A March Madness truism is "great guard play is vital." Turnovers are
huge, foul shooting is magnified, three-point shots rule the day. And when
defense gets played at a fever pitch it can be very tough for bigs to even get
the ball in scoring position. It doesn't have to be a legend like Magic
Johnson or Isiah Thomas leading the way. Wayne Ellington, Mario Chalmers,
Corey Brewer, Juan Dixon, Miles Simon…they all won titles and were named "Most
Just look at the dominant names of the 2011 tournament, guards one and all.
Kemba Walker, Connecticut
A national title for a team that finished 9th in their conference, welcome to NCAA parity! Husky heart and soul Walker scored 23.5 in the dance. With help from backcourt mate Jeremy Lamb, Kemba and company pulled out every close game despite a frontcourt with no offensive skills whatsover.
Jimmer Fredette, BYU
Jimmer went for 32.7 per game but couldn't get past the Sweet 16 as BYU lost in OT to Florida. Brought great joy to us Seinfeld fans as "don't touch Jimmer" became a rallying cry.
Joey Rodriguez, VCU
46-12 assist/turnover ratio in the Rams' improbable run to the Final Four. VCU put on a ball control clinic in the tourney, with just 59 in six games. If you aren't gaining possessions with rebounding you must take care of the ball. Undersized but savvy VCU executed perfectly.
Shelvin Mack, Butler
Is Mack the most underrated player of the past decade? Or any decade? Back-to-back runner-up finishes, 214 points scored over the last 2 tournaments, with just 26 turnovers in 12 games. Primary ball handler against tough defenses. Last year, for example, they beat ODU, Pitt, Wisconsin, Florida, and VCU before falling to UConn in the title game. ALL of those teams play physical defense and are a challenge for any opposing point guard.
The purpose of this article, however, is not to find the next national champion. I want to find this year's Stephen Curry, someone capable of carrying an underdog to a win or two. A player that might be on national television once a season if he's lucky. The top 13 teams in the current rankings are from just five conferences - the usual suspects minus the Pac-12. So forget about the big conferences, there are no secrets to be found there. A couple of them are forwards who score from anywhere on the floor, the rest, as expected, are the guys who dominate the ball. All play for teams that currently lead their respective conferences, it remains to be seen how many of them actually make the tournament. For your viewing pleasure, I've included links to a YouTube clip of each player. All stats are through games of Feb 26. Let's start with a big-time scorer from the Big Sky…
Damian Lillard, Junior G, Weber St 24.7, 5.1, 4.1
Came out of Oakland in 2008 as a two-star 6'1" point guard, now he's 6'3" and a projected 1st round pick. One of the best shooters in the country, he's hitting 45% from three-point land on high volume (takes a whopping seven per game) and is nails from the line at 89%. Stephen, Jimmer, Damian? Unfortunately the Mildcats got abused by the three 20-win majors they played this season, as St. Mary's, BYU, and kal beat them by a combined 65 points (at least they were on the road). But a hot Lillard could snag an upset win for this 23-4 squad. Which leads me to this shout out to Harold "The Show" Arceneaux. How many of you were there in Seattle when #14 seed Weber beat #3 seed UNC and then took Florida to OT? Two of the most fun games I've ever seen live, took a tiny bit of the sting away from "the loss that launched Gonzaga." Harold just might be the most well traveled hoopster not wearing a Globetrotters uniform. Professional stints in Australia, France, Portugal, the Philippines, Venezuela, and Mexico. Plus the IBL, NBDL, and ABA in the US. Mighty big shoes Damian!
Lillard goes for 40: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3icmjCS8Nsw
Doug McDermott, Soph. F, Creighton 23.1, 8.1, 1.1
The Bluejays are one of the most consistent teams in the country, from any conference. They are always in the postseason, somewhere, but haven't been dancing since 2007. Shocking stat I had no clue about – 15th in the country in home attendance at 14,495 last year (and pretty much every). You have to go back to 2003 and Kyle Korver to find a star player on their roster, but this year McDermott certainly qualifies. Just a monster season as he has been perhaps the most efficient scorer in the country. The Jays should thank the Ducks for him. When coach Dana Altman left to take the Oregon job Creighton hired Greg McDermott from Iowa State and voila, package deal, as his son then switched his commit from N. Iowa. Played high school ball alongside Harrison Barnes so he had to be well scouted, but Iowa State wouldn't even offer the 34th ranked SF by Scout.com. "I can't tell you how many coaches came through the gym, saw him play and passed on him,"- his high school coach said. Hmm, could it be that baby-faced white kids also get the Lin treatment?
