As small-ball has become the lineup of choice in the NBA, it has had a trickle-down effect on the collegiate level. Many notable programs, including Kansas and Villanova, have successfully implemented the four-guard set. This up-tempo, pass first style with reliance on the three-ball has even produced a national championship.
Jay Wright engineered an improbable NCAA title at Villanova with four guards starting and playing significant minutes in 2016.
Villanova's 2016 NCAA championship naturally remains the gold standard for the four-guard set. Now, as the 2017-18 college basketball season is just around the corner, the University of Rhode Island men's basketball team appears to be the highest ranked preseason team (25th according to a CBS poll) expected to deploy the four-guard approach.
The reason why the Rams are predicted to experiment with such an unorthodox and highly risky offensive and defensive scheme can be primarily attributed to the composition of their roster. URI has a disproportionate amount of talent in the backcourt. One could reasonably say the top five players are all guards.
Some arm-chair college basketball coaches anticipate the Rams - coming off an Atlantic 10 Championship as well as finding themselves roughly two minutes from reaching the Sweet 16 - to at the very least explore the four-guard option at one point during this season.
Kenny Green, one of the all-time great URI basketball players, was not completely sold on the four-guard set.
“Honestly, the success or failure of the four-guard rotation depends on the athleticism and the plain basketball smarts of the players,” said Green, who played an integral part in URI's 1988 Sweet Sixteen run. “If an opponent applied a four-guard lineup against my team, they would have an extremely rude awakening. But I'm sure coach Dan Hurley sees the talent he has and will utilize it effectively.”
Tim O'Shea - former URI assistant basketball coach and now head basketball coach at Bryant University - was more bullish about using four guards in a lineup.
"All you have to do is look at Villanova and see how well a four-guard rotation can work," said O'Shea, a turnaround artist at both Bryant University and Ohio University. "At the end of the day it's all about good players. Basketball is becoming more and more positionless in the sense that coaches want to put their best players on the floor. If you're starting four guards, then you have four guys who can dribble, pass, shoot, and are probably very smart about the game. That’s not a bad way to play at all."
What are URI's other lineup options?
URI can go with a three-guard rotation by inserting Nicole Akele, a 6’-8”, combo-forward into the lineup. While he is not a traditional power-forward, he has length and adds versatility to the team with the ability to shoot the three, rebound and play solid interior defense. In fact, Akele started alongside Cyril Langevine - the Ram's projected starting center - on URI’s summer team that played in the Bahamas.
The Villanova Four-Guard Model
There are obviously a lot of similarities between Villanova’s 2016 and URI's potential 2017 four-guard rotations. There are also some clear-cut differences.
Villanova's 2016 NCAA championship team had a NBA-caliber center- Daniel Ochefu - in the middle. The 6'-11" center was the Wildcat's rim protector and pulled down 7.5 rebounds per game. Ochefu’s inside presence was a critical component to compensate for Villanova's smaller lineup.
This season, URI counters with sophomore Cyril Langevine, a 6'-8" 225-pound rebounding machine in the post. Despite averaging just 13.2 minutes a game last season, Langevine managed to grab an impressive 4.5 rebounds per contest. If you do the math, he is in position to potentially average double-figure rebounds.
That is, if Langevine can stay on the court for 30+ minutes a game, which may be a tall order for the promising sophomore power-forward. Last season, he had the tendency to foul in bunches - forcing him to sit for long stretches of the game. This could wind up testing the Rhody front-court bench as it is inexperienced, unproven and thin.
Also, Villanova's offensive perimeter game was more lethal during their championship run than URI's last season in terms of two and three-point field goal percentage. However, it’s highly possible the Ram’s outside shooting will improve this season since all five guards who return from last season stand to improve on their shooting inside and behind the arc.
On the defensive end, the Wildcat’s 2015-16 four-guard attack included the 6’-6” Kris Jenkins. This oversized guard added length to the four-guard rotation. The closest player the Rams have to Jenkins is E.C. Matthews, who stands at a formidable 6’-5” and weighs 200 pounds.
URI does not have to be as talented as Villanova was - in their epic title run. No one is talking about a NCAA championship in Kingston, Rhode Island this season. However, a Elite Eight or Final Four appearance would not be a small feat by any means for the 2017-18 URI basketball team.