Big Bang Theory

In a field loaded with tall, talented front lines, at least half a dozen top contenders are smaller teams that have offset their lack of stature with speed and versatility—weapons they hope will cut the behemoths down to size
March 23, 2008

IT TAKES a fairamount of nerve to look a college basketball coach in the eye, keep a straightface and ask a question that's usually better suited for Cosmo than for thepages of SI: Does size matter? But fear not, dear reader. No query is morepertinent heading into this year's fun-house mirror of an NCAA tournament, inwhich six genuine title contenders—Duke, Louisville, Memphis, North Carolina,Tennessee and Xavier—have shorter frontcourts than any national champion of thepast 20 years. And while common sense may suggest otherwise (this isbasketball, after all), no question is likely to draw a more surprising rangeof answers. ¬∂ "Size absolutely matters," says UCLA coach Ben Howland,who might have been aiming for a three-peat if not for the once-in-a-generationFlorida team that beat the Bruins in the last two Final Fours. There's a reasonHowland calls his latest edition, the West region's No. 1 seed, "the bestteam we've had over the last three seasons." After enduring two years ofbully treatment by the Gators' big men—the second- and third-tallestchampionship front lines of the past two decades—UCLA finally has its owntranscendent titan, 6'10" freshman center Kevin Love. As Howland says,"Having [Love] in there not only scoringwise but also reboundingwise was ahuge factor in our success in the regular season."

Even the shortesttitle-winning frontcourt of the past two decades, UNLV's in 1990, had anAll-America post player in burly 6'6" forward Larry Johnson. But can a teamwith almost no post presence win a national title? Duke coach Mike Krzyzewskicertainly thinks so, considering that the go-go Blue Devils' biggest player onthe floor is often 6'8", 220-pound freshman Kyle Singler. "If you havea good big man, that helps a lot," says Coach K, "but I don't think youneed to have a great big man to win the whole thing." Perhaps, but the BlueDevils' margin for error is as slim as Singler himself. "Can Duke win anational championship with this team?" says UConn coach Jim Calhoun."They could, but I don't know if they can put six wins together, becauseall they need [to lose] is one bad shooting game."

It's the height offashion to say that perimeter play is the key to success in the NCAAs. Butrecent champions have also revived the fashion of height. After an eight-yearstretch from 1996 to 2003 in which the Most Outstanding Player of the FinalFour was a guard or a midsized swingman, three of the last fourMOPs—Connecticut's Emeka Okafor, North Carolina's Sean May and Florida's JoakimNoah—have been big men. What's more, finding worthy guards for this year'sAll-America teams was a far harder task than making a list of deserving postplayers: UCLA's Love, North Carolina's 6'9" Tyler Hansbrough, KansasState's 6'10" Michael Beasley, Notre Dame's 6'8" Luke Harangody,Stanford's 7-foot Brook Lopez, Louisville's 6'11" David Padgett andIndiana's 6'9" D.J. White.

Thatpituitary-powered procession doesn't even include three potentiallygame-changing centers on title contenders (Georgetown's 7'2" Roy Hibbert,UConn's 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet and Stanford's 7-foot Robin Lopez, Brook'stwin brother) or the four-headed post hydra of Kansas, the deepest reserve ofquality size in the land. "When you have four big guys, you can get to thesecond half with nobody in foul trouble," says Jayhawks coach Bill Self."It's not devastating when one of our big guys gets two fouls in the firstfour minutes."

Yet more than everthe teams carrying a slingshot for Goliath aren't just double-digit seedsgunning for classic March upsets; they're also high-seeded powerhouses thathave found innovative ways to mitigate their lack of stature. "When a teamdoesn't have a big man, everybody looks at the teams that do and says theyautomatically have an advantage, but I don't know if that's always thecase," says Butler coach Brad Stevens, whose seventh-seeded Bulldogs haveno player taller than 6'8". "Often there's an advantage on one end ofthe court, but there may be a major disadvantage on the other."

How those relativeLilliputians attempt to defy nature—and the conventional wisdom ofbasketball—may well be the dominant story line of the next three weeks.

