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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.

Williams helps No. 3 North Carolina beats Radford 95-50

LAHAINA, HI - NOVEMBER 21: Kenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels pushed the ball up court during the second half of the Maui Invitational NCAA college basketball game against the Chaminade Silverswords at the Lahaina Civic Center on November 21, 2016 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Kenny Williams III finally had the shooting flurry that third-ranked North Carolina has been waiting to see.

The sophomore had 14 of his career-high 19 points in the opening five minutes, helping the Tar Heels build a huge early lead and beat Radford 95-50 on Sunday.

Williams made his first five shots, including all four 3-point tries, during that opening flurry. Quite a change for a player who was buried on the bench for a veteran team last year, making just 1 of 13 3-pointers and seeing his confidence suffer as a result.

“I’ve been waiting a year-and-a-half for a game like that,” Williams said. “I don’t want to say I knew it was coming, but with the confidence I have right now, I kind of expected it.”

While Williams’ play stood out, the Tar Heels (8-1) got a scare when they lost point guard Joel Berry II to a sprained left ankle early in the second half. The junior, averaging 16 points, came up hobbled as he drove into the paint and fell to the floor. He got up and walked slowly to the locker room for evaluation with 17:36 left, but didn’t return to the UNC bench with the Tar Heels up big.

Coach Roy Williams said Berry would have X-rays to confirm the sprain diagnosis and he was hopeful that Berry would be able to practice before Wednesday’s game against Davidson.

“We’ll have to wait and see what they say (Monday),” Williams said, “but I’m encouraged about it right now.”

The Tar Heels (8-1) were coming off a loss at No. 13 Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They had no trouble in this one, running out to an 18-4 lead behind Kenny Williams’ opening burst and shooting 57 percent in the first half to build a 51-27 lead by the break.

Justin Cousin scored 14 points to lead the Highlanders (3-5), who shot 31 percent.

“Tough team, man,” Radford coach Mike Jones said. “They’re so big and physical. We played some good defense inside and they made the shot over us and that’s going to happen.”

BIG PICTURE

Radford: The Highlanders, picked sixth in the Big South Conference, had no way to slow the Tar Heels’ early tear. And that led to a fourth loss by double-digit margins, three coming by at least 21 points. Still, Radford isn’t likely to run up against a team such as UNC in the Big South, either.

UNC: The big shooting performance from Williams and Berry’s injury stood out here, with the Tar Heels potentially bolstering their perimeter scoring punch while seeing their floor leader go down to an injury.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Tar Heels will slide a bit in the AP Top 25 when the new poll comes out Monday, though losing on the road to a team ranked No. 13 nationally likely won’t cause a big drop.

POINT GUARDS

If Berry sits out, senior Nate Britt – who has played both guard positions in his career – would appear to be the next man up at the point. Freshman Seventh Woods also will figure into the mix; he had nine points in 22 minutes – both season highs – while getting plenty of work after Berry’s exit.

WILLIAMS’ SHOT

Williams, a 6-foot-4 wing from Midlothian, Virginia, made 5 of 6 3-pointers with a good-looking and confident stroke. Four of those came in the opening minutes, the last one a wide-open look from the left wing that brought Smith Center fans to a roar.

Williams said he worked in the offseason to minimize how much his guide hand pushes on the ball to affect his release.

“He’s put in a lot of time,” Roy Williams said. “I said even last year when he wasn’t putting the ball in the basket that he was going to be a good defensive player and I’m not sure he’s not our best perimeter defender right now.”

UP NEXT

Radford: The Highlanders host Elon on Saturday.

UNC: The Tar Heels play at home against Davidson on Wednesday night.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell suspended

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks drives to the basket defended by Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange in the second half during the Brooklyn Hoops Holiday Invitational at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell has been suspended indefinitely due to a violation of athletic department policy, the school announced on Sunday.

Thornwell is averaging 18.7 points, 6.7 boards and 4.1 assists for the Gamecocks, who are undefeated and sitting at No. 20 nationally. Thornwell is the reigning SEC Player of the Week.

South Carolina plays FIU in Columbia at 2:00 p.m. ET.

Melo Trimble’s heroics get him a shout-out from Wale in a song

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26:  Melo Trimble #2 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates after hitting the game winning shot as they defeated the Kansas State Wildcats 69-68 during the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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For the fourth time in the first three weeks of the college basketball season, Melo Trimble won a game for Maryland.

His two free throws in the final ten seconds gave the Terps a come-from-behind, 71-70 win over Oklahoma State in College Park, and the win not only was the sixth time this season that the Terps have won a game decided by six points or less, it improved Trimble’s record in those games to 26-5.

26-5!

That’s an insane statistic, one that should allow Maryland fans to truly appreciate just how valuable their junior point guard is.

At least one Maryland fan does. Rapper Wale, who hails from Maryland, just outside DC, made sure to name-drop his favorite Terp in a verse in a song he released on Saturday night:

And you better believe that Trimble is aware of it:

"My therapist terrible , I'm uh Terp Melo Trimbling" @wale

A photo posted by Melo Trimble (@olem__) on

Rick Pitino on Grand Canyon: ‘The toughest crowd I’ve ever faced’

Rick Pitino
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Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said after his No. 14 Cardinals struggled to put away a tough Grand Canyon team on the road had some kind – and hyperbolic – words to say about the atmosphere.

“This, in college basketball in my 40 plus year, was the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced,” he said.

Umm, but Rick, you’ve coached in the Big East and the ACC! This was tougher than any of those crowds?

“Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky, nothing was as tough as that crowd tonight,” he said.

Well, now.

That seems like a bit much, but to be fair, the atmosphere there was, shall we say, lit:

POSTERIZED: Charlotte’s Najee Garvin nearly jumps over defender

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This is what you don’t try to take charges.