Saturday, November 30, 2013

Penetrating Guards

Growing up in NYC, the acme of viewing pro basketball happened for me during 10th grade, 1969-70, when the Knicks won the championship.  That team was special because of its style.  Every one of the starters could really shoot.  Willis Reed was under sized at center, but an incredibly good player.  The forwards, Dave Debusschere and Bill Bradley, could bomb them in from way out, this well before the three pointer had been implemented.  Debusschere was also a fierce rebounder while Bradley was a man in motion on offense.   The guards each had their unique style.  Dick Barnett, the shooting guard, kicked his legs back on his jump shot in a way different from any other player.  It seemed awkward but he was remarkably accurate with his shot.  Walt "Clyde" Frazier was the point guard extraordinaire.  When you think of him you think poise, particularly in how still he could be sitting on the court after a foul or other break in the action.  Frazier could do it all - pass the ball, shoot it, and dribble drive.

Because every position was a threat to score "hit the open man" became the obvious mantra.  The players were all unselfish.  The ball moved around a lot and bad shots were rarely taken.  Frazier's drives to basket happened out of taking advantage of the defense, which had spread out to guard all these good shooters.  This left openings for driving the ball.  With both the threat to drive and the threat to shoot the jump shot, the defense seemed on its heels.  For me, this vintage of the Knicks will always stand as the definition of team.

The Knicks defense too was team oriented.  They were under sized and not particularly good at rebounding.  So they needed better floor play on defense and to generate a lot of turnovers.  Walt Frazier had very good hands and could get a lot of steals on his own.  The other players were excellent at setting traps and got turnovers that way.  The Knicks were hard to score against.

The second team may have had more personality, if less of a team orientation.  Cazzie Russell was my favorite.  He liked to shoot it and had a deserved reputation for instant offense.  Nate Bowman was built more like a center than Willis was, so the Knicks could have a real man in the middle if needed.  Then there was a young gangly player nicknamed "Action Jackson" who would stir things up, though in advance you didn't know how.

Basketball is no longer played this way, though the European teams perhaps come closer to the Knicks ideal than American teams do.  Some of the changes in the game stem from changes in sports generally, particularly the increased importance of weight training.  Another explanation, one where I don't really understand the cause, appears to be the decline in outside shooting, even as the three pointer has elevated in importance.

* * * * *

Since coming to Illinois in 1980, I've watched much more college basketball than the pros, and mostly Illini basketball.  I did like the Knicks when Bernard King was in his heyday, although the hated Celtics had their number.  And I did root for some of the Patrick Ewing teams, with John Starks at shooting guard, though that was at the time when the Bulls reigned supreme.  Since then, it's pretty much either been college hoops or no hoops at all.

My favorite Illini team was the 1983-84 club, the one that made it to the Elite Eight in a game against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.  This game is infamous for a call made with less than 20 seconds left, where it appears that the Kentucky player, Dickie Beals, had traveled but the Illini player, Bruce Douglas, was called for a foul.  That was a ballgame.

The Illini team that year was the closest to the Knicks ideal team I've sketched above.  It had very good outside shooting, from Doug Altenberger and Quinn Richardson.  Bruce Douglas, though not a good shooter was like Walt Frazier in other respects - passing the ball and on defense.  Efrem Winters was the inside scoring threat and and extremely exciting player to watch on the alley-oop.  And George Montgomery, who had seemed a bit of a clown earlier in his career, became a very good defender and excellent rebounder.  This team was another where it was better than the sum of its parts.  Both Douglas and Winters were invited to the Olympic trials (Bobby Knight was the coach that year) but neither made it.  And both kind of plateaued as players after that.

Many other people of my vintage will favor the Final Four teams - I went to Seattle in 1989 to see the Flying Illini lose to Michigan in the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament - or the 2004-05 vintage that was number 1 for much of the season - I was at the Assembly Hall when we completely outplayed Wake Forest to take over the number 1 slot.  That team which Bill Self recruited but Bruce Weber coached had a lot of talent, particularly at the guard spot.  But I still like the 1983-84 club best because while that team won a lot it never seemed that one player on the team could do it alone and because that team seemed to over achieve.

