Recently, a young man named Jack Taylor scored 138 points in a Division 3 college basketball game for Grinnell College in a 179 to 104 victory over Faith Baptist Bible College. Taylor’s mind boggling performance was even more shocking when taking into consideration the gradual reduction of points the game of basketball has been subjected to the last several decades. Points just seem to be harder to come by at every level. So, it begs the question, “What happened?”
To put the problem into perspective, let me take you back a few generations. Points in basketball actually began to explode in the 1950’s. Bevo Francis (Rio Grand) and Frank Selvy (Furhman) both scored over 100 points all by themselves for their respective colleges in that decade as scoring totals in basketball began to dramatically rise across the board.
That trend continued into the 1960’s, the decade when I began to play basketball seriously. I can still remember where I was the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points all by himself for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962. NBA teams routinely scored over 120 points a game and usually had three and four players who averaged over twenty points a contest. The NCAA statistics also reflect the abundance of scoring by both individual and teams. John Wooden’s UCLA squads consistently averaged over 90 points a game in that decade. In the late 1960’s Pistol Peter Maravich averaged over 44 points a game for LSU in three consecutive seasons.
High school basketball also benefited from the explosion of points. Continental defeated Perry 130 to 91 in a 1970 game. While scoring 90 points in a game was not routine, it wasn’t the rarity it is today. In the 1973-74 season, Wapakoneta St. Joe High School scored over 100 points nine times and averaged 90.1 points a game while giving up over 80 points a contest. These scores were by no means the norm, but you get the point. The scoreboard was lighting up a lot more in that era.
So how do we account for the gradual reduction of points scored in basketball in the last couple of decades? Of course there is no single reason that can explain the decline, but I am going to give it a try. I think I know the culprit.. His name is Robert Montgomery Knight!
Bobby Knight became the head basketball coach at West Point in 1965 at the tender age of twenty four. West Point was a team possessing limited talent and size but blessed with the passion and motivation to go to extraordinary lengths to please their young zealot of a leader. Coach Knight knew that he did not have the kind of players who could compete with the best basketball talent in the country so he turned to the defensive end of the court and placed an emphasis on it that would pay dividends and impact basketball everywhere. Knight’s brand of defense was physical and relentless. At the same time, Knight married his defensive philosophy to a passing game at the offensive end of the floor. His offensive style slowed the “pace” of the game and turned most of his battles into half court wars that Knight approached with the skill and planning of a five star general. Under his leadership, Army’s basketball team began to win and Knight’s success drew the attention of the entire basketball world.
In 1970 Indiana University had the good sense to hire Coach Knight to revive their basketball fortunes. He brought along his philosophy and within two years he had the Hoosiers in the final four. He would eventually win three national titles at Indiana and assume the mantel as the best coach in the game of basketball.
Knight’s defensive and offensive philosophy spread around the country quickly. Good coaches are all copycats and Knight’s emphasis on defense and preparation was the mantra in this era. Knight provided the coaching world with a blueprint on how to frustrate and limit an opponent’s scoring. His vision was embraced by a generation of coaches, including this young coach, and I believe it is one of the key reasons points began to decline in the game of basketball.
Knight’s emphasis on planning and physicality were the keys to his success. The loser in all of this was not only Knight’s opponents, but fans who loved scoring and a fast paced game. Slowly, even officiating began to convert as defenders routinely placed their hands on opponents and the strength of an athlete became nearly as important as their speed and skill. I can still hear Coach Bob Arnzen, Delphos St. John’s legendary coach, complaining about how the “physicality of the game” was ruining basketball.
Ron Niekamp, the recently retired coach of Findlay University and, in my opinion, the best basketball coach of his generation in this area, recently expressed a similar concern. When I asked him about the physicality of today’s game, he pointed out that the battle of “Bigs” in the paint area is now similar to line play in football. I do not envision that we will ever go back to the hands off basketball but, as athletes continue to become stronger, it will have to be seriously addressed.
In every year I coached, the season began with a required meetings for both coaches and officials. At that meeting we heard that a point of emphasis for officiating would address the physicality of the game. Through scrimmages, that kind of play was penalized, but as the season progressed it would slip back into the game and was eventually ignored. Indeed, there is a rule of thumb that has proven true over the years. The deeper a team goes in the post season tournament, the more physical the game becomes and if your team can’t adjust to that reality, you are not bringing home any state titles. I can personally attest to that premise.
But there is hope on the horizon and it’s not the shot clock. As Bobby Knight and his brand of basketball slowly fades into the sunset, enter Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the new genius in the game of basketball. Krzyzewski, a former point guard for Coach Knight at West Point, has his Duke Blue Devils running at breakneck speed, firing up threes, and still playing great defense. Coach K’s style of play is spreading around the basketball world and the “pace” of the game is accelerating.
We may never get back to the high scoring romps of yester-year but I believe we are slowly headed back in that general direction.