College basketball sucks

The sentiment amongst the media, fans, and even coaches during this men’s college basketball season has been that the level of play has been sub-standard. In Thursday’s USA Today, Steve Kerr said, “The quality of play is down” in an article titled “Scores, Quality Drop” by Eric Prisbell. 

There have been many reasons suggested for the drop in quality of play. The three most popular reasons tend to be: (1) physical play; (2) lack of fundamentals; and (3) the NBA age-limit, which has created the 1-and-done player.

When I wrote Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development in 2005, the players who I was training are today’s college players. The games that shaped my viewpoint and provided fodder for some of the background of the book involved players playing college basketball today.

Many read Cross Over, or my blog, and thought my criticism of the current system was based on Team USA’s struggles early in the decade in international competitions. Instead, these players, and the system in which they were developing, were the impetus for Cross Over. My concern was not the success of the absolute elite or the health of the NBA, but in creating the best possible system for all players from recreational to elite. As I wrote:

A new model must meet the needs of all players, whether recreational, developmental or competitive and provide the right environment for players to develop their skills and enjoy the experience. While focusing on fun and learning, athletes develop better and broader skills. If the player has a happy confluence of work ethic, genetics, opportunity and skills, he or she may conquer the scholarship quest. If not, the athlete will lead a happier childhood with a greater appreciation for sports and more well-rounded athletic skills.

The problem is not high school vs. club/AAU, as many try to paint it. Instead, the issue, by and large, continues to be the same thing that I wrote about almost a decade ago: a Peak by Friday mentality.

I talk to coaches and leagues, and very few want to adopt modified rules for young players. Everyone wants 9-year-olds playing the same game on the same court with the same baskets as professional players. One of the key points from Cross Over is that children are not miniature adults. Why do we want children to play the same game as adults?

As children grow, nobody wants to be the one who develops players. On Linkedin, Christopher Colbert responded to a post based on a previous article, and wrote, “A youth basketball coach told me ‘why should I spend time on development when it is the next coach who benefits from that?’ My mouth dropped to the floor as he discussed 9 year olds.” Unfortunately, that is the mentality. Coaches and parents emphasize winning ahead of development because coaches want to appear competent, and winning is the way to appear competent, and parents want to brag, and winning or being elite is something tangible for parents. Nobody brags about their child shooting an extra 25 minutes after practice or the 10% improvement at the free-throw line; instead, everything is wins and points per game.

When players play the adult game at 9 years old, and the emphasis at every level is winning, players do not develop fundamental skills as quickly or as fully. Contrast the U.S. basketball development system, and the current college game, with the Barcelona system and its success:

Key points:

  • Result of a lot of people investing a lot of time in the young players. Pep Guardiola is famous worldwide, but how many people know about the coaches and trainers developing the young players? Yet, that’s where the success starts.
  • Now seeing the results of 20, 25, 30 years of hard work. Success is a long-term process; most coaches and programs favor short-term results.
  • Evidence is the number of homegrown players in the first team. Problem in the U.S. is that this is not an incentive; college teams cannot develop homegrown players, nor can NBA teams. We value recruiting or drafting players more than we value the development of the talent.
  • They win trophies and play an attractive style of football. No negative tactics – junk defenses, etc. – needed to win.
  • They play a 4-3-3 system with their youth teams because it is the best system to develop skilled players. While a zone at a young age may help a team win, is it the best way to develop skilled players? Is clearing out and allowing the best player to go 1v1 in a 1-4 low set the best way to teach the game?
  • They look for mentally strong players. Are these the qualities that we seek in youth basketball players? Are we developing mentally strong players?

In another article about La Masia, Lionel Messi said “As a kid they teach you not to play to win but to grow in ability as a player.”

They have a different philosophy or mentality; they develop the player first, and the team second, as the purpose of the club is to develop players for the professional side. The U.S. is not set up for long-term benefits, so coaches have a short-term outlook, as demonstrated by the coach that Colbert referenced. The result of this short-term outlook from season to season is the lack of quality seen in today’s college game.

In 2005, I started Cross Over because of what I witnessed with the players who I trained and the environment in which they were developing. I suggested that the system would develop fewer skilled players. I argued that with the money invested in basketball in the U.S., we should demand the best possible system of development for all players rather than being satisfied with one good enough to win an Olympic gold medal or produce enough players to supply the NBA.

Most people pointed to LeBron James and Kevin Durant and others and argued that the U.S. system was fine. Now, eight years later, everyone is worried about the declining quality of the college game. The explanation remains the same: the emphasis on winning at every level impedes player development which ultimately reduces the quality of play at the college level.

The solution is more clubs with a long-term view of player and talent development, and a willingness of parents, players, and coaches to delay gratification for something more than an u9 trophy. Skill development takes time and cannot be rushed. Children are not miniature adults – we should not treat youth basketball as a pre-professional level.

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