Ranking the Final Four: Point Guards

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Outlook: As was the case across the country this season, the point guard sport is absolutely loaded in this year’s Final Four. As a matter of fact, there is an argument to be made that the best, and/or most important, player on each roster is the starting point guard.

Ranking the PGs:

1) Kemba Walker, UConn
This isn’t even a question. Kemba hasn’t just been the best point guard in March and arguably the best point guard in the country all season long, there is a large faction of people that matter that believe that the man known as “EZ Pass” has been the best player in the country this season. He’s averaging 26.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, and 5.3 apg in UConn’s nine tournament games in March, but that only begins to tell you his value to this team. Walker is the Huskies’ leader in every sense of the word, on and off the court. He’s made too many big shots this season to count. He’s nearly impossible to defend one-on-one, but he’s unselfish enough to pass the pass when he has people open. He’s the reason UConn had a chance at making the tournament, forget the Final Four.

2) Shelvin Mack, Butler
I’m giving Mack the nod as the second best point guard in the Final Four. While Matt Howard has been the guy that has hit the game-winners, Mack has been Butler’s rock. He scored 30 in their win over Pitt and added 27, including what amounted to the game winning three pointer, against Florida in the Elite 8. Mack isn’t necessarily Butler’s point guard, per se. With the lineup that the Bulldogs have, he’s probably listed as an off-guard. But he is the guy that makes plays and he is the guy with the ball in his hands in crucial situations. And as an added bonus, he’s the only player on this list that has had success in the Final Four.

3) Brandon Knight, Kentucky
What Knight has provided this Kentucky team cannot be understated. What’s surprising, however, is that Knight actually has been. All the stories written on the Wildcats the past week have been about Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins, about John Calipari’s rivalry with Jim Calhoun, or about the struggles of Terrence Jones. Has anyone made mention of the fact that Knight has hit two game-winners in this tournament in games that he struggled? Or that in the other two games he has scored a combined 52 points? Knight is a playmaker on this team. And he’s their closer down the stretch.

4) Joey Rodriguez, VCU
The fact that Rodriguez is the “worst” point guard in this field should tell you something about the quality of the point guard play in the Final Four. J-Rod (yes, I’m calling him J-Rod) has been terrific in the tournament. He orchestrates the VCU offense, he gets into the paint and finds open shooters, and he’s one of those point guards that never gives up his dribble unless he has too.

Future Pros: Kemba Walker is going to be a lottery pick come June. He’s got pro written all over him. Brandon Knight has a shot at playing his way into the lottery as well, but he doesn’t have quite as much upside as Walker. Joey Rodriguez is not going to be playing in the NBA.

As far as Mack is concerned, his physical tools don’t lend themselves to the next level. He’s not the kind of athlete that they look for at the next level. He also doesn’t have the size of someone like Chauncy Billups. That said, the kid is a terrific basketball player. He’s a clutch shooter and a winner (sorry for the cliche). If he doesn’t make it in the league, I’d bet he’s got a nice professional career overseas waiting for him.

Essential to winning a title?: Umm, yes!

Is it any wonder that in a tournament as unpredictable as this one that all four teams in the Final Four have quality back court play? Or that teams with question marks at the point this season — Arizona, Kansas, Florida — lost in the Elite 8?

Point guards at the leader on the floor. They are an extension of the coach. They are the guys that facilitate the offense and get the ball to the players that need the ball in their hands. Point guard play could very well determine who wins this year’s national title.

No. 12 Oklahoma closes Big 12 gap on No. 5 Kansas behind Trae Young’s 26

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If you’re simply looking at the stat line, it would seem like Tuesday night’s win over No. 5 Kansas was a typical Trae Young game.

The star point guard for No. 12 Oklahoma finished with 26 points, nine assists, four boards, two steals and five turnovers, which is roughly what he has averaged throughout the season. The difference here, however, was that Young, just three days removed from taking 39 shots in a loss at Oklahoma State and less than a week removed from turning the ball over 12 times in a loss at Kansas State, shot the ball just nine times.

He was 7-for-9 from the floor. He was 2-for-3 from three and 10-for-12 from the line. He was more focused on distributing the ball and getting his teammates involved than he has been in any game this season, and the result was a critical, 85-80 win over the Jayhawks.

Oklahoma entered Tuesday night trailing Kansas by two games in the conference along with … well, everyone else: West Virginia, Texas Tech, Kansas State. This was the second loss the Jayhawks have taken in the Big 12 and it means that their lead over the field was cut in half.

Put another way, an outright regular season title is still a possibility for Oklahoma — and everyone else chasing Kansas.

