Style, talent, and the eclipse of the chess match



Villanova has succeeded to a degree that is seen in post-Wooden college basketball only once every decade or so, and that success, of course, comes with some very serious role-model responsibilities.

There’s just one problem. Holding up the Wildcats as a paragon of How to Win in 2018 and Beyond turns out to be more easily proclaimed than promulgated. It’s difficult if not impossible to find any discretionary schematic, stylistic, and/or demographic characteristic wherein Jay Wright’s men rate out as No. 1 the way they so clearly do in terms of bottom-line results.

Take the scheme on offense. Villanova has indeed performed remarkable feats using it, and, in the 2018 afterglow, this usage is being depicted as decade-plus-long reign of laudable (if not mandatory) NBA awareness, one dating all the way back to the four-guard Wildcat lineup that reached the 2006 Elite Eight.

Those memories aren’t incorrect so much as incomplete. For, in the early years of this decade, the Wildcats consistently ranked outside the top 100 nationally for three-point attempts and, on occasion, put paint-shooting-only 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-11 types at both the 4 and the 5 spots. All it got Nova in between 2011 and 2013 was a 54-45 record and zero NCAA tournament wins. Going small has clearly been the correct choice for Wright, but his is far from the only small-ball team in Division I.

Nor can Nova’s remarkable level of 2014-18 success be satisfactorily explained through stylistic markers like degree of perimeter orientation, avoidance of two-point jumpers, or years of cumulative experience in the rotation, to name but three popular thou-shalt contenders. Teams that equal or even outperform Wright’s guys on all of the above criteria are but a trackpad click away. (For example, Washington State, Virginia Tech, and every doomed Big 12 team Nova just vaporized in the tournament, respectively.)

Nevertheless, the Wildcats finished 2018 with both the best offense in the country, and, more importantly, a second national title in three seasons. This of course comes at the end of a five-season run that’s been unparalleled nationally. No one predicted this as Villanova’s destiny on November 1, 2013, when the Wildcats were coming off a desultory 10-8 run through the last iteration of the old-style Boeheim, Brey, and Bearcats Big East.

College basketball is supposedly a multi-thousand-possession canvas of perfect performance clarity known as the regular season, followed by a roulette wheel of outcome randomness in the form of a single-elimination tournament. Sounds about right, or it did, until Villanova nullified that February-March dissonance so resolutely over the last five years. The Wildcats have quite simply been unsurpassed on both of these highly disparate measures.

Success, 2014-18

                                  NCAA tournament
                 Avg. AdjEM       Avg. seed  Wins
Villanova          30.00             1.4      15
Virginia           28.00             2.0       7
Kentucky           26.55             4.0      15
Duke               26.33             2.4      12
Kansas             25.59             1.4      12
North Carolina     24.78             2.8      15
Gonzaga            24.76             5.2      13      


Something’s working. What is it?

Small ball will reign supreme until it doesn’t
In the sense that so few people remarked on it, it’s somewhat remarkable that Villanova played this season with no one taller than 6-foot-8 on the floor. Surely in years past the talk going into the national championship game would have been focused relentlessly on how the Wildcats could possibly stop a Michigan star who’s 6-foot-11. Even that discussion would have paled in intensity compared to the week-long scouting clinic heading into the Final Four on the topic of what in the world Wright’s guys would do when confronted with a Kansas star who’s a bona fide 7-foot-0, 280-pound post scorer.

We don’t talk nearly as much in that direction anymore, and it’s striking. You can chalk that up to the increasing importance of the three-point shot, of course, and that’s valid enough, though perhaps in a more indirect sense than we realize.

Up until a few years ago, we worried about 6-foot-8 guys going up against seven-footers because we assumed those little guys were just less effective versions of their taller opponents. Now that expectation’s been not so much turned on its head as expanded in a new direction. Now we worry about the taller player guarding the little guy “in space” or “out on the floor.”

When all five players are able to shoot threes (get with the program, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree), there will likely be a high number of threes attempted. Sure enough, Villanova won six NCAA tournament games while taking more shots from beyond the arc (183) than inside it (165). We’ve never seen that before.

Then again, one of the teachable ironies of this Wildcat run was how perimeter orientation was celebrated as the wave of the future at the same moment in which Jalen Brunson’s post-up game was (rightly) being praised to the skies. The common thread linking Brunson’s tournament-long tribute to Wes Unseld on the one hand and Omari Spellman spotting up in the corner or even handling the ball up top on the other is that in both instances defenders were being asked to do things they don’t often do.

