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Point guard play key to success

Marquis Teague, Kemba Walker, Jon Scheyer, Ty Lawson, Sherron Collins. Those are the names of the point guards of the past five national champions in college basketball. All play professionally (Teague, Walker and Lawson in the NBA), four of them were All-Americans (Teague was not) and two were Cousy Award winners (Walker and Lawson). It cannot be overstated how important the point guard position is in college basketball.

If you don’t believe me, look down the list of ESPN.com’s Power Rankings this week. Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Syracuse and Florida are the top five teams. Yogi Ferrell, Quinn Cook, Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams and Scottie Wilbekin are the guys handling the point for each of these teams. It’s practically a list of the who’s who at the position.

If you want further proof, look at some of the underachieving teams so far this season. Tops on that list has to be Kentucky. The Wildcats are a case study on how important point guard play is and how much maturity is essential at that position. Freshman Archie Goodwin has been asked to do a lot in that offense, at times too much, and Ryan Harrow, the NC State transfer, has been disappointing. The three UK losses are all against teams with well-established, playmaking, mature point guards (Duke’s Cook, Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins and Baylor’s Pierre Jackson).

Wisconsin is another example where the missing piece is the point guard. The Badgers have had guys such as Devin Harris, Trevon Hughes and Jordan Taylor lead teams in Madison for a decade. Josh Gasser was the next on that list until he tore his ACL in the preseason. Bo Ryan has had to rotate freshman George Marshall and sophomore Traevon Jackson at point guard. Combined the two have struggled, averaging about five points, two assists and one turnover per game.

Another team that has taken some lumps early on is North Carolina. The task of replacing Kendall Marshall, last year’s Cousy Award winner, was given to highly touted freshman Marcus Paige. Paige has struggled with a 1-1 assist-turnover ratio while averaging just under eight points per game. He sat out the Tar Heels’ game against UAB because of a shoulder injury, which forced Dexter Strickland to shift over to the point. He stepped in very nicely, but Strickland is not a natural point guard and that does not seem to be the long-term solution for Roy Williams. And remember, this is a Tar Heels team that was not the same when it lost Marshall (wrist injury) last year in the tournament, so UNC is well aware of how critical that position is.

Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon is well aware of how important a good floor general is. His Panthers had been to 10 straight NCAA tournaments until last season’s team failed to make it to the dance. A severe abdominal strain sidelined Pitt point guard Tray Woodall for two months in the middle of the season. During his absence, Pitt had losing streaks of eight and five games and was a completely different club without its leader.

“I will never put myself or our program in that position again,” Dixon told me in describing how important having a point guard such as Woodall is to a team. “From now on we will always carry at least two point guards every year.”

The point guard position is integral to a team’s success for a variety of reasons. Some point guards are facilitators such as Carter-Williams at Syracuse, some are dynamic scorers such as Burke at Michigan, and some are lock-down defenders such as Aaron Craft at Ohio State. The thread that binds these prolific players is they tend to also be good in other areas of the game. The elite point guards are multidimensional and have the ability to step in and lead when necessary. They play with maturity. They are calming. And their teammates have confidence in them. It’s those tight-game scenarios where Michigan looks at the other sideline and thinks, “Hey we’ve got Trey Burke and you don’t!”