Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Slowest Game?

" Don't Shoot!"

Lacrosse bills itself as “the fastest game on two feet”. But if fans of hurling (“the fastest game on grass”), hockey (“the fastest game on ice”), and jai-alai (“the fastest game on earth”) tuned in to yesterday’s NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Final, they can be forgiven for scoffing at this notion. Because the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame slowed the game down so much it could have been sponsored by Sherwin-Williams and called the “Watching Paint Dry” Lacrosse Final.

* All of these sports base their “fastest” claims on the speed of the ball or puck, but none are faster than a badminton shuttlecock, which can travel as fast as 206 mph.

Okay, I’m being unfair. On many levels it was a very exciting game. Notre Dame and Duke traded goals in the game’s opening minutes and the score was close or tied the entire game. A sudden death OT lasted only five seconds, thanks to a thrilling faceoff-scoop-run-and-score by longstick middie C.J. Costabile. And in a sport that has been dominated by a quintet of teams (Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, Virginia, Princeton, and North Carolina have won every title since 1978) the appearance in the Final of two teams who had never won a title is a great thing for the sport.

But still…lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in America (that claim might actually be true) and many people tuned in to ESPN yesterday to see this exciting sport they have heard so much about. Sadly, they were treated to a game that, as announcer Sean McDonough said, looked like a North Carolina Tar Heel basketball game before the shot clock.

Credit Notre Dame for the right strategy, which we’ll dub the Irish Famine. Coach Kevin Corrigan, realizing he had the least talented team in the tournament, slowed the pace of the game down to a crawl, starving the Duke offense of the ball. On nearly every possession, his offense was content to pass the ball around and bleed the clock. They were given multiple stall warnings and half their shots seemed designed to miss, so that instead of turning the ball over their X attackman can race to the back line and reclaim possession. (for lacrosse newbies, when a shot goes out of bounds, possession goes to whatever team gets to the out of bounds spot first)

The result: a 6-5 decision, the lowest scoring title game in NCAA history. And while Notre Dame goalie Scott Rodgers was as good as advertised, let’s not pretend that this game was about defense. This game was about Notre Dame playing keepaway, holding the ball for huge chunks of time doing nothing but playing catch. Duke features the best attack in the country, but Ned Crotty (63 assists this season), Max Quinzani (68 goals) and Zach Howell (51 goals) spent most of the game standing and staring at the other end of the field.

In a showcase moment for the sport, with its popularity at an all-time high and the first finals team from West of the Mississippi, it delivered a snoozer.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger (and if the Irish has the ball, I don’t have to worry about that)
This is not meant as a critique of the sport in general. I played a little lacrosse myself back in the day (with an emphasis on the word “little”). I sat at the end of the bench for a Long Island high school in the early 80’s, and found my way to the middle of the bench (3rd and 4th midfield line) for a Fairfield University club team that dominated New England club lacrosse in the late 80’s.

* I graduated in 88, and from 87 to 89 the Stags went 33-2. In ’93 they went Division I and today are good enough that earlier this year they beat one of the teams in yesterday’s final.

I picked up the game late and wasn’t very good – I scored 3 goals in my entire college “career” - but I loved the sport and still do. Today, lacrosse is wildly popular where I live in Rockland County. My 10 year-old daughter plays, as do all five of my Rockland nephews. My two brothers-in-law coach their sons, and a buddy announces high school lacrosse on MSG.

Lacrosse is a genuinely great sport – one that offers the ideal combination of speed, athleticism, toughness, knowledge and grace. But one has to ask: how many coaches across the country watched a mediocre Notre Dame team – one that was unseeded and went 10-7 on the year – get to within one goal of a title, and think, hmmm? Maybe I’ll slow down my offense next year…

And that would be a terrible thing for the sport.

The Fix
Luckily, FreeTime is here to propose a solution – to fix the problem before it manifests itself. You already know what it is, don’t you? You knew it as soon as you saw the basketball shot clock reference above. It was once said that the only man who could stop Michael Jordan was his own coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith. And basketball as a sport does not benefit if the rules can stop Michael Jordan.

Well, we don’t want to stop Ned Crotty, Max Quinzani and Zach Howell either. The NCAA – the only governing body of the sport that matters – should institute a shot clock immediately. I’ll leave the details up to smarter laxheads than me, but there’s no need to be too aggressive right away. I’m leaning towards two minutes but even three might be fine.

But you also need an intent rule. In other words, you can’t have guys launch shots 10 feet over the goal just to reset the clock.

The sport is at a key moment in its growth. Don’t let the Irish Famine slow it down. Literally.

(Hat Tip to the Rock Star, who suggested this post and served as research assistant.)

[This is the fourth in an unplanned series called The Volunteer Commissioner in which I helpfully point out the flaws in various sports and suggest fixes. Previous installments were The Losers Out Manifesto, Swimming is Boring, and Fixing Softball. And before World Cup fever has passed, look for a piece on soccer.]

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