The three-guard attack used by Illinois can be devastating--and risky
WITH ITS BLISTERING backcourt troika of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, Illinois is the latest team to run rampant using a three-guard lineup. The Illini are advancing the trend of perimeter-overloaded play that began in 1993-94. That season Arizona coach Lute Olson switched his offensive focus from immobile big men--the twin towers of Sean Rooks and Ed Stokes--to his three hyperkinetic guards, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Reggie Geary. "It was pretty revolutionary at the time," says longtime Wildcats assistant Jim Rosborough. "Other coaches were calling and wanting to know what we were doing."
Arizona reached the Final Four that season, and by the time the Wildcats won the 1997 national title (with starting guards Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson), Olson's innovation had sparked a full-blown movement. Because there are relatively few true big men, coaches have compensated with speed--which means that three-guard sets have become commonplace. Last season Alabama and Saint Joseph's made the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight by relying heavily on four-guard attacks. In its second-round game the Crimson Tide upset No. 1 Stanford even though it was outrebounded 49--29.
As that statistic suggests, the three-guard approach has its drawbacks. The expression "matchup nightmare" is usually used to describe tall small forwards--think 6'7" Joey Graham of Oklahoma State or 6'7" Francisco Garc�a of Louisville--who can maximize their height advantage and athleticism against shorter third guards. And when a guard-oriented team grows cold from the outside, it often spells doom: In the 2004 tournament Saint Joseph's was 8 for 26 from beyond the arc in its loss to bigger Oklahoma State.
Guard play remains the key in March, and few teams can hope to outperform the Illini's terrific trio at tournament time. That's what they'll have to do, though, to knock off the No. 1 team. When asked how to beat his Illini, center Nick (Chainsaw) Smith replied, "I would do one of two things. One, play zone and pray that we miss our shots and you outrebound us. Or two, slow us down in transition and hope your three guards have the night of their lives." The rest almost went without saying, but Smith said it anyway: "Not many teams can do that." --G.W.