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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.

Arizona releases non-conference schedule

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A trip to Maui, a home date against Baylor and trips to UConn and Alabama highlight Arizona’s non-conference schedule, which the school released Thursday, this season.

Despite losing nearly the entirety of last year’s talented-but-troubled group, Sean Miller still scheduled aggressively. The first test will come the week of Thanksgiving in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational. It’s an extremely competitive field with Duke, Auburn, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Illinois, San Diego State and Xavier. The bracket for the event has yet to be released.

The Wildcats travel to Storrs to face UConn in Dan Hurley’s first season on Dec. 2, and then a week later visit Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The marquee home game will be Saturday, Dec. 16, when Scott Drew and Baylor come to Tucson.

Here’s the full schedule:

Day Date Opponent Location

Sunday Nov. 11 Cal Poly Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Nov. 14 UTEP Tucson, Ariz.

Monday Nov. 19 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Tuesday Nov. 20 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 21 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 28 Texas Southern Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 2 at UConn Hartford, Conn.

Thursday Dec. 6 Utah Valley Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 9 at Alabama Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Saturday Dec. 15 Baylor Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Dec. 19 Montana Tucson, Ariz.

Saturday Dec. 22 UC Davis Tucson, Ariz.

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. is the posterchild for both sides of the one-and-done debate

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The NBA’s age-limit seems all but assured to disappear at some point.

The NBA sent out a memo this spring indicating that the age limit, the restriction of players under the age of 19 being drafted by NBA teams that created the one-and-done rule in college basketball, will be in effect through at least the 2021 draft. Last week reports suggested that the 2022 draft is more likely. The question isn’t if the rule will be changed, but when, which will be sure to create a contentious debate in the coming years over whether or not the one-and-done rule, which will have sent more than 100 stars through the college basketball ranks since its 2007 inception, was actually a good one.

If you’ve read this space over the years, you should know my stance by now: I’m staunchly against the idea of those in power — who are often old, rich and white — creating barriers to entry for young, often black, people from being able to capitalize monetarily on their value. It’s why I believe amateurism in college sports is reprehensible, and it’s why, with that rule in mind, I believe that the one-and-done rule should be abolished.

But I’m also not naïve.

Three months before the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball opened the eyes of some folks that wanted to remain in the dark I took a deep-dive into amateurism, the one-and-done rule and why going to college was still a pretty damn good option for college kids even with the knowledge that the money they accept could get them into trouble.

Read that before you read this, because I’m not here to today to talk about whether or not the one-and-done rule works.

I’m here to talk about Michael Porter Jr., who has managed to become the posterchild for people on both sides of this debate.

Heading into his freshman season at Missouri, Porter was considered by many to be a contender, if not the favorite, for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. A 6-foot-11 athlete that plays the wing, that in theory has the tools to be a multi-positional defender and that is known for his ability to shoot the rock? Of course he’s going to ride that hype train in an NBA dominated by small-ball, pace-and-space and 7-footers trying to be Kevin Durant.

We all know what happened.

Porter had surgery on his back in November. He tried to return in March and it was clear he wasn’t back to being himself. He went through some workouts this spring, but suffered setbacks — at one point he reportedly couldn’t get out of bed — and has since undergone a second surgery on his back, according to a report for NBA.com.

That surgery came after Porter fell all the way to 14th in June’s draft, after Boston College’s Jerome Robinson.

If you’re an advocate for the players, Porter is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with the one-and-done rule. He lost nearly $20 million in guaranteed money dropping from the No. 1 pick to the No. 14 pick, which bloated NBA salaries might have made you forget is, quite literally, a fortune. You could make the argument that, if his back was so messed up, he would have fallen in the draft once NBA teams got a glance at his medicals, but he also could have withheld those medicals. He’s not required to give anyone anything pre-draft, and also ignores the red flags that were raised as intel leaked out about the kind of teammate he was at Missouri. Would he have been drafted higher than 14 had people close to the Missouri program called him something other than entitled and arrogant? Maybe? Probably?

Porter is the perfect example of the risk, for players, that comes with giving NBA decision-makers more information to make a decision.

And he’s also precisely why NBA owners wanted this rule in the first place, and why they likely wouldn’t complain about keeping players in college for another year if they could get that rule passed.

The one-and-done rule exists because NBA owners were tired of drafting high school kids that they couldn’t properly evaluate. Giving them a year to compete in college, where they play on national television every night against 22-year olds that have been coached by some great basketball minds, gives owners more data to analyze. Can the kid play a role? What happens when they play people the same size with comparable athleticism? Can they handle the rigors of league play? In Porter’s case, are they actually healthy?

Owners also didn’t want to give an 18-year old millions of dollars and let then loose in America’s best party cities with NBA celebrity attached to his name, and they didn’t want to pay a seven-figure salary to develop these kids as players only to see them bolt for greener pastures when they hit their prime. By delaying things for a year on the front end they are able to keep those players under contract and reap the benefits of their investment for an extra year on the back end. In other words, instead of paying an 18-year old to learn, put on weight and ride the bench, you send them to college for a year and then pay them to, hopefully, help your team win a lot of games as a 27-year old.

