Men’s basketball in Idaho is in a state of crisis. Idaho ranks very low on several metrics of quality, putting the state in the bottom five for men’s basketball in the nation. I have argued previously in this space that the very low quality of play at all levels is matched only by the complacency that exists concerning this low level of play. My suggestion for a “regime change” in Idaho basketball includes a call for a shot clock in high school basketball. Several states, including Wisconsin, have approved shot clock and other timing changes, bringing the total number of shot clock states to nine. More states are sure to follow.
THE CRISIS: EXTERNAL MEASURES
All basketball fans love the drama of a tight game, but it takes a more discerning eye to recognize quality play. Bad Idaho teams beating bad Idaho teams proves nothing about quality of play. States must look for comparative, external measures such as playing at the college level to judge the quality of basketball in the state. One set of external measures includes how Idaho players do playing beyond high school basketball, and the measures I used in my last article also help to prove the point.
First, let us look at the cream of the crop. Where do the best Idaho basketball players play their post-high school ball? How much and how well do they play? In order to draw conclusions, compare the Gatorade Players of the Year (POY) in Idaho with similarly situated states (rural states without major metropolitan areas in excess of 500,000 people) such as New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, and West Virginia. It is foolish to compare Idaho POYs with California POYs, since California POYs are destined for college and NBA greatness.
Let us summarize these findings by categorizing the colleges where the POYs in states play college basketball. I deal with transfers by using the last school a player attended, on the assumption that this is the level of play where the player probably belongs. Players that won more than one POY will be counted according to the number of titles they won. Isaiah Wright, a two-time winner in Idaho, for instance, counts twice.
All of Idaho’s last 9 POY’s signed at NCAA Division I basketball level, yet most subsequently transferred to lower tier programs. Wright, 2104 and 2013 POY, committed to Utah of the PAC 12, where he played about 14 minutes a game in his freshman year and less than that in his sophomore year. He transferred to San Diego of the West Coast Conference (WCC), where he will begin his junior year this fall. Stefan Gonzales (2015 POY) enrolled at St. Mary’s of the WCC and played not overmuch his first two seasons; he is transferring to U.C. Davis in the Big West and must sit out 2017-18 as per NCAA rules. 2012 POY Joey Nebeker enrolled at Boise State, played sparingly his first two seasons, and transferred to College of Idaho in the NAIA, Division II, where he starred. Josh Fuller, 2009 POY, started at Utah then went to Weber State and then to NCAA Division II Dixie State. Only Kyle Dranginis, the two-time POY (2010 and 2011), had a solid career at a top tier basketball program, Gonzaga, in the WCC. Kolby Lee (2017 POY) and Connor Harding (2016 POY) each will attend BYU after their Mormon missions; time will tell if they break the trend.
The POYs in Kansas, Nebraska, and West Virginia landed at bigger schools in much better basketball conferences and played more significant and more productive minutes than Idaho’s players. In Kansas, 8 of 9 POYs started playing at Power 5 conferences, though two followed the Idaho pattern and transferred from those schools to lesser programs (SMU and Loyola, Chicago); the other began at Weber State. In Nebraska, 6 played in Power 5 conferences, one at University of South Dakota (NCAA Div. I), one at Pittsburgh State (NCAA, Div. II), and one started in the Patriot League at Holy Cross but transferred down to Omaha. In West Virginia, 4 of the 8 ended up at Power 5 schools (one player, Aaron Dobson, played college football and has since made the NFL), while the three others played mid-major hoops in the Mountain West (South Dakota State), WCC (BYU), and the Atlantic 10 (Davidson). Only one player followed the Idaho pattern, starting at West Virginia but ending up at Georgetown, KY in the NAIA.
South Dakota, New Mexico and North Dakota are similar to Idaho. The highs of South Dakota and New Mexico have been higher, as players from there have gone to Power 5 schools and stuck there. South Dakota has produced five Division I players, including one to Creighton in the Big East. The other three POYs have played either Division II or NAIA ball. New Mexico sent Bryce Alford to UCLA and four other players to Division I schools, while the other three played at either Division II schools or NAIA. North Dakota is most like Idaho, sending six players to mid-major schools (including 2009 POY Joe Hanstad to Boise State) in Division I and the rest to NAIA schools.
