Talent, alone, is rarely enough to win at the highest level of college basketball. It’s crucial, sure, but lineup construction is also key. How do the puzzle pieces fit?
Here are some lineups that college basketball bluebloods may not start, but would be wise to explore in order to become more dynamic.
Duke: Tre Jones, Alex O'Connell, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson
Duke will likely start Marques Bolden, bring O’Connell off the bench and move everyone down a slot in the lineup, but the Williamson-at-center look could be scary.
While he’s not going to be listed as a five anywhere, Williamson can do everything asked of a college basketball center. He’s 285 pounds; he’s not going to get bullied in the post. Williamson can protect the rim thanks to his ridiculous athleticism. He’s an excellent rebounder. Teams are usually reluctant to play small because they don’t want to sacrifice rim protection, rebounding and post defense. But find a player like Williamson who can handle a center’s defensive responsibilities while being able to space the floor on offense, and you have a supremely valuable player.
He’s the engine that will make this lineup go. Duke will be able to surround Williamson with four shooters in Reddish, Barrett, O’Connell and Jones (perhaps three and a half, the jury is still out on Jones’ jumper. But the tools are there). O’Connell quietly hit almost half of his 3s last season and projects as the perfect fifth starter on a championship team. You don’t want him using many possessions with Williamson, Barrett and Reddish on the floor anyway; his limitations won’t cost you here.
This group would be impossible to guard offensively. Williamson would have plenty of room to rumble to the rim and chase offensive boards. Barrett could dissect defenses with pick-and-rolls; he’d have capable screen partners up and down the lineup, and shooters flanking his funky drives.
And this group has the chops to hang defensively. It might be switchable across four positions. If Reddish develops into the impact defender he’s capable of being, look out.
Of course, Duke’s defense has been an enigma the past few years. It’s hard to get freshmen to learn defensive concepts so quickly, and if we’re being honest, Mike Krzyzewski seems content to outscore opponents these days.
But we can’t wait to watch this lineup. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Coach K start this group if Bolden struggles in nonconference play.
Kansas: Quentin Grimes, Marcus Garrett, LaGerald Vick, K.J. Lawson, Dedric Lawson
We’re less likely to see this lineup than the Duke group mentioned above, but man, this would be fun. Kansas would essentially be using five wings at the same time. Dedric Lawson is a natural four, but he can play at least three positions. That’s part of his appeal.
The Jayhawks would be able to switch every defensive action. Every player is at least 6-5. There are no real exploitable mismatches. Offensively, this crew has everything you’d want; slashers, shooters, ball-handlers. Dedric Lawson would have plenty of room to go nuts inside.
The reason we won’t see this lineup much? It doesn’t include Charlie Moore or Udoka Azubuike, two of Kansas’ best players. That’s how loaded this Jayhawks team is, but you’ll see different variations of this lineup. Like Moore instead of Garrett, or Azubuike instead of (take your pick). Moore and Azubuike make Kansas better offensively; the allure with this lineup would be its defensive potential. The Jayhawks are probably the only team in the country capable of trotting out five competent wings. Villanova continues to show us how valuable two-way wings are. They mask weaknesses because they can do a little bit of everything.
Bill Self has a lot of fun combinations to toy with this year.
Kentucky: P.J. Washington/Reid Travis, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans, Quade Green
The ball-handling potential here is insane. Using five shooters at the same time is all the rage these days, and it’s easy to see why. Shooting means more space, and more space means more driving lanes. But having a bunch of capable ball-handlers can create the same type of environment.
Washington and Travis are so similar that it felt appropriate to use them interchangeably here, but Kentucky would have five guys capable of initiating the offense with this lineup. Hagans and Green are both point guards. You can run an offense through Washington or Travis at the high post. Johnson is an all-around stud, and while Herro is mostly a shooter, he could whip around screens from baseline to baseline and cause opponents headaches. Chase him around a pick, and you’re not paying attention to a Kentucky slasher looking finish inside. Any Wildcat can grab a rebound and bring the ball up himself, keeping the opposing defense on its toes.
Of course, having five ball-handlers and no shooting won’t get you anywhere interesting. But this group has shooters. Herro, Johnson and Green are more than capable from 3-point land, and the others are at least competent from the mid range. Kentucky has lacked shooting in recent years. It won’t in 2018-19.
And we know what Calipari is able to do defensively. This lineup doesn’t have a rim protector, but it would be able to contain dribble-penetration, mitigating the need for a backline guy to erase perimeter gaffes. Kentucky could be scary good.
North Carolina: Seventh Woods, Coby White, Kenny Williams, Nassir Little, Luke Maye
Roy Williams’ teams are usually really big and really fast, a combination you rarely see in college basketball lineups. But last season, Williams went small, starting Luke Maye at center down the stretch.
The results were mixed. North Carolina had more shooting than we were accustomed to seeing, but it didn’t get as many offensive rebounds as usual. That said, even though it goes against Williams’ typical style, his 2018-19 personnel may dictate playing smaller than he’d like.
The good news: North Carolina has outstanding perimeter players. Slotting Little at the four would be a matchup nightmare for opponents; think Jayson Tatum at Duke a few years ago. White is a big, versatile guard, Williams is a knockdown shooter who can hang on defense, and Woods has the potential to break out. Maye is an inside-out star.
Woods is the great unknown in this lineup. A highly-touted recruit, he hasn’t done much in his first two seasons in Chapel Hill. But he has the goods to become a dynamic shot-creator – he has a quick first step and excellent vision. Williams had success using two point guards in Joel Berry and Marcus Paige a few years ago. Perhaps he can recreate that a bit with White and Woods; Little is so talented that he can serve as a point forward to boot. Maye gives the offense gravity and an interior element.
We’ll likely see a lineup featuring Cam Johnson instead of Woods quite often, but that’s pretty standard grouping. It will probably fare well. But if Williams really wants to get out and run, this crew would be a joy to watch.