SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A wave of positionless basketball has swept the nation. Coaches have loaded rosters with smaller, athletic players who shoot 3-pointers and beat defenders off the dribble. Three, sometimes four-guard lineups have become the norm, free-flowing the way to go.
This year’s Final Four teams certainly fit the mold. These final four also have something else in common: Skilled big men who keep defenses honest, grab rebounds and protect the rim with all those smaller guys out there.
Villanova has Omari Spellman, Kansas Udoka Azubuike. Moe Wagner is Michigan’s man in the middle and burly freshman Cameron Krutwig anchors the paint for Loyola-Chicago.
Those four are a big reason these four are in San Antonio this weekend.
“Big guys are going to be really valuable if they’re really skilled,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Everybody can get the positionless thing, but the guys who have positionless with the big guy, that’s going to be the best team.”
Wright’s Wildcats have a similar makeup to his 2016 title team. That squad had a group mostly in the 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-8 range who could play multiple positions and shoot lights out. In the middle was Daniel Ochefu, an athletic 6-11 senior who could play with his back to the basket or square up for short jumpers. Defenses had to pay attention to Ochefu in the middle, freeing up Villanova’s perimeter shooters, and he was the rim protector the Wildcats needed.
Spellman has filled a similar role — with a twist.
He gives Villanova an inside offensive presence and is a high-flying shot blocker on defense, just like Ochefu. But the 6-9 redshirt freshman also contributes from the perimeter, hitting 45 percent of his shots from the 3-point arc. He was 4 for 7 on 3s in the Sweet 16, helping Villanova grind out a tough victory against West Virginia.
“There’s so many playmakers who can get in the lane and so many big guys now who are able to stretch out and hit the 3,” Villanova guard Jalen Brunson said. “It’s just playing off each other. We have the ability to do that. Everything is unique. You have big guys who are able to make plays for themselves and others as well. I just like how complete we are.”
Wagner has a similar impact on Michigan.
The 6-11 German junior is a crafty inside player with good footwork and a multitude of moves. He also can step out and drain the 3, leading the nation among players 6-11 or taller with 59 this season.
Moritz’s maneuvering inside and out opens up the perimeter, where the Wolverines score more than 43 percent of their points. His agility also gives Michigan multiple options in its swarming defense.
“Being able to have a versatile big is huge because they can space the floor,” Michigan freshman guard Jordan Poole said. “We don’t feel like we have any matchup problems. For him to be able to hold a 5, but also being able to hold a 2-guard, is definitely big for our defensive principles and it gives us a lot of options.”
Azubuike and Krutwig are not perimeter shooters by any stretch, yet are the perfect fit for their teams.
Azubuike is a load inside at 7-foot, 280 pounds and plays with an aggressiveness that forces teams to double team or least hedge toward the Nigerian big man. Kansas coach Bill Self likes to work the ball from the inside out and Azubuike’s ability to batter his way to the rim frees up the Jayhawks’ plethora of shooters.
Azubuike led the nation by shooting 77 percent and is hitting an incredible 82 percent over his past 11 games. He’s also a force on the offensive glass and flies in for blocked shots if his teammates get beat off the dribble.
“They just make it really hard on you,” Spellman said of Kansas. “They’ve got four guys who are going off the dribble making great plays. They have a big guy in the middle, 7-foot, just offensive rebounding anything they miss and sealing up the rim. We do kind of do the same thing, but it’s hard to guard.”
Krutwig’s burliness makes Loyola a tough guard.
The Ramblers rely on quick ball movement and sharp cuts, often playing with four guards on the court at the same time. Krutwig makes it impossible for defenses to just gang up on the 3-point line.
A beefy 6-9, Krutwig plays a bruising game, often initiating contact. He has a variety of old-school up-and-under moves around the basket and is a deft passer from the post, whipping balls to the Ramblers’ cache of shooters.
“We play four guards at a time a lot, so when you’ve got guys who can space the floor and have an unselfish group, getting the domino started,” Loyola swingman Donte Ingram said. “When you have a post threat like Cameron, it makes us a very balanced team.”
This Final Four has four of them, thanks to their big men.