Last week saw history made when the 15-seed St. Peter’s Peacocks upset 3rd seeded Purdue to advance to the Elite 8. It was the first time any team seeded 13 or lower advanced to that round of the tournament in the history of March Madness. What we saw in the matchup was a battle of David vs Goliath, almost literally. The undersized team from the little school with a limited budget squaring off against the Boilermakers with future lottery pick Jaden Ivey and the actual Goliath – 7’4” center Matt Edey – in the starting lineup. It wasn’t just a matchup of big vs small, or of the haves vs the have nots, it was a matchup of classic vs modern basketball philosophy, and that’s what I want to dive in to here. Taking notes from teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament, here’s how I would try to construct a mid-major team to compete with the traditional powers:
If I were trying to build an outlier mid-major program with the intent of competing with high-major programs in March, here is what I would prioritize:
1. Recruit Players with Strong Perimeter Skillsets (shooting, passing, ball-handling)
2. Spread the court with 5 shooters, attack speed/quickness mismatches & push tempo
3. Prioritize quickness (both physical AND mental) over size in recruiting
4. Play high pressure defense and extend to full court at every opportunity
5. Mix up defensive looks to prevent offense from getting comfortable
Perimeter Skillsets: I prioritize skills over athleticism. The team needs to be as athletic as possible without sacrificing perimeter skills and knowing how to play.
Spread the Court with 5 Shooters: If your opponent doesn’t have to guard one of your players on the perimeter, they can sag, clog the paint, and keep a great rim-protector anchored in place to prevent easy baskets. When everyone on the floor can shoot, the defense must adjust and get out to contest. This takes away a major advantage high major teams typically have. A great example in this year’s tournament was 10-seed Miami’s upset over #2 Auburn. 7’1”, 3rd Team All-American Center, Walker Kessler was one of the best rim protectors in college basketball this year. Miami’s lineup of 5 shooters neutralized him by spreading the court, forcing him to leave the paint for the perimeter, and opening up scoring opportunities from drives and cuts. Miami shredded them, Kessler ended up on the bench down the stretch, and Miami went on to win by 18.
Prioritize Quickness: High majors get the best bigs. Mid-major rosters are almost always feature players who are smaller than their high-major opponents. Similar to points made above, you beat Goliath by pulling big rim-protectors away from the basket to open up those highest-value shots. The first prerequisite is having the skills to draw them away (shooting), the 2nd is having the quickness to exploit them once they’ve been pulled out. You can have players who are physically slow, as long as they’re mentally quick. If they make quick decisions and move the ball, your team can still be fast.
Play High Pressure D and Extend Full Court: If you’re smaller and quicker, you want to extend the court as much as possible. If they have the ball in the post with a size advantage that’s bad. I want my team pressuring the ball everywhere, looking to exhaust their guards and force turnovers. A slow tempo favors a bigger, slower team. A fast tempo favors a quicker team. Pressure D is the best way to push tempo.
Mix Up Defensive Looks: Double the post one possession. Dig down from the entry pass on the next. Throw in different zone looks here and there. Mix up the kinds of full court presses you use. Ultimately, you’re trying to keep your opponent uncomfortable and making it as hard as possible to predict what you’re going to throw at them. St. Peter’s did a great job of this throughout their tournament run.
Even though the outlier teams lost in the Elite 8 games over the weekend, that doesn’t diminish their accomplishments. If you don’t have the same resources as your opponent, building the same way they do makes you a lesser version of the same product. To be an outlier you must actively seek to be different. St. Peter’s and Miami showed us how you can do it. Those programs bold enough to lean in and embrace this strategy in the future will be the next darlings of March Madness.