March 14, 2013
DENVER — It was right around Christmas time when Brigham Young basketball coach Dave Rose made a personnel move that no one really noticed.
But it caught my eye: Rose took a player from the BYU football team and added him to his basketball roster. Bronson Kaufusi, a 6-foot-7, 270-pound defensive end, showed the basketball skills of a brick wall, and the hands to go with it.
In other words, Kaufusi fit right into the evolving college basketball landscape.
As the NCAA Tournament bracket is set and March Madness sets in, there is a new message across the land: If you can't beat 'em, beat 'em up.
You can see it from BYU (not in the bracket) to the Big Ten (with up to seven teams in the bracket) to Butler (the conquerors of the bracket).
On Selection Sunday, the basketball game we knew — a game of skill and shot-making — now more closely resembles a football Saturday.
“Coaches get two hours a week with players in the offseason,” Denver coach Joe Scott told me. “The strength coach gets six hours. That tells you all you need to know.”
This game is not for the timid.
This game is not for the most talented.
As soon as the first No. 2 seed falls to a No. 15, TV analysts will ramble about parity, how the talent gap between mid- and high-majors has been closed like a shutting door.
Their glass is half-full.
Here’s what really has happened: College basketball became the most physical game this side of a rugby scrum. The Have-Nots figured out how to close the gap with the Haves.
Beat ’em up. Blast the cutters and body-check the ballhandlers. If your talent doesn’t match theirs, even the playing field by mucking it up and slowing the pace.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has a long-standing tradition of practicing with football pads on his basketball players to toughen their skin.
Butler reached consecutive title games. Then-Kansas State coach Frank Martin, after he lost to Butler in the Elite Eight, told me: "That's like a football team, how physical they are."
Overmatched by No. 2 Gonzaga, unranked BYU resorted to the instincts of a classic playground bully. The BYU football player inflicted five fouls in 10 minutes.
That’s not basketball. That’s assault in sneakers.
Grantland.com documented the most disturbing trend this side of outlaw recruiting: a lack of scoring. Its detailed report stated overall scoring is at its lowest level in 30 years.
The fall in scoring is a result of several things. One is this: Smart coaches have gamed the system and dictate the officiating. Foul on every possession, and the whistle won't blow on every possession.
"You have to recruit with that physicality in mind," Scott said.
During a season in which the No. 1-ranked team was beaten seven times, this bracket will be thick with upsets. It will provide three weeks of entertainment and heart-warming tales.
But don’t confuse close scores with great basketball.
The NCAA Tournament remains the ultimate stage for one of the best games.
The NBA cleaned up its game by disallowing the hand-check and favoring playmakers.
One wish from the college cheap seats: Let 'em play! Don't let 'em clutch and grab.