[QUOTE]One of the things I love about the first part of the college basketball season is to have my TiVos and VCRs going full-time so I can watch as many games as I can. It allows me to keep up with my friends in coaching, talk about players and teams that could burst onto the national scene, and closely study the players and teams already getting a lot of attention to see if, in my eyes, they are the real deal.
Any coach with a lot of experience who watches tape will tell you that he can spot a trend with a particular player or team. When I was scouting our opponents, I needed to discover whether a particular team’s star player could drive with both hands or whether he was a “one-armed bandit” who could be forced to a weak hand. I looked to see if the opponent got back in transition defense or if we could fast break on them.
It is the same with the whole landscape of a college basketball season. If you watch enough games and pay close enough attention, you can pick up on some trends across the landscape. Here are three of the big trends I have seen so far and how I think they will impact the rest of the season. These will give you more understanding, from a coach’s perspective, about why some teams will play well and some won’t.
- Dribble penetration
Bob Knight’s Indiana teams changed basketball in the 1970s and '80s by starting the resurgence of the “passing game” motion offense. A premium was put on passing, screening and reading how the defense was defending you. The use of the dribble was discouraged and the ball moved better than FedEx moves freight. A lot of coaches copied this style with effectiveness.
As players’ passing skills and shooting skills have eroded over the past decade, their ability to dribble the ball has improved. Dribbling always has been a favorite skill of city kids, and as the AND 1 Mix Tape culture has taken hold, the ability to drive the ball in the lane has become universal – and the most dangerous weapon in the college game. It’s why playing more than one point guard, like Duke does with Sean Dockery and Greg Paulus, is in vogue. The thinking is that is it is easier to drive inside than to pass it inside.
Villanova has gotten away with its four-guard offense – we’ll discuss that next – because each of the guards can attack off the dribble and get into the lane. If you don’t have a dominant post player who draws a double-team and creates a 4-on-3 for his teammates, you’d better have guards who can, as Dickie V would say, be “3-D” guys – be able to drive into the lane, draw more than one defender and dish to the open man.
Rajon Rondo and Paulus can dominate a game without a consistent jumper because they are impossible to keep out of the lane. Daniel Gibson is lethal when his jumper is on because opponents also must respect his ability to drive it.
On the other hand, more teams allow dribble penetration than ever. Containing it is the key to being a good defensive team. I love Michigan State’s chances to get back to the Final Four because the Spartans have three very good offensive players, but I would sleep better with my choice if they got back to playing the type of D that has been a linchpin of coach Tom Izzo’s success. They currently give up 1.01 points a possession – last in the Big Ten – because they don’t yet effectively contain the dribble. But, trust me, they are not alone.
Gonzaga may have even more offensive weapons than Michigan State. I love watching the Zags play because their team skill level is so good, but I can’t get excited about their chances to get to the Final Four until they prove they can stop quality teams in March. Their ability to move their feet and defend the dribble is still a concern of mine.
When you are watching a game over the next two months, observe how well a team keeps the ball out of the paint. The teams that do usually will be effective defensively.
- Four-guard offenses
Out of desperation (and a lack of a proven big man), a number of teams are using the four-guard alignment with surprising effectiveness. When Curtis Sumpter went down with an injury in the NCAA Tournament last year, Jay Wright improvised and put his best players on the floor and almost stole a win over eventual NCAA champ North Carolina.
Along with Villanova, Tennessee and USC have used the four-guard alignment to key surprising starts to their seasons. But, while Randy Foye, Alan Ray, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry are combining for 63.4 points per game for the Wildcats, Wright has some concerns.
“I’m still not sold on it,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I am concerned about the long haul, playing against bigger bodies, tougher bodies, with no rest.”
I think it will continue to be effective because I believe it is harder for a big team to guard a small team than vice versa. When Villanova beat Oklahoma in December, it had to contend with one of most physical inside tandems in basketball (Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout), who combined for 37 points and 10 rebounds. However, OU had no chance to defend in man-to-man or zone because one of the two big men was constantly stuck out on the perimeter and away from familiar territory. Villanova’s quartet scored 70 of the team’s 85 points.
On the defensive end, a smaller team can put great pressure on the post feeder, can front the post with quickness and can help on the weak side because of its quickness. And, when the ball is kept out of the post, teams must take more outside shots. Longer shots can mean longer rebounds and the smaller, quicker team wins there, as well. Foye and the Vols’ Dane Bradshaw, a converted guard, both average about six rebounds a game because they get hustle rebounds below the rim. Both Villanova and USC are holding opponents to an outstanding 38 percent from the field – and Ken Pomeroy, “the Bill James of college hoops” (check out kenpom.com and Ken’s columns here on ESPN.com), points out that both teams are in his top five in the country in raw defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions).
- Point guards who are not really points
My prototypical point guard shoots 80 percent from the foul line, 40 percent from 3, averages eight assists per game and has a 4:1 assist/turnover ratio. Unfortunately, guys like Bobby Hurley and T.J. Ford don’t come around too often, and in a era when elite high school players use college as a quick stopover on the way to an NBA career, their priorities are often more about individual success than team success.
Rondo, Daniel Gibson and Carl Krauser, all likely NBA point guards, are playing off the ball much of the time this year to take advantage of their scoring ability. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith has the luxury of pairing Rondo with Patrick Sparks, and Pitt coach Jamie Dixon has two outstanding young guards (sophomore Ronald Ramon and freshman Levance Fields) to take the pressure off of Krauser.
Remember, it’s hard to be an effective scorer and be responsible for everyone else in the offense. When you can’t balance both responsibilities, your team will struggle. It works the other way, as well. Justin Gray, trying to convert to the point for Wake Forest, turned the ball over 29 times in the Deacons’ first four games. Since sliding back to the shooting guard, he has only 16 TOs in the last nine games.
Darius Washington Jr. might be, along with Rondo, the most physically gifted of all the great point guards in college right now, but I always sense that he will pass only after he has explored every opportunity to get a shot for himself. Remember, he averaged more than 30 points per game in high school. The proof is in the pudding, because on a team with top-five talent to pass to, his assist to turnover ratio is a mediocre 1.4:1.
Thought this was a good read. I completely agree with him re: Villanova’s 4G offense, which I watched last night. It highlights the importance of Withers and discusses the importance of being able to drive to the basket if you cant pass it in there.