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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.

Careers of all-time great scorers Mike Daum and Chris Clemons come to a close

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The spots for Mike Daum and Chris Clemons in the NCAA record book are now in place.

Both players’ teams lost in NIT openers on Tuesday, with Clemons and Campbell falling to UNC Greensboro, 84-69, while Daum’s Jackrabbits lost at Texas, 79-73.

Clemons finishes third all-time in scoring with 3,225 career points while Daum slots in at sixth with 3,067. Doug McDermott (3,150) and Alphonso Ford (3,165) separate them in fifth and fourth, respectively. LSU great Pete Maravich is first with 3,667.

Daum came to the Jackrabbits as a no-name recruit out of Kimball, Neb. that would ultimately redshirt his first year on campus. He went on to score 518 points as a freshman in the only season he failed top 800. He played in three NCAA tournaments with the Jackrabbits, who lost in the first round of the Summit League tournament as a one-seed, a fate Daum knew was a possibility when he opted not to graduate transfer out of Brookings this past spring. Daum scored 25 in his final game.

Clemons, a North Carolina native, scored at least 1,200 as both a sophomore and a senior, averaging 30 per game during his final collegiate season and nearly 25 for his career, which never featured an NCAA tournament appearance. In his last game, Clemons went out scoring, putting 32 on Greensboro.

Both players spent their careers in relative anonymity at mid-majors, but their legacies will loom large for years to come as two of the most prolific scorers the college game has seen.

Belmont pulls away in second half to beat Temple

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Rick Byrd is on the board.

The Belmont coach, in his 33rd years with the Bruins, has his first NCAA tournament win.

Belmont is moving on after defeating Temple, 81-70, on Tuesday in the First Four, notching that first tournament victory against another coaching fixture, Fran Dunphy, in the latter’s final game with the Owls.

Temple led by as many as five in the second half after erasing an 11-point deficit, but Belmont ripped off a 16-3 run to take an eight-point advantage with under 7 minutes to play that would prove more than enough to move on to the Round of 64.

Temple shot 39.4 percent from the floor and 31.8 percent on 22 attempts from 3-point range while committing 11 turnovers as Dunphy’s accomplished career came to a close in Dayton.

Dunphy is a Big 5 lifer. He played at La Salle, coached at Penn for 17 years and then took over the Temple program in 2006. He finished with 580 career wins in 30 years as a head coach. Assistant Aaron McKie is set to take over the Owls job in Dunphy’s stead in a move that was announced last offseason.

Shizz Alson, Jr. scored a team-high 21 points for the Owls, who finish the season 23-10.

Belmont shot at a blistering 52.8 percent from the floor and got 29 points from Kevin McClain on 8 of 14 shooting that included four triples.  Nick Muszynski, returning from injury, had 16 points (making 8 of 12 shots) along with four rebounds, three assists and two blocks.

The Bruins will now fly south to Jacksonville, where Maryland, a six seed, awaits them for a Thursday tip in the first round of the South region. The Terps went 22-10 and finished fifth in the Big Ten with a 13-7 conference mark. Belmont went 1-1 this season against Power 5 opponents with a win at UCLA and a loss in West Lafayette against Purdue in December.

Fairleigh Dickinson comes from behind for First Four victory

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The first game of the NCAA tournament provided the event’s customary drama.

Fairleigh Dickinson came from 13 down to defeat Prairie View, 82-76, on Tuesday night at the First Four in Dayton to join the rest of the field later this week with a matchup against the West regional’s No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Thursday.

Prairie View built an early double-digit lead thanks to a monster first-half effort from 3-point range in which they connected on eight of 12 shots from distance while also collecting six offensive rebounds. Fairleigh Dickinson, though was able to halve the deficit in time for half to go into the locker room down just seven.

The Panthers once again pushed their lead to 13 in the second half’s opening minutes, but Knights tied the game with 7:33 left and subsequently took the lead only to give it back to Prairie View. The Knights, though, wrestled the lead back on a 3-pointer from Jahlil Jenkins that kickstarted an 8-0 run that put Fairleigh Dickson up six. Prairie View cut the lead to two in the final minute but couldn’t close the gap.

Darnell Edge scored 33 to lead the lights while Jenkins had 22. Gary Blackston had 26 for the Panthers.

Fairleigh Dickinson shot 54.5 percent from the field for the game after converting at a 68 percent clip after halftime to win the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament game.

The Knights will now have to jet west to take on Gonzaga (30-3) in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The Zags figure to be huge favorites but just a year removed from UMBC upending Virginia, 16 seeds will likely be imbued with an extra dose of confidence this March.

2019 NCAA Tournament: Kansas State’s Dean Wade doubtful for tourney

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Kansas State is going to have difficult replicating its NCAA tournament success from a year ago. Unless it can once again survive the loss of its marquee forward.

Dean Wade, the Wildcats’ top player and Big 12 preseason player of the year, is unlikely to play in the tournament due to a lingering foot injury, coach Bruce Weber said Tuesday evening, per Kellis Robinett of the Kansas City Star.

The Wildcats, a four seed, are slated to meet UC Irvine on Friday in San Jose.

Injuries have cost Wade, who played minimally in K-State Elite Eight run last year because of injury, much of his senior season as it sidelined him for six games starting in December and carrying on into Big 12 play. He then aggravated the injury Feb. 16 in a home loss to Iowa State, but returned to beat Baylor. He did not miss any additional time during the regular season as the Wildcats tied for the Big 12 championship with Texas Tech as Kansas was shutout from a league title for the first time in 14 years.

