The two-point-guard lineup has been the most consequential strategic development of the NCAA tournament. Three of the Final Four teams — North Carolina, Villanova, and Oklahoma — start a pair of point guards each, as did two losing Elite Eight teams, Notre Dame and Kansas. College coaches are spreading the floor and playing multiple ball handlers at the same time.
The point guard is the coach on the floor, and the only thing better than having one out there is having two. That’s especially important in a one-and-done tournament, when teams have to radically alter game plans not only between games but during them.
We’ve seen poor backcourt decision-making be the downfall of a number of teams over the past few weeks. This happened to Virginia in the Elite Eight when it blew a 15-point second-half lead over Syracuse after the Orange switched to a full-court press. Poor execution hastened Miami’s Sweet 16 exit against Villanova, when the Hurricanes guards repeatedly tried to dribble through the Nova zone, taking contested jumpers off the dribble instead of moving the ball.
Smart guard play is why Oklahoma and Villanova are in Houston this weekend. Those two teams feature backcourts that protect the ball and get it to their stars — Buddy Hield for OU, Kris Jenkins for Villanova — in the right places.
You hear a lot about small backcourts getting bullied in the pros, but the defensive risks in the college game aren’t as great because there are fewer skilled, athletic wings who can take advantage of a size mismatch.
Among the Final Four teams, Syracuse is the one club bucking the trend. DraftExpress doesn’t project Michael Gbinije (6-foot-7) or Malachi Richardson (6-foot-6) as first-rounders, but their length, athleticism, shooting, and playmaking have propelled Cuse to Houston, and those traits will get both players at least a shot at the next level.
The question that Roy Williams and North Carolina will have to answer on Saturday is whether point guards Joel Berry II and Marcus Paige can guard Syracuse’s 3-and-D wings. Williams may opt for a more NBA-style lineup, with Theo Pinson (6-foot-6) at 2-guard. This could be the decisive matchup question of the weekend, and the one that will determine which team goes to the title game.
This piece originally appeared in the April 1, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.