Villanova men's basketball coach Jay Wright remembers the moment when much of his philosophy about the game changed, when he went from being a more conventional tactician to becoming the modern-game guru in the art of what he and others call small ball — in essence going to a guard-heavy lineup that typically features three, and sometimes four, backcourt players.
For Wright and the Wildcats, it came as they were preparing to play North Carolina in the Sweet 16 of the 2005 NCAA tournament. A win over Florida in the second round had been costly, with Villanova losing Curtis Sumpter, a 6-foot-7 power forward who had been the team's leading scorer and rebounder, to a season-ending knee injury.
"We had to make a decision, we had young big guys who were freshmen and we had a really talented point guard who was our sixth man, Kyle Lowry," Wright recalled Tuesday. "We said, 'Let's play our five best players instead of a young kid who was just big.' It was out of desperation, then we loved it, we lost by one, they won the national championship but we stuck with it."
Along with current Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, former coach Gary Williams and ESPN commentator Jay Bilas, Wright was at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront as a special guest for the inaugural College Basketball Kickoff luncheon, to benefit the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.
With the 2011-12 season approaching, small ball has become a popular topic of conversation when it comes to the transition from Williams to Turgeon in College Park. Given the makeup of the Terrapins, it seems reasonable to assume that Turgeon will be using his share of three- and maybe even four-guard lineups.
But Turgeon said his plans might have been changed last week when he learned that sophomore guard Pe'Shon Howard would be out 10 to 12 weeks with a broken bone in his left foot.
"I always like to have a guy on my team who can play the 3 [small forward] and the 4 [power forward] and allow us to go small," said Turgeon, who used smaller lineups with great success at Wichita State earlier in his coaching career. "Sean Mosley gives us that, but the problem is that we just don't have enough guards. It will be really hard for us to go small a lot."
Turgeon added that many coaches like using smaller lineups, particularly at the end of games when their teams have the lead. "They usually take care of the ball a little better and face the floor a little bit better," he said.
Williams used it almost exclusively when he first started coaching at American, and he even used it during the 2001-02 season when the Terps won the national championship and he played Juan Dixon, Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas.
"I think what you're seeing in college basketball now [is] because there are not as many big guys," Williams said. "This is an unusual year because of the NBA [lockout]. If this was a normal year, a guy like [North Carolina's Tyler] Zeller wouldn't be there. It's easier to get that guard who's pretty good who's going to be there for four years. I think it's a great way to play. People always talk about matchups and size, but people have to guard you, too. What might be a disadvantage at one end of the court might be an advantage at the other."
Bilas, who played power forward and center at Duke, said it might come down to a game-by-game decision for a team such as Maryland.
"I think [if] it was a be-all and end-all, everybody would do it," Bilas said. "Going small doesn't win games. Most times you do it by necessity, you do it by choice. But the teams that have had to do [it], some of them have been really successful. Everybody's got to buy into their new role. You might have to give up something that you're used to doing or envision yourself doing to do what it takes to win."
NOTES: Turgeon said at a news conference before the luncheon that he hopes to play a game in Baltimore next season. "Baltimore's very important to us," he said, pointing to the recruiting of Nick Faust (City) and retaining assistant coach Bino Ranson from Williams' staff. Turgeon also said he is still waiting to hear from the NCAA clearinghouse regarding the eligibility of Ukrainian center Alex Len.