Those who know me know I’m a hoops junkie–college and professional basketball alike. While working this afternoon, I had the TV on in the background and watched/listened to some Big Ten action. Ohio St. beat #6 Michigan St. 82-70, while #24 Purdue beat #25 Illinois 66-56, with the latter not being that close for much of the game. These games fit in to others in recent days, particularly those that saw many of the top-ranked teams lose. They include #22 Florida State beating top-ranked North Carolina today 73-70, #20 Syracuse beating #4 UConn in an instant classic 127-117 in 6 OT Thursday night/Friday morning in Big East tournament play, West Virginia handling #2 Pitt 74-60 Thursday in the Big East tournament, Maryland beating #9 Wake Forest 75-64 in ACC tourney action, Mississippi State beating #16 LSU 67-57 in the SEC tournament, Temple besting #19 Xavier 55-53 in the A-10 tourney, and Baylor upsetting #11 Kansas 71-64 in the Big 12 Thursday.
All these games had three big things in common. The first is that, in all these games, the losing team had beaten the winning team in all their previous match-ups–either one or two regular-season conference games. It goes to show the difficulty of repeating, once or twice, initial victories against quality opponents when the motivation is already strong (or doubly strong) from previous losses, and when NCAA tournament births are on the line. With so many conference tournament upsets already, bubble teams must be quaking before tomorrow’s bracket announcements, all the more so after today for, while most of the winning teams today were probably in the tournament anyway, having the highest ranked conference teams win the conference tournaments would have cleared more at-large bids for others. Over the last week, at-large bids have probably been reduced by several because of conference tournament upsets, since some teams not previously tournament worthy received automatic bids, and at-large bids likely going to well-regarded teams such as Butler and Xavier despite their upsets.
The second commonality is that they all showed that despite some very good teams this season in college basketball, it’s a very wide open field. It could be a year in which few if any #1 regional seeds make it to the Final Four in Detroit. That wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
The third and, for this post, most important point and commonality is that in all these games, guard play was the determining factor in the victory. Others were important as well, but in every single of the games I listed above, standout or subpar guard play was decisive. In all but three of these recent games, the winning team’s starting guards (sometimes tandems, sometimes sets) had outscored their opposition while committing fewer or no more turnovers than their counterparts on the losing side:
- Syracuse 56 points, 8 TO; UConn 41 points, 11 TO
- WVU 23 points, 1 TO; Pitt 11 points, 6 TO
- Baylor 36 points, 5 TO; Kansas 30 points, 5 TO
- Mississippi St. 29 points, 4 TO; LSU 24 points, 4 TO
- Temple 34 points, 6 TO; Xavier 24 points, 6 TO
- Purdue 22 points, 3 TO (only 5 for the team today); Illinois 18 points, 6 TO (though only 9 in a losing effort)
In the other three games, the winning team committed more turnovers but outscored their opponents, sometimes drastically so, to atone for the turnover disparity. To wit:
- Florida St. 34 points, 4 TO; UNC 26 points, 1 TO
- Ohio St. 55 points, 10 TO; Michigan St. 19 points, 2 TO
- Maryland 39 points, 8 TO; Wake Forest 18 points, 2 TO
In two of the games, the absence of a starting point guard was crucial–North Carolina’s Ty Lawson and Illinois’s Chester Frazier. That only buttresses my point: to win in the tournament, guard play must be good and solid. Guards must minimize errors, control the tempo, distribute the ball, shoot well, and prevent their opponents to what extent they can from doing the same. Much more often than not, the teams that do this win. Big players help and can dominate, but ultimately it’s guard play that controls teams’ fates come tournament time. Off the top of my head, some examples include Duke’s back-to-back championships in 1991 and 1992–the first back-to-back NCAA Men’s championships since UCLA’s run ended in 1973; Indiana’s 1981 title run led by Isiah Thomas capped by their 63-50 defeat of UNC in Philadelphia; UNC beating Georgetown 63-62 in 1982 on Michael Jordan’s rainbow jumper in the Superdome and Fred Brown’s infamous giveaway to James Worthy–despite a tremendous and overlooked game by one of my all-time favorite players, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd; Syracuse blistering Kansas for an 11-point halftime lead before hanging on, 81-78, in 2003, aided by Gerry McNamara and ‘Melo; Magic Johnson guiding Michigan State over Larry Legend and previously unbeaten Indiana State 75-64 in the 1979 classic; and on and on.