Ranking the 10 Best Small-Ball Teams of the Past Decade

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 20, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best Small-Ball Teams of the Past Decade

0 of 11

    Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    There's an old saying in basketball that you can't teach height, but teams have figured out how to beat height by taking a small-ball approach to the game.

    It's not a specific scheme like Syracuse's 2-3 zone or Princeton's offense, but rather it's an effort to let speed, athleticism and three-point shooting make up for the fact that teams don't have Shaquille O'Neal in the paint.

    Basically, you know it's small ball when you see it.

    Often, teams will be unwillingly forced to play small ball for brief stretches of games or seasons due to foul trouble or injuries, but some teamssuch as Oregon in 2006-07 and Butler in 2009-10make it their approach from day one.

    These are the 10 teams who were best at small ball throughout the past decade.

    If Oklahoma State keeps winning games by an average of 40.8 points per game while rarely playing anyone taller than 6'8", it's a safe bet that the Cowboys will have the top spot in next year's ranking.

Honorable Mentions

1 of 11

    Chris Chambers/Getty Images

    2003-04 Troy Trojans (24-7)

    There wasn't a single player on the roster taller than 6'7". As a team, they attempted 1,015 three-pointers while only grabbing 1,173 rebounds. Despite the impressive record, though, they didn't even make it into the 2004 NCAA tournament.

     

    2003-04 Oklahoma State Cowboys (31-4)

    Though 5'11" John Lucas III did lead them to the Final Four, he was really the only gunner on the team. Joey Graham and Ivan McFarlin were equally important to the team while playing almost exclusively on the low blocks.

     

    2007-08 Memphis Tigers (38-2)

    This team played a ton on the perimeter with Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, but it's hard to argue that it was really a small-ball team with players such as Robert Dozier, Joey Dorsey and Shawn Taggart clogging the lane.

    Also, the team didn't officially win any games.

     

    2011-12 Syracuse Orange (34-3)

    If they actually count as a small-ball team, they'd be near the top of the list; however, four of their primary seven players were taller than 6'6". And they certainly weren't the same team in the tournament when forced to play without 7'0" Fab Melo.

No. 10: 2007-08 Davidson Wildcats

2 of 11

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Record: 29-7

    Tournament round reached: Elite Eight

    Six primary players by minutes played: Jason Richards (6'3"), Stephen Curry (6'3"), Thomas Sander (6'8"), Max Paulhus Gosselin (6'6"), Andrew Lovedale (6'8") and Boris Meno (6'8")

     

    Stephen Curry's years at Davidson were a ton of fun to watch, but the Wildcats didn't play small ball so much as they just sat back and watched Curry do his thing.

    Case in point, Curry and Richards were the only primary players who made more than seven three-pointers.

    Sander, Lovedale and Meno weren't exactly giants in the paint, but they were certainly capable big men for the Southern Conference.

    Even if they came primarily from two players, though, 290 steals and 328 three-pointers are quality small-ball numbers. When it mattered in the tournament, they averaged 25.3 three-point attempts and 7.8 steals per game.

No. 9: 2008-09 Duke Blue Devils

3 of 11

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Record: 30-7

    Tournament round reached: Sweet 16

    Six primary players by minutes played: Jon Scheyer (6'5"), Kyle Singler (6'8"), Gerald Henderson (6'5"), Nolan Smith (6'2"), Lance Thomas (6'8") and Greg Paulus (6'1")

     

    Duke has certainly never shied away from attempting three-pointers, but the Blue Devils have at least had something resembling a post presence for most of the past decade.

    From fall 2002 through spring 2006, it was Shelden Williams. For the past four years, one of the Plumlee brothers has been playing down low.

    In between, though, they were a painfully small teamand the Blue Devils are looking quite small again this year, for what it's worth.

    Singler was 6'8" and technically played the 4 or 5 in Duke's lineup, but he took nearly as many three-point shots as Scheyer did. Aside from Gerald Henderson occasionally slashing to the hoopand slashing Tyler Hansbrough's facethe Blue Devils really didn't have anything resembling an inside game.

    Even though it was one of their smallest teams, it was also one of their worst teams of the past decade. They bowed out to Villanova in the Sweet 16.

    Still, 30 wins without a post game is nothing to scoff at. As such, they make the list, but not by much.