But it’s the former that was arguably the most important, because so much can be determined at the top of an NBA draft, especially for small-market teams that can’t attract big free agents. If, say, Milwaukee doesn’t draft Giannis Antetokounmpo, would they ever be able to sign a player of his talent? It’s why Sam Hinkie developed The Process. Drafting accuracy is so important in the NBA (see: Warriors, Golden State), and by sending the best prospects in the world to college for a year, NBA teams believe they will be more accurate.

And I can’t blame them for that.

The NBA is a business, and that’s just good business sense.

It’s why I’m starting to come around on the one-and-done rule.

I don’t want to see it go because I don’t think it’s necessarily the problem. Don’t listen to what Mark Emmert or Condoleeza Rice tries to tell you, college basketball is better for having the likes of Marvin Bagley III and Deandre Ayton on campus for a year. NBA teams are probably better off getting another 12 months to evaluate those prospects.

The issue, to me, isn’t that the kids have to go to college.

The issue is that they can’t get paid (legally) in college, and that heading to the G League is, by just about any measure imaginable, a lesser option.

Porter was compensated with one-year’s worth of an education that he may never actually use for a season that cost him $20 million.

It’s amazing how much in the sport of basketball can be solved if we stopped pretending that players getting paid was a bad thing.

Clemson, Brad Brownell agree to six-year contract

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Fresh off of leading the Tigers to the Sweet 16, Clemson agreed to a six-year contract extension with head coach Brownell that is worth $15 million.

“I want to thank Dan Radakovich, President Jim Clements and the Board of Trustees for continuing to support my leadership of our Clemson basketball program,” said Brownell. “I’m extremely thankful and blessed to have the opportunity to coach at this great University. I’m also grateful for the outstanding young men I’ve coached and for the dedicated assistant coaches and staff who’ve worked alongside me the past eight years. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, both on and off the court, and look forward to building upon the success of last season.”

Brownell was on the hot seat entering the 2018-19 season, but the Tigers, who were picked 13th in the 15-team ACC, finished third in the conference, earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16. Brownell will also bring back a team talented enough to enter the year ranked in the preseason top 25.

Prior to last year’s run to the NCAA tournament, Brownell had gone six years — since his first season at Clemson back in 2010-11 — without reaching the Big Dance.

Nevada faces challenging non-conference schedule

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Nevada will likely be a preseason top 10 team as the Wolf Pack have major expectations following last year’s Sweet 16 appearance.

With head coach Eric Musselman returning most of last season’s roster, while adding some key new pieces, Nevada has huge expectations entering the 2018-19 season. That means a proper non-conference schedule to challenge this team, which was released on Wednesday.

A Sweet 16 rematch with Loyola is one of the key games on the schedule as the Wolf Pack will head to Chicago for a game on Nov. 27. Nevada will also play some Pac-12 opponents with road games at USC and Utah and a neutral court game against Arizona State. BYU, South Dakota State and Grand Canyon are a few of the challenging opponents from mid-major leagues while the team also had neutral court games against Tulsa and either UMass or Southern Illinois.

It seems as though Nevada will only have a few cracks at top-25 caliber opponents during non-conference play, but this schedule doesn’t have a lot of bad games while also including a healthy amount of neutral games. Since Nevada won’t get as many challenges playing in the Mountain West as a typical top-25 team, they’ll have a lot of eyeballs on them during some of these games — particularly the USC and Arizona State matchups.

The rematch with Loyola should be another fun road test as the crowd should be rocking in Chicago for that one.

Former Mizzou tutor plans to reveal ‘full list’ of participants in academic fraud case

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A former Missouri tutor that admitted in 2016 to providing improper academic benefits to multiple Tiger athletes on Monday said that she has been named in a new Notice of Allegations and intends to expose more people attached to the investigation.

Yolanda Kumar tweeted that she is planning on releasing “the full list of students, classes and coordinators on twitter” at 6:39 p.m. on Wednesday, adding that she was dropped from the original NOA but was added back into the latest version after she refused to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Missouri responded on Monday by acknowledging they had met with the Committee on Infractions and that the result of the investigation will prove that they acted with “integrity.”

“On June 13, 2018, the University appeared before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions to review its investigative findings, and the Committee has since added a previously unnamed involved party and given notice of the Committee’s allegation to that individual,” a statement Missouri released to ESPN said. “While the University may not disclose the names of any involved student due to FERPA, we remain confident that this review will reveal that the University, as well as its student-athletes and staff, have shown great integrity in responding to the allegations raised. In order to protect the investigation’s integrity and in accordance with NCAA rules relative to ongoing investigations, we are unable to comment further any part of the process until it is completed.”

In 2016, Kumar told the Kansas City Star that she had been asked to offer special assistance to football and men’s basketball players, and confirmed to compliance officials that she had acquiesced, helping a dozen athletes. That led to the NCAA’s investigation, and as a result, a defensive tackle named A.J. Logan was suspended for six games.

Kumar also tweeted in 2017 that she was willing to sell the information she had involving the case for the $3,000 fee she needed to pay Missouri to get her transcripts from the school. On Monday, she tweeted that her debt was cleared by a couple from Kansas City.

All of this allegedly occurred during the tenure of former Missouri head coach Kim Anderson.