Another indicator of the crisis in Idaho basketball is revealed in the careers of Idaho players who played Division I basketball, in terms of their minutes played and the points that they score. Each player’s dream is to play productive, important minutes on a competitive team. Most players are unwilling to practice hard for a decade only to accept 7 minutes per game at the college level. Most Idaho players end up being minimum playing time guys, and have transferring down from their original schools in search of playing time.
Idaho currently has eleven players in Division I basketball: Wright (Utah, San Diego), Braden Shaw (BYU), Gonzales (St. Mary’s, UC Davis), EJ Boyce (San Jose State as a walk on; he has since transferred to St. Martin, a NCAA Div. II school), Malik Harwell (Boise State), McKay Cannon (Weber State but is transferring elsewhere), Matt Grooms (Walla Walla Community College and a walk on at Boise State), Mogga Lado (Big Bend Community College and Campbell), Telly Davenport at Utah Valley (transferring to College of Southern Idaho), Jared Stutzman also of Utah Valley (transferring to Idaho State); and a duo at Idaho State of Keshawn Liggins (transferring elsewhere) and Clark Wilkinson. The following table show how much these players play and score at their respective schools.
The high for minutes played in a season is owned by McKay Cannon, who had a productive freshman campaign at Weber State, where he played over 20 minutes per game. He is now transferring elsewhere, however, after his numbers slid in his sophomore year.
Recent history suggests we should not expect much scoring from Idaho players when they reach the next level. Neither Kyle Dranginis, who averaged more than 30 minutes his senior year at Gonzaga, nor Will Bogan, who played more than 25 minutes a game for two years at Valparaiso after he transferred there from Ole Miss, nor Matt Bauscher, the Boise State contributor, ever averaged more than 10 points per game in a season. The last Idaho player to average more than 10 points a game was Marcus Colbert at Montana State in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 when the Bobcats won 7 and 14 games respectively. Montana State is, by one measure, the 337th ranked men’s basketball program, out of 351.
We can drill this down a bit more to see how players do at a lower level of basketball, Consider the Treasure Valley players from the class of 2016 playing college basketball at all levels above the community college level. That year had more excellent Treasure Valley basketball players than most years, and that is borne out by the numbers playing college hoops. Rylan Bergersen and Deandre Jones attended a prep school during 2016-17 before, each committing to play NCAA Division I basketball next year. Bergersen will be playing at BYU, while Jones will be at Central Arkansas. The list below is based on each of these players freshman year during the 2016-17 season; several players contributed in crucial ways to their team’s success. (Full Disclosure: Yenor (my son), Pinckney, Bergersen, Jones, and Kolby Lee started on local club team during spring and summer of 2015.)
Perhaps the picture is emerging. Should we expect much different from the class of 2017? I will keep tabs on Kobe Terashima at Montana Billings (NCAA Division II), Jaxon Hughes at Corban College (NAIA, Division II), Del Jackson at UC Davis (NCAA, Division I), Justin Saunders at College of Idaho (NAIA, Division II), Lee at BYU, Jayden Clark (William Jessup, NAIA, Division I), and Nick Fitts at Montana Tech (NAIA, Division II). Do not expect overmuch, if past is prologue. Idaho players have a difficult time getting on the floor and contributing at the college level. More players make contributions at lower levels of basketball, but even here the record is spotty.
A SOLUTION: THE SHOT CLOCK
Idaho needs a performance improvement plan for boys high school basketball. I argue that a key part of this plan should be instituting the shot clock. Reforming high school basketball is the place to start because success at the high school level sets the tone for earlier basketball development. Coaches at all levels mostly coach the way they were coached and learn by seeing. Many club coaches for fifth graders coach what they see at the high school level—and what they see working at the high school level is the problem.
The shot clock is a matter of justice. The best team should win in sports. Stalling is a strategy of a lesser team. One of the best coaches in the Valley, Eric Chapman, a former college coach who coached boys basketball at Riverstone International, once told a pregnant story. Pete Sampras was the greatest tennis player ever to live, except on clay. Sampras never won the French Open. Eric’s strategy against a better team, as he tells it, is to “get Pete Sampras to play on clay.” Then his team would have a fighting chance. Stalling is akin to playing Sampras on clay for lesser teams. Horror stories abound nationwide in this respect, in Idaho and outside the state.
