In filling out your bracket, consider backcourt matchups the key to advancement. History tells us that the team that wins it all has a standout ballhandler leading the charge
KENTUCKY COACH John Calipari won a national championship three years ago thanks largely to the defensive domination of 6'10" Anthony Davis, whose arms are as long as fire hoses. Cal's current undefeated, top-ranked Wildcats are heavily favored to win another title by making good use of rim protectors such as 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein and 6'11" Karl-Anthony Towns. Given all that length, you might expect Calipari to stress the importance of big men in navigating the minefield that is the NCAA tournament. You would be wrong.
"You want to have everything," he says. "But in the tournament, if you have poor guard play, you're not getting where you want to go. It will come back to bite you. You cannot survive for long if your guards are anything less than first-rate."
So fill out your tournament brackets based on any criteria you choose, from adjusted defensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage to school colors and mascot toughness. But before making any final decisions, it would be wise to remember that backcourt stars are almost always essential to March Madness success. In every matchup, take a good look at the guards.
"It's not that complicated," says former coach Jim Calhoun, who won three national titles with Connecticut. "The players who have the ball in their hands the most are the ones who end up turning the game." Think about solving different kinds of zones, about making decisions on the high screen-and-roll, about stopping dribble penetration, about feeding the post. Says Calhoun, "Your success at all of that begins with your guards."
Point guard Shabazz Napier led UConn to the title last season. Louisville won in 2013 with Peyton Siva and Russ Smith providing the backcourt motor for the Cardinals' up-tempo game. The Huskies of '11 relied on Kemba Walker's ability to break down defenses. Senior shooting guard Nolan Smith's defense and playmaking were instrumental in Duke's '10 title run. Ty Lawson orchestrated North Carolina's win over Michigan State in the '09 title game. In '08, Mario Chalmers's clutch shooting carried Kansas to a finals win over Memphis. Calipari's '12 Wildcats are the only one of the last seven champions that didn't have a superior backcourt as its foundation.
There are many ways a stellar guard can dominate a Big Dance game—passing, shooting, defense or just all-around excellence. Using past tournament stars as a guide, SI identified the ballhandlers to watch over the next few weeks.
CLOSING OUT on a shooter or fighting over a screen isn't the kind of maneuver that typically makes the "One Shining Moment" montage, but defensive excellence has been a reliable predictor of success in the tournament. Four of the last five national champions ranked 10th or higher in adjusted defensive efficiency, and guards who can apply pressure on the ballhandler and stop penetration are key elements of effective D.
No guard in recent years has been more disruptive than Oklahoma's Mookie Blaylock was. The Sooners reached the championship game in 1988 and the Sweet 16 in '89 with Blaylock leading a full-court pressure defense that accumulated 486 steals and transformed turnovers into points in a hurry. Blaylock's 23 steals during the '88 Final Four run are the most in a single tournament, and he averaged 3.6 steals in his nine tournament games.
Two of the better backcourt ball hawks in this year's field come off the bench. Freshman Jevon Carter (6'2", 185 pounds) leads West Virginia in steals despite playing only 24.0 minutes per game; his chase-down block of Kansas's Frank Mason III on March 3 was one of the defensive highlights of the season. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky's 5'9" backcourt pest, makes a big impact despite his small frame. Against Providence in January, the Wildcats were leading 17--15 after the first 13 minutes. Over the game's final 27 minutes, of which Ulis played 16, the Friars went cold, missing 25 of their final 29 shots. "The biggest difference was Ulis," Friars coach Ed Cooley says. "He changed the flow of the game with his ball pressure, and we couldn't get in a rhythm after that. The rest of their defense seemed to feed off him."
Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell, the Wildcats' undisputed leader, plays a more central role than Carter or Ulis, and he shares Blaylock's knack for thievery. Although his Twitter handle is @iPass4Zona, McConnell is just as adept at getting his hands on opponents' passes. He is 21st in the nation in steals with 2.1 per game. The Wildcats were 46th and 41st in adjusted defensive efficiency the two seasons before McConnell arrived; since then they have been first and third. "He's very good on the ball, but it's not just that," says Arizona coach Sean Miller. "T.J. is a great team defender. His help defense, his ability to play passing lanes, his talking to other teammates on defense—they all raise the overall level of our play."
