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Joe Boozell | | September 23, 2015

Small ball taking college basketball by storm

  Draymond Green and Tom Izzo were one of the best duos college basketball has seen in quite some time.

Draymond Green is one of the greatest ever to don the green and white for the Michigan State Spartans.

You won’t get a lot of argument from folks on that. A four-year player, Green was the Big Ten Player of the Year and a consensus All-American in 2012. He made two Final Fours with Michigan State. At 6’7”, he was aptly sized as a power forward in the Big Ten. But there was a reason he was not selected in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft.

It was because, well, he was 6’7”. Or, in other words, an NBA ‘tweener’ which is more or less code for ‘career journeyman.’ Conventional wisdom said you had to be 6’8" or above to be a successful NBA power forward. It was a prerequisite for the position.

Until it wasn’t, of course. Green, who most would agree is now the second best player on the NBA champion Golden State Warriors behind Stephen Curry, made ‘the small-ball power forward’ a valuable commodity. It makes you wonder: does a Draymond-like player exist in college basketball? And if so, which teams might be able to succeed with these unconventional lineups?

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Green won the Defensive Player of the Year as a 6’7" power forward in 2014-15. And once the NBA Finals rolled around, he was Golden State’s starting center. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that once the Warriors tapped Andre Iguodala to replace seven-footer Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup, which moved Green to center, the Warriors won four straight games and an NBA title.

NBA coaches, such as Steve Kerr, started to realize something. Having five players on the floor who can dribble, pass, shoot and cut interchangeably all over the floor is virtually impossible to stop. It’s the defensive end where ‘small ball’ can kill you, but find guys like Green who have no problem guarding bigger players, and you could really have something special.

It will be fascinating to see if this trend will find its way into the college game. In a way, it already has.

Villanova, a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, would often play four guards around big men Daniel Ochefu and Jayvaughn Pinkston. They finished last season 33-3. Duke would often use Justise Winslow as a small-ball 4 to generate offense during its title run. One could say that worked out pretty well.

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Notre Dame almost beat Kentucky, who definitely does not seem to be adopting the small-ball strategy any time soon, by the way, in the NCAA Tournament with 6’5” winger Pat Connaughton as a nominal power forward.

Let's play ball like it's 1966, right? The 1965-66 Kentucky Wildcats, better known as 'Rupp's Runts,' had a 6'5" guard named Tommy Kron. He was the tallest player on the entire roster, and the team still went 27-2 before being upset by Texas Western in the national finals.

Perhaps the best way to combat the size of programs like perennial powers Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina isn’t to try and fight fire with fire. Maybe some of these schools’ best shot is to throw out a lineup of speedy shooters than can force the opposition’s bigs off the floor. It would not be at all surprising to see more college coaches toy with smaller lineups in 2015-16.

So, which teams can put together the most devastating small-ball lineups for the coming season? Here are five squads that come to mind.

Butler Bulldogs projected lineup:

PG: Tyler Lewis (5’11”)

SG: Kellen Dunham (6’6”)

SF: Roosevelt Jones (6’4”)

PF: Kelan Martin (6’6”)

C: Andrew Chrabascz (6’7”)

Most successful small-ball lineups have something in common: they have at least four guys that are plus 3-point shooters. The Bulldogs stay true to that, but the only one who can’t shoot is small forward Jones.

But Jones more than makes up for his shooting deficiencies with his elite chops on the defensive end. And, of course, heroics like this.

It’s still up for debate whether or not Martin can hang with Big East bigs; that’s not at all a worry with Jones. Butler will have five dribble-drive threats on the floor and two outstanding shooters in Lewis and Dunham.

Martin was far from a great shooter as a freshman (he shot 24.7 percent from behind the arc) but he’s certainly a threat from deep. Just ask North Carolina and Tennessee, who each surrendered three long balls to Martin. He doesn’t have to be deadly from deep for small-ball to function; he just needs to be a threat to stretch out the defense.

