The Short Joke's On Their Opponents

American's 5-11 Garrison Carr, left, and 5-9 Derrick Mercer are the starting guards for one of the nation's shortest teams, as well as the Patriot League's regular season champ.
American's 5-11 Garrison Carr, left, and 5-9 Derrick Mercer are the starting guards for one of the nation's shortest teams, as well as the Patriot League's regular season champ. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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Sunday, March 2, 2008

American switched up its starting back court yesterday, giving Romone Penny his first career start in honor of Senior Day and briefly keeping Derrick Mercer on the bench. Penny added two inches to the team's height, and yet for the 28th consecutive game, American's starting guards faced a size deficit.

One of those guards, 5-foot-11 shooting ace Garrison Carr, finished with 13 points and five rebounds despite briefly leaving the game because of a gash to his upper lip. The 5-9 Mercer had 16 points and seven assists. And the Eagles -- who are, by height-per-minutes-played, among the 25 shortest teams in Division I -- wrapped up the Patriot League regular season title with an 84-72 win over Lafayette.

Their starting back court's season-long height deficit added up to nearly 15 feet -- bigger than two Roy Hibberts, and an average of 6.1 inches per game.

"I know the first time I met those guys, I thought, 'Umm, I don't really know what we're doing,' " senior forward Travis Lay said with a laugh. "But then I saw them play, and I was like, 'Okay, this is what we're doing.' "

The Eagles, though, are not this year's most vertically challenged league champion. Maryland-Baltimore County, which had already wrapped up the America East title before the weekend, is Division I's 22nd-shortest team. Robert Morris, the Northeast Conference champion, ranks 17th. And Stephen F. Austin, which should finish first in the Southland's West division, is the nation's 13th-shortest team.

Such shortness extends, as it were, to college basketball's biggest programs. Fifth-ranked Texas is among the nation's 10 shortest teams at the shooting guard position, and ninth-ranked Xavier can say the same in the point guard category.

Is all this surprising? Not to Ken Pomeroy, the basketball statistics guru who compiled these height rankings on his Web site, http://www.KenPom.com, and who recently wrote about the correlation between height and on-court success for Basketball Prospectus. While he found a correlation between defensive efficiency and front-court size, the relationship between a team's performance and its size was much weaker when guards were included.

"Your team height is defined by your height at the power forward and center positions, and the rest is based on skill," Pomeroy said in a telephone interview. "There's probably a limit to it -- if someone tried to start 5-foot-3 guys at the 1, 2 and 3 [positions], they'd probably get in trouble -- but there are plenty examples of teams with small back courts that are successful."

Such as UMBC, whose star point guard, the 5-8 Jay Greene, leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.

"Sometimes height can be overrated," UMBC Coach Randy Monroe said. "People say [Greene] looks like he's in seventh or eighth grade, but he's a very, very competitive individual, and he's highly motivated due to the fact that people count him out."

Stephen F. Austin Coach Danny Kaspar said much the same of his diminutive point guard, the 5-3 Eric Bell.

"He pressures the ball so hard other guards aren't able to focus on running the offense," Kaspar said. "He's really been an attention-grabber for us, with fans and the media, because of his size. The plusses he's brought to our team far outweigh any negatives because of his height."


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