There’s no two ways around it. This was a massive win and an excellent performance from Young.

The question I have is whether or not this version of The Trae Young Show is something that is sustainable for Oklahoma in the long-term.

Because I’m not sure that it is.

The narrative coming out of this game is going to be that Young, having lost a pair of road games in a league where no one wins on the road, came home and beat the conference favorites after Selfish Trae Young morphed into Unselfish Trae Young. And credit where it is due, Young made an active and impressive decision to get everyone else on the roster involved. He played differently, no one is disputing that.

But I’d argue that Lon Kruger’s decision to foul Udoka Azubuike on four possessions in the final four minutes — and Bill Self’s decision to leave Azubuike in the game — is what changed this game. Azubuike is a 41 percent free throw shooter that missed six straight free throws, two of which were front-ends, after a Malik Newman layup gave Kansas a 78-74 lead with 4:02 left. The Jayhawks would score just a single basket the rest of the game, one of only three possessions they had in those four minutes when the game wasn’t in doubt and Azubuike wasn’t on the free throw line.

That had as much to do with Oklahoma’s game-ending 11-2 run as anything else.

I also think it’s important to note that, on Saturday, Oklahoma’s supporting cast shot 14-for-43 from the floor and 2-for-15 from three. On Tuesday night, they were 21-for-48 (43.8%) from the field and 7-for-20 (35%) from three. That’s an improvement, there is no question about that, but it’s not a better or more efficient offensive option than asking Young to be aggressive is. Put another way, it’s not selfish to shoot a lot if your shots are the best way for your team to score.

Kruger needed to reel Young in a little bit after last week.

No one is going to argue that.

As I wrote here, Young needs to trust his teammates more and his teammates need to give him more reason to trust them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, on Oklahoma’s final two possessions, Young found Christian James and then Brady Manek for the go-ahead and game-sealing threes. Compare that to the Oklahoma State, when Young forced deep threes over multiple defenders at the end of regulation and overtime, possessions where the Sooners could have won the game at the buzzer.

But I also think we can all agree that for Oklahoma to reach their ceiling, they cant make a habit out of James, Manek and Kameron McGusty taking 29 shots and Young getting just nine.

Because this win, as important as it was, was not Oklahoma’s ceiling, not unless you think a home win aided by intentional fouls against a good-but-far-from-great Kansas team that saw their best player shoot 4-for-19 from the floor is super-impressive.

Blowout result says more about No. 2 Virginia than No. 18 Clemson

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After the first 11 minutes of Tuesday night’s trip to Charlottesville, No. 18 Clemson led No. 2 Virginia 20-14.

Over the course of the final 29 minutes of that game, the Tigers would muster all of 16 points, getting battered by a Tony Bennett defense that has done the same to many a foe that walked into John Paul Jones Arena and losing by the final score of 61-36.

With senior forward Donte Grantham suffering a torn ACL in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame, No. 18 Clemson entered Tuesday’s matchup with No. 2 Virginia without its second-leading scorer and one of its top three-point shooters as well.

Dealing with Bennett’s pack-line defense is hard enough with a full roster; to do so without an important option the caliber of Grantham makes the task that much more difficult.

For Clemson, the loss was a harsh reminder that the margin for error became much smaller the moment Grantham went down on Saturday against Notre Dame. Marquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell and Elijah Thomas have all been key contributors for the Tigers this season, a big reason why Brad Brownell presides over a team that has looked the part of an NCAA tournament participant for much of this season.

Against Virginia that trio combined to score eight points, with Reed responsible for six. If not for the play of Gabe DeVoe II, who scored all 11 of his points in the first half, and freshman forward Aamir Simms, one could argue that Clemson would have found it difficult to score 30 points against the Virginia defense.

Without Grantham, Clemson can ill-afford to have its remaining key offensive options struggle as Reed, Thomas and Mitchell did Tuesday night. Thomas had issues finding looks against Virginia’s interior defenders, and it wasn’t simply because of the Cavaliers’ ability to double the post as well as any team in the country. There were other times in which Virginia didn’t double, and the likes of Wilkins (when he was healthy enough to play), Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite all got the job done when called upon.

As a result Thomas, who entered the game averaging 11.1 points per contest and shooting better than 62 percent from the field, had as many turnovers as field goal attempts: three. Mitchell was in a similar position, missing all three of his shot attempts and turning the ball over three times, and even with his 11 points the aforementioned DeVoe was responsible for five turnovers.