McConnell, who had eight steals in a win over Oregon State in January, has added an element of toughness to the Arizona defense that was hard to envision when he was a skinny 6'1" transfer from Duquesne. But now the 195-pound bruiser sets the tone for an aggressive, stifling half-court D. It's not just that McConnell is known for his willingness to fight through screens and go chest-to-chest with offensive players, it's that he has a tough skin after playing for a hard-driving, demanding coach in high school: his father, Tim. McConnell is a floor-diving, charge-taking demon, the kind of player who can provide the sort of inspirational play that can spark an instant shift in momentum.
WHEN BOBBY HURLEY began his coaching career as an assistant at Wagner in 2010--11, he realized that none of the players he was recruiting were old enough to remember him as a point guard at Duke, where he won national championships in 1991 and '92. "I told them to check me out on Google and YouTube if they wanted to see what I used to do," says Hurley, now the Buffalo coach.
Those who did their research saw a guard who could distribute the ball as well as anyone ever has in March: Hurley is the alltime leader in NCAA tournament assists, with 145. Christian Laettner's game-winning turnaround jumper in the Blue Devils' epic 104--103 victory over Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight is frequently cited as the best shot in tournament history, but what is often overlooked is that Hurley had 22 points and 10 assists in that game and went on to be named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
This year's field has several playmakers who run their offenses as superbly as Hurley did, while keeping miscues to a minimum, qualities that can lead to long tournament life. Iowa State sophomore Monte Morris, for instance, is so mistake-free that he probably never needs autocorrect when he's texting. The 6'2" Morris set the assist-to-turnover record as a freshman (4.79), and this year he has been even more reliable (4.91). The value of each possession in the tournament won't be lost on Morris, who often talks of "cherishing" the ball when it's in his hands.
Virginia sophomore point guard London Perrantes is almost as trustworthy. Nicknamed Slow-Mo for his unhurried style, Perrantes is the perfect fit for an ultradeliberate offense designed to limit the number of possessions—which means the Cavaliers can't afford to waste any of them. Perrantes, who is 14th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, makes sure they don't.
But Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet, who played 23 minutes off the bench in the Final Four as a freshman two seasons ago, is the player who most resembles Hurley. VanVleet, a junior, already holds the school record for assists (452), and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.21 ranks seventh nationally. Like Hurley, VanVleet lacks flash but makes up for it in precision. He's so familiar with his teammates' preferences that he calibrates his passes according to which Shocker is the target. He knows that senior shooting guard Ron Baker likes firm feeds, for instance, while senior guard Tekele Cotton prefers softer ones. Baker raves about how VanVleet's passes arrive with perfect rotation, spinning like a jump shot that he merely has to redirect. VanVleet's deliveries are so artfully placed, junior center Bush Wamukota told The Wichita Eagle, that "if you don't finish you feel bad about it."
Point guards such as VanVleet provide a psychological benefit that can't be measured. "When you have a guy out there who's in control and knows how to get easy shots for his teammates, it can settle everybody down," says Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who was just such a point guard for Cal when the Golden Bears made their trip to the Sweet 16 in 1993. "A good point guard can take away that nervousness that comes with being in the tournament."
THE MOST precious commodity in the tournament is a guard who can take over a game in a variety of ways. This year's field is populated with a rare few who can do exactly that, in the manner of the ultimate do-everything player, Magic Johnson. Michigan State won the 1979 national title on the strength of Johnson's remarkable tournament run in which he drove and dished like a point guard, rebounded like a power forward and scored whenever he felt it was necessary. In five games Johnson had two triple doubles and two double doubles. For good measure he outdueled Larry Bird with 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the Spartans' 75--64 championship game victory over Indiana State.
Delon Wright of Utah, a 6'5" senior who puts his height and wingspan to good use at both ends of the floor, has a bit of Magic-like versatility. He can see over smaller defenders to pass, which helped him lead the Utes in assists the last two seasons, and though his jump shot is inconsistent (37.1% from three), he's a capable scorer because of his ability to change speeds and shake defenders. Defensively, Wright is often assigned to the opposing team's best perimeter scorer, usually with positive results. He led all point guards in blocked shots in the 2013--14 season with 1.3 per game, and he is 24th in the country this year with an average of 2.1 steals. If the Utes are in desperate need of a bucket, a block, a steal or an assist in the late stages of a tournament game, Wright is the best bet to supply it.
As fine a defender as Wright is, neither he nor the rest of the Utes could contain Oregon's Joseph Young in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament. Young, a 6'2" senior, drilled a three-pointer with 1.1 seconds left to beat Utah 67--64 last Friday night. It was a typical Young performance in that his 25 points came in a variety of ways—on drives, on mid-range pull-ups and on threes. Young edged White and Arizona's McConnell for conference player of the year because he lifted the Ducks, picked eighth in a preseason Pac-12 media poll, to a second-place finish with his offensive versatility. Keep in mind that he is nearly automatic from the free throw line (91.8%), a critical skill in the Big Dance.