* * * * *

I want to turn to the current vintage Illini team which barely got by IPFW last night.  It was actually an exciting game - the opponent a worthy adversary, in spite of being a school I never heard of before.  But the playing style was much different from what I sketched above and much different from how last year's team played.

First let me make some general observations about college basketball these days.  Whether this is due to the recent rule changes, with hand checking disallowed and block/charge calls meant to now favor the offensive player, most defenses seem to do the following.  The player with the ball is closely guarded.  If there is one shooter on the other team who is proficient from the outside, that player may be trailed fairly tightly.  Each of the remaining three defenders play well off their man and clog the lane.  This seems to be the norm to me.  It means that zone and man-to-man are much less distinct than they used to be.  It also means that if either a guard does penetrate the lane or a big man receives a pass into the post, that player will be hacked at by several defenders.

This leaves the game in the hands of the refs - no call if the hack was all ball or ruled incidental contact, and a foul otherwise.  It may have always been such, but fouls used to go mainly against the on ball defender.  Now they frequently are against another player who has taken a swipe at the player with the ball.  I'm convinced that most of time time the players can't tell a foul or not when in the act.  This is because there is plenty of contact even during the no-call situation.

The Illini are led by two guards - Rayvonte Rice, who is listed at 6'4" but I'd guess is an inch or two shorter, and Tracy Abrams, the point guard.  Both are incredibly strong.  Both get most of their points on drives to the basket.  Abrams will occasionally dish off to a teammate during a fast break.  But in the half court, he almost always calls his own number on these drives.  Since one or the other of these players have the ball most of the time, there is a lot of one-on-one basketball.  Teamwork comes in via screens before the shot and offensives rebounds for put backs after the shot.

Abrams is particularly proficient at the following.  If he gets the defender leaning one way he will drive the other way, though he clearly prefers to drive to his right.  He doesn't try to get by the defender most of the time.  Rather what he wants is for the defender to be at his side, out of position to take a charge.  Then when close enough to the basket Abrams will initiate contact by leaning in with his shoulder.  The result will either be a potential three-point play or Abrams going to the line to shoot two.  The contact seems pretty violent on the replay.  Abrams goes in very hard.  He has remarkable body control after the contact and gets the shot off in a manner unlike how I was taught to shoot a layup when I was in high school, where contact wasn't part of the equation. 

The last two Illini games, both of which I've watched, have been compelling because they were tight contests with the outcome in doubt till the very end.  But there is little to no sense of the whole as bigger than the sum of the parts.  Perhaps Coach Groce could educate fans like me on the virtues of screening and offensive rebounding and that the team concept can be seen more in the off-the-ball play than elsewhere.  In the meantime, it sure looks like one-on-one play to me.

I don't yet comfortably know the Freshman players.  There is some talent there and one or two guards who may be more assist-oriented than Abrams.  By mid season it may be that Abrams is moved to shooting guard and Rice to small forward, in effect a three-guard lineup, to help bring the big men more into the offense as scoring threats.  But right now the team is not all that proficient when one of Freshmen takes over at the point.  Rice and Abrams are more reliable scorers.

The team is undefeated, but the quality of the opponents will increase from here on out and many of the Illini's games in December will be on the road.  One wonders whether an offense built around Rice and Abrams, where each calls his own number, can work against better teams.  One also wonders, even if the two guards can remain effective in December, what happens to the team play if one or both of these guards gets into foul trouble.

One-on-one play is much less compelling to me as a viewer if the team doesn't seem all that competitive that way.  In the AP poll there are currently 5 Big Ten teams in the top 25.  In the Coaches Poll there are 6 (Indiana sneaks in at number 25).  Four out of the remaining six pre-season games for the Illini are against big-name schools.  I will watch those games, out of curiosity and fan loyalty.  How we do in those games will impact whether I continue to watch the team regularly during the Big Ten season. 

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