The first game after losing a key player can be tough for a team, as the remaining options are adjusting to either new or increased responsibilities. So while Tuesday’s result does say something about Clemson’s margin for error moving forward, it says even more about Virginia’s status as not only an ACC title contender (they’re now 8-0 in league play) but also a national title contender as well.

The cynics will see that and jump to say that we’ve been here before, that Virginia still has something to prove come NCAA tournament time. That’s fine, and Virginia did experience some lulls offensively in the first half against Clemson that they can’t afford if they’re to leave Duke with a win Saturday.

But when a team defends as well as Virginia can, they’ll give themselves a shot in just about any game. And when Virginia really buckled down defensively against Clemson, it largely occurred without the services of a player in Wilkins who rates among the best defensive players in college basketball.

Diakite may have scored just two points, but more importantly he finished with three blocked shots and two steals. Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and Devon Hall combined for nine steals, and forwards Jack Salt and DeAndre Hunter chipped in as well. Some may want to focus on the lack of a guy who can score 25-plus points every night, but when a team defends as well as Virginia does should that “deficiency” be held against them?

We’ll learn even more about Virginia on Saturday, but underrate their chances of reaching the Final Four at your own peril.

No. 22 Tennessee hangs on to beat Vanderbilt 67-62

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Jordan Bowden scored 19 points, Lamonte’ Turner hit a huge 3-pointer and No. 22 Tennessee nearly blew a 20-point second-half lead before hanging on for a 67-62 victory over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night.

Tennessee (14-5, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) earned its fifth win in six games and withstood a brilliant performance from Vanderbilt’s Riley LaChance, who scored all of his 25 points in the second half.

After trailing 41-21 with 14½ minutes left, Vanderbilt (7-13, 2-6) cut Tennessee’s lead to 60-58 when Jeff Roberson made one of two free-throw attempts with 1:19 remaining. Turner answered by sinking a 3-pointer with 1:03 left.

LaChance missed a 3-point attempt on Vanderbilt’s next possession to set up a layup by Bowden that extended Tennessee’s lead to 65-58 with 33 seconds left. Tennessee’s lead wouldn’t drop below five the rest of the way.

Grant Williams scored 19 points for Tennessee, two weeks after compiling 37 points in a 92-84 triumph at Vanderbilt. Roberson had 21 points for the Commodores.

Vanderbilt announced before the game that senior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis would miss the rest of the season with an injured right shoulder. Fisher-Davis has made 70 career starts and was averaging 11.9 points per game to rank second on the team.

The Commodores were seeking to beat Tennessee in Knoxville for a fourth straight season, but poor shooting nearly knocked Vanderbilt out of contention early.

Vanderbilt’s Payton Willis made a 3-pointer 40 seconds into the game to open the scoring, but the Commodores missed their next 17 3-point attempts. Tennessee closed the first half on a 14-2 run to grab a 32-15 halftime lead and then scored the first two points of the second half on a basket by Kyle Alexander.

Tennessee led 46-28 with 12 minutes remaining before LaChance got Vanderbilt back into the game almost single-handedly.

LaChance went 4 of 4 from 3-point range in a span of 2½ minutes and ended up scoring 15 straight Vanderbilt points as the Commodores crept closer. Vanderbilt made eight consecutive shots at one point while Tennessee went over seven minutes without a basket.

BIG PICTURE

Vanderbilt: The Commodores showed plenty of fight to get back into the game on the night that they announced Fisher-Davis wouldn’t play again this year. But the first half also showed how hard it is for Vanderbilt to find offense when its 3-point shots aren’t falling. Vanderbilt fell to 1-2 since Fisher-Davis’ injury.

Tennessee: Bowen scored just two points in a loss at Missouri and went scoreless in a victory at South Carolina last week, but he broke out of his slump. Bowden shot 5 of 7 from 3-point range and 6 of 10 from the floor.

UP NEXT

Vanderbilt hosts TCU on Saturday.

Tennessee is at Iowa State on Saturday.

___

More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Paschall scores 17, leads No. 1 Villanova past Providence

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Jay Wright gave his NFC championship game tickets to his kids. They sent Wright and his wife photos from the Philadelphia Eagles’ romp over the Vikings and texted updates on all the fun they had at the Linc.

Who wouldn’t want to ditch the parents to root on the Birds?

Even Villanova’s coach knows the top team in the nation is no match in Philly fandom compared to the team in green.

With Philadelphia swept up in a Super Bowl frenzy, No. 1 Villanova showed again why city sports fans can also brag about having the best team in college basketball. Just across the street from where the Eagles clinched a Super Bowl berth, the Wildcats used a 22-2 run in the first half to cruise to their sixth straight win, 89-69 over Providence on Tuesday night.

