After a recent discussion with a close friend, I was spurred to look up an interesting phenomena. He had mentioned reading a Twitter post pointing out how recent NCAA champions have had two players capable of being a primary ball handler on the court at the same time*. It did not seem like an ignorant statement; past champs include the likes of Duke who had Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook or UConn with the duo of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright. Perhaps the best example being Louisville with the dynamic lineup of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.
*Champions listed below
The Offensive Advantage:
Those who follow basketball are aware of the recent trend labelled “small ball,” referring to the replacement of a less mobile standard center with a stretch four or five who is a ‘swiss army knife’ of sorts and can play multiple frontcourt positions. Does this same concept apply to guards at the college level where essentially your ‘two guard’ is not just a 6’5”+ three point shooter? Think about it. A dual point guard system might be successful because, offensively, you have two guys that can handle the ball and are adept at passing. They are able to precisely navigate a hounding press like that of a West Virginia or VCU, while commanding a fast break off a defensive rebound. These claims are not baseless either. When looking at many of these teams, you see a majority of the their dual point guards generating most of the assists, thus demonstrating that the Shooting Guard spot is occupied by a player just as capable of running the show if called upon. During Kansas’ championship run in 2008, the combo of Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson generated 47% of their team’s assists. It also helps that Chalmers was able to shoot at an astonishing 46.8% clip from beyond the arc. Louisville’s and UConn’s runs topped that with their duos racking up more than half the teams dimes. In 2015, Duke’s super freshman Tyus Jones accounted for just under one third of the teams assists by himself while his front court mate, Quinn Cook, was able to generate spacing: Cook torched his opponents with a True Shooting percentage of 60.9%, and shot just under 40% from three. Jones now helps controls the offense of the Minnesota Timberwolves, while Quinn Cook recently earned MVP honors at the D-League All Star Game playing Point Guard.
Offensively the benefits are clear, but most of the hesitation of running this system comes from a defensive standpoint. Defensively a dual guard set makes a team quicker on the perimeter, giving them the ability to stay in front of their man. In fact from 2002-2016, all championship teams playing with this two point guard system have been ranked top fifteen in defense (most had top 5 ranks). This includes Kansas (2008) and Louisville (2013) who were ranked number one allowing 82.3 ppg and 83.1 ppg respectively. Even more impressively, Louisville forced a turnover on 27% of their opponents possessions. Lastly, in college basketball, there are fewer isolation plays. Without a defensive three seconds violation from a help side big, it becomes much easier to defend if the opposing team chooses to post up the smaller guard. This is not saying that the reason these teams have won are predicated on the fact they played two guards able of playing point at the same time, but it definitely is worth taking note of. I do realize that Florida’s back to back championships are mostly attributed to the play of superstar Joakim Noah, and Duke in 2015 had Jahlil Okafor down low, but having two guys who could get them the ball inside and handle the pick-n-rolls really does help.
Using this information, how might it apply to this year’s Madness ending in the deserts of Phoenix, Arizona? Personally, my favorite to win it this year are the Jayhawks of Kansas. They possess both the ability to play two point guards at the same time, but also have a balance of seniority (led by senior Frank Mason and junior Devonte’ Graham) and are accompanied by elite talent such as freshman sensation Josh Jackson. The only reservation I have is lack of depth in the frontcourt with the loss of Udoka Azubuike. In contrast, this could be the year we finally have a West Coast winner with Gonzaga’s skilled guard combination of Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins. Just like Kansas, the Zags have a balanced attack and have the added advantage of transfers like former California guard Jordan Mathews, who has big game experience while playing in the formidable Pacific-12 Conference. Furthermore, Gonzaga utilizes an imposing big man in Przemek Karnowski who is a dominating space eater with the presence to finish around the rim. As the trend of taller guards who can handle the ball and run a team continues, the success of a two point guard lineup will grow with it. There are advantages on so many levels to this system that have the statistics to to prove it. Yes, there are quite a few other factors that lead to a team cutting down the nets in April. With that being said you can not ignore the fact that 11 of the last 16 teams who have won the national championship played with two guards that could command their team to victory.
List of NCAA Basketball Champions from 2000-2016
2016- Nova (Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson)*
2015- Duke (Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones)*
2014- UConn (Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatwright)*
2013- L-ville (Russ Smith, Peyton Siva)*
2012- Kentucky (Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb)
2011- UConn (Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb)
2010- Duke (Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer)*
2009- UNC (Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington)
2008- KU (Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson)*
2007- Florida (Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey)*
2006- Florida (Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey)*
2005- UNC (Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants)
2004- UConn (Taliek Brown, Ben Gordon)
2003- Cuse (Gerry McNamara, Kueth Duany)
2002- Maryland (Steve Blake, Juan Dixon)*
2001- Duke (Jay Williams, Chris Duhon)*
2000- Michigan State (Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell)*
* denotes a champion with both guards being able to be primary ball handlers