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.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.