No. 8: 2005-06 George Mason Patriots

4 of 11

    Travis Lindquist/Getty Images

    Record: 27-8

    Tournament round reached: Final Four

    Six primary players by minutes played: Lamar Butler (6'2"), Will Thomas (6'7"), Folarin Campbell (6'4"), Tony Skinn (6'1"), Jai Lewis (6'7") and Gabe Norwood (6'5")

     

    One of the biggest bracket-busters of all time was also one of the better small-ball teams that we've seen in the past decade.

    The small school from Fairfax, Virginia didn't have a single player on the roster taller than 6'7", and the starting five had the closest thing to perfectly even distribution we'll ever see. All five players averaged between 30.4 and 31.9 minutes per game while also averaging between 11.0 and 13.7 points per game.

    The Patriots didn't shoot anywhere near as many three-pointers (579 for the season) as some of the teams on this list, but they also didn't have a specific go-to guy in the paint or on the perimeter.

    It was a total team effort by a roster that was out-sized by its opponents on a regular basisespecially during the magical tournament run.

No. 7: 2010-11 VCU Rams

5 of 11

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Record: 28-12

    Tournament round reached: Final Four

    Six primary players by minutes played: Bradford Burgess (6'6"), Joey Rodriguez (5'10"), Jamie Skeen (6'9"), Ed Nixon (6'4"), Brandon Rozzell (6'2") and Darius Theus (6'3")

     

    When it comes to former members of the Colonial Athletic Association who have made it to the Final Four, George Mason is old news.

    Thanks in large part to coach Shaka Smart's "havoc" defense, VCU accomplished the feat during the 2011 NCAA tournament. The Rams even had to win an extra game in the process, because they were one of the last four at-large teams invited to the tournament and thus had to play in the first round in Dayton, Ohio.

    VCU had five players who averaged better than one steal per game throughout the season, resulting in the third-best steals-per-turnover ratio in the country. The Rams also ranked 11th in the nation in made three-pointers, averaging more than eight triples per game.

    During the tournament, they cranked it up to 10.2 three-pointers per game, including the overtime win over Florida State in which they made 12 threes and registered 12 steals.

    It's tempting to put them several spots higher on the list, but the 11 regular-season losses while playing in a mid-major conference make it hard to argue that they're one of the best teamsregardless of how hot they were in March.

No. 6: 2005-06 West Virginia Mountaineers

6 of 11

    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Record: 22-11

    Tournament round reached: Sweet 16

    Six primary players by minutes played: Kevin Pittsnogle (6'11"), Mike Gansey (6'4"), Johannes Herber (6'6"), J.D. Collins (5'11"), Frank Young (6'5") and Patrick Beilein (6'4")

     

    You might be thinking that this is way too high on the list for an 11-loss team led in minutes by someone standing 6'11", but that particular mountain(eer) of a man attempted and made more three-pointers than any other member of the team.

    Gansey finished the season with eight more rebounds than Pittsnogle, even though Pittsnogle was seven inches taller.

    Watching Pittsnogle act like a guard almost felt like watching Buddy trying to go through life as an Elf.

    So despite having one of the tallest players in the country on their team, the Mountaineers played some of the smallest ball we've ever seen.

    They attempted 967 three-pointers and only grabbed 915 rebounds. For sake of comparison, Iowa State led the nation in three-point attempts last season with 924 of them, but the Cyclones still accumulated 1,341 rebounds.

    Aside from the days when VMI was content shooting threes until the cows came homethe Keydets attempted 1,383 three-pointers and grabbed 1,262 rebounds in 2006-07I can't recall ever seeing another D-I team with fewer rebounds than three-point attempts.

    That's what happens, though, when your de facto center spends most of the game on the perimeter.

No. 5: 2006-07 Oregon Ducks

7 of 11

    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Record: 29-8

    Tournament round reached: Elite Eight

    Six primary players by minutes played: Aaron Brooks (6'0"), Bryce Taylor (6'4"), Maarty Leunen (6'9"), Tajuan Porter (5'7"), Malik Hairston (6'6") and Champ Oguchi (6'6")

     

    Most teams are thankful to have one or two players who can make 40 percent of their three-point attempts. Once in a great while, a team will be blessed with three or even four long-range assassins.

    The 2006-07 Ducks, however, had something truly special. All five of their starters shot at least 40 percent from downtown and attempted at least 54 three-pointers during the season.

    Porter stood at just 5'7" but was a giant in the box scores. He made 43.7 percent of his 252 three-point attempts for the year.

    Small ball served the Ducks well throughout the regular season. They won 18 of their first 19 games and climbed as high as No. 7 in the polls.

    Unfortunately, size was their undoing in the tournament.

