INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Rick Pitino watched in amazement as the Michigan Wolverines made 11 second-half 3-pointers, many from well beyond the arc.
The first comparison that came to mind was the Golden State Warriors.
“The amazing thing to me is you look at the size of the players that Michigan has, and they shoot it like backcourt players. That’s what’s really coming on,” Pitino said last weekend in Indianapolis, where the Cardinals were eliminated by Michigan. “I made a concentrated effort this past year in our recruiting to recruit bigs who could shoot because we don’t have bigs who can shoot now.”
Pitino can find the NBA’s influence on just about any college game.
The shot clock has been shortened, the 3-pointer has been embraced and everyone from 5-foot-6 Keon Johnson of Winthrop to 6-foot-10 Moe Wagner of Michigan seems comfortable shooting from long range. Scoring is up, defenses are being stretched thin and coaches are trying to adapt to change by recruiting bigger, better shooters and fewer true centers.
College basketball has its own version of small ball going these days.
The Wolverines are not small by any means, but all five starters and each of their top six scorers are capable 3-point shooters.
Disbelievers can rewind Friday’s 92-91, first-round victory over Oklahoma State, the game that caught Pitino’s attention. The Cardinals did a solid job in Sunday’s second-round game giving up only six 3s, though Wagner’s deep shot helped send Michigan to the Sweet 16 for Thursday’s Midwest Regional showdown against Oregon.
Style is only part of the ongoing change.
Two years ago, the NCAA approved a 30-second shot clock and followed the NBA’s lead by using timeouts called within close proximity of a media timeout as the scheduled stop. It also stripped a second-half timeout from teams.
The numbers reveal just how much and how fast things have changed.
Through the first two rounds of this year’s tournament, teams are averaging 74.22 points per game . If that average is maintained through the next four rounds, it would be the highest tourney scoring average since 1993 (74.31) and a 6.45-point per team increase over the 2015 average (67.77 ppg).
Last year, the first with the new shot clock, teams averaged 71.85 points in tourney play.
“I like it,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, whose head coaching career began before the shot clock or the 3-point line existed in college. “I think it would be very hard to play if you didn’t have shooters, though, because everybody would plug in there, and you wouldn’t have anybody open.”
High-scoring offenses are only part of the equation.
Pitino believes defenses are starting to add NBA staples, too. Instead of using traps and pressure to force turnovers, he said, many teams are simply trying to take precious seconds off the shot clock with “soft pressure,” a notion he advocated during two stints as an NBA coach.
Analytics, which Brad Stevens used heavily during his coaching tenure at Butler, has become a bigger part of the college game, too, and other changes could be on the horizon. Women’s teams already play four quarters rather than two halves, and the NIT is experimenting this year with resetting team fouls after each 10-minute segment of the game.
One thing Beilein and Pitino don’t want is the 24-second shot clock. But it’s become clear to many at all levels that today’s players are putting a pro-style stamp on the college game.
“There’s a trickle down,” said Utah Jazz coach Quin Snider, a former college coach and player. “I think some of it has to do with the fact the NBA is so widely covered now. There’s so much NBA basketball on television — younger players see it. They idolize guys, they try to emulate them. That process takes place and I think it’s the same thing with coaches.”
Perhaps that’s why Beilein and Pitino have been so successful adapting. With a track record of developing NBA-ready players, the two longtime coaches have become the faces of embracing change.
“It’s probably more like the games in the ’60s right now with Rudy T. (Tomjanovich) and Calvin Murphy and Bob Lanier and Pete Maravich than it is to what we saw in some periods of the 44-42 game earlier on,” Beilein said. “It’s becoming more like football every day with the way people can move people around and give different looks and do the same thing. Your kids have to recognize it without huddling up every 30 seconds. It’s opened up this game.”
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