SAN ANTONIO – We have seen the future because it’s already here.
Blame or credit the NBA styles used by Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Mike Dantoni of the Houston Rockets but college basketball’s current hot trend involves having at least four – preferably five – players on the court who can shoot and make 3-pointers and to take those three at a high volume.
The math is so simple even a sportswriter can understand it. Three is more than two. Teams that make 40 percent of their 3-pointers will outpace a team that makes 50 percent of its field goals.
The analytics show that even a three that’s taken quickly or under duress is better than a mid-range jumper or low-post attempt.
Plus, the recent emphasis in how games are officiated has reduced the physical play, the handsy defense, the body checking on cutters. It’s more difficult to guard man-to-man because players on offense have the edge of knowing where they’re going; defenders have the disadvantage of trying to prevent that movement without fouling.
“We all watch the NBA,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said this week. “We all learn from those guys; they’re the best — players and coaches. And then I think the (college) rules, the two rules, obviously the 3-point line, but the freedom of movement, the emphasis on freedom of movement, lack of physicality is making that the evolution of the game – skill, perimeter shooting.
“That’s where I think this is going to continue to be a big part of the game,” he continued. “Then in college we all look and see who gets to the Final Four and what they’re doing. And a lot of us emulate that.”
The top-seeded Wildcats take on No. 3 seed Michigan in Monday night’s national championship game. Villanova will be seeking its second national title in the last three seasons.
If that happens – and Your Veteran Scribe thinks it will – there will be a lot of emulators out there.
Villanova’s biggest obstacle is that it’s not playing a team from the Big 12. The Wildcats have defeated West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas to reach Monday night. Two years ago in the Final Four semifinals, Villanova crushed Oklahoma, 95-51 – the biggest margin of victory in Final Four history.
Wright’s team made more history against the Jayhawks Saturday. Villanova was 18-of-40 from 3-point range, setting a Final Four record for made threes and equaling the record for 3-point attempts. In its last two Final Four semifinals vs. Oklahoma (2016) and Kansas (2018), Villanova is 72-114 (63.1 percent) from the field and 39-58 (67.2 percent) from 3-point range.
It’s unlikely that the Wildcats will storm the Alamodome with another offensive onslaught. But Villanova is No. 1 in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency ratings. Everyone who takes the floor for the Wildcats has the green light. Against the Jayhawks, seven different Villanova made threes in the first half with the five starters having at least two. By game’s end, six players made at least two.
“Obviously we’re very talented offensively,” Villanova junior point guard Jalen Brunson said in a massive understatement.
And there’s bit of wisdom from Kansas freshman Silvio De Sousa, whose Division I experience is 20 games and three months. “It’s hard to guard a team where everybody can shoot.”
That will be the challenge for Michigan, a team that has made drastic defensive improvement this season. The Wolverines’ five NCAA opponents have shot 18-of-75 (24 percent) from three-point range. The counterpoint to that statistic is that the Wolverines haven’t faced an NCAA foe ranked 35 or higher in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency ratings.
“This is Golden State Warriors here,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Sunday when asked defending Villanova. “This is Draymond Green type of thing where your guys can shoot it, they can pass it, they can do everything. It’s how we like to play as well, and it’s a great concept. It’s one I’m very familiar with. It doesn’t mean we can stop it.”
Michigan, seeking its first national title since 1989 and the Big Ten’s first since 2000, has the patina of a team that is about to run out of steam. The Wolverines advanced from the upset-laden left side of the bracket and there’s a suspicion that it has benefited from facing inferior competition.
The highest seed Michigan has defeated is No. 6 Houston – and we all know the good fortune needed for that outcome.
The intent and idea of good defense is multi-layered. First, limit the opponents’ point (thanks, Captain Obvious).
Second, limit the number of “good looks” and make the other team take contested shots. Third, disrupt the opponents’ flow via scouting reports, anticipation, denying passing lanes, prevented unmolested drives to the basket and fighting through and around screens.
What’s changed in college basketball, what Villanova and several other teams are taking advantage of, is spacing the floor. Loyola’s successful run to the Final Four was based on the late Rick Majerus’ mantra of “spacing is offense, offense is spacing.”
It’s similar to the spread offensive concepts that has taken over college football in the last decade.
In hoops it’s about having a “big” roaming around the basket – sometimes coming out to set screens for pick and rolls – with four perimeter players who can all shoot the three, drive when guarded closely and pass to the open man. If most offense occurs 25 feet from the basket to the baseline, that’s 1,250 square feet for the defense to defend.
“I think the game has gotten smaller,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Friday. “I’ve always thought the hardest offense to guard is when you have a 4 man that can shoot. Now the hardest offense to guard is when you have four guards that can really shoot.”
Two years ago, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins became the first player to win a national championship with a 3-pointer.
But senior captain senior Ryan Arcidiacono had advanced the ball within the “three zone” and easily could have taken the shot but he pitched back to a trailing Jenkins who caught, shot and splashed for the title.
“We never talk about the shot. Everyone else talks about the shot,’’ Villanova guard guard Phil Booth told The Athletic Saturday. “The pass that Arch made, that’s Villanova basketball.’’
The other three semifinalists – Loyola, Michigan and Kansas – totaled 22 assists. Villanova had 20. And if it was scored like hockey, the Wildcats would have doubled that number because of the extra pass.
“That’s how you get open shots,’’ Wright said. “It’s not the first pass that matters; it’s the second and a lot of times, the third. That’s how we want to play. It’s about being unselfish.’’