Archive for Thursday, March 20, 2008

Backcourt players return to forefront

March 20, 2008


For a nice, long stretch, the NCAA Tournament was all about great guard play.

The time of Alcindor and Walton, Ewing and Olajuwon seemed as far removed as the age of dinosaurs. But now, the behemoths are back, and the smaller mammals are in trouble.

Florida won consecutive championships in 2006 and last season with a skilled and intimidating front line. North Carolina (2005) was led by space-eater Sean May. Connecticut (2004) got a huge lift from Emeka Okafor inside. Small forward Carmelo Anthony was the catalyst for Syracuse's title in 2003.

You have to go back to 2002 and Maryland's Juan Dixon to the find the last guard to be named most outstanding player in the Final Four.

Perhaps this year, a bumper crop of guards can restore the focus to the backcourt and turn the clock back to the 1990s.

Go-To Guards

Here is a partial list of likely suspects to make the backcourt front-and-center again:

¢ D.J. Augustin, Texas

Augustin joined nine other top point guards at a summer camp run by Steve Nash and has spent the season proving he was an especially apt pupil. Augustine ranks second in the Big 12 in scoring and first in assists, although his control of the game is even bigger than the numbers indicate. The Longhorns rank second in Division I with only 9.7 turnovers per game.

¢ Darren Collison, UCLA

While Collison may not be the prettiest or most spectacular point guard, he's taken the Bruins to consecutive Finals Fours.

This season, he won't have to worry about Al Horford, Joahkim Noah and company (the Bruins lost to Florida in both Final Fours).

Collison also has more options in distributing the ball with the addition of freshman Kevin Love, and Collison has been shooting well going into the tournament.

¢ Stephen Curry, Davidson

The name might sound familiar. Curry is the son of longtime NBA sixth man Dell Curry. The younger Curry possesses his father's touch, averaging 25.1 points and shooting 43.8 percent on 3-pointers.

Still, Atlantic Coast Conference teams showed lukewarm interest in him as a high school prospect.

He's led Davidson to 22 consecutive wins. Curry has shown he can play with the nation's best, totaling 44 points in narrow early-season losses to North Carolina and Duke.

¢ Adam Emmenecker, Drake

If you haven't already heard Emmenecker's story, you should.

A former walk-on, he didn't earn a scholarship until the start of this season. A brainy, pass-first point guard, he has career totals of 381 assists, four academic majors and zero 3-pointers.

Yes, he will be going pro in something other than sports but not before he and the Bulldogs try to leave their mark on the tournament.

¢ Shan Foster, Vanderbilt

Shooting guards usually fall into two categories: the athletic highlight-makers or the deep-shooting marksmen. Foster bridges the two categories emphatically, one reason he was the Southeastern Conference player of the year. His presence gives Vanderbilt a chance at a deep run.

Foster (20.5 ppg) hung 42 points on a good Mississippi State team. "There isn't a whole lot to say except this: Foster beat us," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury told reporters afterward.

¢ Eric Gordon, Indiana

Had history been different, Gordon might have been on the outside looking in if he had kept his original commitment to Illinois.

Only a freshman, Gordon plays physical and can create inside but sometimes struggles with his shot selection. He's still the Hoosiers' go-to guy and one of the main reasons they've survived the Kelvin Sampson exit.

¢ Mike Green, Butler

Teammate A.J. Graves probably has a bigger national profile.

Green, a transfer from Towson, has done more to make the Bulldogs (29-3) the mid-major that everyone fears.

He leads Butler in scoring (14.9 points a game), rebounds (6.6) and assists (5.1).

After Butler won the Horizon league title, coach Brad Stevens said Green "has gotten so much better over the last two years; he has never stayed satisfied with where he is at."

The Mavericks were among the NBA teams scouting him down the stretch.

¢ Ty Lawson, North Carolina

No one doubts Lawson's ability to propel the Tar Heels at warp speed.

His health is another story altogether.

A sprained ankle in early February caused him to miss six games. Lawson suffered a hip pointer upon his return to the lineup.

While North Carolina went 5-1 without Lawson, he almost has to be healthy for a long NCAA run. Forget the usual carnage around Tyler Hansbrough, and focus on Lawson.

¢ O.J. Mayo, USC

Once considered a phenom who would grace the Trojans with his presence for one season, Mayo was supposed to have the same impact that Michael Beasley did at Kansas State. So far, not so much.

While Mayo has shown superior talent and averages 20.8 points per game, he hasn't been able to lift Southern Cal - yet.

The NCAA Tournament could change everything.

¢ Derrick Rose, Memphis

If the Tigers fulfill their potential and overcome their rim-rocking free throws, it will be Rose leading them. Already,

NBA draft gurus have compared him to a hybrid of Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd, with all the possibilities and weaknesses that conjures. Of all the heralded freshmen, he may be the closest to duplicating Carmelo Anthony's feat of taking his team to a title.

¢ Drew Neitzel, Mich. St.

Few guards have seen their stock take as much of a beating as Neitzel.

Before the season, he was regarded as a potential All-American. He's struggled with his shot, and his scoring average has dropped from 18.1 as a junior to 14.2 this season.

In costly Big Ten losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue, he was a combined 4-of-27. But he had 54 points in two conference tournament games and might be finding his touch just in time.


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