West Virginia may be the future of college hoops.
The Mountaineers are two wins away from laying claim to the 2010 NCAA tournament title by using a host of long-armed, athletic players, mostly between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9, who all play defense and rebound.
Adam Hunger / Reuters
|With defense like this, how can teams beat West Virginia?
Yes, it sounds like the recipe for a Tom Izzo team, but the Mountaineers have taken to a different level in terms of size and player versatility. Part of that's because they don't shoot very well. Yet when you grab more than 40 percent of your missed shots, sub-par shooting becomes a virtue. (Almost.)
It may seem strange that just a year after North Carolina ran to a title to be talking about how defense and rebounding is the future. Forget that. Everyone will still seek out the top talent, yet the teams that limit their mistakes and emphasize effort (defense, rebounding) will win out. Those are two of the main reasons why these four teams are in the Final Four.
"We know how we need to play to win," said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins. "We've got to play to our strengths rather than show everyone all the things we can't do."
Those strengths have been on full display for the past month, which has coincided with West Virginia's 10-game win streak and its first Final Four berth since 1959.
If those strengths result in a national championship, expect more coaches to try and copy the Mountaineers' style.
Then again, some teams already look like West Virginia.
Tennessee displayed similar size (and rebounded like the Mountaineers during the tournament, too) and defensive versatility, whether it was 6-7 Scotty Hopson running the offense, 6-7 J.P. Prince making defensive stops or 6-9 Wayne Chism blocking shots and rebounding.
Kansas State trotted out Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels and Wally Judge, all of whom could be mistaken for someone on the Mountaineers' roster.
Baylor, San Diego State, Old Dominion all had tall, reasonably athletic frontlines which hit the offensive glass to a fair amount of success. And imagine what North Carolina would've been like this year without its knack for offensive rebounding. (Roy Williams shudders at the thought.)
Those teams all feature decent size, but height isn't always the determining factor in rebounding and defense (though it's difficult to overcome and have consistent success). Washington and Villanova both have average-sized lineups, yet grab offensive boards and play defense at a rate that belies any lack of height.
What happens when a versatile, undersized team has a star playing on it? Well, then you have Ohio State, a team which focused on the defensive glass instead. But you get the idea.
I know what you're saying: A focus on defense and rebounding seems like the Big Ten! And I hate watching the Big Ten! To which I say: Tough. For one, only Michigan State is doing what West Virginia is doing, namely playing defense and hitting the offensive glass at a prodigious rate. Also, give it a rest about defense and slow play. It's all basketball.
We're to the point where it no longer makes sense to trot out a less-than-effective player simply because they look like a power forward or they look like a point guard. Most coaches are past that and just want their best five on the floor. That's what Huggins is doing and why losing point guard Truck Bryant didn't derail a Final Four run. There's no use in longing over what you don't have.
After all, a lack of height – or an athletic budget – didn't stop Butler.
The Bulldogs' average height is 6-4, which ranks 328 among D-I teams. Yet the defense is just was just as efficient as Kansas' or Temple's this season, and better than West Virginia's. Rebounding should have been an issue, but wasn't (at least on defense). It's not a coincidence that Butler's guards were able to play several positions and do a little bit of everything well. (OK, having Gordon Hayward helps, as does the Bulldogs' shooting.)
Yet if there's a team that needed an influx of defense and rebounding to reach the Final Four, it was Duke. The Devils don't lack for success – some would say they've had too much already – but in recent years they carried a "soft" label, mostly because of their lack of post players and reliance on perimeter shooting. The Devils still rely on the 3, but finally have post players again.
Center Brian Zoubek leads the nation in offensive rebound percentage, while the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, are athletic, skilled players with size. The result? Another Final Four.
"Our team totally wants to rebound and play defense," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Thursday. "It's much different than some Duke teams of the past. But they've accepted what they are, which is good, and they've tried to become better at who they are."
The Devils are favored to cut down the nets, and with two top-flight guards playing next season – Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry – they will probably be ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls.
Yet I wouldn't be surprised if teams take a page from what Huggins – and Izzo, of course – are doing. Emphasizing defense and rebounding may not always be pretty, but it wins. And it's the best way to maximize a player's ability, especially if they're still developing their skills. Both are mostly a function of effort, not skill.
Some will be better at rebounding and defense than others, and some will still rely on offense (doing both well would be best, of course) to beat opponents. Yet what happens when those shots don't fall, or you can't get that go who scores 25 every night? You make the other team's life miserable. You hit the boards and don't allow any easy shots.
It's the future. You'll see.
Mike Miller's also on Twitter, usually talkin' hoops. Click here for more.