man,
conspicuous though he may be, is hard to find. "When you do have
big men, they're lumbering and awkward and take a long time to
develop," says Utah's Rick Majerus. And nowadays the NBA comes
along and plucks away a promising pivotman as soon as he begins
to lose that awkwardness.
Post players, who themselves have been seduced by speed and
three-point shooting, must share part of the blame for their own
reduced role. "The big man hasn't responded since the game was
taken away from him," says Bill Walton, a classic center who won
two NCAA championships with UCLA in the early '70s. "When I was
growing up, I wanted to be like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain
and Lew Alcindor. Today's big kids have Larry Bird, Magic
Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan as their models, even
though their bodies and skill levels should tell them to be
somebody else." Somebody like, say, Walton, a not particularly
fast 7-footer who became a versatile giant while playing with
his back to the basket.
Then, too, some college teams have erred by cutting their own
big people down a peg. It's one thing to rely on three-point
shooting and quickness when you have players like Simon and
Bibby, or like Tony Delk and Antoine Walker, who led Kentucky to
the NCAA title in 1996. It's quite another when you have a
player like, say, Georgetown's Victor Page, who was unreliable
as both a shooter and a slasher before leaving school early. No
coach has had more success going small and quick than Duke's
Mike Krzyzewski, and we think he'll be successful again this
year (page 104). But Coach K's decision to sit 6'10" center Greg
Newton toward the end of last season and use a lineup that
averaged just 6'5" may have hurt Duke in the second round of the
NCAA tournament, where the Blue Devils were badly outrebounded
in a loss to Providence.
Look for a few trend-bucking teams this season. Wake Forest,
where coach Dave Odom brought in three big men all over 6'8",
promises to be more physical and will try to win by going big.
So, perhaps, might Kentucky. The return of Jamaal Magloire and
Nazr Mohammed and the addition of freshman Michael Bradley
(6'10" centers all) has new coach Tubby Smith talking about "a
twin-tower situation" that might slow down the 40-minute track
meets the Wildcats ran under coach Rick Pitino.
By and large, though, expect to see small and quick teams, teams
that play up-tempo offense and extended, aggressive defense,
teams that either don't have a true center or tell him to stay
the heck out of the way. "The way the game is played today,"
says Louisville assistant Jerry Eaves, "you're better off
without the big man."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG O'NEAL, MOURNING AND DUNCAN NOT ONLY DIDN'T WIN ANY NCAA TITLES BUT ALSO DIDN'T GO TO A SINGLE FINAL FOUR [Drawing of Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan as giants being tied down by smaller basketball players]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON IN THE PRE-SHOT-CLOCK ERA, EWING (33) AND OLAJUWON WENT TO SIX FINAL FOURS BETWEEN THEM AND WAGED A MEMORABLE WAR IN THE '84 TITLE GAME [Patrick Ewing and Akeem (Hakeem) Olajuwon]
COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER [Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)]
COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON WALTON, A TOWERING PRESENCE IN THE EARLY '70S, THINKS TODAY'S CENTERS ARE PARTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN DEMISE [Bill Walton in game]
The Changes Are in the Stars
A look at the winners of the Most Outstanding Player award at
the Final Four tells a lot about how the game has changed.
Before the introduction of the shot clock in 1985-86, centers
like Lew Alcindor (above) were more likely to dominate national
championship teams. Now shorter, quicker players are the stars.
Year Final Four MVP School Position
1967 Lew Alcindor UCLA Center
1968 Lew Alcindor UCLA Center
1969 Lew Alcindor UCLA Center
1970 Sidney Wicks UCLA Forward
1971 Howard Porter Villanova Forward
1972 Bill Walton UCLA Center
1973 Bill Walton UCLA Center
1974 David Thompson N.C. State Forward
1975 Richard Washington UCLA Center
1976 Kent Benson Indiana Center
1977 Butch Lee Marquette Guard
1978 Jack Givens Kentucky Forward
1979 Earvin Johnson Michigan St. Guard
1980 Darrell Griffith Louisville Guard
1981 Isiah Thomas Indiana Guard
1982 James Worthy N. Carolina Forward
1983 Akeem Olajuwon Houston Center
1984 Patrick Ewing Georgetown Center
1985 Ed Pinckney Villanova Center
1986* Pervis Ellison Louisville Center
The Three-Point-Shot Era
1987 Keith Smart Indiana Guard
1988 Danny Manning Kansas Forward
1989 Glen Rice Michigan Forward
1990 Anderson Hunt UNLV Guard
1991 Christian Laettner Duke Center
1992 Bobby Hurley Duke Guard
1993 Donald Williams N. Carolina Guard
1994** Corliss Williamson Arkansas Forward
1995 Ed O'Bannon UCLA Forward
1996 Tony Delk Kentucky Guard
1997 Miles Simon Arizona Guard
*45-second shot clock is introduced.
**35-second shot clock is introduced.