College basketball: A guard's game

Grinnell coach David Arseneault knows a thing or two about guards.
Take one look at his roster and you realize why.

When Arseneault took over at Grinnell, a tiny Division III school in
central Iowa revered more for its academics than its fledgling
basketball program, he sized up his team, looked at his competition
and decided to do something revolutionary: He recruited guards.


"I figured, everyone else was getting the bigger, stronger kids,"
Arseneault said. "Why not figure out a way to keep the ball between
the hash marks, to put some other teams off-balance? I had no idea
what it would become."

What it's become is "The System," Arseneault's bat-dung-crazy calling
card that turned the Pioneers into the first Division III school
to be televised by ESPN in 30 years and their coach into a fringe
hoops guru overseeing an alternately revolutionary and exasperating
basketball circus act.

"The System" is powered by "The Formula," which calls for Grinnell's
players -- who, like hockey lines, rotate every other minute in groups
of five -- to attempt 94 field goals per game (47 of which should be
3-pointers), to crash the offensive glass with reckless abandon and
to constantly press opponents the full length of the court for the
entire game. It's not for the faint of heart or, frankly, fans of
defense. And it requires lots of creative, intelligent and intuitive

Division I teams don't have much in common with Grinnell. Even the
uppest of uptempo teams don't fire off 47 3s per game. (Though a
hoops fan can dream, can't he?) But if you look closely at the modern
college basketball landscape -- especially college basketball in the
2010-11 season -- you might notice at least one similarity.

Everybody needs those guards.

Whether a bona fide trend or a coincidence of timing, it's hard to
argue against the importance of guards in the college game this
season. Nearly every team that has impressed in nonconference play
has done so thanks in large part to its backcourt stars.

Count the names: Kemba Walker at Connecticut. Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith at Duke. Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark at
Georgetown. Melvin Goins and Scotty Hopson at Tennessee. Jacob Pullen
at Kansas State. Jimmer Fredette at BYU. Kalin Lucas at Michigan
State. E'Twaun Moore at Purdue. Demetri McCamey at Illinois. Marcus Denmon at Missouri. Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker at Pittsburgh.
Isaiah Thomas at Washington. LaceDarius Dunn at Baylor. The list goes
on and on.

"Guard play is as critical now as it ever has been, and maybe more
so," said Richmond coach Chris Mooney, whose team relies heavily on the
commanding play of senior point guard Kevin Anderson. "If you
have good guard play, you can play with anybody."

Is college hoops going to the guards? Before we go any further, we
might as well test the premise.

To that end, here are the teams ranked
Nos. 1-25 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings and the player
on each who accounts for the highest percentage of possessions ended
while he is on the floor. No, it's not the most scientific study in
the world. Instead, consider it a glimpse.

(Note: Pomeroy numbers updated to include all games through Dec. 13.)

1. Duke (Nolan Smith, 28.0 percent)
2. Kansas (Thomas Robinson, 28.8 percent)
3. Ohio State (Deshaun Thomas, 29.4 percent)
4. Pittsburgh (Brad Wanamaker, 26.2 percent)
5. Kentucky (Terrence Jones, 30.5 percent)
6. Washington (Matthew Bryan-Amaning, 26.4 percent)
7. BYU (Jimmer Fredette, 31.4 percent)
8. Wisconsin (Jon Leuer, 28.3 percent)
9. Syracuse (Scoop Jardine, 26.5 percent)
10. Georgetown (Julian Vaughn, 26.8 percent)
11. Louisville (Peyton Siva, 25.6 percent)
12. Illinois (Demetri McCamey, 24.3 percent)
13. Baylor (LaceDarius Dunn, 30.0 percent)
14. Purdue (E'Twaun Moore, 28.0 percent)
15. Arizona (Derrick Williams, 28.6 percent)
16. Tennessee (Scotty Hopson, 28.7 percent)
17. Michigan State (Kalin Lucas, 25.0 percent)
18. San Diego State (Kawhi Leonard, 27.5 percent)
19. UNLV (Anthony Marshall, 22.9 percent)
20. West Virginia (Deniz Kilicli, 28.3 percent)
21. Texas (Jordan Hamilton, 28.7 percent)
22. Florida (Vernon Macklin, 25.3 percent)
23. Villanova (Maalik Wayns, 28.2 percent)
24. Maryland (Terrell Stoglin, 28.2 percent)
25. Kansas State (Jacob Pullen, 28.6 percent)

Of these 25 teams, 16 feature guards as their highest-usage players.
But this is far from a perfect exercise, and there are caveats worth
mentioning. For example, you'll find several instances where the
results aren't indicative of each team's most important contributor.

