April 8, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Is this basketball or hockey? Here's how to fix college game

Trey Burke looks for room to maneuver against Syracuse on Saturday night. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)

Atlanta — Louisville coach Rick Pitino has been to seven Final Fours, going all the way back to his first with Providence in 1987, so he's seen plenty of college basketball over the years.

The 60-year-old coach, announced Monday as one of the newest inductees into basketball's Hall of Fame, also spent more than a decade coaching in the NBA, so he knows that game, too.

And knowing that, it was interesting this weekend to hear Pitino talk about the difference between the two: Right now, he says, the NBA has "a great product."

And college hoops?

Well, he added tactfully, "We need to go the route of the NBA."

He wasn't talking about paying the players, mind you, though that'd be a nice gesture. No, he was talking about the game itself, in light of what everyone knows to be the problem. Namely, as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said recently, "It's like a hockey game."

Amid all the clutching and grabbing, and all the pushing and shoving, there's still basketball being played, of course. But your eyes didn't deceive you this season: It was ugly.

Scoring this season was down to its lowest level since 1952, shooting percentages were as low as they've been since the mid-1960s, and prior to Monday night's championship game, this was the lowest-scoring NCAA Tournament since the advent of the 3-point line.

Another way to crunch the numbers: Michigan was the last of 27 teams that managed to average more than 75 points per game this season. Five years ago, there were 66 teams that did, and 10 years ago there were 67. Blame better coaching if you want, or all the technological advancements in scouting. Blame the AAU culture for a lack of fundamentals, or the NBA exoduse for a lack of talented upperclassmen.

But then listen to Pitino, whose teams have always featured an up-tempo style. He returned to the college game for good back in 2001, but he'd seen similar issues plaguing the pro game before he did.

"I was on a committee many years ago with a bunch of coaches — Pat Riley, Larry Brown — general managers, about 18 of us in the room," Pitino said. "(NBA commissioner) David Stern called the meeting to change professional basketball. I think at the time there were only one or two teams breaking 100 (points per game.) Pro basketball was ugly, just like you're saying now (about college basketball.)

"We talked about the zone. We talked about eight seconds in the backcourt. Then we left the meeting and everybody wanted to do something about it."

And they did, eventually, though as Pitino admits, "All the things we tried to come up with weren't the answer." No, the answer was actually simpler than that.

"What happened in the NBA now is they stopped all the arm bars, all the standing up of screens, all the coming across and chopping the guy," Pitino said. "They stopped all that. Now there's freedom of movement in the NBA and you see great offense."

In college game, on far too many nights, we're seeing fouls passed off as great defense, especially in leagues like the Big Ten, where everyone embraces the physical play and seems to forget how fun the basketball was to watch 20 years ago, or even a decade ago.

Pitino, meanwhile, was only half-joking Sunday when he talked about players needing to wear body armor to play in the Big East.

"Peyton (Siva) wears shoulder pads," he said. "Because you can't cut, can't move. The referees are caught in a quandary. They're saying, 'We're going to ruin the game (if we call all the fouls), we're on TV.'"

But therein lies the answer. And I couldn't agree more with Pitino, or with Bilas, who has been saying this loudly for some time now. College basketball needs to do what the NBA did, or what the NHL did coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, for that matter. Enforce the rules and call fouls — lots of them — until things change. Better to ruin a few games, than to ruin the game the way they are right now, right?

"The only way to do it is the first 10 games of the season, the games have to be ugly and the players will adjust," Pitino said. "Then you will see great offense again."

Only problem is, those professional leagues had someone in charge with the authority to demand that change. College basketball doesn't have a commissioner. And I'm not sure who that commissioner should be. But if the NCAA Tournament is worth $11 billion in television rights fees alone, then surely it'd be worth paying someone a few bucks to make sure the product's actually worth it.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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