If Young or anyone else rescues his team as dramatically as Notre Dame's 6'5" senior Jerian Grant did against Louisville as a sophomore, when he scored 12 points in 28 seconds to wipe out an eight-point deficit and send the game into overtime, he will become a tournament legend. As heroic as that sequence was, it didn't do justice to Grant's all-around game. He's a natural scorer—his 16.8 points per game leads the team—but he's enough of a playmaker to lead the ACC in assists at 6.6 per game. Grant sat out the final 20 games of last season due to an academic-related suspension, but he has made the most of his return. "We shoot 40% from three," says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "Why? Jerian's back. He gets guys easy looks." The son of former NBA forward Harvey Grant and the nephew of ex--Chicago Bulls star Horace Grant, he's also an excellent perimeter ball hawk whose 1.8 steals leads the team. "He's one of the best defenders I've ever coached," says Brey.
Ohio State may turn to its all-purpose freshman, D'Angelo Russell, for similar production. Russell has a star's confidence—asked earlier this month if he was the nation's best freshman, he said, "Oh, yes. No doubt"—and the game to back it up. He leads the Buckeyes in scoring (19.3) and rebounding (5.6) and is second in three-point percentage (41.6) and assists (5.2), and at 6'5" and with a 6'9" wingspan, he has the size to guard any position on the perimeter. He also clearly has the vision and passing ability to handle the point, as he has shown with some otherworldly passes this season.
Against Northwestern on Jan. 22, Russell stood outside the three-point line, palming the ball in his left hand with his arm outstretched to keep it away from his defender like a big brother teasing a younger sibling. Then with a flick of his wrist he threw a diagonal bounce pass, with backspin, that threaded through three defenders to find senior forward Sam Thompson cutting to the basket. It was such an impressive sleight of hand that it seemed as if the video had been edited. "He just keeps doing things that make people say, Wow," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "The most impressive thing about him is his rate of improvement. The strides he's has taken since Day One here are remarkable."
The Buckeyes will have to make the most of those improvements over the next few weeks, because this will almost certainly be Russell's only NCAA tournament. He's a hot enough pro prospect that Knicks president Phil Jackson attended an Ohio State game to evaluate him. Jackson's innocuous comments that Russell was "a great-looking kid" and "a great prospect" earned him a fine for violating the NBA's rule against speaking publicly about college underclassmen. But it doesn't take an NBA executive to realize that Russell is the kind of multitalented player who could take the Buckeyes to Indianapolis.
LONG-RANGE gunners have provided some of the tournament's most dramatic moments. Sometimes they hit buzzer beaters, like Bryce Drew's 23-foot trey for Valparaiso that beat Ole Miss 70--69 in 1998. Sometimes they take gutsy, go-for-it shots, like T.J. Sorrentine's deep three that helped seal 13th-seeded Vermont's upset of No. 4 seed Syracuse in 2005. Or Ali Farokhmanesh's cold-blooded transition trifecta for Northern Iowa with 35 seconds left against top-seeded Kansas in '10, a risky choice when he could have held the ball with a one-point lead and milked the clock.
Then there are the players who just can't miss. "Every coach in the tournament gets nightmares about facing a kid who gets in a zone and starts making everything," says Calhoun. "I've seen it from both sides. It can make you or break you."
When a shooter gets hot enough, he can carry a team, as a then relatively little-known guard named Steph Curry did for Davidson in 2008. The Wildcats were seeded 10th in the Midwest region when Curry shot them past three higher seeds, Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin, to reach the Elite Eight. He torched the Zags for 40 points, making eight of his 10 three-point attempts, then dropped 30 more on the Hoyas in the second round. "For the most part he had guys all over him and the ball was going in," Hoyas coach John Thompson III said at the time. Curry then dispatched the Badgers with 33 points on 6-of-11 three-point shooting before Davidson was finally eliminated by Kansas.
There are several players capable of such a streak this March. Duke senior Quinn Cook and Michigan State junior Denzel Valentine have each made 40% of their threes this season. Junior Marcus Paige, the only consistent three-point shooter in North Carolina's rotation, has hit 51.5% of his team's threes, the second consecutive season that he's been responsible for more than half the Tar Heels' treys. Paige's jumper has deserted him at times—he shot 2 for 10 on threes and 5 for 22 overall in losses to Pitt and Duke last month—which may have been partly due to the plantar fasciitis in his right foot that has bothered him for most of the season. But if he shoots well from beyond the arc in the tournament, the Tar Heels will be especially tough. During the regular season he made 40.5% of his threes in UNC's victories. In its losses, that number dropped to 34.6%.
