Parity is the big storyline headed into the NCAA Tournament, as there doesn’t appear to be a team capable of lapping the field like North Carolina in 2009 or Kentucky in 2012. But while it's hard to argue now that last season’s Wildcats (38-2 with six players drafted) weren’t a great team, there was plenty of parity talk as it happened. On some level, the whole conversation is just an exercise in thinly-disguised nostalgia, another in an endless series of complaints from Baby Boomers about how great things were in their day. It’s hard to get a read on who will be cutting down the nets in Atlanta, but that’s not as big a deal as many would have you believe.
None of the top teams have separated themselves from the pack this season, in part because there are some striking similarities within the Top 10. Just like in the NBA, floor spacing has become the name of the game at the top of the NCAA. Nine of the top 12 seeds start a three-point shooter in their frontcourt, whether it’s a small forward shifted down a position or a “stretch 4”, a category of player that didn’t exist a generation ago. There’s an underlying principle behind what many of the best coaches in college basketball are doing: get as much shooting on the floor as possible without compromising your defense and rebounding.
Indiana has Christian Watford, Gonzaga has Kelly Olynyk, Miami has Kenny Kadji, New Mexico has Alex Kirk and Florida has Erik Murphy. Duke lost in the first round last season without Ryan Kelly (“The White Raven”) and they were a completely different team this year when he was injured. A year after Ohio State started Jared Sullinger at the 4, they’ve replaced him with DeShaun Thomas, a 6’7 225 small forward. Michigan State has Adreian Payne, the most intriguing of the bunch because he’s also an athletic 6’10 240 center capable of protecting the rim and controlling the paint.
The Blue Devils' struggles without Kelly are a good example of the importance of the position. Kelly, at 6’11 230, is a dead-eye shooter who takes four 3’s a game and knocks them down at a preposterous 49% clip. He makes nearly every open shot he gets and his high release point means he needs very little space, if any, to be open. As a result, Kelly's defender has to hug him along the three-point line, creating space for the other Duke players. Mason Plumlee, an athletic 6’11 235 center with a fairly mechanical post game, looked like a Wooden Award candidate when Kelly was playing. Without the space that Kelly provided him, he went back to being a role player.
Space is the most important thing that a modern player needs. Since the top players are bigger and more athletic than they were a generation ago, there is less room on the floor to operate than there used to be. At the same time, most players don’t come into college with the ability or patience to run a halfcourt offense. The AAU game is mostly up-and-down transition action, with rosters put together and taken apart in the span of a weekend. As the Miami Heat are showing this season, continuity takes years to develop, years that most college coaches no longer have.
Increasing the amount of space on the floor is a way to short-circuit that. A pick-and-roll with three shooters spotting up doesn't require a complicated decision-making process. The guard makes a basic read -- take the shot or hit the roll man -- and then looks for the only possible defensive counter -- sending a help-side defender from the three-point line. Florida, a program which hasn’t exactly been known for halfcourt execution, has used that design to great effect this season. Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young play a two-man game and Murphy, Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton spot up off of it. The only real defense for it is to have superior athletes, one reason why the Gators, a team with really good athletes, have a 26-7 record.
Without great spacing, defenses can pack the paint and dare the offense to shoot over the top of it. That’s the problem UNC had for most of the season, since neither James McAdoo nor any of their three freshmen centers can stretch the floor. After an embarrassing 87-61 loss to Miami that dropped them to 16-7, Roy Williams turned around their season by going small, moving McAdoo to the 5 and starting four perimeter players. They are 9-3 since the move, with their only losses coming to Duke and Miami. It wouldn’t have worked without two McDonald’s All-American wings (Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston) who have the athleticism to defend bigger players, but having the more talented players is why you coach at UNC in the first place.
There are other ways to work around the floor spacing problem, but they generally come with problems of their own. Louisville doesn’t have a frontcourt shooter because Rick Pitino likes to play an aggressive trapping defense that forces turnovers and gets the Cardinals out into the open court. The issue for Pitino’s teams is they eventually run into a disciplined team they can’t speed up and who keep them in the halfcourt, where the questionable decision-making of guys like Russ Smith becomes an issue. Georgetown runs the Princeton offense and Kansas plays a lot of high-low with two big men, but they’ve both lost to far inferior teams this season when their halfcourt offense stagnated.
My guess is that whoever ends up winning the Tournament will be able to space the floor from their frontcourt. That, of course, doesn’t really narrow it down all that much. Almost all of the best college teams maintain NBA-level spacing, a good indication of where the sport is going. A generation ago, almost no big man had a perimeter shot. These days, not being able to space the floor is a significant negative for a player, regardless of the position he plays. Four of the six players in this season’s Three-Point Shootout -- Paul George, Steve Novak, Ryan Anderson and Matt Bonner -- were 6’9+. The era of the stretch 4 is upon us; March Madness is just the latest example.