Jay Wright and Villanova have steamrolled much of college basketball over the last five seasons to the tune of 165 wins, two national championships, three No. 1 seeds, two No. 2 seeds, and a .887 win percentage. Pretty good.
Coming off their second national title, the Wildcats are at the forefront of every sports writer’s mind when it comes to discussing how to put together a basketball team and the face of a changing game. But what Villanova has been able to do — succeed with a largely guard heavy offense — isn’t as easy to replicate elsewhere around the country, otherwise we’d see teams like Villanova everywhere.
The Wildcats’ ability to build a roster is something unique to college basketball. They rely largely on experienced players and play four perimeter players around a single post man. Wright largely revolutionized his own approach through necessity in the mid-2000’s. From Rob Dauster’s excellent write up before the Final Four:
“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.”
So the term du jour these days is “positionless basketball.”
There’s this idea that positions in basketball have become a little archaic, and you should work to get as many good players and let them figure it out regardless of their ‘position’. Point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center ... these are still used all the time to describe players, and they rarely make sense.
(What makes a guard a “shooting” guard anyway? Don’t all guards shoot? Determining that one guard on the floor is one who shoots seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?)
Last season you got to watch this changing style of play personified by Jontay Porter. Thirty years ago (and even today), coaches would be shoving Jontay under the basket and having him practice the Mikan drill and drop step moves and letting the guard work on ball handling. There were even people saying last summer how Jontay Porter needed to get his butt down around the basket and that he floated around the perimeter too much.
A portion of that may be true, but those same people might not understand how Jontay can be projected as a first-round NBA draft pick after watching him this season.
Jontay is a modern big man who is capable of doing everything. His brother, Michael Jr., is wired to score, and Jontay is wired to facilitate. He’s a 6’11, 240-pound forward who is better away from the basket than he is close in. Jontay’s style of play doesn’t fit in with traditional standards of what a player of his size should be.
Basketball has been transitioning toward this style of play for a while, and players who could play multiple positions were always attractive. But what has really changed the game was the 3-point line, combined with a new approach to analytics.
Understanding the value of good 3-point shooting on a per-possession basis is what makes Villanova’s offense so efficient. Their offense played at a mild tempo of 68.7 adjusted possessions per game (Mizzou's was 65.7), but the Wildcats’ offensive rating of 127.8 points per 100 possessions is off the charts (Mizzou: 111.9). They accomplished this shooting 48 percent of their FG attempts from behind the 3-point line, 12th-most in Division I.
But not everyone can shoot over 40% from the 3-point line
The Tigers came close to the Wildcats mark at 39%, though it took career marks from Kassius Robertson (44.3%) and Jordan Barnett (42.3%) to get there. But while Villanova excels because they shoot the ball really well from deep, the Wildcats are also incredibly talented and can attack you from all five positions.
So how did Jay Wright build his program up? And can it be replicated?
Here’s how Villanova has recruited in the last seven years (according to 247sports):
- 2018: 15th nationally
- 2017: 28th
- 2016: 45th
- 2015: 29th
- 2014: 48th
- 2013: 36th
- 2012: 27th
Nothing too special when you look at their rankings, but when you look closer:
- 2018: Jahvon Quinerly five-star (No. 27 overall), Cole Swider four-star (No. 39), Brandon Slater four-star (No. 48)
- 2017: Jermaine Samuels four-star (No. 46), Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree four-star (No. 97)
- 2016: Omari Spellman five-star (No. 20)
- 2015: Jalen Bruson five-star (No. 22), Donte DiVincenzo four-star (No. 124)
- 2014: Phil Booth four-star (No. 75), Mikal Bridges four-star (No. 81)
- 2013: Josh Hart four-star (No. 79), Kris Jenkins four-star (No. 76)
- 2012: Rocky Archidiancano four-star (No. 57), Daniel Ochefu four-star (No. 49)
That’s the bones of two championship rosters. Nova won in 2016 with Archidiacano and Ochefu as seniors, Hart and Jenkins as juniors, and Jalen Bruson a 5-star freshman. This year they won with Brunson as a junior, and every guy catching minutes (aside from Collin Gillespie and Eric Paschall) was a 4-star or 5-star recruit and every one of them was at least two years in the program (except Brunson the first year). Villanova has won by combining experience with a whole lotta talent.
Of all those players, only Ochefu and Cosby-Roundtree are what you might call traditional post players. Every other guy plays multiple positions and is a highly skilled, proficient shooter. On top of that, Wright teaches his guys a simplified read-and-react style offense and trusts them to execute in game.
Is this something you see Cuonzo Martin doing?
Well, I don’t have a short answer to that question. Basically, no, but I think Mizzou can do something similar and have similar success because they’ve got some dudes coming down the pike from 2018’s class, on through potential additions in 2019 and 2020.
But we’ll work that out in the next piece on the subject.