FROM A statisticalperspective, size does matter in college basketball—more so on defense than onoffense, and more so at center and power forward than at small forward andguard. Ken Pomeroy, a stat guru for Basketball Prospectus, computed the averageheight for all 341 Division I teams and found a weak correlation with offensiveefficiency (points scored per possession, adjusted for competition) and aslightly stronger one with defensive efficiency (points allowed perpossession). But when he isolated what he called Effective Height—the height ofa team's center and power forward, i.e., the tallest 40% of a team's minutesplayed—he found stronger correlations on offense and especially on defense,most of all in blocked shots, field-goal-percentage defense and defensiveefficiency.

Pomeroy'sconclusions: Having tall guards isn't that important, but there's ample reasonfor coaches to scour the world for exceptional big men—Thabeet is Tanzanian,while 6'11" Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy is Australian—or to invest timein a project such as Hibbert, whom former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr.nicknamed the Big Stiff as a freshman before rechristening him Stiff NoMore.

That's good newsfor a few tall NCAA tournament teams: Georgetown, which has more frontcourtheight than even North Carolina's 1993 outfit, the tallest champ in the last 20years (chart, left); Stanford, which is anchored by the Lopez twins; and UConn,which has seen Thabeet add offensive skills to his already formidableshot-blocking presence. Noting that Thabeet's scoring average has gone from 6.2points last season to 10.4 this year, Calhoun says his center has become "anightmare to play against because [defenses] have to double-team him, and whenthey give help, it opens up our perimeter players."

North Carolinacoach Roy Williams is one of the game's leading proponents of pounding the ballinside; his 2005 champion Tar Heels scored more than half of their points thatseason from the two power positions, the most of any NCAA titlist in the lasttwo decades (chart, left). Williams argues that skilled post men are better atdrawing fouls than are perimeter players—witness Hansbrough, who leads thenation in free throw attempts (344)—and that size matters more during the NCAAtournament because, he says, "it becomes more of a half-court game andpeople take fewer chances. Plus, in the NCAA tournament that three-foot shotdoesn't have as much pressure on it as a 22-foot shot has."

Remember, though:Height has a greater impact on the defensive end. Ask Stanford coach TrentJohnson about the influence he expects from the Lopez twins on this year'stournament, and he talks about defense. "You'd think we'd be able torebound and defend around the basket and challenge shots," Johnson says."When Brook and Robin are both on the floor, there's no question it makesit tough for teams to attack the rim and shoot the five- or 10-footer."

BUT FOR all theadvantages that height provides, many of this season's elite teams have foundstrategies that have offset their size deficit. To wit:

Extend youroffense and defense to exploit your speed and quickness. They may have adopteddifferent schemes in recent years—Memphis runs the dribble-drive motionoffense, while Duke employs a Phoenix Suns--style spread formation—but theTigers and the Blue Devils have similar philosophies when it comes to spacingout the floor for the small-ball staples of fast breaks, penetration andthree-pointers. So, too, do Texas and Tennessee, and the Vols take the concepta step further by spreading out the same way on defense in their gamblingfull-court press.

When you havehyperquick players, explains Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, "the only placewhere you don't have an advantage is in the paint. On defense you pressure theball, you turn them over and you create offense out of your defense. Then youspread the floor offensively and use the three-point line, and you can scorepoints without having a low-post presence."

The strategy hasits pitfalls when shots aren't falling and defensive pressure isn't forcingmany turnovers, but when it's working, taller (and slower) foes often don'tstand a chance. "The athleticism of Memphis and Tennessee makes them playso much bigger than they are," says Calhoun, whose towering Huskies fell tothe Tigers 81--70 in November. Likewise, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whosesize-rich Zags lost to Memphis and Tennessee, calls the Vols thequickest-handed defenders he has faced in his nine years as a head coach."It's not as easy to exploit [your height advantage] as some people thinkbecause they're just flying around [inside]," Few says, "and it'sharder than heck to get the ball in to somebody."

