The extended conference clan, including players and coaches, gathers only twice annually, at Operation Basketball at the dawn of the season and at the ACC tournament at the end. Media savants grace the early rendezvous with predictions about the year ahead. Usually they are misguided.
The region’s media members unsurprisingly selected Duke or North Carolina to finish atop the league standings all but twice over the past two decades, including the Blue Devils this season. Those teams usually win, but only about half of the time according to forecast. (The ACC explicitly considers the first-place finisher during the regular season the No. 1 team in tracking Operation Basketball voting.) Then there’s the ACC preseason player of the year. The 2018 choice is Notre Dame senior Bonzie Colson II; if that’s how things end up, he’ll be just the fifth accurate pick in this century.
The big topic of conversation at Charlotte’s Ritz Carlton Hotel last week was what ACC commissioner John Swofford called the charges of “truly disturbing” corruption shadowing college basketball. Writers embraced the theme, circulating through an interview room extracting recitations of weeks-old shock and earnest expressions of concern and consternation.
The scandal and alleged payments to secure players’ services caused many observers to renew calls to pay student-athletes. Judging by a random survey of those in attendance, that topic wasn’t at the forefront of most players’ minds. In fact, while asking players and a few coaches what rule, on or off the court, they would like to change, a writer found only Louisville’s Quentin Snyder interested in compensation. He volunteered that players should get something from “billboards” and jerseys sold with their name or likeness.
A few attendees looked beyond how the game is played. Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner and Notre Dame senior Matt Farrell wanted more regular-season games. Pastner sought to keep things fresh by playing 40 games compared to around 30 now. “I think we practice so much,” the coach said blasphemously. “I’d rather have less practice and more games.”
Boston College’s Jerome Robinson, 6-5 and 191 pounds, called for more group dining experiences. “I don’t think we can have enough team meals,” he said. Duke’s Grayson Allen wanted more authorized hours to work on his game with assistant coaches during the off-season. And Virginia Tech’s Justin Bibbs took exception to the rule requiring transfers to be shelved for a year. Six current Hokies were redshirted during their careers, most for medical reasons. “Sitting out a year sucks,” said Bibbs, who never suffered that fate.
Pace and physicality, and their intersection, were easily the most cited on-court concerns.
N.C. State’s Lennard Freeman, who is 6-8 and weighs 250 pounds, lamented that “the game isn’t as physical as it was.” He spoke fondly of the bruising style of the Detroit Piston “Bad Boys.” Senior Jonathan Milligan of Pitt, a fifth-year ACC member, also advocated physical play “like the old Big East.” He called for allowing players six personal fouls, one more than currently allotted. “It would encourage you to be a little bit more physical, especially a team like us,” Milligan said, a sentiment seconded by Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkens.
Many players were eager to speed up the game, and saw a corollary in allowing defenders more latitude. The Hokies’ Bibbs expressed approval for the Detroit model if it meant officials would quit whistling what he characterized as “ticky-tack” fouls. Loosening recently-adopted restrictions on hand-checking and arm blocks, and thus reducing foul calls, was a popular theme. Pitt’s Milligan went a step further, suggesting an NBA-like six personals per player. “I feel like now we should be making those transitions to making rules the same at every level,” he said, a prospect often advanced by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, among others.
The fact tighter enforcement was intended to promote players’ offensive freedom and increase scoring was cited as an advantage only by Syracuse junior Frank Howard. “I think the more athletic guys benefit more from the no hand-checking, and I think it can make the game easier for some guys,” he said.
Others saw the NBA’s 24-second shot clock, rather than the 30 adopted by the NCAA in 2015-16, as the best path to stimulating action. “Sometimes it’s just too much,” Florida State’s Braian Angola said of opponents’ possessions. “Teams hold the ball too long.” BC’s Robinson saw another way to speed things up, supporting the instant inbounding allowed in international play. “I like the FIBA take-the-ball-out-fast rule,” he said. “I’m a big soccer fan, so it’d be cool to have the quick transition. That would keep it going.”
As for a more physical style echoing the old Pistons’ tactics, Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie said modern post players make it passé. “Back then when the Detroit Pistons were playing, they had actual big men,” he offered. “The way the game is changing, guys aren’t as big and fat and slow. They’re more athletic.”
How, you might ask, are players so conversant with Detroit squads that played during the 1980s and early ’90s, before today’s college athletes were born? YouTube, explained Miami coach Jim Larranaga; videos feed a perpetual appetite for viewing NBA action. The last thing his players want to do, he lamented, is read.
A less historically-based stratagem touted by several players for changing the game was enactment of a four-point shot, used sparingly during the 2017 inaugural season of the Big 3 pro basketball league. Self-interest played a role in players’ advocacy. “Being able to shoot from deeper with so many guys who could shoot it so well on our team, it would help us,” volunteered North Carolina’s Luke Maye, counting himself as part of that contingent. “It would be pretty cool to have that opportunity.”
When it came to opportunity, Wake Forest coach Danny Manning had a unique take. He called for an end to a double standard in how the game is administered, contrasting the leeway allowed a shooter who struts demonstratively downcourt after making a 3-pointer with the strictures imposed on celebration by a post player.
“I think officials take away the joy of the game from big guys,” said the 6-10 former NBA all-star. “You’re going to ‘tech up’ a block or a dunk because he growled or said something?” Manning paused, laughing as he hit an arch note. “Then you look around and you see nothing but little guys officiating.”