The Wildcats (19-1, 6-1 Big East) are the only program in the AP Top 25 that plays in the shadow of four major pro teams that share a sports complex.

Philly is an Eagles city. The Wildcats, even with the 2016 national championship, are just along for the ride.

Villanova was forced to play this season at the Wells Fargo Center, home of the NBA’s 76ers, because of renovations at its on-campus arena. The Wildcats improved to 7-0 in their temporary digs, even though the 20,000-seat arena drew only an announced 8,595 fans.

“It’s starting to feel like this is our home court,” Wright said.

Interest in college hoops doesn’t really pick up around town until the Eagles’ season is over. The Wildcats might have three more wins by the time fans start paying attention on Feb 5 — give or take a possible parade date.

Eric Paschall led six Wildcats in double figures with 17 points, Omari Spellman had 16 and Jalen Brunson scored 15.

What the fans might have missed is Brunson, a first-team preseason All-American, playing his way into national player-of-the-year contention. The recent funk from Oklahoma’s Trae Young could open the door for the Nova guard to take home some postseason hardware. He entered the game tops on Villanova in scoring, third in the Big East in assists and third in the conference in 3-point accuracy.

The Wildcats had off on Sunday and a poor practice a day before the Big East matchup, and they started in a 24-15 hole.

“They try to use their speed and quickness and they definitely took advantage of that today,” Paschall said.

The Wildcats rallied to lead 39-30 at halftime. Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges hit consecutive 3-pointers to spark the decisive run. Spellman, the preseason Big East freshman of the year, had a three-point play when he tossed the ball up in the lane and it rolled around the rim before falling through the net.

The Friars (14-7, 5-3) missed eight straight field goals midway through the second half, and Brunson and Paschal hit 3s that stretched the lead and sent the Wildcats on their way to their sixth straight win against Providence.

“I like the way we played for about 22 minutes,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “Every mistake, they took advantage of. I was proud of our guys in some sequences, but the breakdowns really hurt us and they took total advantage of that.”

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars’ career record vs. No. 1 teams fell to 2-15 and they dropped to 1-3 against Top 25 teams this season. Rodney Bullock was the top scorer with 16 points.

Villanova: Outside of their 22-2 run, the Wildcats didn’t really shoot that well. But the Wildcats entered tops in the Big East in scoring defense (64.8 points), and they kept Providence to 37 percent shooting from the floor. … Bridges had 11 points and nine rebounds. … Paschall and Bridges each had four steals.

HE SAID IT

Asked about the 22-2 run, Wright asked, “late?”

No, it only seemed like the Wildcats went on that kind of spurt in the second half.

“Oh, after we were down. Yeah, I didn’t know it was that much,” Wright said.

UP NEXT

Providence plays the middle of three straight road games Jan. 31 at Seton Hall.

Villanova plays Sunday against Marquette.

___

More AP college basketball: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Study shows troubling data on minority coaching hires

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Over the years, hiring practices within collegiate athletics have been a point of conversation especially when considering the job possibilities for minority candidates. According to a study done by Athletic Director U on coaching changes in Division I college basketball over a ten-year period beginning in 2008, there is still a lot of work to be done in both the men’s and women’s games.

Not only can that be said for the hiring of minority candidates, but also the lack of second chances for those candidates down the line.

The study was focused on 30 Division I college basketball conferences, with the MEAC and SWAC not included so as not to potentially skew the data given the fact that both are comprised entirely of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Per Athletic Director U’s numbers, 72.4 percent of minority Division I men’s basketball coaches are fired or forced to resign compared to 59.9 percent of Caucasian coaches.

In the women’s game, 84.3 percent of the changes involving minority coaches coming as a result of a firing or forced resignation. And according to the data compiled, it’s extremely rare that a coaching job previously held by a minority coach is filled by another. In men’s college basketball only 7.2 percent of the changes were from one minority coach to another, with the number dropping to 4.8 percent in the women’s game.

By comparison, 66.7 percent of the hires in men’s college basketball and 75.4 percent of the hires in women’s college basketball were one Caucasian replacing another. Just over 26 percent of the coaches who were fired or forced to resign were replaced by the opposite in men’s basketball, with the number dropping to 19.8 percent in women’s basketball.

Per the numbers, not only has it remained more difficult for minority coaches to be afforded the opportunity to lead their own programs but it’s also been tough to get another shot should things not work out.

It’s long been stated that collegiate athletics had some issues to address with regards to the hiring of coaches, and based upon the study done by Athletic Director U it’s clear that there’s still a substantial amount of work to be done.