October 27, 2012
Don't lower the rim of expectations.
We're not only talking about Geno Auriemma's ideas for improving women's basketball. We're talking about the academic disaster that was the UConn men's basketball program in the first decade of the 21st century.
The headlines on UConn athletics have arrived in loud, fascinating national bursts the past few days. Some have painted Auriemma as a visionary for — among several suggestions — arguing that rims should be lowered. Others have painted Auriemma as impractical or even demeaning of women's abilities.
Some headlines bemoaned the news that men's basketball had the worst graduation success rate of any Division I program in the nation over a four-year period at 11 percent. That's right, hit 1-for-9, worse than A-Rod in the postseason. Another headline carried the USA Today report that the NCAA is set to adopt legislation that will make football and basketball head coaches directly responsible when their staff members commit rules violations. The report specifically pointed out that Jim Calhoun would have been subject to much stiffer individual penalties in the Nate Miles case.
People who have followed the UConn academic problems understand the latest graduation success rate (GSR) report takes into account players who entered UConn in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. They understand we're talking about the four classes that run back to Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown. They also know UConn has improved markedly in its academic progress rate the past two years.
What UConn and its ardent fan base must resist after the latest report is backsliding into old arguments about the shortcomings of the APR and the GSR, the baffling inconsistencies of NCAA jurisprudence or even how the NCAA is out to get UConn.
Calhoun is retired, folks. UConn is out of the NCAA Tournament this season. It's over. What's not over is the forever need to perform well in the classroom. What's not over is the national reputation of a semi-renegade program. Unfortunately, reputations take longer to outrun than the facts.
In assessing Calhoun's legacy, it's always best to put down the black and white paint and brush in many shades of gray. By now, however, the reaction in our state should be, must be, black and white: "Never again! We're not going to take our eye off the ball and let the recruiting and academic stench bubble up again." Carry that heavier ball of reputation, let it serve as a constant reminder to do it right. Refuse to drop the rim of academic expectations. UConn men's basketball is back on the right road and those dark numbers eventually will lighten.
It is a shame that what Auriemma initially told The Courant about lowering the rim 7.2 inches was the only thing that stuck in the 7.2 inches between many people's ears around the nation.
Lowering the rim admittedly is the sexy, or sexist, thing to latch onto and if one topic can lead to a more complete examination, well, that's not a bad thing. Still, we had people across the nation in print and talk shows agreeing and disagreeing in some garbage ways, saying Geno was demeaning women, calling him irresponsible, or that he was only being an attention whore.
"Sometimes you just have to uncover all the morons," Auriemma said. "My favorite was that the answer is to raise the men's basket to 11 feet. I know every girl in America said, 'That's right. That will help me be a better player.'"
Auriemma joked that he didn't advocate anything as stupid as a bikini league. He only suggested women's college basketball look at shortening the shot clock from 30 to 24 seconds and introduce a 10-second time line to cross center court, which, of course, would be the exact opposite of demeaning what women can do. He also advocated the examination of permanent sites for the NCAA Tournament regionals, like the men's baseball and women's softball World Series and not blindly following men's basketball.
What he was doing was advocating improved offense, improved flow and evolving the game that frankly has stagnated a bit in terms of interest. After seven NCAA titles and an Olympic gold medal, you think maybe he knows what he's talking about?
Auriemma pointed out that there were 109 Division I men's teams that shot 45 percent or better last season and only 11 women's.
"But according to a lot of the experts, our game is fine," Auriemma said. "You know how many teams in the Big East shot 40 percent or less? Eleven! But it's OK, our game is pure. There's no dunking."
Auriemma never said a word about dunking with a lower basket. He talked about women missing too many layups — which they do. He also forwarded the possibility of using the bigger, heavier men's ball — something Sun coach Mike Thibault has pushed for — because it hangs better on the rim. It's science, really. If you are closer and lay the ball softer, you figure to have more success than throwing a smaller, lighter ball at a hoop.
"We're demeaning women? We're admitting we're inferior?" Auriemma said. "I hate to say it, but we're already playing with a small ball. We don't have a 10-second line.
"We're in the entertainment industry [a point Johnette Howard of ESPN sagely wrote that Billie Jean King once championed]. Maybe I'm able to speak to it because we actually do sell tickets here at $24 a ticket. Is it too much to ask if they come to see a game where teams make as many shots as they miss?"
Auriemma talked about how the narrow lane was widened because of Wilt Chamberlain and how the world didn't end after all with the three-point goal.
"You think the NFL would be what it is today if they didn't change the rules. I know everybody would line up in front of their TV to watch another 13-7 game at Soldier Field in the mud."
He pointed to the fact women have a lower volleyball net. He talked about how the women in the LPGA don't feel slighted because they wouldn't do something so foolish as play the full length of Bethpage. He talked about how women play three sets in tennis majors and men play five, yet get equal play.
"It's about putting on the best show possible," Auriemma said. "I'm just saying if we want to appeal to more people you have to evolve. Look, I come from Italy. We led the world in thinking the world was flat. So what the hell do I know?"
Let's be honest. Some women aren't going to like a guy like Auriemma telling them how their game should be. And some men aren't going to watch women's basketball no matter what. But I can't get past this thought. If some women's egos don't allow them to consider change because they think lowering the rim will take on the appearance of inferiority, good grief, that sounds an awful lot like the worst aspects of the male ego.
Do I think lowering the basket would mean a great and sudden influx of new fans? No. Neither does Auriemma. Right off the bat, the cost of implementing adjustable baskets is the biggest obstacle for high schools and town facilities. Ultimately, cost could kill a good idea. This is about eventual growth in offense and offense means more excitement. There obviously needs to be experimentation. The best women need to gather for games with baskets at 10 feet and 9-5, with and without the bigger ball, playing 8- and 10-second midcourt violations, with the 24- and 30-second shot clocks. Find some common ground.
Let's also see what happens when David Stern retires in 2014. Let's see if the next commissioner is so willing to help underwrite the WNBA. With the gold mine of college football and to satisfy Title IX, administrators have dumped millions into women's basketball coaches' salaries without anything close to a return in many places. What happens when they wake up one morning and go, maybe I'll start putting more into volleyball or another sport and less in basketball? Only someone lacking in vision believes women's basketball gets a free pass forever.
Some people look at a 10-foot rim as some kind of iconic figure never to be touched. It's basketball for crying out loud. It's not religion. There is no desecration of women's rights. Equal basket height is not the same as equal pay. Auriemma is for lowering the rim to raise expectations of women. That's how much he loves the game.
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