College basketball: A guard's game
Grinnell coach David Arseneault knows a thing or two about guards. Take one look at his roster and you realize why.
When Arseneault took over at Grinnell, a tiny Division III school in central Iowa revered more for its academics than its fledgling basketball program, he sized up his team, looked at his competition and decided to do something revolutionary: He recruited guards.
"I figured, everyone else was getting the bigger, stronger kids," Arseneault said. "Why not figure out a way to keep the ball between the hash marks, to put some other teams off-balance? I had no idea what it would become."
What it's become is "The System," Arseneault's bat-dung-crazy calling card that turned the Pioneers into the first Division III school to be televised by ESPN in 30 years and their coach into a fringe hoops guru overseeing an alternately revolutionary and exasperating basketball circus act.
"The System" is powered by "The Formula," which calls for Grinnell's players -- who, like hockey lines, rotate every other minute in groups of five -- to attempt 94 field goals per game (47 of which should be 3-pointers), to crash the offensive glass with reckless abandon and to constantly press opponents the full length of the court for the entire game. It's not for the faint of heart or, frankly, fans of defense. And it requires lots of creative, intelligent and intuitive guards.
Division I teams don't have much in common with Grinnell. Even the uppest of uptempo teams don't fire off 47 3s per game. (Though a hoops fan can dream, can't he?) But if you look closely at the modern college basketball landscape -- especially college basketball in the 2010-11 season -- you might notice at least one similarity.
Everybody needs those guards.
Whether a bona fide trend or a coincidence of timing, it's hard to argue against the importance of guards in the college game this season. Nearly every team that has impressed in nonconference play has done so thanks in large part to its backcourt stars.
Count the names: Kemba Walker at Connecticut. Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith at Duke. Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark at Georgetown. Melvin Goins and Scotty Hopson at Tennessee. Jacob Pullen at Kansas State. Jimmer Fredette at BYU. Kalin Lucas at Michigan State. E'Twaun Moore at Purdue. Demetri McCamey at Illinois. Marcus Denmon at Missouri. Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker at Pittsburgh. Isaiah Thomas at Washington. LaceDarius Dunn at Baylor. The list goes on and on.
"Guard play is as critical now as it ever has been, and maybe more so," said Richmond coach Chris Mooney, whose team relies heavily on the commanding play of senior point guard Kevin Anderson. "If you have good guard play, you can play with anybody."
Is college hoops going to the guards? Before we go any further, we might as well test the premise.
To that end, here are the teams ranked Nos. 1-25 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings and the player on each who accounts for the highest percentage of possessions ended while he is on the floor. No, it's not the most scientific study in the world. Instead, consider it a glimpse.
(Note: Pomeroy numbers updated to include all games through Dec. 13.)
2. Kansas (Thomas Robinson, 28.8 percent)
3. Ohio State (Deshaun Thomas, 29.4 percent)
4. Pittsburgh (Brad Wanamaker, 26.2 percent)
5. Kentucky (Terrence Jones, 30.5 percent)
6. Washington (Matthew Bryan-Amaning, 26.4 percent)
7. BYU (Jimmer Fredette, 31.4 percent)
8. Wisconsin (Jon Leuer, 28.3 percent)
9. Syracuse (Scoop Jardine, 26.5 percent)
10. Georgetown (Julian Vaughn, 26.8 percent)
11. Louisville (Peyton Siva, 25.6 percent)
12. Illinois (Demetri McCamey, 24.3 percent)
13. Baylor (LaceDarius Dunn, 30.0 percent)
14. Purdue (E'Twaun Moore, 28.0 percent)
15. Arizona (Derrick Williams, 28.6 percent)
16. Tennessee (Scotty Hopson, 28.7 percent)
17. Michigan State (Kalin Lucas, 25.0 percent)
18. San Diego State (Kawhi Leonard, 27.5 percent)
19. UNLV (Anthony Marshall, 22.9 percent)
20. West Virginia (Deniz Kilicli, 28.3 percent)
21. Texas (Jordan Hamilton, 28.7 percent)
22. Florida (Vernon Macklin, 25.3 percent)
23. Villanova (Maalik Wayns, 28.2 percent)
24. Maryland (Terrell Stoglin, 28.2 percent)
25. Kansas State (Jacob Pullen, 28.6 percent)
Of these 25 teams, 16 feature guards as their highest-usage players. But this is far from a perfect exercise, and there are caveats worth mentioning. For example, you'll find several instances where the results aren't indicative of each team's most important contributor.
