Positional flexibility in college hoops

For the past few years, the big hoops minds at Free Darko have been espousing -- or at least discussing -- the merits of positional flexibility in the NBA. The idea is that you don't necessarily need to fill out the old-school, five-man lineup -- complete with a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center -- to be a successful team in the NBA. Instead, you can throw a wrench into the works, and not only will your basketball be more aesthetically entertaining, you just might throw a few opponents for a loop.

With rare exceptions, nothing like a positional revolution has taken place in the NBA. But even fewer folks have discussed this as it relates to college basketball. That is, until now: Basketball Prospectus' Drew Cannon has an interesting theory Tuesday, one that combines the market-inefficiency strategy of underfunded baseball front offices with the aesthetic revolution inherent in throwing off the old "I need a true point guard" routine.

The idea is to find unconventional players that might not fit in the traditional position framework but who can contribute to the important areas of the game all the same. Cannon explains:

I did a study on mid-major all-conference players last summer, and I learned a couple things about these high mid-level performers. For a player to become a mid-major all-conference player, he has to be effective enough to be named all-conference, yet for whatever reason he wasn't snatched up by a high-major. True, there were a couple players who simply chose schools lower on the totem pole, a couple who transferred into smaller schools, and a few who seemingly nobody had ever seen before they arrived on campus. But for almost every other type of player, there was just a disconnect between his “offensive position” and “defensive position.” High-major coaches couldn’t decide what position he’d play, so he fell.

To be sure, players with this type of ability are no easier to find than those who slot into the "traditional" positions. But hunting down non-traditional prospects is well worth a coach's time, because these players are undervalued by the recruiting "market." These guys may be as effective as those at high-major schools, but their need to be used unconventionally means the competition for them is significantly less intense.

It's a little like the famous draft scenes in the now-outdated "Moneyball," which feature the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics targeting sneaky-good draftees that look like busts because other teams are simply too traditional to notice them.

The only difference is surface: Most college coaches aren't as hung up about appearance or athleticism or a funky jump shot as the old-school baseball scouts of yore. What they are worried about is finding a player that fits their specific team needs. Coach X's point guard graduated, so Coach X needs a point guard. Is that guy a point guard? Maybe? Well, maybe's not good enough. We need a point guard.

Thus the market inefficiency is created. If one semi-unconventional coach focused less on traditional basketball roles, and instead focused on filling out the productivity-based areas that typically lead to basketball success -- Cannon cites defensive versatility, offensive rebounding, creativity, and ball-handling -- he could exploit that inefficiency to great effect.

Think of the way recruiting services define players by position. (How many times have I written the words "He's the No. Y small forward in the class of Year Z?" The answer: a lot.) Think of all the tweeners who drop from the top 100 of recruiting rankings because coaches can't place them in a predefined role. There are lots of those players, and many of them go on to very successful mid-major careers.

Cannon's right to say that this strategy isn't all that much easier to pull off than old-fashioned recruiting. After all, you still have to find players and sign them. That's the hard part. But you can picture this strategy working well for a high-major coach at a struggling program -- someone who could extend a few offers to positionally vague players that might have otherwise resigned themselves to the score of mid-major offers on the table. Forget positions, recruit for production, and worry about where the pieces fit together when you get your players on campus. Most coaches do the latter anyway.

All you have to do is find the players. That's tough. But it's not nearly as tough as trying to play in the same recruiting sandbox as the big boys.

"Moneyball's" famous subtitle was "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." "Unfair" describes baseball, but it could just as easily refer to college hoops. All we need now is a Billy Beane.