The New Guard
Analyzing the tournament’s freshmen point
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.