Gonzaga has a team full of marksmen—the Zags shot 40.8% from beyond the arc—but its most accomplished shooter is senior point guard Kevin Pangos, who set the school career record for three-pointers (313) this season. Pangos is far from a gunner—he took only one shot in a win over Santa Clara and just two in a victory over Pacific last month—but when the situation calls for it, he can provide threes in bunches. The 6'2" Canadian proved that in his first start as a freshman, when he made nine of 13 triples against Washington State. "He has that perfect form that makes you think it's going in every time," says Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer, who shot 46.6% from behind the arc himself. "He can definitely carry us when he gets hot."
But the best bet for a bracket-busting barrage of threes √† la Curry might be Lawrence Alexander, North Dakota State's 6'3" junior guard, who shot the Bisons into the tournament by making six of his nine three-point attempts in a 57--56 win over South Dakota State in the Summit League championship game. Alexander shoots 44.1% from behind the arc, and he's already proved how dangerous he can be in the Big Dance. Last season he went 4 for 7 on threes and scored 25 points in North Dakota State's 80--75 first-round upset of fifth-seeded Oklahoma. Alexander has permission to hoist threes freely—he shot at least eight in 15 of the Bison's 32 games, including five games in which he took 11—and when he's hot, which is often, North Dakota State's deliberate motion offense can break an opponent's spirit.
The four teams that get to Indy are all likely to have a set of guards who have distinguished themselves along the way in at least one category, like so many great backcourtmen before them. The next three weeks will remind us of the tournament's history while we find out which guards are ready to make some of their own.
BLAYLOCK BY THE NUMBERS
Steals in the 83--79 NCAA final loss to Kansas in 1988, a title-game record until UNC's Ty Lawson had eight in 2009.
Steals for Blaylock's Sooners during their six-game run in '88, which is still the most for a team in the tournament.
HURLEY BY THE NUMBERS
Assist average in the NCAA tournament (145 total) over 20 games, during which the Blue Devils went 18--2 and made three title games.
Three-pointers made in the Big Dance, third on the career list. Hurley's percentage from beyond the arc was 43.8.
MAGIC BY THE NUMBERS
Unofficial triple doubles by Johnson during his five games in the 1979 tournament. (Assists were not formally tracked until '83--84.)
Percentage of televisions in the U.S. that were tuned to the Michigan State--Indiana State NCAA title game, the highest ever.
CURRY BY THE NUMBERS
Three-pointers made per game by Curry for 10th-seeded Davidson in 2008, tied with Loyola Marymount's Jeff Fryer (1990) for most all time.
Scoring average for Curry in '08 over four games, the most points per game in the Big Dance since Bo Kimble's 35.8 for LMU in '90.
Photograph by Michael Hickey Getty Images
GRANT SLAM Thanks to the senior point guard's all-around excellence, the Irish had their most wins (29) since 1908--09.
CHRIS CODUTO/ICON SPORTSWIRE (MCCONNELL)
CONTAINMENT POLICY The pressure applied by Ulis (above) and McConnell (right) has helped their respective Wildcats become two of the nation's most efficient defensive teams.
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (ULIS)
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BLAYLOCK)
WILLIAM PURNELL/ICON SPORTSWIRE (VANVLEET)
VANGUARD It's impossible to overstate the value of a steady hand like VanVleet, who has shown the ability to take control during the madness of March.
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HURLEY)
PROTECTOR OF THE ROCK The Cyclones are one of the fastest teams in Division I, making Morris's record-setting assist-to-turnover ratio even more impressive.
JAMIE SABAU/GETTY IMAGES (RUSSELL)
SPECIAL D'LIVERY Russell led the Buckeyes in points and rebounds, supporting his own case that he's the nation's best freshman.
RICH CLARKSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JOHNSON)
UTE MOVEMENT The 6'5" Wright might not be a knockdown shooter, but he knows how to change speeds to get into the lane.
ETHAN HYMAN/TNS/ZUMA WIRE (PAIGE)
THE AIM OF THE GAME North Carolina's fate likely rests on the marksmanship of Paige, who has taken more than three times as many threes as any other Tar Heel.
TIM COWIE/ICON SPORTSWIRE (CURRY)
[See caption above]