This is 4 in a series of 10 early-season essays.
With five seconds remaining in overtime, the home team was down by a single point. A packed and sweltering arena roared. The wise old coach, a veteran of these tense situations, quickly drew up a play during the final timeout and sent his charges back onto the floor.
As the pass came in from midcourt, the defense arranged itself, doubling down to eliminate the home team's post force. The star forward took the ball near left elbow-extended, drew a second defender of his own, and the inbounder streaked all alone towards the basket. The ballhandler - three open men around him - ducked his shoulder into the double-team, swung his elbows menacingly, and finally forced up a weak heave-ho as the horn blared. As the visitors' reserves spilled out from their bench to celebrate their win, the shooter groused to the officials, exasperatedly demanding an explanation for the no-call, his arms wide open.
You might have guessed by now, but the action described above is the last play of Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals: San Antonio's OT win over Detroit, the tiebreaking swing game in basketball's most prestigious championship, a series that had featured seesaw blowouts in its previous four games. Ask almost anybody without a rooting interest (at least, anyone who voluntarily tuned into one of the lowest-rated series in NBA history), and they'll agree... it was damn boring.
So what is good basketball? Is it the best players at the highest level, with the most proverbial marbles at stake? The current state of The Association - a league of millionaires with the finest talent in the entire world at its disposal - doesn't offer much support to that particular theory. The new NBA offers 40-minute scores in 48 minutes, and routine 35% team shooting performances - many in the face of pylon-like defensive pressure. I've found myself falling asleep at 8 or 8:30 during the past week, helped along by the League Pass free preview.
But many college hoops fans still use the high-falutin exclusionary approach when deciding how to follow the game. Brand names are the rule: Georgia Tech
is worth the time, while Georgia State
isn't; one Big East goes for approximately 4.25 Big Wests.
It's worth a reminder that basketball is a cumulative sport, not a deductive one - despite media-driven appearances, there is nothing in the rules about chasing perfection. You don't win by transcending the physical plane or approaching some sort of glowing god-state, but instead by using the tools at your team's disposal effectively and amassing more points than the other guys. All games, whether they be elementary school or summer rec-league or NBA, start at 0-0.
So I'd like to put forward the radical idea that the ingredients of a truly good basketball game are simple: two evenly-matched sides. If the two participating teams' strengths and weaknesses balance each other out, the payoff for two hours' worth of fan attention is often at its maximum: a down-to-the-wire finish, perhaps even an outcome that hangs on a final shot. NBA snoozefests notwithstanding, everyone loves a buzzer-beater.
As I often noted last year, the Southwestern Athletic Conference had the lowest average margin of victory (7.8 points) and had the lowest percentage of 15+ point blowouts (8%) of any Division I conference. Their reward for providing competitive, exciting basketball? Empty gyms, a basement-level league RPI and a quick exit in the NCAA play-in game.
By most standard measures, the teams in the SWAC play "bad basketball." Granted, the relative frailties of Alabama A&M
are quite evident when they venture outside their safe and cozy SWAC world, but you won't find as many turnovers, fouls or floor-scrambling as you'd expect to find in low-grade hoops. If you have a good cable or satellite provider, this winter you can find out for yourself.
But most, of course, won't. Two years ago, I went to a bank-sponsored December doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. The first game, played in front of a capacity crowd of 19,763 and televised by ESPN, featured two highly-ranked teams - Duke
- in a game that the Blue Devils quickly ran away with. The second matchup was Richmond vs. Manhattan, and as those teams warmed up, thousands and thousands of fans clogged the elevators and headed out into the streets. By halftime of a game between two perfectly-matched future Tournament teams (one making it to the Round of 32), there were a couple thousand diehards sprinkled about the lower bowl.
I guess it's all a matter of what people are looking for in their basketball, but the self-directed question doesn't seem to be asked that often. Fans of American Football don't seem to have this attention deficit - many of them seem to be able to dial up any game, whether it be the Super Bowl or Tire Bowl or a regular-season NFL Europe game, and somehow find something to engage them for hours at a time. So should it be for us.
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