Ohio State relies far more heavily on Jared Sullinger than Deshaun Thomas. Same goes for Jordan Williams, and not Stoglin, at Maryland. Georgetown's three guards have been more important to that team's success than Vaughn (though Vaughn has been good). In its uptempo attack, Washington goes as Isaiah Thomas goes. And so on.
Nor does this take into account any number of other notable teams and players that could affect in to sample one way or the other.
In other words, usage rate doesn't automatically equal importance, and, again, this is just a glimpse. Still, it's a glimpse at a college basketball season that has felt, to this point, largely dominated by dynamic perimeter players named Walker, Irving, Smith and Fredette.
If this is a trend, then why? Are there really more guards in the world? Are basketball players just getting shorter? (OK, so that's one hypothesis we can throw out right away.)
For one, the theory isn't universal; the Thomas Robinsons and Jared Sullingers of the world are still plying their trades in the college ranks, but they seem to be the exception and not the rule.
Mooney said he's seen more versatile lineups in the college game in recent years, more coaches willing to throw their shorter players on the floor in uptempo-oriented systems.
"You have definitely seen more teams these days that play three- and four-guard lineups," Mooney said. "You see teams that aren't especially big or physical that are able to do very well despite that. And I think that's part of the natural evolution of the game."
You can see that evolution any time Missouri, Kentucky, BYU, Villanova, Tennessee, Louisville and Washington, among many others, take the court. Even Duke, which won a national title last season by slowing the game, getting good half-court looks and relying on the beefy interior rebounding of Brian Zoubek, changed its style to suit Irving's brilliance this season. (That is, before a toe injury sidelined the freshman indefinitely.)
That evolution may not be entirely voluntary. Mooney cited disproportionate NBA salivation for big men as one reason coaches choose to play smaller, quicker lineups.
Georgetown coach John Thompson III agreed. "The NBA will draft a big guy on potential quicker than they will a smaller guy," he said. "More big guys are going to leave school, or at least have the opportunity to leave school, before some of the smaller guys."
Thompson would know. This summer, his team lost former Big East freshman of the year Greg Monroe to the NBA draft lottery, leaving the Hoyas with a glut of talented guards but much less certainty on the interior. So Thompson did what he thinks most coaches now do. He put his five best players on the court.
"It just so happens that my three best players are all perimeter players," Thompson said. "I'm going to play my best players. Fortunately they're all unselfish, and they help each other.
"The conventional wisdom has always been, you've got a 1 as your point guard, a 2 as your shooting guard, a 3 as your small forward, a 4 as your power forward and a 5 as your center. I think coaches and players now just say, 'I"m going to put my best players on the court.' The stereotypes that have always gone along with those numbers, I don't think that's applicable anymore. We don't even talk in terms of numbers. I get questions like, 'Who's your 2?' Well, I don't know who my 2 is. We've got some players out there."
And, of course, there's a trend so old it's barely worth mentioning: The fact that forwards at all levels of basketball are more versatile, skilled and polished than ever before.
"There's no question," Mooney said. "Guys like Kyle Singler, who can do the tough things forwards are supposed to do -- can rebound the ball, all that -- but are also very good shooters and have clearly worked on their ballhandling all their lives, that's another big factor in the way the game is played right now. And I think it's a positive thing for the game, no question."
Add all that up -- more polished, guard-like forwards, fewer elite big men thanks to the NBA, more emphasis on uptempo play, less emphasis on codified basketball roles -- and you get a college hoops landscape in which guards are seemingly more important than ever. You get a game in which, if you squint hard enough, everyone on the floor looks a little like a guard.
If you squint hard enough, college hoops might even look a little bit like Grinnell -- albeit Grinnell in slow motion. "The era of the dominant big man in the quarter-court is over," Arseneault said. "Competitively, there's just so much more you can do with good guards across the entire court to eliminate some of those quarter-court disadvantages.
"Really, I just love watching good guards play," Arseneault said. "Sometimes I feel like a WWE ringleader trying to come up with new material. But more than anything, I want to watch people be creative with the basketball."
Whether it's 94 shots or 44 -- and whether those players are guards, point forwards or just plain forwards -- that's one thing we can all agree on.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.