Villanova has a death lineup

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04: Kris Jenkins
HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04: Kris Jenkins /

Villanova’s improbably dominant run to the 2016 National Championship carried many of the hallmarks of basketball’s modern small ball revolution. The team took 42.7 percent of its shot attempts from 3, the highest for a national champion in NCAA men’s history, and the first to break 40 percent since Duke’s 2000-01 team. Six of its eight major rotation players took 35 percent or more of their shots from 3 and, during the 240 minutes of the championship run, the team played two traditional bigs for just 25 of them. The defense featured an aggressive, switch-heavy man-to-man scheme with doses of a 2-3 zone and 1-2-2 press to hound perimeter shooters and collapse on deep penetration.

At the center of it all (pun definitely intended), though, was the 6-foot-11 Daniel Ochefu. The big man, currently plying his trade for the Washington Wizards’ bench, made his living at Villanova cleaning up the deficiencies of ‘small ball.’ Ochefu vacuumed up rebounds, grabbing a full quarter of the available defensive rebounds while he was on the floor, with an 11.3 percent rebounding rate on the offensive end. He cleaned up the back-end when perimeter defense broke down, finishing with a top-60 block rate (7.5 percent) and holding teams to a 2-point field goal percentage of 42.6 percent while he was on the floor (Villanova managed a 46.0% 2FG% while he was off). And he even facilitated offense from the post, scoring with a dependable hook shot and kicking it out to wide open 3 point shooters when he drew a double team.

In short, it was a team that looked very much like a small ball squad but relied on a very true big to paper over any cracks. With the Ochefu’s graduation and move to the NBA after the 2015-16 season and the subsequent forced academic redshirting of 5-star freshman recruit Omari Spellman (literally, for attending too much high school), Villanova entered the season with just one rotation player over 6’-8” and serious questions about whether it could sustain small ball success in a post-Ochefu world.

Read More: Can the Gonzaga Bulldogs finally make a Final Four?

Now sitting at 11-0 (with a true road win and a neutral site win over two top-25 teams), the reigning NCAA champion has emphatically answered that, at least, it remains a force to be reckoned with. One of the key ingredients to this early season success: Villanova’s version of the Golden State Warriors’ (we’ll go with pre-Durant, don’t want to get carried away here) Death Lineup — the Wing ‘C’ (copyright is not pending).

The Wing “C”

As mentioned, Villanova’s current rotation includes just one player over 6-foot-8 – senior Darryl Reynolds, who plays just a hair over 25 minutes per game. While Reynolds’ story (a bit player in his first two years who worked his way into a key backup role on a national championship team and a starting spot as a senior) is great, this article isn’t about him. It’s about what Villanova’s been doing with those 15-20 minutes when Reynolds is on the bench.

Enter Eric Paschall — Villanova’s other ‘big.’ The redshirt sophomore sat out last year after transferring from Fordham (after his coach was let go), where he won A-10 Rookie of the Year honors. While he stands at 6-foot-6 (or, maybe, 6-foot-7), the athletically gifted Paschall has a wide 6-foot-10 wingspan and the frame of a linebacker (he’s listed at 250 pounds). He’s a load to move in the post, and has some real skill on the offensive end, especially when driving (his outside shot at this point is probably most favorably described as ‘developing’). That’s right — he’s kind of a Draymond Green.

Setting aside that it’s ridiculous to compare an all-NBA player with a college wing/big averaging less than 20 minutes per game, Paschall does play a similar role to Green’s when Villanova shifts to its ultra-small lineup. While Jay Wright has tended to play a lot of larger guards and wings this season, especially during Phil Booth’s extended absence, Paschall is asked to be the ‘big’ near the rim on both ends of the floor. The results so far? Spectacular.

Overall Wing “C” splits

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Courtesy of, the above table shows Villanova’s splits on offense and defense with (selected lineup) and without (other lineups) the Wing “C” configuration so far this year. As a quick aside, Tim Delaney and Dylan Painter are first year bigs who almost exclusively play mop-up minutes. Paschall’s minutes with them are excluded from the above chart. Paschall has played as the only big for approximately 26.5 percent of Villanova’s possessions so far this year, it’s been destroying opponents to the tune of +42 points per 100 possessions, while all other configurations are “only” netting +21 points per 100 during the same games.

The splits have been especially dramatic in the last four games. Against the Villanova’s last four opponents (Saint Joseph’s, La Salle, Notre Dame, and Temple), Jay Wright has employed the ‘Wing C’ for 95 possessions (35.44 percent of total possessions over that time frame) after using it on just 102 possessions over the first seven games (21.79 percent).

Wing “C” splits (last four games)

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During these games (obviously all wins), lineups with Paschall at center have laid waste to the opposition at a rate of +72 points per 100 possessions, while all other lineups have essentially played to a draw. The efficacy of this lineup may be buoyed by an unsustainable percentage (52.8 percent) on 3-pointers but it has plenty of room to regress and still be a significant positive. After perhaps overcoming a natural early-season fear of constructing a lineup with no traditional bigs, Jay Wright appears to have unlocked a potentially terrifying small ball outfit. So, how have these tiny lineups been doing it?

