Plenty of guards are quicker or stronger than A.J. Graves and Mike Green of Butler. And Eric Gordon means neither can lay claim to "best in state." But put them together, and look out. "Graves and Green," says Purdue coach Matt Painter, "can play for anyone."
Graves, the Horizon's preseason POY, is straight out of Hoosiers: small-town kid, storied prep career, zero major D1 love. Since coming to Butler, though, he's been Mr. Clutch, draining seven game-tying or -winning shots, including December's 35-footer at Southern Illinois. Green, a Philly kid and current league POY front-runner, is an undersized triple threat. He's a league leader in assists (4.9 pg) and a team leader in scoring (15.1) and rebounding (6.3). On a sprained ankle at Wisconsin-Milwaukee last month, he broke down defenders off sets on his way to a 24-point, 13-board, eight-dish night and an OT win.
Graves is the shooter, Green runs the point, but their ability to seamlessly switch jobs baffles defenders. And not just the little guys. Butler has played 12 major programs* over the past two seasons; exactly one has been victorious (Florida, in 2007's Sweet 16). Add title wins in this season's Alaska Shootout (MVP: Green) and last year's preseason NIT (MVP: Graves) and it's hard for anyone to think of Butler as a midmajor anymore. "I wouldn't trade them for any backcourt in the country," says Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens.
Bad news for the big boys. -JERRY BEMBRY
Just call Kansas guards Mario Chalmers (2.4 spg) and Russell Robinson (2.1 spg) the pickpockets of the plains. "It's our mind-set," says Chalmers. "You focus on not letting anything by you, and pretty soon the other team doesn't know what hit them."
Defensive possessions start with Robinson's picking up opposing point guards at midcourt, forcing a pass to the perimeter. From there, Chalmers will count to his man's third dribble before lunging for the rock. If the ballhawks don't come up with a steal quickly, they rotate, doubling at nearly every point on the court and trapping on all screens.
When the rotation is off—such as in losses against Texas and Kansas State—it's because Robinson and Chalmers are too aggressive on the perimeter. That's when opponents sneak through and leave the KU bigs vulnerable to fouls. But when the D is swirling, it can stall any offense. Arizona fumbled a season-high 25 turnovers. Boston College was held to a 60-point performance, and USC shot just 38.5% from the field. Says Jayhawks assistant coach Joe Dooley: "Those two set everything in motion for us."
And keep opponents from getting anything going at all. -ELENA BERGERON
MAN TO MAN
Former AAU teammates and current NCAA stars Derrick Rose OF Memphis and Eric Gordon of Indiana give us the skinny on each other. -IAN GORDON
ROSE The first time I saw EJ play was on YouTube. I saw him shooting, and I was like, He's got a stroke! Don't leave that man open. When we played together, if he was open and I got it to him, he knocked it down 100% of the time.
GORDON Derrick's a great passer. But what makes him great is he knows who to pass to—and who not to pass to. In transition, he passes to the guards. When he penetrates, he gives it to a big man or finds someone on the perimeter.
ROSE It's weird, but EJ is kind of a vampire. He really doesn't talk during the day. He might give you a little head nod, but that's it. At night is when he comes out of his shell.
GORDON He's a stone-cold silent assassin. One thing I learned from him was the value of a reserved demeanor. He plays within himself, even though there aren't too many guards who play at as fast a pace as he does. He might be the better passer and the better athlete by a hair. But I'm a better shooter. And I'm smarter.
ROSE Did I mention EJ is competitive?
When UCLA point Darren Collison sprained his left MCL on Nov. 2, fans in Westwood wondered: Who will lead the Bruins now? Enter Russell Westbrook. The unproven soph was so good during Collison's absence—12.3 ppg and 6.0 apg in six W's—that some UCLA observers thought he might be the better front man. Now, with the two playing together, The Mag needs to know: Who should handle the rock at Pauley Pavilion? Pac-10 assistants talk it out and come up with an answer. -I.G.
Assistant No. 1
Collison is Ben Howland's extension on the floor. When the play breaks down and it's late on the shot clock, Darren is one of the best pick-and-roll players in the country. But the biggest thing about him is that he's a great penetrator who can finish at the rim or shoot the floater in the paint.
Assistant No. 2
The thing with Westbrook is that it's tough to beat his intensity. You have to match his physical play, not just defensively but on the glass, because he's a tremendous offensive rebounder. Is he a great shooter? No. But he's one of the better midrange-shooting guards in our league.
Assistant No. 1
Collison has two Final Fours on his résumé, so he knows what it takes to get there. Westbrook is a great player, but Collison is their leader. And the bottom line is they're better together than with Westbrook running the point solo.
Assistant No. 2
I'm not quite ready to say Westbrook is better either. But I think he's the type of guy who can be an All-Pac-10 player, and maybe even Conference Player of the Year. That's the magic of Ben Howland: He turned the Collison loss into a positive, and now he's got a two-headed monster.
THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM
Every few years, Coach K falls in love with a scrappy point guard at Duke (see: Bobby Hurley and Steve Wojciechowski). This year's fave: Greg Paulus, a junior who has missed just one start this season. "It means a lot," says Paulus. "The talks we have help me to not worry about what people are saying."
Like opponents, who are thrilled to see Paulus in the game rather than freshman Nolan Smith, a more athletic point. "The team is much better with Smith in the game," says one rival ACC assistant. "We don't have to worry about matching up against Paulus." K's loyalty is reminiscent of when he played slap-the-floor senior Wojo over more-athletic frosh William Avery several years ago. But Coach's commitment isn't what it seems. Paulus is the starter, but when he's on the floor, he's never the sole ballhandler. Lead-guard duties are split between him, Jon Scheyer and DeMarcus Nelson.
At the end of games, Duke's four-guard lineup proves whom Coach K really trusts. Smith replaces Paulus, and Gerald Henderson stays on the perimeter alongside Nelson and Scheyer. This group exploits mismatches, getting buckets from whoever draws a post defender.
Says Smith: "I'd rather be on the court at the end, when you can help your team get the win."
Sounds like someone Coach K could learn to love. -E.B.