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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.

Seven returning collegians among Team USA U19 invites

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USA Basketball is welcoming seven sophomores among its 34 total invitees to training camp next month ahead of the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece.

Incoming freshmen and Class of 2020 will vie for 12 roster spots with Kansas State coach Bruce Weber helming the team and being assisted by Washington’s Mike Hopkins and North Carolina Central’s LaVelle Moton.

The returning college players garnering invites are Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine), Tyrse Haliburton (Iowa State), Kira Lewis (Alabama), Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State), Trevion Williams (Purdue) and Bryce Willis (Stanford), along with Jayden Scrubb from the junior college ranks.

“The committee is excited at the level of talent that will be at training camp for the USA U19 World Cup team, and we expect to have a difficult decision trying to narrow down the group to 12 team members,” Matt Painter, Purdue coach and cahr of the junior national team committee, said in a statement.

R.J. Hampton, Samuell Williamson, Scottie Barnes and Jalen Suggs are some of the headliners from the group of players without college experience.

Sophomores

Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine/Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.)

Tyrese Haliburton (Iowa State/Oshkosh, Wis.)

Kira Lewis Jr. (Alabama/Meridianville, Ala.)

Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State/Mansfield, Texas)

Jayden Scrubb (John A. Logan College/Louisville, Ky.)

Trevion Williams (Purdue/Chicago, Ill.)

Bryce Wills (Stanford/White Plains, N.Y.).

Incoming freshmen

Eric Dixon (Abington H.S./William Grove, Pa.)

Dajuan Gordon (Curie H.S./Chicago, Ill.)

R.J. Hampton (Little Elm H.S./Little Elm, Texas)

Justin Moore(DeMatha Catholic H.S./Accokeek, Md.)

Casey Morsell (St. John’s College H.S./Washington, D.C.)

Zeke Nnaji (Hopkins H.S./Hopkins, Minn.)

Isaac Okoro (McEachern H.S./Powder Springs, Ga.)

Onyeka Okongwu (Chino Hills H.S./Chino, Calif.)

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (IMG Academy, FL/Overland Park, Kan.)

Isaiah Stewart (La Lumiere School, IN/Rochester, N.Y.)

Anton Watson (Gonzaga Prep/Spokane, Wash.)

Mark Watts Jr. (SPIRE Institute/Pontiac, Mich.)

Romeo Weems (New Haven H.S./Chesterfield, Mich.)

Samuell Williamson (Rockwall H.S./Rockwall, Texas).

Class of 2020

Scottie Barnes (University School/West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Nimari Burnett (Prolific Prep, Calif./Chicago, Ill.)

Joshua Christopher (Mayfair H.S./Lakewood, Calif.)

Sharife Cooper (McEachern H.S./Powder Springs, Ga.)

Cade Cunningham (Montverde Academy, Fla./Arlington, Texas)

Hunter Dickinson (DeMatha Catholic H.S., Md./Alexandria, Va.)

Jalen Green(Prolific Prep/Fresno, Calif.)

Walker Kessler (Woodward Academy/Newnan, Ga.)

Caleb Love (Christian Brothers College H.S./St. Louis, Mo.)

Evan Mobley (Rancho Christian School/Temecula, Calif.)

Ethan Morton (Butler H.S./Butler, Pa.)

Jalen Suggs (Minnehaha Academy/Minneapolis, Minn.)

Ziaire Williams (Notre Dame H.S./Sherman Oaks, Calif.).

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey: Transferring players need ‘deterrent’

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The NCAA is granting too many waivers allowing players who transfer to compete immediately, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Wednesday, calling the requirement that players sit out a year a useful “deterrent” to players switching schools.

Brey made his comments at a meeting of the Knight Commission, a nonprofit that pushes for reform in college sports. While the commission has not taken a position on transfer waivers, it often advocates for players being given more freedom to pursue their professional ambitions.

“As coaches we’re concerned about the number of waivers, to the point where the NCAA has given too much of a blueprint on how to get a waiver,” Brey said. “Kids feel they can go and, you know, bring up enough of a case to get eligible right away. So they’re more apt to want to go.”

In April 2018, the NCAA relaxed its waiver requirements, allowing a transferring player to suit up immediately if there are “documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete.”

