The small ball era has been discussed ad nauseam with case studies such as Golden State in the NBA and Villanova in college acting as manifestations of its success. But for all the talk about how effective shooter-stocked lineups are, the most under-appreciated element of the strategy is player interchangeability on defense. Villanova’s small lineups work because its wing players can effectively guard multiple positions and Jay Wright’s emphasis on help defense shores up any size deficiencies. Marquette‘s small ball approach, on the other hand, has so far come up short. Before diving into the issues surrounding the Golden Eagles’ strategy, though, it’s important to illustrate why Steve Wojciechowski has resorted to it in the first place. On its face, his decision to add undersized shooters to his lineup appears to favor offense over defense.
The maneuver has turned what was a decent offense into the program’s best since Tom Crean and Dwyane Wade were still on campus back in 2003. The ninth-most efficient offense in college basketball features the nation’s best three-point shooting arsenal at 42.4 percent, serving as a primary source of the offense and ostensibly justifying Wojciechowski’s decision to recruit for a motion-heavy, perimeter-based attack. The glaring trade-off on defense, while somewhat apparent at the time, was not expected to be this drastic. While Marquette’s offense has clearly surged, its mid-major defense (165th nationally) represents a problem of positional versatility. Most undersized teams have at least one or two guys who are capable of “sizing up” and defending bigger players on switches. Wings JaJuan Johnson and Haanif Cheatham both possess good athleticism, but neither has shown an ability to effectively front his man on the block and contest shots around the rim. Meanwhile, the pair of stretch fours that Wojciechowski employs, Sam Hauser and Katin Reinhardt, are offensive specialists who are not quick enough to defend the perimeter. Watch Hauser in the clip below as he is caught off balance and never regains his composure.