It may be the case that spacing and sheer proclivity toward attempts have more of an impact than we yet appreciate as opposed to the self-evident importance of accuracy itself (which, even for Villanova, is a fickle companion). If that’s correct to some degree, the important boundary crossed by the Wildcats might be less that they unleashed the power of made threes than that they unleashed the power of possessing uniform and exceptionally well-spaced three-point ability.

Recruiting the next Brunsons, Spellmans, and DiVincenzos
Villanova’s success has of course been used as ammo against the one-and-done model of talent acquisition, which is all well and good. Still, when the national title in any given season will either be won by “Duke slash Kentucky” or “rest of the field,” the smart money will always be with the latter irrespective of personnel strategies.

In effect, Wright’s pitched his recruiting tent just outside the McDonald’s All-American game. (Though the head coach did broad-mindedly accept Brunson even though the young man had the temerity to play in said contest.) Villanova’s been strip-mining the midsection of the top 100, leaving the very top of the list as a Panem where other programs can exhaust themselves to their heart’s content.

                  Year    RSCI   NCAAT min
Brunson           2015     19      188
Paschall          2014     NR      180
Bridges           2014     96      177
Booth             2014     84      171
Spellman          2016     17      166
DiVincenzo        2015     NR      166
Gillespie         2017     NR       69
Cosby-Roundtree   2017     74       60
Samuels           2017     45       11

Two things about recruiting in between roughly Nos. 15 and 150 perhaps merit comment. First, it’s doubtful this approach has succeeded because Villanova’s signed no freshmen from No. 15 or above. After all, one can most certainly envision a modernity-congruent star like, say, Jaren Jackson as having a glorious season as a Wildcat. Rather, the material point for teams that want to be like Nova might be simply that Wright’s been able to succeed so ostentatiously while getting no one above No. 15 or so.

Second, doing this the way Villanova’s done it is actually more unusual than it looks. Penn State, to take an instate example, also had a glorious 2016 recruiting cycle in the middle of the top 150, but that was understood to be a spastic fit of hoarding that would then last Pat Chambers for a while. Conversely, Wright does this annually, methodically, and sans fanfare. It’s been a nifty piece of talent sequencing, one that answers the demands of a sport wherein the most promising NBA prospects are a prominent and valuable but fleeting presence.

The Pep Guardiola school of player development
What happens next with these No. 70-something-ranked types is now pretty well established. They become polished drive-shoot-kick- and, especially, hockey-assist hybrids who terrorize less versatile opponents. Maybe that’s classic player development, or perhaps it’s player development of a particularly advanced, effective, and direct-from-the-sport-itself type we don’t often see.

In addition to Wright patiently tutoring his eager charges on the how’s and why’s of proper technique, perhaps what’s also happening here is that his players are getting a chance to collectively play basketball of a markedly effective kind. Maybe players are developed by basketball even more than by coaches, though Wright most certainly deserves full credit for locating that elusive window and flinging it open.

That would be very much in keeping, after all, with the modus operandi of a program that has “concepts” instead of set plays. “They have like five plays,” Chris Beard has said of Villanova, and, of course, he was speaking admiringly.

If it’s possible for a coach who’s won two national titles in three years to pay an esteem tariff (and, to be clear, that should not be possible), Wright does so with his concepts. No one ever praises Wright after the game for winning the “chess match,” and we college basketball writers love to find and explain chess matches.

Most coaches love playing them, too, and, in this, Wright is going against-trend. In Wright’s defense, maybe the trend itself is more contingent and accidental than we writers or the coaches we most often limn realize. Bob Knight was no foster-the-players nurturer, goodness knows, yet even the authoritarian’s authoritarian played a motion offense that primarily required players to read and react.

Knight left an imprint on college basketball (and, quite possibly, on basketball, period) that has required decades to outrun, and it’s conceivable part of that lesson was lost in translation. Somewhere along the line, coaches came to believe they needed to be in-play authoritarians. The soil for that belief is thinner and of more recent vintage than we think, and, anyway, Wright’s demonstrated conclusively that other approaches can work as well.

There’s no one Villanova “thing” that can be copied that will transform a different team into Villanova, not shooting lots of threes, spacing the floor, playing veterans, redshirting lots of players, recruiting below the one-and-done troposphere, or even catalyzing a new birth of player freedom and discretionary sovereignty on the court. The most that can be said of Wright is merely that he’s brought all of the above together and it’s worked beautifully. With luck, the future will belong not to those who copy him point by point but to those who are just as creative and independent as he is.