In March, Guards Wear the Slipper
Teams that win national championships are talented, well-coached, deep, resilient … and exceptionally lucky somewhere along the way.
Alas, no would-be champion navigates the madness of March without the aid of a rabbit’s foot stashed somewhere precious.
What this tournament has taught us is that it’s folly to try and predict bounces of the ball. Once the games begin, Cinderellas will rise. Favorites will fall. The only sure thing is that one of the top five or so teams in the nation will be left standing. Other than that, anything goes.
There is, however, one factor that can transcend the Dance, and that’s guard play (which is to say, shooting).
Shooting is the essence of basketball. It’s neither an art nor a science, yet there are elements of each within it. And as much as any statistician will fight the notion, shooters are prone to hot and cold streaks that follow no logical pattern. Anyone who has ever toed a basketball court is aware of the phenomenon that is shooting: Sometimes, inexplicably, the cylinder seems to expand and you suddenly can’t miss.
Nine times out of ten, when you hear news of a mammoth upset or Cinderella run, there is a shooting guard who caught fire behind the story.
So if you’re looking for a lower seed capable of a deep run in the tournament, it’s wise to start your search with the shooters.
With that said, pay attention to these teams and the gunners who are capable of carrying them far.
Team: Boston College (22-11, No. 7 in Midwest)
Gunner: Tyrese Rice (G, Sr.)
Explanation: Rice is one of the more peculiar players on one of the more peculiar teams in the land. After a junior campaign in which he averaged 21 points per game, many thought he would be among the nation’s scoring leaders this season. Instead, he has mainly deferred to some of the younger talent around him, putting up almost a hundred fewer shots and averaging nearly four fewer points (17.1). He has been dominant in big spots though, as evidenced by the combined 46 points he dropped in wins over North Carolina and Duke. Rice is one of a handful of guards in the country who can spot up from anywhere and get to the bucket at will. If he finds the zone, all bets are off for any team in his path.
Team: Texas (22-11, No. 7 in East)
Gunner: A.J. Abrams (G, Sr.)
Explanation: The Longhorns fizzled down the stretch, losing three of their last six, mainly because Abrams went cold. The senior averaged 16.3 points and was a 38.9 percent 3-point shooter for the season. Yet he made just 11 of 33 attempts from long range and scored only 11.5 points per game down the stretch. If he can regain the form that saw him torch UCLA and Villanova in consecutive games early in the season, Texas could run through Duke in the second round and possibly find itself challenging Pittsburgh for a trip to the Final Four. Abrams is that explosive.
Team: Temple (22-11, No. 11 in South)
Gunner: Dionte Christmas (G, Sr.)
Explanation: If you haven’t heard of him by now, you probably don’t watch Sportscenter too often. The Owls, led by a man whose name is conducive to clichés, blitzed the Atlantic-10 tournament last week to earn an automatic bid to the Dance. Eyes started opening in the semifinal game, when “Christmas came early” for Temple against perennial conference power Xavier. The senior guard dropped 20 on the Musketeers before following that with a 29-point encore in the championship vs. Duquesne. He hit a combined 10 threes in those contests. Now the Owls find themselves matched up against Arizona State. If Christmas goes off again, Syracuse (Temple’s likely second-round opponent) may have to up the threat level from “Orange” to red.
Team: Marquette (24-9, No. 6 in West)
Gunner(s): Jerel McNeal (G, Sr.) and Wesley Matthews (G, Sr.)
Explanation: The Golden Eagles were drastically altered when point guard Dominic James broke his foot against Connecticut on Feb. 25. Including that game, Marquette dropped five of six to end the season. In all five of those losses they battled, but fell to nationally-ranked Big East foes. The good news is backup point guard Maurice Acker was able to get some significant playing time against big-time opponents. If he can take care of the ball in the tournament, that will enable McNeal (19.7 ppg, .402 3-point shooter) and Matthews (18.4 ppg, .377 3-point shooter) to do what they do best: light up the scoreboard from outside and keep the pressure on the opposition. The two have a combined eight years of experience. Even without James, they are capable of shooting their way to the Sweet 16.