The clearest note from the above splits is the benefit to Villanova in turnover rate on both ends. The team defense has forced turnovers on 5 percent more possessions with the Wing “C” this year than without it, and on 7.7 percent more in the last four games. Similar comparisons are seen on the offensive end — the turnover rate has dropped significantly (to 11.7% and 8.4% for the season and in the last four games, respectively) whenever Paschall is playing the nominal center position.

This has helped fuel a stark advantage for the team in transition, both on the offensive and defensive ends. Here’s a look at the offensive and defensive splits, for ‘BINs’ in the shot clock, for both the Wing “C” and non-death lineups:

Wing “C” splits

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Non-Wing “C” Splits

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Villanova’s Wing “C” is destroying teams in transition, averaging nearly 1.70 points on per possession on any opportunity that lasts 10 seconds or less, while holding opponents to just 0.69 points per possession on the same opportunities on the other end. That’s about 0.50 PPP and 0.30 PPP better than all other ‘Non-Death’ lineups on offense, and defense, respectively.

And it’s not just about efficiency — the Wing “C” has been better at creating and preventing these opportunities on each end. About 3 percent more of Villanova’s possessions end with a transition attempt on offense with Paschall at center, while transition possessions drop by a (relative) 7 percent for the opposition.

Much of this is likely fueled by the turnover splits — it’s easiest to run off steals, and these lineups have been great at both forcing and preventing them. This also dovetails with the sheer amount of athleticism on the floor when a ‘big’ like Paschall is running alongside Villanova’s stable of wings (likely NBA prospects Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges, national championship hero Kris Jenkins, and athletic role players like Donte Divincenzo and Phil Booth), with Jalen Brunson directing from the point. The amount of ground they can cover on defense, especially in the passing lanes, is incredible. What they’ve been able to do in transition on both ends is a reflection of this aggregate speed and athleticism.

Shot charts

But that’s not the only area in which they’ve excelled on defense. Check out this shot chart comparison, isolated for when the Wing “C” lineup is on the floor, and when it isn’t1.

Defensive shot chart — Wing “C” lineup

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Defensive shot chart — All other lineups

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While both charts reflect the keys of Villanova’s progressive defensive philosophy — giving up the mid-range to prevent clean looks on 3-pointers and at the rim — there are some glaring differences between the two, especially at the rim.

Lineups with Paschall at center have actually done an incredible job protecting the basket — opposing teams have only hit 24 of 48 total logged shots within five feet of the rim. This is significantly better than the team has done in all other minutes — as can be seen in the graph, non-death lineups have allowed teams to hit 64.15 percent of their shots within five feet of the rim. Paschall himself sports a 3.3 percent block rate — a solid mark for a guy with wing size — but the work has been done on a team level. Everyone on the team, especially when the smaller lineups are out there, has been working to make sure every shot is at least contested.

The chart also provides a visual of just how good the Wing “C” lineup has been at preventing clean 3-point looks — teams have hit 12 (!) of their 60 3-point attempts, good for 20 percet, in the logged games while they’re out there. While, per Hooplens, the real number is closer to 25 percent, this is still about 4-5 percentage points better than the non-deaths have managed. These lineups have also managed to not get killed on the boards. While the team has clearly been better rebounding when Darryl Reynolds is on the floor (with rate splits about five and two percentage points better on the defensive and offensive ends, respectively), Paschall and Villanova’s other wings have done a good job preventing opposing teams from playing volleyball with rebounds, and allowing other strengths of the lineup to shine.

And that is the most promising aspect of this early season experiment. While it’s unlikely Villanova could, or should, play 40 minutes of basketball against the best (and biggest) teams with a 6-foot-7 wing at center, they have found a way to survive and thrive in the minutes they will have to spend without a true big man on the floor. This small lineup is getting it done (and in style) on the defensive end of the floor, and with the ability to spread four shooters around a wing capable of screening & rolling like a big man (a la the Oklahoma City Thunder and Andre Roberson in last season’s Western Conference Finals), it will remain very difficult to defend on the other side.

Shot chart explanation: Yep, it’s Excel. Data viz sub-rookie and proud. The dots are simply the shot locations. The colors, as shown in the legend, reflect the percentage of shots hit vs. the NCAA average from the same zone. The court is divided into seven zones: (1) 5 feet from the rim and in; (2) the remainder of the paint; (3) the short midrange, outside the paint and within 14 feet of the basket; (4) the long midrange, outside the paint and between 14 feet and the 3 point line; (5) left wing 3’s; (6) above the break 3’s; (7) right wing 3’s. The data source is imperfect, so you might see some weird things (like mid-rangers appearing to be outside the 3 point line). Rest assured, those shots are 2’s.