Basketball

Texas Tech Basketball: Remembering Positionless Basketball from the Flyin’ Illini

From 30 years ago, the Flyin’ Illini started positionless basketball.

I shouldn’t be thinking about basketball, but here I am. I’ve been thinking a lot about the current roster and Chris Beard’s neverending quest to play positionless basketball.

One of my first sports memories is following along with the Lou Henson coached Fighting Illini team from 1988-89 that made it to the Final Four that year. I was maybe a freshman in high school at the time, but I would clip articles from Sports Illustrated, put them in a 3-ring binder and save those articles to read when I watched games so I would remember who the players were. Yes, I was a nerd.

Back then, basketball was still pretty traditional in terms of positions. You would have your point guard, who was maybe 6’0″ to 6’2″, a shooting guard who was 6’4″ to 6’6″, a small forward who was 6’6″ to 6’8″, a power forward who was 6’8″ to 6’10”, and then a traditional center that you would hope is 7’0″, but most likely just a bigger version of your power forward. That was a pretty standard lineup, with the idea that variations were to be expected. Not everyone played this way, but this was generally accepted.

But then comes along Lou Henson, who built the first positionless team that I can remember with the pinnacle being the 1988-89 season. That was over 30 years ago last year and in that fateful year, Henson ran out the following lineup:

Nick Anderson 6’6″/205
Kenny Battle 6’6″/210
Lowell Hamilton 6’7″/185
Kendall Gill 6’5″/197
Marcus Liberty 6’8/205
Stephen Bardo 6’5″/190
Larry Smith 6’4″/195

Note that I don’t have positions next to any of those guys, but Smith was the 6th man that year and led the team in assists, but I think a pretty normal lineup from what I remember was Bardo at the point, Gill at the shooting guard, Anderson at the small forward, Battle at the power forward and Liberty at center.

The smallest guy to start was 6’5″ and the biggest guy was 6’8″, a mere 3 inches was the difference between a point guard and center.

Beard has adopted the idea of positionless basketball, but I had this memory of this Illini team and I stumbled on this Sports Illustrated article on the Flyin’ Illini, I found this:

Introducing the Big Ten’s newest rock ‘n’ pick ‘n’ roll group: the Positionless Clones, Illinois’s homegrown gang of proud, splendid athletes who not only look alike and work hard alike but who also run and jump and shoot and pass and defend with such equal versatility that opponents’ bewilderment has become significant to the PCs’ game plan. Why, just last Thursday night in Champaign (or it might have been Urbana), a Wisconsin defender rushed down the floor screaming “I got Gill.” The trouble was he was rushing toward Liberty. Illinois won 103-80.

That Illini team was a team that was littered with athletes up and down the roster and the only real post player from my recollection was Battle, but even then, every player could potentially post up and it was a team that would pick and roll you to death.

One of the other key tenets to that Illini team was that they had a 7 man starting rotation and although they were all talented, Henson kept to a pretty evenly distributed rotation.

Offensively, these players were difficult to guard because of their versatility, Gill and Anderson, being able to step outside and hit the occasional three-point shot, while still being able to mix it up inside.

Defensively, this team could switch on the outside, and everyone helped without letting up easy buckets because they were so athletic.

Texas Tech’s team is slightly different than the Illini team so this isn’t an absolute comparison, just a fun walk down memory lane for the most part. Mac Mcclung is “only” 6’2″ so theoretically he would have a difficult time switching, but his athleticism would maybe allow him some leeway on the defensive end of things. Regardless, and the late, great Lou Henson would tell you the same thing, you always, always, make exceptions for exceptional talent no matter the size.

The fun thing for me to consider about Texas Tech’s roster is that the versatile forward spot that runs 7-deep.

Terrence Shannon 6’6″/210
Kevin McCullar 6’6″/205
Micah Peavy 6’7″/215
Chibuzo Agbo 6’7″/215
Tyreek Smith 6’7″/220
Marcus Santos-Silva 6’7″/245
Joel Ntambwe 6’8″/225

Could we throw in Kyler Edwards who is 6’4″/195 or Jamarius Burton at 6’4″/205? Sure. I think I more than anything, I wanted to highlight that mid-sized player, who are in abundance in Texas Tech’s roster. Maybe as an homage Henson, who passed away earlier this year, Beard could throw out a starting lineup of five of the seven. They might be a little light on ball-handling and three-point shooting, but it would be fun nonetheless.

I’ve reached as far back as my sports’ memories will go. If you can recall a basketball team that embraced positionless basketball earlier than this 1988-1989 Illini team, please leave that in the comments.

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