If Chris Holtmann’s crew can defend with a small lineup, they could be a matchup nightmare for Big East foes.

Michigan Wolverines projected lineup:

PG: Derrick Walton Jr. (6’0”)

SG: Zak Irvin (6’6”)

SF: Aubrey Dawkins (6’6”)

PF: Caris LeVert (6’6”)

C: Ricky Doyle (6’9”)

LeVert just might be the best small-ball power forward in college basketball this season. The Wolverines limped their way to a 16-16 finish in 2015-16, and LeVert missing 14 games was a major reason why.

The senior shot better than 40 percent from behind the arc, played stout defense and generally gave opposing coaches headaches. And, perhaps most importantly, Michigan went 5-9 with LeVert out of the lineup.

The maize and blue could be a bounce back candidate for 2015-16. Walton, Irvin Dawkins and LeVert all shot better than 35 percent from distance last season, and if they can tidy up a leaky defense, John Beilein’s crew could be a fun one to watch.

Indiana Hoosiers projected lineup:

PG: Yogi Ferrell (6’0”)

SG: James Blackmon Jr. (6’4”)

SF: Robert Johnson (6’3”)

PF: Troy Williams (6’7”)

C: Thomas Bryant (6’10”)

Small ball critics will probably point to Indiana last season as ‘Exhibit A’ of why you need bigs to win in college basketball. Indiana didn’t need bigs to win last season; they just needed one big. Because they quite literally had zero. Williams was Indiana’s center by default a year ago, and though he averaged an admirable 7.4 rebounds per game, he didn’t have much help on the glass.

Williams is undersized as a power forward, too, but he has the athleticism to make up for it. Now, he’ll get to play alongside Thomas Bryant, one of the best freshman centers in the country. Surrounding those two with Johnson, Blackmon Jr. and Ferrell, who are all very good shooters, will make the Hoosiers awfully tough to stop.

It’s on the defensive end that Bryant needs to impact the game most, though. IU surrendered 71.7 points per game last season, which was 299th in the nation. That needs to improve for Indiana to make serious noise.

Villanova Wildcats projected lineup:

PG: Jalen Brunson (6’1”)

SG: Ryan Arcidiacono (6’3”)

SF: Josh Hart (6’5”)

PF: Kris Jenkins (6’6”)

C: Daniel Ochefu (6’11”)

Villanova has played small for years, and 2015-16 should look like more of the same for Jay Wright.

No, coach, you guys were really good last season! An early exit in the NCAA Tournament, sure, but winning the Big East is no easy task.

Anyway, last year, the Cats would play small when one of Ochefu or Pinkston was on the bench. With Pinkston gone, this season, small will be the norm.

Jenkins could make Villanova even more lethal offensively than they were last year, which is high praise considering ‘Nova’s efficiency on that side of the floor. The Wildcats were eighth in the nation in points per possession.

The court will be more spread out for Hart, Arcidiacono and Brunson to drive the lane, as Jenkins shot 37 percent from 3 last season. He’s replacing Pinkston, who attempted six 3’s last season. He missed all six.

There will be plenty of offense in Philadelphia this season.

California Golden Bears projected lineup:

PG: Tryone Wallace (6’5”)

SG: Jordan Mathews (6’3”)

SF: Jabari Bird (6’6”)

PF: Jaylen Brown (6’7”)

C: Ivan Rabb (6’11”)

Jaylen Brown. Remember that name. Duke experimented with Winslow at power forward during their national title run, and it was very successful. Brown, one of the top freshmen in the nation, is a player in Winslow’s mold that will play power forward from day one.

With two impact rookies in Brown and Rabb to go along with three versatile offense players in the backcourt, Cal has a very good chance to be the most improved team in the country this season.

Butler men's basketball upsets No. 13 Xavier

Butler defeated No. 13 Xavier, 69-67 to even its record at .500 in front of a sold-out Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

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