Point guards guide Final Four teams

NEW ORLEANS -- There are probably more difficult jobs than being a point guard at the Final Four for a demanding coach.

The guy who has to clean sewers for a living, he has it pretty tough. Installing hot tar on a roof. That can't be fun.

But how would you like to be Marquis Teague at approximately 6 p.m. ET on Saturday night? With nothing less than state sanity on the line and 50,000 people screaming, you will also have to contend with a madman gesturing wildly from the sidelines, completely unaware or indifferent that no one can hear a word he is saying.

"It's tough, real tough," Teague said. "It takes awhile, especially as a freshman, to get used to. You go from high school and never getting yelled at to here, where Coach [John Calipari] doesn't care who you are, he treats everybody the same."

This Final Four has been billed as the battle of the Big Men in the Big Easy. It's a fair, not to mention conveniently catchy, theme to play up.

The reality is this will come down to the little guys -- how four point guards, all making their first national semifinals appearances, handle the ball, the pressure and their respective teams will determine who wins this national championship.

That doesn't exactly qualify as breaking news. Coaches long have dipped into the cliché drawer to describe their point guards, calling them floor generals, quarterbacks or coaches on the court.

Which sounds well and good but in execution? Well that's another thing.

Think about it. Would you really want to attempt to be an extension of Rick Pitino, Hall of Fame coach, when you're all of 21 years old like Peyton Siva?

"Coach P is Coach P," Siva said. "He's going to yell, get under your skin. He's going to cuss at you, yell at you but he's the coach. You have to learn to be mentally tough and listen to what he's saying instead of how he's saying it."

Teague used the exact same line to explain how he handles Calipari's histrionics, which might seem merely coincidental were it not for the fact that point guards tend to share the same thick skin, concrete confidence and borderline daredevil fearlessness.

They are basketball versions of Icarus, unafraid to fly close to the sun because the view can be oh so enticing.

Consequently they can exhilarate and exasperate all in the span of two possessions.

"There probably aren't many players who [Kansas coach Bill Self] would let come down on a one-on-four and shoot a 3," Tyshawn Taylor admitted sheepishly. "That's something I've done more than a few times this year."

That's frankly something all of these guys have done more than a few times this season. This mercurial quartet will determine our Final Four winners by both its control and lack thereof.

"It's hard because you're running our team. Everything we do is through that position.

-- Kentucky coach John Calipari on Marquis Teague

Three of the four (Aaron Craft being the exception) have topped the triple-digit mark in turnovers this season and added plenty of salt to their coaches' salt-and-pepper hairlines.

Yet the real common thread is that all four have grown up on the job, and their maturity as much as their coaches' faith has put them here, in the Final Four.

Taylor is the elder statesman, the lone senior of the group. Self always has liked Taylor even if occasionally he has wanted to throttle him. Suspended twice during his career -- including as a sophomore after he dislocated his finger during a fight with football players on campus -- Taylor admits, "I'm sure I haven't always been the easiest guy to coach."

Nor the easiest to watch at times. Taylor memorably -- or regrettably depending on your Jayhawks affinity -- coughed the ball up 11 times against Duke and eight times against Kansas State this season.

But Self stuck with him and has been rewarded as Taylor finally has struck the balance between scoring the ball and distributing it.

"A senior point guard finally realizes that it's his show," Self said. "The more responsibilities he's been given, the more he appreciates it and the more I trust him."

That trust part, that's the real tricky business. College basketball coaches are by their DNA control freaks. If they could choreograph layup lines, they would.

Instead they have to turn over the keys to their million-dollar programs, not to mention their livelihoods, to teenagers.

It is not exactly a comfortable arrangement.

If anyone is used to it, it is Calipari. He has become a sort of one-man point guard feeder program to the NBA, churning out one-and-done guys at that particular position annually.

Teague was ready-made to play against college defenses. He is, his coach said, a "pit bull," a player who welcomes a defender who wants to get in his grill and bump.

It was everything else that needed work.

"It's hard because you're running our team," Calipari said. "Everything we do is through that position. Early in the year, he wasn't consistent defensively, but that's normal for a freshman. The second thing is, he was playing too fast to the point of being out of control and turning it over. The third thing was his shot selection was suspect."

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed the play very much, thanks.

But Teague -- like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Brandon Knight before him -- got better with time. Once considered the lone weak link on a loaded Kentucky team, he has been nothing shy of outstanding in the NCAA tournament, a pleasant mixed bag of scoring and distributing.

"I feel like I'm a lot better, a lot better," he said. "I understand the pace more and I know how to decide whether to help my teammates or score."

There was a time when folks thought Teague would have been in the same backcourt as Siva. Teague's dad, Shawn, played a year for Rick Pitino at Boston University and Teague, an Indianapolis native, toyed mightily with joining Louisville.

Siva insists he would have welcomed another point guard into the fold with open arms, even if it would have meant less playing time for himself.

Instead Teague left for Kentucky and now the two will go head-to-head in the Commonwealth Uncivil War on Saturday evening.
Aside from the enigmatic Russ Smith, one of the biggest reasons that Louisville -- perhaps the lone surprise in the heavyweight Final Four -- is in New Orleans is Siva. The junior has saved his best basketball for season's end, earning most outstanding player honors at the Big East tournament and being named to the West Region all-tournament team.

In eight postseason games, Siva is averaging 11 points per game, but more importantly, is averaging six assists. He has committed only three turnovers.

His Achilles' heel -- fouls. Siva has fouled out in two of those postseason games, including most critically against Florida in the waning minutes of the Cardinals' Elite Eight comeback.

"I'm a hack," Siva said. "I've come to that conclusion."

Craft is the antithesis. Praised as the best on-ball defender, he is exhaustively thorough -- "He's like a rat that won't leave," teammate Deshaun Thomas said.

Probably the most central-casting point guard of the four, Craft is the quintessential coach's son, a kid who is fundamentally sound, thrives on defense and cares little about anything but winning. It is Craft, only a sophomore, who owns the huddles and the timeouts and Craft who memorably called a team meeting when Ohio State was in shambles last month.

But the pass-first point guard has been known to be a little too unselfish, something he has noticeably tried to work on in this postseason. Against Gonzaga in the third round, it was his 17 points -- as much as his 10 assists -- that helped the Buckeyes advance.

"It's something that's evolved," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "It's something we started to notice in practice. He was shooting better in practice, and his percentages were going up, so he gained some confidence there. His cerebral approach, he can almost assess if he needs to be doing a little bit more or if this guy is hot."

Which, of course, is the essence of being a good point guard.

And there are four of them here in New Orleans.

Whoever is the best might also just be the champion.