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The New Guard

 

Analyzing the tournament’s freshmen point guards

 

By Adam Hoff

 

It seems as if freshmen point guards have an inordinate amount of personal success in the NCAA Tournament.  Part of this is certainly due to the fact that point guard is a nuanced position and it often takes a youngster a full season to learn the ropes, which makes the Big Dance something of a coming out party.  It also appears that there have been some perfect matchups and circumstances that have allowed frosh floor generals to shine.  Even in losses, these guys often stand out above the rest.  In recent years Chris Thomas of Notre Dame, Chris Paul of Wake Forest, Kyle Lowery of Villanova, Daniel Gibson of Texas, Dominic James of Marquette, Rajon Rondo, and Ronald Steele of Alabama have all used the tourney as a launching pad for their careers. 

 

That said, other than Gerry McNamara in 2003, there hasn’t been a frosh point guard able to lead his team on a Final Four run since Mike Bibby did it with Arizona way back in 1997 (Rondo came the closest, piloting Kentucky to the Elite Eight).  And McNamara was more of a combo guard that just jacked up threes, so he doesn’t even count.  It seems that because of the nature of tourney games (dominated by guards, big stage, lack of familiarity with opponents), freshman point guards can erupt for big numbers and make names for themselves.  But leading a team to victory has been a different story altogether.

 

This year might be the one that changes this trend though, because this group of freshman point guards is absolutely incredible.  These players have the ability to do more than just put up numbers; many seem capable of captaining a team to a Final Four or even a title.  Here are the top freshman point guards in the country, in order of likely tourney success (both individual and team).  And because I love to make a bunch of random predictions and then later cite only those that prove to be correct, here are a bunch of overly specific guesses at what might happen to these talented guards during March Madness.

 

1. Ty Lawson, North Carolina.  He obviously has the benefit of tons of talent surrounding him, but I’m convinced that as Lawson goes, so go the Tar Heels.  Everyone talks about Mike Conley and D.J. Augustin (and rightfully so), but I think Lawson is the frosh that might very well pilot a national champ.  And I’m not even all that enamored with the rest of North Carolina’s roster, so that should tell you something.  Lawson hasn’t finished as strongly as Roy Williams would have liked, but he has all the tools.  He is a better shooter than advertised, has blinding speed, and is surprisingly powerful in the lane.  Every time North Carolina goes on one of their patented runs, it is Lawson leading the charge.  He is far better than his numbers suggest and just the kind of player that can put together an epic tournament run.

 

The ceiling – North Carolina wins it all and Lawson draw dozens of Raymond Felton comparisons. 

 

The floor – A fairly inconsistent player, Lawson has a bad night at the worst time and North Carolina loses to a team like Syracuse in the second round.

 

The likely result – I think UNC is Final Four bound this year and my guess is that Lawson is going to be one of the true stars of this tournament.  Clearly, I am drinking the Ty Lawson Kool-Aid.

 

2. Mike Conley Jr., Ohio State.  All the freshman hype is directed at Greg Oden, but I think it is Conley that holds the fate of the Buckeyes in his hands.  He’s one of the best pure college point guards I’ve seen in quite a while, right up there with Chris Paul and Deron Williams.  He knows how to keep his teammates happy, which is saying something when you consider the collection of mad gunners that populate the Ohio State roster.  I wish Conley would take it upon himself to get Oden involved more often on the offensive end, but he makes up for that shortcoming with a flawless knack for running the break, solid defense (2.3 steals per game), and an underrated ability to put the ball in the basket (53% shooter).  I think Conley may need to be more aggressive in the tournament, but otherwise he already looks like a veteran floor leader.

 

The ceiling – Ohio State wins it all and he is anointed as the best freshman point guard since Kenny Anderson.  (And then spends the rest of his career trying to not be like Kenny Anderson.)

 

The floor – The Buckeyes prove to be a disjointed team that goes down in the tournament’s biggest upset.

 

The likely result – Conley decides to forget about hurting feelings (namely those of Jamar Butler, Ivan Harris, and Dequan Cook) and opts to get himself and Oden more involved in the offense as Ohio State reaches the Elite Eight, possibly the Final Four.

 

3. D.J. Augustin, Texas.  Like Conley (and Lawson, for that matter) he has a more glorified (and better) teammate in Kevin Durant, but the Longhorns will only go as far as Augustin takes them.  He plays out of control at times and occasionally seems to forget that Durant is on the floor, but other than that, my only complaint with Augustin is that he hasn’t found a way to brainwash the trigger-happy A.J. Abrams into becoming a passer.  He reminds me a lot of quicker Jameer Nelson and seems to be understanding when to push the ball and when to hold it up, when to be aggressive and when to get others involved.  I think Lawson’s Tar Heels will go the furthest and that Conley is the guy I would personally want as my point guard, but that Augustin could have the most memorable individual tournament.