Run yourundersized big men into post-ups like crazy. It's no surprise that Duke,Memphis, Tennessee and Texas get a low percentage of their points from theirfrontcourts, but North Carolina is relentless about inside scoring despitehaving a surprisingly short front line. How does Hansbrough take advantage oftaller defenders in the low post? Often by beating them downcourt in the TarHeels' aggressive fast break and secondary break. (UConn is an exception at theother extreme, a tall team that relies on its perimeter players forscoring.)

Turn yourpenetrators into "posts." When Texas was lacking a low-post big man atthe start of the season, coach Rick Barnes instructed his Longhorns to clearout the lane and let point guard D.J. Augustin become an all-in-one entry passand finisher. "There are different ways to get a post game," saysBarnes. "Having D.J. drive the ball to the rim and score or get fouled isno different than punching the ball inside to a post guy and having him scoreor get fouled." Augustin still drives with abandon, but Texas has sinceadded a more conventional post presence in 6'7" freshman Gary Johnson, whowas cleared to play in January after sitting out with a heart-relatedcondition.

Find a gritty,undersized big man to take care of the dirty work. For much of the last fourseasons Memphis has depended on 6'9", 265-pound forward Joey Dorsey todefend opposing big men and also to gobble up rebounds with manic intensity atboth ends of the floor. But as he worried more about his NBA prospects and lessabout what made him so important to the Tigers, Dorsey swooned in February, socoach John Calipari yanked him from the starting lineup. "I don't want toput pressure on guys," Calipari says, "but if Dorsey and [6'9"forward Robert] Dozier don't really step up, we can't win this thing. When youlook at Florida and all those teams that won, their guard play wasunbelievable, but they had someone who could defensively anchor down the laneand then get a couple of easy baskets."

Maximize theskills and outside shooting of your undersized big men. Most teams from outsidethe traditional power conferences have a clear height disadvantage in the NCAAtournament. There are a few exceptions this season, including Brigham Young,Gonzaga, Oral Roberts and St. Mary's. "We're probably more equipped tomatch up with some of the power-conference teams because of our size," saysOral Roberts coach Scott Sutton, whose Golden Eagles include three starters whostand 6'8", 6'9" and 6'10".

But more typicalof the so-called mid-major realm are Butler and Drake, the two teams in the Top25 with the shortest front lines. What their big men lack in stature, however,they make up for with their three-point shooting. Butler's 6'7" PeteCampbell hits 44% (91 of 206) from beyond the arc, while Drake's talleststarter, 6'8" Jonathan Cox, makes 43% (40 of 94) of his treys. "We havedifficulty sometimes defending on the inside," says Drake coach Keno Davis,"but teams with bigger players have trouble guarding us on theperimeter."

The Jayhawks' Selfknows exactly what Davis is talking about. Two years ago Self's big mencouldn't keep up on the perimeter with another Missouri Valley sniper,Bradley's 6'7" Marcellus Sommerville, whose 21 points (and fivethree-pointers) helped the Braves upset Kansas. "From a matchup standpoint,you're nervous when your big guys are chasing around a conference player of theyear who's a perimeter four man, and that happens a lot in the mid-majorconferences," Self says. "Sommerville just killed us because our bigguys weren't used to guarding out there quite as much."

Then again, Selfcan speak with confidence these days: His Jayhawks may own the best combinationof size, depth and balance of any team in the tournament. Most othercontenders, though, enjoy less flexibility. Where would Georgetown put Hibbertif the Hoyas were to meet Duke? (In the middle of a zone defense, perhaps?)Would Stanford play both Lopezes at the same time against, say, Texas? And howwould those tiny teams guard the big guys inside? "That's why the NCAAtournament is so great," Self says. "There are so many subtle thingsthat happen through matchups. That is what makes it so much fun."

Will size win theultimate prize? Check back in three weeks, for no NCAA tournament is betterequipped to answer the question than this one.

Tall Order

Twelve Top 25teams are smaller than any titleist since 1987

To compare thesize of teams' front lines, Ken Pomeroy of Basketball Prospectus developed ameasure he calls Effective Height. The figures below represent the tallest 40%of a team's minutes played, i.e., an approximation of height at the powerforward and center positions, for the teams in the final regular-season Top 25(in bold) and the national champions going back to 1987.

PHOTO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)