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Changing The Game: Inside Villanova’s transition to small-ball, positionless basketball

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BOSTON — On Saturday afternoon, speaking to the media as his Texas Tech team was getting set to take on No. 1-seed Villanova for the right to go to San Antonio and play in the Final Four, head coach Chris Beard lobbed a compliment at Jay Wright that was as high of praise as one coach can give another.

He credited the architect of this Villanova dynasty with changing college basketball for the better, for bringing an innovation to the game that was on par with what Bobby Knight and John Wooden before him brought to the game.

“Bob Knight changed basketball. He did with motion offense. And Coach [Eddie] Sutton changed basketball with the defense,” Beard said. “In my generation, Coach Jay Wright’s changed basketball. He’s the one that kind of invented small ball, where your four man can shoot threes. They always have four guys on the floor that shoot. I mean, this is the way that our teams try to play.”

“I can’t tell you how many players over the years I’ve made watch Villanova tape in my office, trying to kind of talk them into playing the four when their AAU coach and their mom and their high school coach think they’re a two. Look, Villanova does it. So this guy, he’s transformed basketball. The way they play, we’re all kind of doing the same thing.”

And while the veracity of that statement is something that can be debated, Wright was, at the very least, one of the first to play that way in the collegiate ranks. And while as much as I’m sure Wright would love to put “Founder: Small-Ball Revolution, 2006-2018” on his résumé, the truth is that his embrace of small-ball and a four-guard lineup was not something that was planned. It was an emergency measure that the program had to take because Curtis Sumpter’s ACLs refused to remain intact.

Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.

“We actually fell into it,” Wright said with a laugh in a back gym at Peach Jam last summer, prepping to watch a player that had just a few months early pledged his future to the Wildcats. “We were in the NCAA tournament and Curtis Sumpter, our power forward, tore his ACL. We had to play North Carolina in the Sweet 16. We had Kyle Lowry coming off the bench, and we just felt that going with Kyle Lowry as a fourth guard was better than going with a young big man.”

With a 6-foot-4 Randy Foye playing, essentially, the four, Villanova hung with the soon-to-be national champions, a team that featured the likes of Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton and had Marvin Williams, the No. 2 pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, coming off their bench.

They lost by a point.

“We were even going into the game, ‘well, let’s see how this works,’” Wright said. “But in that game we could see how they were huge. And we saw how it spread them out, how they had to chase us, how it opened up lanes to the basket.”

Eight months later, Sumpter tore his ACL again, and Wright already had his answer. The Wildcats played four guards for the entire season, winning the Big East regular season title, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and advancing to the Elite Eight, were they lost a thriller to a Florida team that would go on to become the only back-to-back national champions in the last 25 years.

He knew he had something.

“Ever since we did that,” Wright said, “we just always stuck with it.”


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In an era where college coaches tend to be control freaks, micro-managers that need to call out every set, every play, every defense on every possession, Jay Wright is trending in the opposite direction.

Villanova doesn’t run plays offensively. They don’t really have sets that they call or a base offense that they run actions and counters off of, at least not in the same way that other programs do.

“They have like five plays,” Beard said.

“If that,” a Big East coach told NBC Sports.

What Villanova does is teach “our concepts.” That is how the people in the program phrase it, and they are quite secretive about what those concepts are. Given the amount of film that is available through services like Synergy, most college programs are going to know exactly what every team they play runs, particularly when dealing with a conference foe. There are no secrets, which can be an advantage for a program that opts to teach kids to be basketball players as opposed to how to run a basketball play.

“I’m not going to give away Villanova’s offense,” former Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono said, but there is a method to the madness.

And in the end, what they do and how the do it is really not all that complicated.

“They’re a simple team. They just play basketball,” said a coach that scouted Villanova during the NCAA tournament. “It really comes down to trying to get you forced to close out, then they drive and kick. They want to get you in situations where you get two guys on the ball, they make the right pass and they get an open shot. And they do it different ways. [Jalen] Brunson posting, Mikal [Bridges] driving. Do you double? Do you not double? If you’re switching, they look for the mismatch and drive.”

“Whatever it is, they make the kick out and the right pass and you’re dead.”

What makes this version of the Wildcats particularly lethal is that every one in their top seven can shoot, they can pass and they can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. Not only that, but those pieces also happen to have skill-sets that go beyond what you would typically expect of somebody in their position.

Take Brunson, for example. He’s Villanova’s point guard. He also loves to post-up, which is not a place on the floor that most college point guards are going to be comfortable or adept at defending.

Or how about Omari Spellman, who is Villanova’s starting center. He’s deadly from three-point range — as a chuckling Donte DiVincenzo put it, “Omari loves those threes” — and has added the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim going right. How often has someone like, say, Kansas center Udoka Azubuike had to help his point guard in the post and recover out to his man, a three-point shooter that can beat him off the dribble?

(Hint: Not often.)

Villanova has, as much as anyone in the collegiate ranks, embraced position-less basketball. When your posting “point guard” is kicking the ball out to your three-point marksman “center” so he can attack a closeout, you’re doing things differently.