 

The ceiling – Durant and Augustin pull a Melo/McNamara and carry Texas to a national title.

 

The floor – A.J. Abrams goes 4-for-72 and Texas gets upset by Davidson in the first round.

 

The likely result – Augustin puts up 20 and 8 type numbers and leads the Longhorns to the Sweet 16 where they are upended by too little coaching, too little interior defense, and too much indiscriminate Abrams gunning.  (And yes, I realize that between this column and the blog, I am riding Mos Def a little hard, but I just can’t get over what little conscience he has and how badly he stands to ruin Texas’ chance at a title.)

 

4. Javaris Crittenton, Georgia Tech.  Once again, there is a frosh with more hype on the team (this is actually a pretty amazing phenomenon, as Lawson, Conley Jr., Augustine, and Crittenton where all secondary recruits behind Brandon Wright, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, and Thaddeus Young – what a freshman class), but it is the guy with the ball in his hands that will have the greatest impact on the Jackets’ chances.  Crittenton is the biggest of the young guards and reminds me a lot of Jalen Rose when he was a freshman at Michigan.  Other than his propensity to turn the ball over, Crittenton doesn’t do a whole lot wrong.  He had a game against Clemson that shows just what kind of talent he has: 26 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 7 steals while shooting 60% from the floor.  He’s been playing like a beast the past few months and Georgia Tech is starting to look like a scary tournament team. 

 

The ceiling – Tech emerges as that uber-talented second tier (5-8) seed that finds the range at the right time and Crittenton is immortalized as the latest in a long line of legendary Jacket point guards (joining Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury, Travis Best, and Jarrett Jack are already on that list). 

 

The floor – Georgia Tech’s lack of interior defense hurts them when the shots don’t fall and they get bounced early by a gritty, patient mid-major team.

 

The likely result – Somewhere in between.  I expect them to win a couple of games and for Crittenton to make a big splash in the process. 

 

5. Sherron Collins, Kansas.  Collins isn’t the starter for the Jayhawks, but he has become an increasingly important cog in Bill Self’s system and could be the key to KU’s title hopes.  If it wasn’t for Self putting the frosh on ice during the Texas game, I might have him even higher on this list.  As it is, the fact that an important player on a potential national title team ranks this far down the list just shows how incredible this crop of players really is.  But unless Collins really takes over, he stands to finish more or less in Chris Duhon territory (when the freshman point was the sixth man on Duke’s 2001 national title team). 

 

The ceiling – Collins plays 30 minutes a game and pushes Kansas to a national title.

 

The floor – Disaster strikes and the Jayhawks find a way to get bounced in the first round yet again. Bill Self is forced into a witness protection program.

 

The likely result – I’ve got Kansas winning it all this year (see: the previous column), but as I mentioned above, Collins probably won’t be the reason why the Jayhawks win or lose.  They are so deep and rely on so many players that he just doesn’t have the same chance to make or break his team the way other guys on this list do. 

 

6. Greivis Vasquez, Maryland.  Vasquez teams with fellow freshman point guard Eric Hayes to provide Maryland with strong leadership at the point guard position, basically solving their biggest weakness from a year ago.  There is no doubt that the Terps are where they are because of swingmen D.J. Strawberry and Mike Jones (I advise you to drawl “Mike Jones!” like the rapper whenever he makes a basket) and the interior play of Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist, but don’t for a minute think Maryland can make a deep run without steady play from their young point guards.  Vasquez and Hayes combine to score 15 points with almost 9 assists a game and one or both of them will need to take the next step forward to lead Gary Williams’ squad to the Final Four.  The 6’5” Vasquez seems the guy to do it, as he nearly had a triple double (13 points, 12 assists, and 9 rebounds) in Maryland’s big win over Duke last week.

 

The ceiling – Vasquez upstages fellow big ACC freshman point guard Crittenton, Maryland proves to be the most underrated team in the field, and the Terps go to the Final Four as Vasquez is anointed the best point guard to ever come out of Venezuela (replacing the infamous Carl Herrera).

 

The floor – He has one of his passive offensive games and Eric Hayes actually gets more run in crunch time … as the Terps lose an early round game.

 

The likely outcome – Maryland looks like a Sweet 16 team to me and while I think Vasquez will help them get there, it seems likely that Strawberry and Jones will get the pub.  That said, this guy is probably one of the most underrated players in the country right now and I think he will have a bit of a coming out party.