The injury, though, forced Wade out of both Kansas State’s Big 12 tournament games, including a semifinal loss to eventual champion Iowa State.

“We’ve grown. We went through it, been through it without Dean, which is always tough,” Weber said after the loss to the Cyclones last weekend. “But we survived and advanced last year and we were able to get some experience under our belt. Obviously, it’s not last year. It’s going to be different teams. The ball is going to bounce different. The shots are going to fall different, but it gives us the self-confidence that it’s able to be done.”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game this season while shooting 49.8 percent from the floor.

2019 NCAA Tournament: Which high seeds are on upset watch?

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The best part about the NCAA tournaments are the upsets.

It’s the thrill of seeing the team that you — and nobody else — picked to win knock off one of the big boys, especially when it comes courtesy of a buzzer-beater.

Here at College Basketball Talk, we like to inform you of the upsets before they happen.

So we guarantee that these six lower-seeded teams will win these games.

No. 14 YALE over No. 3 LSU, Thu. 12:40 p.m.

I am all in on the Elis taking down the Tigers on Thursday afternoon.

The biggest reason for this is that LSU is playing without their head coach. Will Wade has been held out by LSU after he refused to speak with the administration following the reports that he was caught on a wiretap by the FBI discussing a payment for a player. That’s big, because Wade is a terrific coach that is terrific when it comes to make in-game adjustments, and I do think there is something to the idea of substitute teacher syndrome setting in.

But beyond that, I just believe in this Yale team. They got dudes. Miye Oni is going to be an NBA draft pick, potentially a first rounder, as a 6-foot-6 combo-guard. Jordan Bruner is a do-it-all, 6-foot-9 forward that should be playing in the SEC, not the Ivy League. Alex Copeland proved that he can take a game over at the point. I also think it’s important to note that LSU does a lot of their damage on the offensive glass, and while Yale is going to be physically outmatched against LSU, they are top 25 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.

There’s talent on Yale, they matchup well with LSU and the Tigers will be missing their coach. I like it when the dots connect.

No. 12 OREGON vs. No. 5 WISCONSIN, Fri. 4:30 p.m.

There may not be a hotter team in the country right now than Oregon, who rolled through the end of the Pac-12 season before winning the Pac-12 tournament, beating Washington in impressive fashion twice in the process. The question is going to be how Wisconsin goes about breaking down Oregon’s zone, and while I do think that Ethan Happ can really pick it apart, it is important to note that the Ducks will be running out Kenny Wooten. He is as good of a defender as there is in the paint, and I would not be surprised to see him slow Happ down. Also worth noting: The line is this game has moved from Wisconsin (-4) to Wisconsin (-1).

No. 13 UC IRVINE vs. No. 4 KANSAS STATE, Fri. 2:00 p.m.

This changes if Dean Wade plays, but without Dean Wade on the floor, Kansas State is a team that is going to rely on penetration and the ability of their guards to get into the paint. The problem with that is that UC Irvine is a really good defensive team that is built around the concept of forcing teams to drive and finish around the rim, where they do have some size and talented shot-blockers. The Anteaters are really, really good and might be underseeded as a No. 13, and with the Wildcats banged up, this is a matchup that Russell Turner can get the best of.

No. 13 NORTHEASTERN vs. No. 4 KANSAS, Fri. 4:00 p.m.

Kansas is not the Kansas we are used to seeing. They start four freshmen this year, and while two of them are five-star — one of whom has not exactly played like a five-star this year — the other two are the Jayhawks third-string center and a guy that was supposed to redshirt this season. I also think Kansas is overseeded relative to the team they have now based on some non-conference wins they earned with Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick healthy.

Northeastern is a really, really well-coached team that doesn’t beat themselves. They don’t turn the ball over, they shoot it well from three, they control tempo, they don’t give up second chance points and they have a couple of high-level shot-makers, namely Vasa Pusica. The Huskies are dangerous.

No. 6 VILLANOVA vs. No. 3 PURDUE, Sun. TBD

Villanova has to get past St. Mary’s in the first round for this to happen — and that will be no easy feat — but if they do I think that Purdue is about the best possible matchup they could have asked for. Purdue is a team that runs a lot of really great offense to create looks for the shooters they have, but Villanova switches everything. The Wildcats are going to make Purdue beat them one-on-one to get good shots, and I don’t know if the Boilermakers have the guys to be able to do that in this game.

No. 4 FLORIDA STATE vs. No. 1 GONZAGA, Sweet 16

If there is one thing that Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins struggles with, it is defenders with length and athleticism pressuring him all over the floor. That is what Florida State is going to do in this matchup. It worked the last time these two played — in the 2018 Sweet 16 with No. 9 seed Florida State picked off No. 4 seed Gonzaga.

And I also guarantee that these upsets will not happen.

No. 12 MURRAY STATE over No. 5 MARQUETTE, Thu. 4:30 p.m.

I just cannot seed the Racers getting this done against Marquette. For starters, I think that they will be able to hide Markus Howard defensively on some random wing. Then, I think that Sacar Anim will be able to go a good enough job on Ja Morant to keep him from having one of his 40 point nights. And finally, I think Theo John’s presence at the rim will help prevent Morant from having an absolute blow-up game. I didn’t necessarily envision myself going all-in on Marquette in the first round, but here we are.

No. 12 NEW MEXICO STATE vs. No. 5 AUBURN, Fri. 4:30 p.m.

I just think that the Tigers have enough talent — they got dudes! — to beat a good New Mexico State team that has a lot of success because they just play harder than people. I also fully expect the Tigers, who have beaten Tennessee twice in the last 10 days, to continue to run hot. Bruce Pearl will have those guys motivated.