Teams also build up a small to medium-sized lead of 4-10 points and then sit on the ball for significant parts of the second half or fourth quarter. Other times, stalling is part of a strategy to get the last shot in a tied game. Last season, for instance, Lapwai, a team otherwise known to run and gun, went into a stall mode against their archrival Prairie with about four minutes left in the IA Division I state championship game. Other examples of such stalling include the Boise-Borah 5A district game from last season, where Boise capped an approximately three-minute stall with a buzzer beater.
Recent rule changes in high school basketball make stalling easier than ever before. Officials enforce the “freedom of movement” rule, which allows players with and without the ball to move without a defender placing two hands on them or keeping one hand on them for an extended period of time. If players can move, they can more easily free themselves up to receive a pass or dribble in open space without the restraint from a defender. It should be one or the other—freedom of movement or a shot clock. Having freedom of movement without a shot clock makes it too easy for lesser teams to stall.
My hopes for the introduction of the shot clock go beyond securing justice or making the rules more consistent. The shot clock produces of better flow play, so long as its logic is embraced through player development and coaching.
The most coveted skill in basketball is the ability to score under pressure. Teams that hold the ball for several minutes at the end of quarters or with a medium-size lead do little to improve player development. Such coaches are teaching a skill—holding the ball—that is not relevant at any higher level of basketball. Those who seek to stop another team from stalling must teach a somewhat reckless brand of defensive trapping that is also irrelevant at higher levels. Moreover, increasing the number of possessions means that players will have more opportunities to score and to play defense throughout important games. It would also give players experience with shot clocks as such, as players would gain experience dealing with the pressure that comes with time on the shot clock winding down, developing a habit of knowing where time on the shot clock stands, and developing a portion of the game relevant for when the shot clock is about to expire. Perhaps then Idaho players would actually have a leg up on players from non-shot clock states when they play college basketball.
Coaching would have to adapt to the shot-clock game. This would mean that coaches would have to encourage more players to identify scoring opportunities and exploit them because every opportunity missed hurts the team’s ability to get a good shot within the allotted time. Players would have to learn to read defenses much better than they do now. This is the primary drawback of Idaho players in my view and it is among the most coveted skills in basketball. They do not see when they have an advantage or when the defense has broken down because of their training centers on running the offense. They are not sufficiently encouraged to take risks or to make the defense pay when they could.
Players would have to develop skills in order to exploit those opportunities. Players would have to work on floaters, pulling up, attacking the rim, hitting the open jumper, and every other way of scoring. More practice time would have to be dedicated to individual skill development as opposed to running the offense or preparing for upcoming opponents.
What it takes to win in Idaho is not enough to help players develop for the next level.
The predominant Idaho way of running patterned offenses hurts defenses as much as it leads to stagnant offenses. Patterned offenses are predictable, and Idaho defenses appear good (and, as I showed last spring, scoring in Idaho is among the lowest in the country) because Idaho offenses are so predictable. Coaches can learn the other team’s plays easily from film and then put people in a position to stop them. That style of defense, while it may work in Idaho high school basketball, does not translate to the next level where players have more developed skills.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
To begin with, a 35-second shot clock could be implemented only for District and State basketball games. Perhaps schools could “opt in” to a shot clock during the year to prepare their teams for the tournaments, but that would not be necessary. Gradual implementation would mitigate the costs of implementing the policy at every school simultaneously across the state. A few experienced shot clock operators would have to be trained across the state during the season to be ready for tournament time.
It would also render the stalling strategy counterproductive during the basketball season, both for the weaker teams and for teams with smallish leads. It would begin a necessary change in how coaches coach the basketball. High school coaches who want to succeed come tournament time would orient their practices and skill development toward helping players recognize opportunities to score and encouraging players to seize such opportunities. Club coaches would orient their coaching to this reality too. Things could hardly get worse in Idaho for men’s basketball. The shot clock at tournament time would shake things up and might lead Idaho into the modern era of high-paced basketball.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.