When Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr threw out a center-less lineup of Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry in the 2015 NBA Finals, many thought it reeked of desperation. Little did they know it would mark the climax of the positionless basketball era.
Big men had ruled basketball for years, and this was the ultimate sign of the changing landscape. Small-ball is en vogue these days in college basketball and the NBA; at this point, it’s old news. Playing a traditional small forward at power forward in 2016 is downright common.
But perhaps Kerr’s lineup was just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not just about small-ball; it’s about challenging conventional wisdom. Wisconsin zigged last year when the rest of the country zagged; if you consider Nigel Hayes to be a power forward, the Badgers played four big men at the same time during stretches last season. When Zach Auguste hit the bench for Notre Dame in 2015-16, 6-5 Bonzie Colson would get minutes at center. The lineups may have appeared quirky, but often times, they worked.
On most nights, blueblood programs have so much talent that they don’t need to get cute. But in March, everything changes. Flexibility rules in postseason play, and adaptable teams are the toughest outs in the NCAA tournament.
With that said, here are some unorthodox lineups that the AP's top-four teams could utilize if the sledding gets tough.
Duke Blue Devils
G Frank Jackson, G Luke Kennard, G Grayson Allen, G/F Matt Jones, F Jayson Tatum
Before you scoff at the potential rebounding issues, consider this: the above lineup would make up the best offense in the country by a mile.
Seriously, this unit would be unguardable. All five guys can shoot, pass and penetrate; Allen and Jones shot better than 40 percent from 3 last season, and Kennard projects to be a much better shooter than his 2015-16 mark (31.5 percent) indicated. Jackson and Tatum should be able to knock down shots, as well.
And that’s not the tastiest part of this offense -- imagine any center in the country attempting to stick Tatum. Spoiler alert: that’s not happening. Heck, most power forwards will struggle with Duke’s super freshman.
Consider a future matchup against North Carolina, for instance. Tar Heel center Kennedy Meeks is a good big, but Duke would play him off of the floor in a heartbeat with this lineup (unless he was netting post-up buckets on just about every offensive possession).
And that’s entirely possible. Coach K wouldn’t be able to use this lineup for extended burn, but for five-minute stretches here and there, it seems feasible. Force a few turnovers, effectively front post-ups and gang rebound, and Duke could sport a competent defense while lighting up the scoreboard on the other end. We’ll see how crazy Mike Krzyzewski is willing to get this season in times of despair, but man, would this be fun.
G De’Aaron Fox, G Malik Monk, F Derek Willis, F Bam Adebayo, C Isaac Humphries
This lineup isn’t nearly as far-fetched as Duke’s; in fact, you’ll probably see some variation of it in every game.
With that said, in what other college basketball lineup are both of these statements true?
A) Has three guys 6-9 or taller
B) Has four guys who can knock down perimeter shots
Outside of this Kentucky group, probably none. So this lineup is unusual. A frontcourt of Humphries, Adebayo and Willis would be able to collect just about every defensive rebound; it would also be virtually impossible to keep them away from the offensive glass.
Then again, the latter might not be necessary. Because will this Kentucky lineup even miss shots? Yes, that’s sarcasm, but Fox, Monk and Willis are good 3-point shooters, and Adebayo should be able to hit 15-footers. This lineup would be extremely unique, and it could also help UK win a lot of games.
G Frank Mason, G Devonte’ Graham, G/F Lagerald Vick, G/F Josh Jackson, G/F Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk
You’ll probably see this lineup sans Vick quite a bit, but given Jackson’s physical style of play, it's intriguing. He’s an outstanding rebounder at 6-8, and though Bill Self doesn’t want him banging against big men for extended stretches, he figures to be capable of doing so.
Mason and Graham are small, but they’re pests against bigger wings – remember the epic Mason-Buddy Hield matchup from last season? These five guys could conceivably switch most assignments, and it goes without saying how lethal they’d be on offense.
In Mason, Graham and Jackson, Kansas essentially has three point guards. Vick was used sparingly last season, but he projects to be a versatile, quality offensive player; Mykhailiuk, meanwhile, is a human microwave. The Jayhawk wing averaged 16.7 points per 40 minutes last season, and he shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range.
Kansas has the ability to play big, small or traditional. It’s one of the reasons why the Jayhawks are considered a national championship contender.
G Josh Hart, F Eric Paschall, F Mikal Bridges, F Kris Jenkins, C Darryl Reynolds
This Villanova lineup is the antidote to the Duke and Kansas hypotheticals. Good luck scoring on these guys, and furthermore, it might take a miracle in order to keep them off of the offensive glass.
This group features plus size at every position and four very good defenders – Jenkins is technically the weak link, but he’s solid in the Villanova scheme. On offense, Hart and Jenkins provide ample shooting, Paschall and Bridges are expert off-ball cutters who are able to get to the rack, and Reynolds is a decent roll man. They wouldn’t shatter any records, but that's fine, because the Wildcats could be special defensively.
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Jumbo lineups aren’t exactly Jay Wright’s forte; in fact, Bridges was often used as a small-ball four last season (and with great success). The Wildcats have benefitted from the emerging free-flowing style in college basketball as much as anyone.
But again, it never hurts to have numerous items in the toolbox. The Wildcats never played this big last season, but Wright wasn’t afraid to experiment with various combinations throughout 2015-16. Clearly, it paid dividends.