During the 2018-19 academic year, 79 men’s basketball players requested waivers and 44 were granted, a 56% success rate, according to NCAA data. Men’s basketball accounted for 33% of all waiver requests, the NCAA said.

Commission co-chairman Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, declined to comment on waivers but lauded the “transparency” of the NCAA’s transfer portal, in which players submit their names if they want to switch schools.

Brey said he believes players should be free to transfer and that it’s up to coaches to make their players want to stay, but he said sitting out a year can be beneficial and prevents players from transferring for immature or capricious reasons.

“It’s a bit of a deterrent for a kid. The year in residency saves kids from themselves sometimes,” Brey said. “I’ve seen some kids then come back, stick it out, and now they’re in the lineup and they come back five years later and go, ‘I was an idiot.’ Because every kid thinks about (transferring) when he’s not playing.”

ROADBLOCKS TO REFORM

Brey’s comments were one of a few examples from Wednesday’s meeting of the basketball establishment pushing back against reforms that would give players more autonomy or promote transparency about the way schools profit from college athletics.

The Knight Commission is pushing the NCAA to release to the public the financial details of contracts between athletic departments and shoe and apparel companies, a proposal that has not gained much traction. In the past, the commission has persuaded the NCAA to release graduation rates and other financial data, including compensation for coaches.

“The shoe companies, there has to be agreement across the board, that there has to be willingness and openness to share all those records. Candidly, I think more work needs to be done,” said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president for Division I governance. “We don’t control all the third parties and their ability to cooperate with us. More conversation needs to continue to occur within the NCAA and between the NCAA and the third parties if we want to move the ball.”

Two NBA executives told the commission the league is in talks with the players’ union about lowering the NBA’s minimum age to 18, prompted largely by a recommendation by the Commission on College Basketball to rid the sport of the “one-and-done rule.”

But even that proposal is meeting some resistance in the NBA. David Krichavsky, the league’s senior vice president and head of youth basketball development, said some in the league would rather raise the age limit than lower it.

“Many teams and general managers would still be in favor of going to 20, given the additional scouting information you receive on players, seeing them compete at the NCAA level for two years after high school,” Krichavsky said, “but at the same time we recognize that the world has changed and will continue to change.”

COACHES BEHAVING BADLY

Brey, the president of the board of directors of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said he’d like to see coaches reach a consensus about how to police their own behavior.

An ongoing federal investigation into illicit payments made to players during the recruiting process led Louisville to fire longtime coach Rick Pitino, but some other coaches implicated in the probe have held onto their jobs. Brey said schools ought to move more aggressively to fire coaches for cause when they violate NCAA rules.

“We all have clauses in our contracts about NCAA rules and behavior, all of us. If those are violated, doesn’t that start on the campuses?” Brey said. “And no question the NABC could make a stronger stand. We have not maybe been as vocal about some of the things that have gone on.”

Report: NCAA will give more notices of allegations soon

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Now that the FBI’s college basketball corruption cases are complete, the NCAA will likely move forward with more notices of allegations.

Speaking to ESPN’s Heather Dinich on Wednesday at the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, NCAA vice president of Division I Governance Kevin Lennon said that more investigations could come “in due time and I think  very quickly.”

The NCAA needed to wait for the FBI’s trials to finish up before launching its own investigations on schools mentioned over the past 18 months. We could see a high number of big-name programs get investigated during the NCAA’s process.

“You don’t get in the way of a federal investigation,” Lennon said Wednesday. “Activity was going on during that span that was within our purview, but now that the court cases are done, now we’re in a position where you’re likely to see notices of allegations going to institutions that have violated NCAA rules, etc. I think you can anticipate notices of allegations will be coming.”

Following the completion of the first FBI trial in October 2018, the NCAA already reportedly sent notice of allegations to Arizona, Kansas, NC State and Louisville. Other prominent programs, including but not limited to, Auburn, LSU, Oklahoma State and USC have also been mentioned during recent college basketball corruption trials.

While the NCAA will seek all documents that schools turned over to the federal government during legal procedures, the real difficulty in the NCAA’s investigations will be getting third-party participants to speak — or even cooperate in the first place. Those not tied to the NCAA through member schools have no legal obligation to help the NCAA during their investigation process.

Wednesday’s Knight Commission meeting also went over processes discussed or implemented because of the Rice Commission’s April 2018 report. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, president of the board of directors for the NABC, made waves by questioning where accountability comes from when it comes to coaching penalties.