    Florida outrebounded them by a 35-21 margin and dominated at the free-throw line to keep the Ducks out of the Final Four for a 68th straight season.

No. 4: 2012-13 Ohio State Buckeyes

8 of 11

    Harry How/Getty Images

    Record: 29-8

    Tournament round reached: Elite Eight

    Six primary players by minutes played: Deshaun Thomas (6'7"), Aaron Craft (6'2"), Lenzelle Smith Jr. (6'4"), Sam Thompson (6'7"), Shannon Scott (6'1") and LaQuinton Ross (6'8")

     

    Even when they weren't handing the ball to Deshaun Thomas and asking him to carry them to the promised land, the Buckeyes were regularly playing small ball last season.

    Amir Williams (6'11") was always good for a few blocks on the defensive end, but he finished the season with nearly as many turnovers (29) as successful field goals (40).

    When Williams had difficulty staying in games, big-man duties often fell to Ross. The fact that he had nearly as many three-point attempts (90) as rebounds (108) should be a good indication of how committed Ross was to playing in the post.

    Throw in the second-place finish in the Big Ten and the 3.8 steals per game for which Craft and Smith combined, and there aren't many teams that played better small ball than the Buckeyes.

No. 3: 2005-06 Villanova Wildcats

9 of 11

    Elsa/Getty Images

    Record: 28-5

    Tournament round reached: Elite Eight

    Six primary players by minutes played: Randy Foye (6'4"), Allan Ray (6'2"), Kyle Lowry (6'0"), Will Sheridan (6'8"), Mike Nardi (6'2") and Dante Cunningham (6'8")

     

    This Wildcats team averaged 74.2 points per game, and 59.2 of those points came from their four guards.

    Aside from guys running through the paint to get to the other corner, Will Sheridan was routinely the only player inside the three-point arc on offense.

    With their four-guard contingent and frequent use of the 1-2-2 full-court press after baskets were made, they created a ton of steals and nearly managed to lead the nation in turnovers committed on offense.

    Despite being small, they surprisingly rebounded pretty well, too, averaging better than 36 boards per game.

    They earned a share of the Big East regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but they ran into a Florida team that won five of its six tournament games by at least 13 points.

No. 2: 2009-10 Butler Bulldogs

10 of 11

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Record: 33-5

    Tournament round reached: Championship game

    Six primary players by minutes played: Gordon Hayward (6'8"), Shelvin Mack (6'3"), Willie Veasley (6'3"), Ronald Nored (6'0"), Matt Howard (6'8") and Zack Hahn (6'1")

     

    Brad Stevens didn't invent small ball, but his execution of it during his tenure at Butler certainly made us believe it could win a national championship.

    Heck, if Hayward's half-court heave had been two inches further to the left, it would have won a title.

    The crazy thing about Butler's success is that the Bulldogs didn't even have great perimeter shooters. Hahn hit 41.4 percent of his 116 three-point attempts, but he was the only one who shot better than 39 percent. Hayward attempted the second-most three-pointers on the team, and he only shot 29.4 percent for the year.

    Nothing about their statistics suggests a team that should have won 33 games and competed for a titlegetting 20 of those wins against the Horizon League certainly didn't hurtbut creating a team that is greater than the sum of its parts is practically the mantra of small ball.

No. 1: 2003-04 Saint Joseph's Hawks

11 of 11

    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Record: 30-2

    Tournament round reached: Elite Eight

    Six primary players by minutes played: Jameer Nelson (6'0"), Delonte West (6'3"), Dwayne Jones (6'11"), Pat Carroll (6'5"), Tyrone Barley (6'1") and Chet Stachitas (6'5")

     

    Has it really been a full decade since Nelson and West carried the Hawks to a 27-0 record to start the season?

    Much like the 2006-07 Oregon team, Saint Joseph's was blessed with a ton of accurate three-point shooters. Nelson "only" shot 39 percent, but there were four other Hawks who attempted at least 82 three-pointers and made at least 41.2 percent of them.

    Of course, the problem with small ball is that you live by the three and you die by the three.

    In the 20-point loss to Xavier that ended their perfect season, they made just nine of their 33 three-point attempts. Going 8-of-26 in the Elite Eight loss to Oklahoma State wasn't much better.

    Nevertheless, it was a season for the ages, and it was arguably the best execution of small ball in the past decade.

    Since both players made the NBA, it shouldn't come as a surprise, but West and Nelson combined for 39.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.0 assists and 4.7 steals per game while anchoring a nearly unblemished perimeter game.