“Versatility now is what we look for,” Wright said. “We used to use the word ‘tweener’. Now we use the word versatility. Multi-positional.”

“We want four guards on the floor, but we don’t say [a player]’s a guard because of his size. We say he’s a guard if he can run pick-and-roll. Shoot it. Handle the ball. Pass it.”

Which is how you get into situations like having Donte DiVincenzo, who will likely end up playing in the NBA as a two-guard at some point in his career, playing at center.

“Sometimes they have me at the five setting screens, and I’ve never played the five in my life before this,” he said. “On the court, it’s great knowing the five can get an open shot on the pick-and-pop or the five can get the ball and keep the ball and handle the ball.”

“We’re not running something where if I’m the one, I need to get the ball from here to here or if I’m the five, I need to set a screen here and here. Everybody’s just playing off one another.”

And this, in the end, is the biggest difference when it comes to how Villanova plays now versus how they first played when Wright went full small-ball.

When Wright had a roster that included Foye, Lowry, Allan Ray and Mike Nardi, playmakers that were dynamic with the ball in their hands, Villanova wasn’t playing position-less basketball as much as it was making a conscious decision to play four lead guards at the same time. There’s a difference. That team played iso-ball, and they were good at it. What this Villanova team does is quite different. This team plays off the fact that everyone on the team can shoot the leather off the ball, and that there isn’t a player on the roster that isn’t willing to give up the ball for a better shot.

The change, according to Nardi, who is now an assistant coach on the staff, happened “about five years ago”, which is fitting for two reasons:

For starters, that is when this run of dominance that Villanova is currently experiencing started. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, which was Villanova’s first season in the new Big East, they have posted a 163-21 record. Put another way, they’ve averaged 32.6 wins and 4.2 losses during that span. They have a 77-13 record in Big East play, which includes four Big East regular season titles and this year’s second-place finish. They’ve won three of the last five Big East tournament titles. They won the 2016 national title and are the favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio this season.

I think it’s pretty clear: This is working.

But — and perhaps more importantly — that also happened to be right around the time when Jay Wright completely reevaluated the way that he was recruiting. There was a point, in the late-00s, right around the time when Villanova made a run to the 2009 Final Four, that Wright started recruiting based on rankings. He wasn’t looking for the players that fit into the way he wanted to play, he was bringing in players that every thought were among the best in the country and hoping that he could get them to do what he wanted them to do.

“I got sloppy,” Wright told ESPN last month.“After we went to the Final Four, it was easy to get guys. So rather than sit down with them and explain, ‘Look, I know you want to come, but this is what we do,’ I said, ‘All right, good, he’s a great player? All right, good.’ And then they got here, we start talking about it and they’re like, ‘Whoa, no one told me about that.’ And they were right. We didn’t explain to them what this was. Some of them, when they got here, they got it. Some of them were like, ‘Wait, that’s not what I signed up for.’”

“We had hit rock bottom after that season. What are we doing? We’re not helping these kids. We’re not true to our culture. This is on me. This is a decision I made. This is the culture I’ve created since the Final Four. These are the guys I brought in. I’ve got to change.”

And change he did.

Before long, Wright landed commitments from the likes of Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, the core of the teams that would launch this current dynasty.

While all four of those guys are gone, the culture that they helped build remains intact.

And, perhaps more importantly, the team that is just two wins away from a second national title in three years does not have a single senior on it while three top 50 prospects, including five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, are set to enroll in the fall.

The Villanova buzzsaw isn’t shutting off anytime soon.


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It was Friday night, minutes after Villanova had ended West Virginia’s season and minutes before Texas Tech was set to take the floor against Purdue for the right to advance to the Elite Eight.

Tech’s locker room was 100 feet further down a hallway in the bowels of Boston’s TD Garden from where the media scrum had set up to wait out Jay Wright’s return from the podium.

Chris Beard popped his head out of the locker room, music blaring as his team went into overdrive getting hyped up for the program’s first Sweet 16 in 20 years, and asked a reporter in the hallway if he had seen Jay walk by.

“I want to introduce myself,” Beard explained. “I’ve never met him.”

Such is the respect you get when you change the game.

Marquette lands Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny

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Marquette pulled in a quality graduate transfer commitment on Friday as Fordham guard Joseph Chartouny pledged to the Golden Eagles.

The 6-foot-3 Chartouny was a three-year starter for the Rams as he should help offset the loss of guard Andrew Rowsey to graduation. While Chartouny isn’t nearly the perimeter threat that Rowsey was, he should be able to help significantly on the defensive end for Marquette. Chartouny put up 12.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.3 steals per game last season as he was one of the more productive all-around players in the Atlantic 10.

One of the nation’s leaders in steals the past three seasons, Chartouny has much better size to play alongside Markus Howard in the Marquette backcourt than Rowsey (5-foot-11) had. Since Howard is also 5-foot-11, Chartouny can now guard the bigger and more athletic perimeter matchup as Marquette tries to improve its porous defense from last season.

Marquette still has an open scholarship for next season as they’ve been investigating other transfer options to bolster the roster. Returning most of last season’s roster, the expectation will be for the Golden Eagles to make it back to the NCAA tournament next season.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.