Changing The Game: Inside Villanova’s transition to small-ball, positionless basketball
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.”
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.
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.