Okori Wadsworth: How to Solve College Basketball’s Offensive Dilemma


As the Final Four approaches, there are several questions people want to ask. Who will win the National Championship is one. Another is who will come out with the highest draft stock between Jahlil Okafor of Duke and the two-headed big man combination of Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky. That’s not the question that keeps me up at night.

The question that keeps me up at night, and causes me to worry about the future of this sport is: Why is college basketball such a defense-first game?

This problem has been the dirty little secret of college basketball for as long as I’ve been alive. The guys who run-and-gun on the college level no longer exist. There are no more Loyola Marymounts, or UNLVs who play above-the-rim and routinely score a lot of points.

The reason for that is the same reason March Madness is so much fun. College basketball is increasingly governed by schools we don’t hear about except for a couple of weeks in March. As you might expect all of those schools want to create as good a chance for themselves to win as possible.

Because to run the internationally-influenced offense the Spurs run, or the “pace and space” stuff the Hawks and Warriors run, you need a lot of talent to do a lot of things. While it might be possible for Kentucky and Duke to use bits and pieces from that, making themselves massively exciting and difficult to beat, everyone else doesn’t have that luxury. If you’re a team like Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans you have to try to figure out how to do something to keep yourself in the ballgame.

So what do you do if you find yourself playing against a dominant #1 seed like Duke, Kentucky or a fully-powered North Carolina? You try to take away the talent’s advantages. You focus on playing relentless defense by fouling so much that the referees can’t possibly call all of it and use the boogeyman of “offensive efficiency” to make sure you can limit the number of possessions. Hell, if you’re Bo Ryan, you can go to back-to-back Final Fours without ever having an offense that moves past “dull but effective”.

But this isn’t a now problem. It’s been something that’s been going on, even with coaches we all venerate and admire for their historical accomplishments.

Since John Wooden retired from UCLA, the pre-eminent coaches in every era have been defense-first. With small changes for tone and style, John Thompson and Bobby Knight coach the same way. Close your eyes right now, reader of this article. Tell me the great offensive team those great coaches had, or the theories of offense they propagated that stay with us today. I’ll wait.

Of course, if I asked you what their true contributions to basketball were, you’d tell me their defensive intensity. Simply put, you don’t think of the Georgetown Hoyas under John Thompson without thinking of how well they defended and how important defensive principles were to him.  You think of Bobby Knight and you think of how efficient they were, not how explosive or innovative they were.

This is especially galling considering Bobby Knight was a master in teaching the motion offense, which is still used to this day. For his part, John Thompson played with the Boston Celtics who created the first (and possibly still most devastating) fast break led by one of the game’s pre-eminent outlet passers in Bill Russell. The idea that he never tried any of this when he routinely had an elite center during the peak of his powers is frankly stunning, but not surprising considering that a Google search for what his offensive philosophy was reveals more about what his son is doing now than anything he actually did.

Now if I asked Mr. Knight or Mr. Thompson why it was they coached this way, the answer they’d give me would be telling: “Because we needed to win games.”

It’s true. Playing rock-ribbed defense and limiting the amount of mistakes your team makes does win games, but it doesn’t develop players, create fully-realized talent or do any of the other things we expect coaches to do.

It didn’t use to always be this way. John Wooden’s UCLA teams won more than any program has ever won anything. And they did it with style, grace, and fast-breaking when they could. Meanwhile, David Thompson and Pete Maravich were setting the sport ablaze at NC State and LSU, respectively.

But once John Wooden’s teams were done, a dynastic vacuum quickly appeared, since we all know nature abhors a vacuum, the defense-first programs that didn’t require a sui generis offensive star filled that vacuum.

The fix isn’t as easy as understanding where the problem comes from. It requires that the American basketball intelligentsia, who needed consecutive ass-whippings at a World Championships & an Olympic Games before we realized our system for picking our Olympic Team needed changing, to again look at the way we’re doing things and realize we need a change.

It requires we shorten the shot clock from 35 to something more closely approximating the NBA’s 24-second clock.

It requires  we change the rules to create more offense, eliminating hand-checking and tightening up the requirements for charge fouls.

It means the rules committee — whose job it is to enact all these changes — needs to have a member whose job is to look out for the best interests of the game.

That one’s key because I struggle to wrap my head around the idea that anyone who was looking out for the best interests of the game, and not the interests of a team not stuffed with talent, would think that scoring routinely dropping is a good idea.

Of course, the biggest one is this: We need some NBA innovation to make its way to the college game.

Imagine if Mike D’Antoni had coached Texas with the ability to make whatever offense he wanted without having to worry about how a star veteran player felt about it. What could he have done. With Kevin Durant? The mind boggles and the pulse quickens.

But we know it won’t happen. Worse still, we know exactly why it won’t happen.

As long as we have college coaches who need to win more than they need to make every player the best that they can be, we’ll have this problem.

As long as the rules are such that turning every game into a rock fight is a beneficial strategy, we’ll have this problem.

As long as we need to continue to hope for two magical weeks every March to eliminate the aftertaste of the games before it, we’ll have this problem.

We have to fix it or before too long, March Madness will not be as exciting as it could have been.

Comments are closed.