“Guard play wins NCAA championships.”
If you’ve been around college basketball long enough, you’ve heard this old adage. It’s a very easy (read: lazy) way to attempt to understand what a team will need in order to weave its way through the madness of March and emerge victorious in April. Pundits gravitate toward it even more once the smoke of the first weekend subsides — when all that’s left is a pool of legitimate contenders.
Pundits are pundits for a reason. They are usually very capable at breaking down and analyzing a team’s makeup and then will use this analysis to help handicap and predict the team’s chances versus another team. When comparing a team against the field, however, assumptions must be made. This is when we get into the lazy adages.
This particular adage is drawn from a number of assumptions. It is first based on the premise that the tournament normally ends up coming down to guys that can create — not only for themselves but for their teammates. It assumes that the guy with the ball has the power to both make or break you. It assumes that you can game plan and strategize against a post threat, but it’s much harder to take a guard out of the game. It assumes that if you’re faced with a must-make situation, everything starts with the guard. To an extent it also assumes defense doesn’t matter.
That’s all well and good, but I ask that you allow me to introduce you to a couple of gentlemen you might have heard of. Their names are Danny and Anthony.
Danny was not a guard. He was 6’10. His height and skill set propelled him to one of the most impressive performances of all time in an NCAA tournament game — 31 points, 18 rebounds, 5 steals, and 2 blocked shots against OU in the 1988 Championship Game. This was no fluke. His teammates might have earned the moniker, “the Miracles,” but he was just Danny. And he was good. Darn good.
And Danny wasn’t a guard.
Anthony flew slightly lower under the radar in his MVP Championship Game performance (at least as low as he could for a 6’11 guy with a mustache above his eyes). He didn’t score 31 points. In fact, he went 1-10 from the field with six points. How does a guy with 6 points win MVP of college basketball’s most important game? Size. Effort. Rebounding. Defense. He had 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Not to mention the plays that didn’t show up in a box score.
I chose two examples that I thought would hit closest to home for KU fans. These are not the only instances of big guys leading their teams to NCAA championships.
Let’s fast forward to the present. KU will be facing off against a Michigan team on Friday that probably has the best guard tandem in the country. Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Trey Burke are probably better than some recent tourney tandems that come to mind too — Juan Dixon and Steve Blake of Maryland, Jay Williams and Chris Duhon of Duke, Charlie Bell and Mateen Cleaves of Michigan State.
If guard play is, in fact, the best measure of success, then Kansas is in trouble.
But there’s one little thing the pundits don’t seem to want to talk about. Something that isn’t near as flashy or sexy as scoring guards.
There are 5 guys on the other bench wearing crimson and blue that take more pride in guarding than they do in scoring.
And this is dangerous.
Michigan destroyed the media’s darling in VCU — a team that some pundits said had the “best defense in the country.” This is a farce. They were the best trapping team in the country. Trapping and defense are not the same thing.
Michigan guards were salivating at the idea of facing a trapping VCU team. Much like Kansas guards were salivating at the idea of facing Mike Anderson’s UAB team in the 2004 regional semifinals. “40 minutes of hell” can be a double edged sword if you face guards that can break it. Michigan broke VCU’s 1-2-1-1 zone press with ease.
But they will not break Kansas.
The difference is that Kansas plays smothering man-to-man defense — a defense designed to take advantage of individual athleticism but has just as much of a team element as any zone defense. It is also a defense that, when run correctly, will rarely give up an uncontested basket. Last, it is a defense that is based 100% on effort, energy, and most importantly, pride.
With four senior starters and a freshman fifth unlikely to return, KU’s effort, energy and pride ought to be at an all-time high. I imagine it will result in a defense Michigan has never seen before.
Unlike VCU, Kansas doesn’t have to turn teams over to be successful. It only needs to pressure them into bad shots and then crash the hell out of the boards. This is KU’s bread and butter. And while it isn’t nearly as exciting to talk about, I believe it will prove far more important on Friday than any old adage about guard play.
When faced against top 10 defenses this year, Michigan was 2-4. And not one of those six teams included a shot blocker of any merit.
Withey may not be the next in line to be mentioned in the same sentence as Anthony and Danny. But I do believe his play is just as likely as any guard to be the reason that Kansas advances on Friday.
Stick with an adage that works.
Keep calm and Rock Chalk.