KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Entertaining basketball ruled the 1988 Big Eight Tournament, just before that dazzling stretch that left three Big Eight teams in the Elite Eight and two in the NCAA championship game.
The seven winners that weekend at Kemper Arena averaged 85 points a game. OU beat Missouri 102-99 in a rousing semifinal, then bested Kansas State 88-83 for the title.
Don't expect to see the same this weekend. A quarter century later, the league has changed (Big 12), the site has changed (Sprint Center) and the rivalries have changed (no Missouri).
But the biggest difference is in style of play. College basketball has gone splat.
Earlier this season, Georgetown beat Tennessee 37-36. Miami led Maryland 19-14 at halftime. Arkansas led Vanderbilt 21-11 at halftime. Northern Illinois scored five points in the first half against Dayton in December, an NCAA record for futility that stood for a month — Northern Illinois scored four points in the first half against Eastern Michigan in January.
College basketball scoring last season was historically low: 68.0 points per game per team, the lowest since 1982, which was before implementation of the shot clock and 3-point line. And this season could challenge that futility.
So while some coaches still cling to the belief that their sport is exciting — “I don't think interest in our game has gone down at all,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. “I didn't know we had lost any of our luster.” – the opinion from all other corners is much different. Attendance, television ratings, water-cooler talk. All point to less interest in college hoops.
And Billy Tubbs, who coached those '88 Sooners, leads the chorus.
“Appears to me, coaches would wake up a little bit, when football starts outscoring basketball,” Tubbs said. “Football's pretty damn exciting right now.”
Texas athletic director Deloss Dodds earlier this season said the sport is in “shambles,” and his basketball coach doesn't disagree.
“There's a lot of things in our sport that need to be fixed,” Rick Barnes said.
Starting with the officiating. Not the officials. The officiating.
Tubbs' warnings from decades ago have come to pass. Long before Tubbs left OU in 1994, he preached against the physicality encroaching upon the sport.
Tubbs said the early ‘90s NBA success of Chuck Daly's Pistons filtered down to the college game.
“They slugged it out, slowed it down,” Tubbs said. “Hold you, shove you, push you.”
The game became more physical. And now we see the result.
“All you gotta do is watch the inside play,” Tubbs said. “And I don't blame that on the referees at all. I believe the referees have called the game like the coaches want it called.
“At the end of my coaching career, I was teaching stuff defensively that basically was a foul, but would not be called a foul. When that guy comes across the line, basically what you do is forearm shiver him.”
Tubbs is not alone in his description of the game.
Current OU coach Lon Kruger says the officiating needs to change. Barnes does, too, making the perceptive point that while football has gone offensive, and baseball long ago adjusted to help the hitters, college basketball has let defenses take the upper hand.
“You look at every other sport, they always talk about how can we help the offense,” Barnes said. “We have not done that.”
Kruger coached in the NBA from 2000-04. In '04, the NBA directed its referees to start policing hand-checking. The directive made for some ugly exhibition and early-season games. But eventually, ballhandlers could get to the basket and offenses found new freedom.
“I think there's going to be huge discussions this summer on what we want the officiating to be,” Kruger said. “If they call it the way it's written, everybody's in foul trouble.”
Consistency is a huge problem, too.
“One night, two hands (on an offensive player), it's a foul,” Kruger said. “One night later, it's not. That makes it difficult. And I don't think that's healthy for the game.”
Barnes said it's up to the coaches to mandate consistency in officiating, and he's right. For bad or for worse, this is a sport ruled by its coaches.
“If people don't think officiating is a big part of what's happened to our game, they're wrong,” Barnes said.
Tubbs and Kruger echo the same complaints. Too much grabbing. Too much holding.
“If you have an advantage, you shouldn't be able to grab and hold ‘em,” Kruger said. “No one likes 39-36 games. Our preference is to let the players play.”
Said Tubbs, “I think the officials have to start calling the game the way it's meant to be played. They're calling it the way coaches want it to be called. I don't think they even have a clue that it's boring as hell.”
The coaches don't, but the rest of us do.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.