Men's Basketball is Successfully Joining Small-Ball Trend

Pak Mentality

Small ball is all the rage in the NBA. Instead of furnishing their frontcourts with tall, shot-blocking centers and forwards, many NBA teams have found success in employing smaller, faster lineups lacking true centers to stretch the floor, juice-up their fast-break offense, and wreck havoc with smaller, stingier defenders.

For example, with the absence of a healthy center, the Golden State Warriors have employed three-guard, two-forward lineups regularly en route to posting a 22-10 record through early-January. Taking advantage of favorable matchups, focusing on gang-rebounding schemes, and playing stingy, pesky defense, the Warriors have beat teams with more traditional “true” 7-foot centers.

And when you are talking about NBA small-ball, you can’t forget to mention the defending champion Miami Heat who consistently employ smaller, quicker lineups with LeBron James guarding the 4-position.

While the small-ball trend has very much become an integral part of many NBA team identities, it also has garnered much attention in the college basketball world as well. John Calipari at University of Kentucky is famous for his dribble-drive offense schemes, plays that create spacing and penetration to take advantage of favorable matchups to allow for easy lay-ups and looks for open perimeter shots.

Remember Shaka Smart and the bracket-busting VCU Rams on their last two NCAA Tournament runs? Well, Smart’s Rams charged deep into the Tournament by utilizing lineups with four perimeter players that forced a faster tempo of game, opened up perimeter looks, and pushed the ball in transition.

While small-ball isn’t always successful, it can work when teams are able to rebound, play tough defense, hit perimeter shots, and push the pace of the game.

In its 67-62 victory over the Cal Golden Bears, Harvard rolled with a lineup of four perimeter players and 6’ 6” sophomore Jonah Travis. While the game was relatively close, the Crimson shot significantly better from deep (10 for 27 while Cal was 0 for 6), turned the ball over less (8 turnovers as opposed to Cal’s 13), and passed the ball better (13 assists to Cal’s 9). At the same time, the Golden Bear big men didn’t rebound or shoot particularly well—even with two to four inches of height advantage—and couldn’t take advantage of a soft Harvard interior defense.

With few traditional centers in the Ivy League, and its own lack of true center, the Crimson will likely look to transport its success from Haas Pavilion to Lavietes Pavilion against league opponents and continue to rely on hot shooting from wings like junior Laurent Rivard (40.4 percent from 3), freshman Siyani Chambers (47.8 percent), sophomore Wesley Saunders (49.6 percent), and senior Christian Webster (38.8 percent). Expect to see more perimeter-shooting derived from dribble penetration and ball movement as the winning recipe for the 2012-2013 Tommy Amaker crew.

—Staff Writer Joseph Pak can be reached at jpak@college.harvard.edu.

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