Bloomington, Ind. – Kelvin Sampson says he knows which teams will stand tall once the postseason dust settles.
The teams with the best little men.
Greg Oden might dominate the paint for top-seeded Ohio State and D.J. White might command the most attention from Hoosier opponents. But according to the first-year Indiana coach it's the relatively diminutive backcourt players that will more often than not be the determining factors in the games' outcomes.
"The key is guard play," Sampson said. "Turnovers, pace, tempo, shot selection – guards control college basketball."
For Indiana, that means Earl Calloway and Armon Bassett will be pivotal in the team's success or failure beginning with this weekend's Big Ten Tournament and then into NCAA Tournament action next week. Calloway, a fifth-year senior, and Bassett, a freshman, will be the two players who will generally have the ball in their hands when IU is on offense, and then be defending the ball on the other end of the court.
Calloway showed just how big of an impact he can make at the point guard spot during last year's postseason. After an erratic regular season, Calloway was at his best late, averaging 11.0 points, 5.2 assists and just 1.2 turnovers during the 2006 postseason that included near upsets of top-seeded Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament and second-seeded Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tourney in Salt Lake City.
He enters this year's postseason battling a shoulder injury that sidelined him for three games and made him extremely ineffective in a fourth contest. But he did bounce back with a 15-point, 11-assist effort in IU's win Saturday over Penn State, an effort that was encouraging to Sampson.
"You can see the difference (Earl) makes in our team," Samson said. "The last seven minutes against Purdue (after he was injured), the game at Michigan, even the Minnesota game…we're so much better at the point of attack with a healthy Earl."
Just how healthy Calloway will be, though, isn't clear. He was clearly favoring the shoulder in IU's four-point win at Northwestern last week before his bounce back effort at home against Penn State. The effects from the partially separated shoulder could linger for a period of time, but Sampson is confident Calloway can play through whatever discomfort he's experiencing.
"I think Earl has accepted his shoulder is going hurt him some, and he's focusing on playing," Sampson said. "The Northwestern game you could tell his thoughts weren't on running the offense or competing – he was favoring the shoulder.
"A lot of that is mindset. His mind was in a good place Saturday night."
Bassett, meanwhile, filled in during Calloway's absence at the point, and is the team's other primary ball handler. While he's only a freshman, the Terre Haute, Ind., native has been one of the biggest surprises this season, averaging 9.4 points and 3.1 assists in 26.6 minutes/game. He has started 21 of 29 games and was recently voted the most improved player on the team by his teammates.
"Armon has a quiet toughness to him," Sampson said. "You think about the second half of the Illinois game (when he scored nine of his 15 points, including the go-ahead basket with 44 seconds remaining), or the Michigan State game on the road (when he scored a career-high 25 points), he has some toughness to him.
"It's like any kid that gets an opportunity – you never know. He's a gamer. When the lights come on, he likes to play."
The lights will certainly be on this weekend and into the postseason, when Indiana gets an opportunity to make an already very good 20-9 season even better.
If that's going to come to fruition, Sampson says it's going to be up to the Hoosiers' guards to make it happen.
"The teams that go the furthest in the tournament will be the ones with the best guards," Sampson said. "They won't turn it over, they get it to the right spots, they defend the point of attack. We've won 20 games because of how good our guards have been."
Who's In Control of IU's Postseason Fate?
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