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March 8, 2012
By Bill Hass
ATLANTA (theACC.com) - If you're a fan of the ACC in particular and college basketball in general, one trend probably caught your attention this year.
Scoring is down.
It used to be common for both teams to score in the 70s, or for one team to even reach the 80s. Now it seems scores in the 60s are more the norm, and the ACC has seen its share of games this season with both teams in the 50s and even a few in the 40s.
So what in the name of David Thompson and Michael Jordan is going on?
It has to do with familiarity, preparation and recruiting, among other factors.
"First of all, coaches can see everybody," said long-time TV analyst Dan Bonner, who played at Virginia in the 1970s. "You see everybody all the time, you watch it on tape, you break down the tape, the plays, everything everybody is doing.
"The second thing is when a coach recruits a player, the first thing he looks at is `who can he guard?' So, unlike 40 years ago when I was involved and we could score in the 80s without a 3-point line and without a shot clock, you've got guys who are really, really good athletes in terms of being quick and strong, being able to move laterally very well, being fast, and that makes them much better defensive players.
"When you combine the fact that everybody knows what everybody else is doing and you've got these guys who are recruited because they have the potential to be outstanding defensive players, I think that causes the scoring to go down."
Clemson coach Brad Brownell, after the Tigers' practice day Wednesday, agreed with Bonner on both counts.
"I do think there's a tendency to recruit guys that are a little more athletic and can defend and rebound for sure, and then on offense you keep working with them to get better and better as they get older.
"The game is more physical, it's less free-flowing and coaches are more upset these days about giving up a basket. Preparation is probably better now, too. Every game is on TV, everybody knows everybody inside and out, and it's hard to come up with new things to get easy baskets more than once or twice a game."
Brownell said the influx of new coaches in the ACC - four this season and three last season - has had an impact because many of them come from the Midwest, where the game is a little slower and that's just the way they coach.
Clemson's game against Virginia Tech Thursday night in the ACC Tournament went pretty much according to form as far as the score was concerned, but it was the Hokies who came out on top 68-63.
Seth Greenberg's club advanced to Friday's 7 p.m. quarterfinal game in Philips Arena, where it will play No. 2 seed Duke. The Hokies lost twice to Duke in the regular season, 75-60 at home and then 70-65 in overtime on the road in a game they had a chance to win.
"When you play Duke you've got to understand that they're going to draw a line in the sand each and every play," Greenberg said. "And you have to match their competitive spirit before you can even worry about playing basketball."
Virginia Tech trailed 35-30 at halftime but did a better job defensively in the second half, holding the Tigers to 36.4 percent shooting. Greenberg said the Hokies guarded the ball better and took away the Tigers' room-and-rhythm shots.
In the first two games of the tournament Thursday afternoon, both winning teams got their offenses going. Maryland finished with 82 points in beating Wake Forest by 22 and NC State hit 78 in a 21-point win over Boston College.
"It's a lot of fun when you've got people making 3s and making dunks in transition," said Maryland's Sean Mosley.
Mosley, a senior, said he noticed that scores are lower this season.
"People are making a big emphasis on defense this year," he said. "Defense wins championships and wins games, so I guess that's why a lot of people emphasize it."
In NC State's case, it knew Boston College was going to slow the tempo and run its offense, taking the shot clock down on many possessions. So what the Wolfpack did was make the Eagles pay for their turnovers, particularly early in the game. BC managed just six points in the game's first 10 minutes. State scored 20 points off turnovers, 14 in the first half.
"That was the main thing, force turnovers and try to get it up-tempo as much as we can and it worked for us," said forward C.J. Leslie. "It would have really hurt us if we had come out sluggish. I felt like the first five minutes we got it up-tempo a little bit and that really helped us."
Bonner said players don't have the basketball skills, especially shooting, that they used to. He said he was a good high school scorer but was told by Kentucky he didn't shoot well enough to play for the Wildcats. Nowadays, he believes, not being a great shooter wouldn't stop a coach from recruiting a player.
"There are more athletic skills than there are basketball skills," he said.
Another way the game has changed is its physical nature, which makes it harder to play offense. Bonner said it used to be that players could cut through the lane with no problem, but now they get bumped if they try, which throws off the timing of an offense.
Coaches don't want to give up easy baskets so they slow things down offensively and make sure they set their defense. Virginia, for instance, with its "pack line" defense, only surrendered 55.7 points a game in ACC play, lowest in the league by far.
"You let them set their defense, it's hard to score, I don't care who you are," Bonner said.
NC State will try to crack the Cavaliers' defense in Friday's 2 p.m. quarterfinal. The teams met once during the season, with Virginia winning 61-60 in Charlottesville.
"We've just got to stay disciplined and stay down for all 35 seconds on defense until the shot clock runs out or they miss," Leslie said.
Pack coach Mark Gottfried said the Cavs use a lot of clock and play low-scoring games almost every time out.
"Although some teams would want to speed them up, I don't know that that's necessarily easy to do," Gottfried said. "We just have to make sure however the game is played, when we get our opportunities to run they'll be there and when we're in the half-court we execute well there, too."
Maryland will play No. 1 seed North Carolina in the noon quarterfinal. The Tar Heels look to push the ball at every opportunity, and they beat Maryland twice, 83-74 and 88-64.
"We're going to try and see where we can make some adjustments as far as slowing them down in transition, running back on defense and making them beat us in the half-court, set," Mosley said.
Bonner said the Tar Heels have traditionally used an up-tempo style. But they used to do it by pressing, trapping and stealing the ball for easy baskets. Now they rely more on their big men, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, who can trigger a fast break with a rebound and an outlet pass or with a blocked shot.
So what has been the reaction of fans to lower-scoring games? Bonner said he has gotten some negative feedback but believes most fans are more interested in winning rather than how many points their team scores.
"One of those 51-50 games is terribly exciting and wracked with tension," he said, "and I don't think people care that the score isn't 81-80."
Personally, he would like to see a little more offense and a little less physical play, but he remains a big fan of the college game. And ultimately, he believes, the pendulum will swing back toward offense, at least to some extent.
"Coaches eventually figure it out," he said. "Eventually, and I can't tell you when or what the key will be, the offense is going to push ahead and the defense is going to have to catch up."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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