Quinnipiac Women’s Basketball Team’s Unique Substitution Strategy

I had the opportunity to listen to Quinnipiac Associate Head Coach Mountain MacGillivray (@QUCoachMT) give a talk on their five in and five out substitution pattern at the WBCA Coaches Classroom this past week. The concept seems like something that might be implemented with nine year olds to ensure that everyone gets equal playing time, but the Bobcats won the MAAC Tournament and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen as a 12 seed this past season utilizing this strategy. The numbers do not lie. They had 10 players get at least 13 minutes per game.

Here’s a recap from Coach MacGillivray’s talk about how their system was born and why they believe it is a competitive advantage.


There have been two teams with a relatively high profile as examples of subbing five in and five out on the men’s side. Coach MacGillivray cited John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats of 2014-2015. That team had eight players average over 20 minutes per game and ten players average over 10 minutes per game. He also cited a Kentucky team coached under Rick Pitino in 1995-1996 that won the NCAA title, and at times featured 12 different players. Both of these teams were essentially college all-start teams. They were loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans and ultimately both teams had nine players reach the NBA. The strategy was hardly bold given that the bench of these teams could beat almost any team’s starters.

Quinnipiac on the other hand has never featured nine WNBA players on a roster. Their system was not born because they had too many five-star recruits sitting on the bench. And surprisingly, it had nothing to do with parity across their roster. They actually stumbled across this strategy during a preseason trip to Italy.

The 14- player roster had yet to hold practices, so instead of giving a disproportionate amount of minutes to certain players, they decided there was nothing to lose in a preseason game by subbing in new groups throughout the game and evaluating their players on the fly. What they began to discover was that whenever they put a new unit into the game, the energy level was significantly higher than their opponent. When Quinnipiac returned to campus, they continued to send five new bodies into the game every two to four minutes. And as MacGillivray recounted when I reached out to him by email, the concept was termed the “Gold Rush” by an announcer. The strategy and the term have stuck and has become essential to the team’s core identities of pace, pressure, and work ethic.

5 Benefits of Subbing Five in, Five Out

There are 5 benefits that Coach MacGillivray shared during his talk.

Benefit #1: Energy on the court at all times

The most obvious benefit of this system is the energy that a new five will bring to the floor when they first come into the game. The Bobcats second and fourth quarter numbers are typically better than their opponents, but perhaps more important than the numbers is simply looking at the eye test. Coach MacGillivray said the players began to buy in as they would see the opposition’s hands on their hips when they were re-entering the game feeling fresh.

Benefit #2: 100% of Less Talent better than 70% of Better Talent

Instantly the objection in my mind was that a team needs its best player getting maximum minutes. Coach MacGillivray countered this argument fairly well. Imagine that you were talking to someone who coached hockey and knew absolutely nothing about the game of basketball. They would tell you that the most ice time Sydney Crosby has seen in the playoffs is just over 26 minutes – and that happened to be a game seven that went into double overtime. Now he’s the very best player in the game, and yet he is not even on the ice one-third of the time. That is because when he is on the ice, he is giving everything he can from a physical standpoint.

If the hockey analogy does not do it, imagine asking your starters to run suicides for two or three minutes while your sixth through ten players stood and watched. If they had to play five on five for just two to four minutes immediately after the sprints were concluded, who would win? I honestly have not tried this, but the seed has been planted. From his perspective, If Quinnipiac’s starting five was going as hard as the coaches would like, that best player was no longer as good as the sixth best player after four minutes of hustle.

Benefit #3: Mental adjustments with your players

The third benefit came during the time the sixth through tenth best players were on the court. As they were working, your best players were getting physically and mentally recharged. The physical part is self-explanatory, but Coach MacGillivray touched on the fact that your coaching staff could make quick mental adjustments for these players in terms of what the opponent was doing to them individually and as a team. In my opinion, this could serve as a way to conserve timeouts since a new five could enter the game and all be on the same page with any adjustments that needed to be emphasized.

Benefit #4: Level the Playing Field against More Talented Competition

Fourth, in the event that the Bobcats were playing against a team with a better starting five, their starting five would be able to close the gap the deeper the longer the game went on. This served as a way to level the playing field and make the game not just about ability, but about fatigue. And again from a mental standpoint, all things being equal the team that is conserving their energy throughout the game should have the edge in the fourth quarter.

Benefit #5: Recruiting players that want to play with the right character

Fifth, from a recruiting standpoint Coach MacGillivray cited that young players could recognize that they would immediately have a better chance to crack the lineup early in their careers. The probability of getting playing time on a team that featured many returning players is usually pretty slim, but not in this system. And let’s face it, most young people can only see what is right in front of them anyway.

Aside from getting young players to play as freshmen, Coach MacGillivray argued that this system helps gets the right young players. Most players that are focused on themselves are going to go to a team where they can maximize their playing time. Of course this will occasionally lead to Quinnipiac losing out on some talented players, but MacGillivray argues that players that commit there know the playing time expectations and are essentially telling their coaching staff that they value the team ego ahead of their own ego.

Words of Caution

There were questions that MacGillivray received after he was done speaking as to why playing the best five and then the second best five was better than getting two balanced units. He said that they tried to build cohesion between units and that generally their closing unit was their starting five, so they should maximize the trust between each other. That being said, their systems both offensively and defensively did not change.

There was also skepticism about problems with match-ups or getting sustained effort. Coach MacGillivray openly admitted that there was a season where they ditched the Gold Rush because their second unit was struggling so much. Late in that season, their back up point guard was thrust into a conference championship game due to foul trouble and was not ready for the moment. The following season they learned from this and returned to their old substitution patterns. Once again, the second unit was bad. They did not win a segment during the year until a big game late in the season. They did not view all the struggles as a negative, but rather as persistence eventually paying off.

An added benefit of the system would appear to be the fact that you keep every player happy. Coach MacGillivray was quick to point out that this system is not meant to keep everyone happy as their playing time is truly earned in practice. Just like players can become cancers if they do not get playing time, they can become complacent if their playing time is guaranteed. They will fluctuate and go to eleven players or alter their closing lineups if the game and practice dictate that that decision needs to be made.

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