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June 13, 2013

Should hoops think outside the box?

The rosters of SEC basketball teams are loaded with top-shelf players, many of whom are bigger, stronger and more athletic than players from 20 years ago.

Yet, the standard size of the court (94 feet by 50 feet) has remained the same, meaning there is less space to operate as massive bodies collide, producing a game dominated by brute physicality rather than skill and grace.

And that jagged style of play is perhaps helping to damage the perception of the SEC, which placed just three teams into the NCAA tournament, around the country.

As a result, South Carolina coach Frank Martin contends that the time has come for college basketball's influential leaders to start thinking outside the box in order to improve the game.

"Everybody wants to talk about how the game has evolved," Martin recently said. "But the game is taught differently defensively now. Everybody says the game flowed freer 20 years ago. Go watch film of any team from 20 years and watch how they played. No one guarded the basketball. Everybody played five feet off. It's just a completely different style of play."

What fundamental rule change does Martin believe the NCAA should consider? Increasing the size of the court.

"The athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than they were back then," Martin said. "The court is the same size. Do you want to create more space for people? Everybody talked about widening the lane. That doesn't impact anything. Widening the court? Now you've created more space for people. No different than football. The guys are bigger, stronger and faster. That's why you have more collisions. They cover more ground, but the amount of space is the same.

"So, make the court wider. Now there is more space for those athletes that are just way more athletic than they were 25 years ago. Today, all 10 guys on the floor are more athletic than the 10 guys back then. That's one of the biggest differences."

Martin acknowledges that the concept of widening the court hasn't been seriously discussed within the NCAA framework.

But perhaps it should.

"That's just coach (Bob) Huggins and me, since we both teach the game defensively a certain way, drinking Diet Cokes late at night," Martin laughed.

Until the NCAA votes to expand the size of the court, Martin and the other Division I coaches must deal with the here and now.

Martin and his coaching staff, including recently hired assistant Perry Clark, formerly head coach at Tulane and Miami, have started summer workouts with his players.

Unlike football, though, basketball coaches are allowed to mentor their players for a maximum of two hours per week during the summer months. So, when fall practice begins (the start date has been moved up two weeks to late September), the transition should be easier for the seven true freshmen expected to dot USC's roster in 2013-14.

"Usually, when you get to September, you've got all of your returning players and you're comfortable with who they are and they're comfortable with you," Martin said. "This year, because we have so many first-year guys, it's awesome this rule was passed a year ago because we get to know our players a little bit this summer. You get a head start in that relationship-building process."

Martin defended the difference between football and basketball in terms of the amount of contact allowed between the coaches and players during the summer months.

"They have spring football," Martin said. "So, they can practice and have a little scrimmage and all that. This is our version of spring football, I guess."

Both Lithuanian players - Laimonas Chatkevicius (6-foot-11) and Mindaugas Kacinas (6-7) - are absent for the first semester for summer school because they're trying out for the Lithuanian national team. In addition, 6-2 guard Duane Notice from Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada, a suburb of Toronto, is striving for a spot on the Canadian Junior National team.

As expected, the two Lithuanians endured a transitional season into Division I basketball.

"Mindaugas came out of the chute a little stronger than Laimonas, but then he hit the wall about halfway through the year," Martin said. "He helped us the rest of the year, but I could never get him to play as well as he did early. Laimonas couldn't do anything to help us early, but then he helped us coming down the stretch.

"Typical freshman year for both of them. Ups and downs. But they have a big-time commitment to grow and get better and help the program. They both showed tremendous growth. When you see that, you invest into those kids."

Notice is expected in Columbia for the second semester of summer school in early July. If the two Lithuanians don't make the national team, they will arrive as well. If they do, they won't be in school until August.

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