Each of last year’s Final Four teams had something in common, and it wasn’t just their March dominance.
Take a look at each team’s starting backcourt. From a bird’s-eye view, you may need to squint.Villanova started Jalen Brunson and Ryan Arcidiacono; North Carolina started Joel Berry and Marcus Paige; Oklahoma went with Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins, while Syracuse trotted out Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney.
With the exception of the 6-foot-7 Gbinije, a unicorn of sorts, what do each of these players have in common? All are 6-foot-4 or shorter and have the ability to play point guard.
Every coach yearns for an extension of himself out on the floor. Point guard is probably the most important position in basketball, after all, and it seems like there are many talented floor generals starving for a chance. So why not use two at the same time?
The small-ball power forward trend is alive and well in college basketball, but perhaps we’re seeing a trickle-down effect in backcourts. Smaller players are generally better ball-handlers, and good ball-handlers create quality shots. They do so by breaking down defenses off the dribble, which creates mismatches and creases all over the floor. In short, you want to have as many dribble-drive threats in your lineup as possible.
This would seem like common knowledge, but it’s hardly commonplace in college basketball. Of KenPom’s top 40 teams in 2015-16, about 10-15 employed a two-point guard system (I say about, because this exercise is a bit subjective. There are some shooting guards who could technically run point and have before. But they’re not inspiring much confidence in that role).
Consider teams like Purdue, Maryland and Vanderbilt from last season. They were three of the most talented squads in the land. All sported outstanding frontcourts, while the latter two even had great point guards in Melo Trimble and Wade Baldwin. Yet, none of them finished in the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency.
Something just felt off about those three teams last season; Purdue lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Vanderbilt barely squeaked into the big dance and Maryland failed to live up to its preseason hype.
Perhaps another dynamic guard would have juiced those offenses a bit. Too many college basketball teams "lack flow" or are "stagnant" on the attack. Those are common phrases we hear during telecasts. Distributing point guards are the antithesis of such rhetoric.
We saw how effective the multiple ball-handler strategy was for last year’s Final Four teams. Kansas and Michigan State, two of the best regular-season programs in America a year ago, also started multiple point guards.
We’ll see if the trend escalates in 2016-17. Early prediction: it will. Here are some two-point guard backcourts to keep an eye on.
Kansas: Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason
Bill Self took some heat when he opted to start Graham over the likes of Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Brannen Greene last season, but the move clearly paid off.
Self wanted more speed in his lineup on both sides of the ball, and his backcourt made him look prophetic. Graham and Mason combined to score 24.2 points, dish out 8.3 assists and collect 2.7 steals per game in 2015-16. They also shot efficiently and each averaged less than two turnovers per game; ball security is one of the best components of the two-point guard system.
And though Graham and Mason appear to be undersized as a backcourt, the Jayhawks were stellar defensively last season. Kansas finished fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency. Expect even more from these two this season.
North Carolina: Joel Berry and Nate Britt
Britt was Carolina’s first guard off the bench last season, and he has a good chance to earn a starting spot alongside Berry this year.
Like his teammate, Britt can break down defenses, is a willing passer and can knock down threes. His 3-point efficiency took a bit of a tumble from his sophomore season, when he drained nearly 37 percent of his trifectas. But the shooting potential is there.
Berry was outstanding in 2015-16, sporting a .444/.382/.867 shooting slash line to go with feisty defense. He’ll be a focal point of the Tar Heel offense this season, and if Britt can make some incremental improvements, this backcourt will be devastating.
Oregon: Tyler Dorsey and Casey Benson
Dorsey was quietly one of the best freshman guards in the nation last season, averaging 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and two assists per game while shooting 40.6 percent from deep.
His backcourt mate Benson, while about as flashy as a used minivan, is competent and dependable. Together, Dorsey and Benson produced a healthy 2.04 assist-to-turnover ratio last season while draining 39 percent of their threes. Most backcourts will take that kind of production.
Wisconsin: Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter
The Badgers usually aren’t going to wow you with their offensive brilliance, excluding the Frank Kaminsky/Sam Dekker days. But they’re always rock-solid, and Wisconsin’s returning senior backcourt will ensure more of the same in 2016-17.
Like many of the names above, Showalter and Koenig take care of the ball; the two combined to turn over the rock fewer than three times per game last season. And they’re both solid shooters who are capable of making plays off the dribble.
But perhaps their greatest tandem attribute is their hunger on the defensive end. Wisconsin finished 10th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, and any opposing point guard who put the ball on the deck was at risk of having it swiped. Look out for these dudes next season.