NCAA championship: UNC, Villanova epitomize changing of the guards


HOUSTON — Between the top teams in college basketball this season, there have been very few common threads.

Some teams play fast. Some play slow.

Some are defensively inclined. Some rely on an efficient offense.

However, there does seem to be one common theme among many of the top teams. Many of the top teams around the country featured two point guards or primary ball-handlers on the floor this season.

“I think a lot of teams have realized that with the way the game is played and the rules and everything that having multiple guys on the court that can break down defenses is the way to go,” North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige said.

Paige, about as intelligent a player as there is in college basketball, has nailed this trend. Just look around the nation. Kentucky utilized Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe at the point. Virginia had London Perrantes, but often played him off-ball and had Malcolm Brogdon take over as the lead. Michigan State used Tum Tum Nairn at the point, but Denzel Valentine was equally as important to creating plays with the ball as a passer and lead ball-handler.

Oregon had Casey Benson and Tyler Dorsey. Wichita State had Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. Kansas used Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham. Xavier had Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis. Oklahoma had Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins. In all, 10 of the top 11 teams in KenPom utilized first-choice, late-game lineups that could be characterized as two lead guard systems.

That includes each of the teams in the national championship on Monday — North Carolina and Villanova .

For Villanova, Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson share the backcourt. Arcidiacono is the senior leader, and Brunson the fiery five-star freshman who was supposed to step in and immediately start. On North Carolina, it’s Paige and Joel Berry. Each team epitomizes many of the reasons why this lineup is so en vogue around the top teams in America.

The Wildcats have been running something resembling a two-point guard system for many years, in large part due to Jay Wright’s four-out offense. Running a four-out offense requires teams to have as much playmaking on the floor as possible in order to get into the lane and attack in order to put pressure on the defense and create open looks for teammates.

“It definitely benefits us to be able to have another playmaker on the floor,” Brunson said. “Have another floor general out there. Ryan does a great job of making the right plays at the right time, and I think he’s done a good job of teaching me when to make those plays and how to make them and why to make them.”

Villanova’s assistant coach Ashley Howard — who specifically works with the guards on the Wildcats’ roster– noted that one big thing in lineups like this is having two ball-handlers on the floor who can be threats to shoot.

“Both Ryan and Jalen, they can really score the ball,” Howard said. “Both of those guys are comfortable with the ball in their hands. Both are comfortable playing off the ball, and I think that helps a lot. The fact that both of those guys can really shoot. You don’t see a lot of two point guards who can’t shoot the ball. So the fact that both of those guys can make good decisions, facilitate, and shoot has really been a benefit for us.”

On the other side, North Carolina uses two point guards in a similar way, but gets different things out of them. Berry and Paige are both capable of creating their own offense through both their own ability to score and their ability to facilitate for others. However, because the Tar Heels play a more up-tempo style than Nova does, their guards are more responsible for dictating tempo and pushing the ball in transition.

“I think it helps us especially with our tempo,” Berry said. “If we get a defensive rebound, either Marcus can bring it up or I can bring it up myself. So it makes our fast break a little bit faster. Sometimes with just having one point guard out there, the big man has to try to find the point guard which can take a couple of seconds. But with us out there it really speeds that up.”

Paige explained how it’s often a balancing act between the two guards, and also showed why such lineups can be so devastating as long as the lead ball-handler is also a capable scorer.

“I think it’s always good to have multiple ball-handlers and creators out there,” Paige said. “You saw last night against the zone that Joel was able to penetrate the gaps and I was able to knock down some shots. Other days, I have a matchup where I can get into the paint and create things.”

The idea of having two lead guards who can both score and facilitate is something happening at all levels of basketball. It’s relatively easy to see why, given the way the game has changed.

For one, the rules implemented this year have made the game more fluid and NBA-like, allowing for more freedom of movement. Undoubtedly, that helps the guards more than it helps forwards, as they’re now freer to drive into the lane without fear of catching an arm bar, and they’re freer to move off-ball because referees are calling more fouls for chucking cutters and bumping screeners. In the NBA, you see this with the rise of Stephen Curry, and in college you’ve seen it with the rise of diminutive guards like Ulis and Kay Felder at Oakland. It’s far more difficult for players to simply overpower guards on the defensive end.

Because of that freedom of movement, the game is going smaller. More teams around the country are playing something resembling a four-out system, and it’s resulted in 3-point attempts jumping from 34.3 percent of a team’s shots to 35.4 percent on average. Just like in the NBA, small-ball is on the rise in college basketball, and two-point guard systems are a by-product of that in order to get more playmaking on the floor for the surrounding shooters. And with the greater freedom of movement, the penalties for playing such lineups have been limited due to a decrease in physical play.

Heck, some coaches are even thinking about recruiting to two point guard lineups in order to really nail the advantages they provide on the floor.

“Moving forward, recruiting-wise, we want to play two point guards,” Kansas coach Bill Self, a long-time proponent of two-point guard systems, said after beating Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament. “I’d play three if we could, as long as one of them was big enough to defend a three. But we have good balance and I like our guys a lot. But the reality is, when Devonte and Frank play well, they drive us more than anybody else.”

Undeniably, the move to having multiple ball-handlers and facilitators on the floor is a trend in college hoops. To hammer home the point as to how successful teams have been that have utilized multi-point guard lineups, I leave you with one final stat.

In each of the last three seasons, the national champion has utilized two point guard lineups. In 2013, Louisville used Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. In 2014, it was Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Last year, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook were the winners.

We’re going to crown the fourth straight champion like this on Monday, regardless of whether Villanova or North Carolina wins. Systems with two primary ball-handlers or point guards are here to stay in college basketball.

Marcus Paige and Joel Berry are showing again the effectiveness of two point guards in college basketball. (USATSI)
Marcus Paige and Joel Berry are showing again the effectiveness of two point guards in college basketball. (USATSI)

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