Asking why “there’s been no hammer from the top of campus,” Brey asked why schools haven’t been accountable with coaches who break the rules.

“Why hasn’t an athletic director or a president acted in some of these current cases?” Brey said.

“I think a lot of our coaches want to know why hasn’t the hammer come down? I’m a little naïve to it. Is it legal stuff? A lot of lawyers? I think our profession would love to see the hammer be dropped on some of these situations. We need an explosion back.”

Brey has every right to question where penalties are coming from since only Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has lost his job among head coaches during this scandal. There seems to be a lot of confusion on where some things stand with the NCAA, and its rules, but maybe we’ll get more clarification now that the FBI trials are done.

Juwan Howard will be the next Michigan head coach

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Juwan Howard is heading back to school.

The former Fab Five member has accepted an offer to replace John Beilein as Michigan’s next head coach, according to multiple reports. He has spent the last six seasons as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, where he played his final three seasons as a pro. The Wolverines ultimately picked Howard over Providence head coach Ed Cooley and Luke Yaklich, who was an assistant on Michigan’s staff the last two years.

Stadium is reporting that Howard has agreed to a five-year deal.

This will be the first time in 25 years that Howard has been back in the mix on a college campus, since he left Ann Arbor to become the No. 5 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, and that is what makes this decision a risk for the Wolverines.

Howard has never been an assistant coach at the college level. He hasn’t worked at the high school level. He hasn’t coached in the AAU ranks. There is not a strong track record for this kind of a hire. Of all the former NBA player that have ended up coaching a college team, Fred Hoiberg is really the only one that has had unquestionable and continued success. Kevin Ollie won a national title with UConn, but he not only was an assistant coach on Jim Calhoun’s staff for two years before getting the job, his title-winning team was a No. 7-seed that rode Shabazz Napier’s coattails to the title and he eventually got fired after driving UConn straight into the ground. Chris Mullin was a bust at St. John’s. The jury is still out on Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, but two years in he’s sitting with a 34-29 record and a 14-22 mark in the Big East.

Avery Johnson. Isiah Thomas. Clyde Drexler. Mike Dunleavy. Mark Price. Danny Manning. The list of NBA guys that have gone back to school and fizzled out is long.

Penny Hardaway — and, to a point, Jerry Stackhouse — are different. Penny worked his way up from the bottom. He started as a middle school coach and spent about a decade coaching in the high school and AAU ranks in Memphis before taking over the Tigers. Stackhouse coached an AAU program before taking over at Vanderbilt as well. They know the ins and outs of building relationships at that level. They had a keen understanding of what it means to be a head coach at the college level when they got hired, even if that understanding came from dealing with coaches recruiting their players.

Howard doesn’t have that.

And it doesn’t mean that he is going to be a flop.

When you have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade campaigning for you, the kids you will be recruiting will take notice. When your candidacy brings Jalen Rose and Chris Webber together, there are going to be people in Ann Arbor that want to make this work. He spent two decades playing in the NBA. He was an assistant on Erik Spoelstra’s staff, a staff that has turned the Heat into one of the better defensive teams in the NBA ever since LeBron left. That same staff has also proven themselves capable of establishing a culture of hard work, toughness and player development.

Howard may not have a ton of experience on a college bench — or doing the things required to run a college program — but the coaching chops are there.

But there is no question that this is a major risk.

And while Warde Manuel’s decision to hire Ollie when he had the same job in Storrs did result in UConn winning their fourth national title, he also ended up bringing in the guy that had to be fired just four years after cutting down those nets.

Clemson forward Baehre tears knee ligament

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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson forward Jonathan Baehre is out indefinitely after tearing a knee ligament.

The school says the injury occurred during practice Monday. There is no timetable for his return.

Baehre is a 6-foot-10 junior transfer from UNC Asheville who sat out last season. With four senior starters gone off this year’s team, Baehre was expected to play a major role for the Tigers.

Coach Brad Brownell says it’s an unfortunate injury for Baehre and the team. Brownell says Baehre had worked hard since joining the Tigers and he had no doubt Baehre would approach rehab strongly “and have a very productive career at Clemson.”

Baehre, from Germany, started 21 games for UNC Asheville in 2017-18 and averaged 7.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game.