Ohio State relies far more heavily on Jared Sullinger than Deshaun Thomas. Same goes for Jordan Williams, and not Stoglin, at
Maryland. Georgetown's three guards have been more important to that
team's success than Vaughn (though Vaughn has been good). In
its uptempo attack, Washington goes as Isaiah Thomas goes. And so on.

Nor does this take into account any number of other notable teams and
players that could affect in to sample one way or the other.

In other words, usage rate doesn't automatically equal importance,
and, again, this is just a glimpse. Still, it's a glimpse at a college
basketball season that has felt, to this point, largely dominated by
dynamic perimeter players named Walker, Irving, Smith and Fredette.

If this is a trend, then why? Are there really more guards in
the world? Are basketball players just getting shorter? (OK, so that's
one hypothesis we can throw out right away.)

For one, the theory isn't universal; the Thomas Robinsons and Jared
Sullingers of the world are still plying their trades in the college
ranks, but they seem to be the exception and not the rule.

Mooney said he's seen more versatile lineups in the college game in
recent years, more coaches willing to throw their shorter players on
the floor in uptempo-oriented systems.

"You have definitely seen more teams these days that play three- and
four-guard lineups," Mooney said. "You see teams that aren't
especially big or physical that are able to do very well despite that.
And I think that's part of the natural evolution of the game."

You can see that evolution any time Missouri, Kentucky, BYU,
Villanova, Tennessee, Louisville and Washington, among many others,
take the court. Even Duke, which won a national title last season by
slowing the game, getting good half-court looks and relying on
the beefy interior rebounding of Brian Zoubek, changed its style to
suit Irving's brilliance this season. (That is, before a toe injury
sidelined the freshman indefinitely.)

That evolution may not be entirely voluntary. Mooney cited
disproportionate NBA salivation for big men as one reason coaches
choose to play smaller, quicker lineups.

Georgetown coach John Thompson III agreed.
"The NBA will draft a big guy on potential quicker than they will a
smaller guy," he said. "More big guys are going to leave
school, or at least have the opportunity to leave school, before some
of the smaller guys."

Thompson would know. This summer, his team lost former Big East
freshman of the year Greg Monroe to the NBA draft lottery, leaving the
Hoyas with a glut of talented guards but much less certainty on the
interior. So Thompson did what he thinks most coaches now do. He
put his five best players on the court.

"It just so happens that my three best players are all perimeter
players," Thompson said. "I'm going to play my best players.
Fortunately they're all unselfish, and they help each other.

"The conventional wisdom has always been, you've got a 1 as your
point guard, a 2 as your shooting guard, a 3 as your small
forward, a 4 as your power forward and a 5 as your center. I think coaches and players now just say, 'I"m going
to put my best players on the court.' The stereotypes that have always gone along with those numbers, I don't think that's applicable
anymore. We don't even talk in terms of numbers. I get questions like,
'Who's your 2?' Well, I don't know who my 2 is. We've got some
players out there."

And, of course, there's a trend so old it's barely worth mentioning: The fact that forwards at all levels of basketball are more
versatile, skilled and polished than ever before.

"There's no question," Mooney said. "Guys like Kyle Singler, who can
do the tough things forwards are supposed to do -- can rebound the
ball, all that -- but are also very good shooters and have clearly
worked on their ballhandling all their lives, that's another big
factor in the way the game is played right now. And I think it's a
positive thing for the game, no question."

Add all that up -- more polished, guard-like forwards, fewer elite big
men thanks to the NBA, more emphasis on uptempo play, less emphasis on
codified basketball roles -- and you get a college hoops
landscape in which guards are seemingly more important than ever. You
get a game in which, if you squint hard enough, everyone on the floor
looks a little like a guard.

If you squint hard enough, college hoops might even look a little bit
like Grinnell -- albeit Grinnell in slow motion.
"The era of the dominant big man in the quarter-court is over,"
Arseneault said. "Competitively, there's just so much more you can do
with good guards across the entire court to eliminate some of those
quarter-court disadvantages.

"Really, I just love watching good guards play," Arseneault said.
"Sometimes I feel like a WWE ringleader trying to come up with new
material. But more than anything, I want to watch people be creative
with the basketball."

Whether it's 94 shots or 44 -- and whether those players are guards,
point forwards or just plain forwards -- that's one thing we can all
agree on.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.