 

7. Scottie Reynolds, Villanova.  Don’t you feel bad for Jeff Capel?  The new coach of the Oklahoma Sooners seems like a great guy and a fantastic coach, but he got left with a pretty bare cupboard in Norman this year.  And that didn’t need to be the case as both Damion James of Texas and Reynolds could have been in his starting lineup.  Reynolds is the one that probably makes him launch into crying jags like Dennis Leary on Rescue Me, as he’s become one of the top scoring point guards in the country down the stretch of the regular season.  He was kind of up and down most of the season as he learned how to be aggressive as a scorer, but things have clicked into place and made the Wildcats extremely dangerous.  Reynolds has scored 87 points in the last three games – all wins – including 40 against UConn, and knocked down 17 threes in one three-game stretch.  He can also pass the ball, as his 10 assists in a win over Louisville can attest.  Plus, he’s almost 20 years old and is still going by Scottie, which has to make Scottie Pippen proud. 

 

The ceiling – Reynolds has the most Chris Thomas in him and could score 100 points in a single regional.  With Jay Wright coaching, Curtis Sumpter on the inside, Reynolds bombing from the perimeter, Villanova looms as a dangerous sleeper with Final Four potential.

 

The floor – Reynolds goes cold, Sumpter gets into foul trouble, and Nova goes out in round one.

 

The likely result – I think they win one game, maybe two, and that Reynolds is up and down.

 

8. Tory Jackson, Notre Dame.  This is a guy that is really coming on and is doing it under the radar.  He’s averaged over six assists a game over his last 14 contests and the 5’10” point guard is even emerging as a rebounder, snaring 22 caroms in his last three games.  He plays with a swagger and really controls the Notre Dame offense, allowing gunners Colin Falls and Russell Carter to bomb away from the outside.  If I had more confidence in the Irish’s chances of making noise in the Tourney, I would put Jackson higher on the list. 

 

The ceiling – Jackson records a triple double as Notre Dame knocks off a higher seeded team in the second round.

 

The floor – He goes scoreless and the Irish are bounced in the first round amid a sea of bricks.

 

The likely outcome – Jackson has a decent game but fails to evoke any memories of Chris Thomas and the Irish fail to advance.

 

9. Ramar Smith, Tennessee.  The Detroit native played really well in January, but has faded a little, even while the Vols make a late charge.  Tennessee keeps the ball in Chris Lofton’s hands quite a bit, but that doesn’t mean Smith is a wallflower.  He’s their best penetrating guard and also a very underrated on-the-ball defender.  He is a guy to watch in the Dance.

 

The ceiling – Smith gets credit for spearheading Tennessee’s attacking defense and the Vols march to the Sweet 16 while Bruce Pearl makes 19 appearances on PTI in two weeks.

 

The floor – He is a nonfactor and Tennessee proves once again to be a shaky tournament team, losing in the first round.

 

The likely result – I’ve got the Vols getting bounced early for the second year in a row and Smith struggling to find a rhythm.

 

10. Edgar Sosa, Louisville.  Sosa is really the point guard in name only for the emerging Louisville Cardinals, as the offense tends to go through swingman Terrence Williams, but Sosa is the guy bringing the ball up the court and he’s a freshman, so he makes the list.  Not only that, he’s Louisville’s second-leading scorer, so he will play a large role if they make a deep tournament run (which I don’t think they are going to do).  I almost gave Sosa some bonus points for having a sweet name.  When you can combine the first name of a dead 24 character with the last name of one of the great steroid users in baseball history yet still make it sound like a character from Scarface, you know you are onto something. 

 

The ceiling – Sosa fills it up as the young Cardinals race to the Elite Eight.

 

The floor – Sosa does the opposite of filling it up as Louisville reenacts the Butler disaster of 2003 and gets run out by a mid-major.

 

The likely result – I’m not feeling the Cardinals and I could Sosa having one of those rough Thursday morning games where guys are rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and launching airballs into the abyss of some arena without a normal backdrop.  This could be ugly. 

 

Bonus - Tajuan Porter, Oregon.  The diminutive (5’6”) guard is one of the most explosive freshman scorers in the country.  He is overlooked for the same reason that he is listed as a “bonus” player on this list - because he plays next to true point guard Aaron Brooks in Eugene.  That said, Porter might hold the Ducks’ fate in his hands, if for no other reason than the fact that he takes a whopping seven threes per game.  The good news for Oregon fans is that he knocks down 42% of those hoists, making him a threat to go crazy from behind the three-point line at any time.  He also shoots almost 93% from the line and teams with Brooks and Bryce Taylor to give Oregon great free-throw shooting guards that can protect a lead.  With defenses keying on Brooks, I think Porter could have a huge game or two this month.

 

The ceiling – Porter pulls a Boykins and takes the nation by storm with a dizzying array of little man moves as Oregon proves that they have the most underrated collection of perimeter talent in the country.

 

The floor – Without the Mac Court advantage, the Ducks are hopeless and that hopelessness is manifested by Porter bricking about nine threes. 

 

The likely result – I think Oregon is going to avail itself nicely and that Porter just might win over some people.  Depending on where they are seeded, I think they can win a couple of games and that he will score at least 17 a game in the process.

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