McDermott for 44, interesting music choice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-myi2n2g1o
Dominique Morrison, Senior F, Oral Roberts 20.3, 4.4, 1.5
The Summit League is well known only by fantasy players, as half the teams are led by a star players putting up monster numbers. Check the national scoring leaders and you see guys from the Summit ranking numbers 1,8,10,11,and 12. Let that sink in. 32 conferences plus independents and one league has 5 of the top 12 scorers nationally. Oral Roberts is always the lead sled and Morrison is their lead dog. How many players have 125 career starts under their belt? The Bobs actually played a brutal out of conference schedule and held their own, with Morrison getting his 20 game after game. How about true road games @ W.Virginia, Oklahoma, Gonzaga, and Xavier? Going 1-3 with a couple single-digit losses shows me a team that is a live underdog. Morrison is 6'6" with the inside/outside game that creates matchup problems, he's automatic from the line (84% this season, 82% career), and has scary predator hair.
Gotta be the hair: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gykrEyBWgms
CJ McCullom, Junior G, Lehigh, 21.7, 6.6, 3.4
Madness aficionados remember Lehigh actually sticking around for a while as a #16 seed vs. Kansas two years ago. Unfortunately sticking around doesn't count unless you are wagering and I would never engage in such activity. Already a 2000 point scorer with a year to go, McCullom dominates the ball and the stats for the Mountain Hawks. A telling tidbit: they are 27th in scoring, but only 132nd in assists. It will at least be entertaining watching him up his usual 34% of Lehigh's shot attempts to 50% as they try for the monumental upset.
CBS feature on McCullom: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lp8kKtBa2W8
Isaiah Canaan, Junior G, Murray St, 19.4, 3.2, 3.8
In a year when the Bible has some how become a huge part of the Presidential race, it is fitting that the team with the best winning percentage in the land is led by the most Biblical name in the tournament. Canaan has been deadly from deep this season, ranking 9th nationally in both 3s made and 3pt%. Murray is 82-15 since his arrival. Can't really be a sleeper with a #14 national ranking, but I'm sure the committee will screw the Racers and stcik them with a #7 or #8 seed.
Isaiah can score while praying: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqIJFRQbE2I
Scott Machado, Senior G, Iona, 13.2, 5.1, 10.0
Ok, he's not a scorer like everyone else on this list, in fact he's only broken 20 once all season. But the NCAA leader in assists accounts for as many points per game as anyone. Iona is an interesting team, full of seniors and transfers. Mike Glover leads them in scoring with 18/game, he was Seton Hall's top recruit but was declared academically ineligible when the NCAA invalidated his entire senior transcript. Off to JC in Utah, played his first season for the Gaels last year and was instantly their best player. Arizona transfer LaMont "MoMo" Jones wanted to be closer to his grandma in Harlem and was granted a hardship waiver to play right away. He scores 16 per and brings tourney experience from Zona's Elite Eight run last year. (IMO, Arizona makes the Final Four and UConn doesn't win the title without Sean Millier foolishly leaving Derrick Williams on the bench forever. He scored 20 in 26 minutes and ended the game with just 3 fouls. Nice job coach!) Anyway, they don't have any size but Iona is on my personal Giant Killer list. This team will not be rattled.
Local news feature on Machado: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7tkaUqo324
Will Barton, Soph. G, Memphis, 18.3, 8.0, 2.9
The #1 ranked SG of the class of 2010 headlined Memphis' monster recruiting class. Eight rebounds a game at 175 pounds might be some type of weight class record. His game is like watching a spider with hops, all long arms and long neck, squeezing through tight spaces to score in a crowd against bigger guys. Tigers are a bit under the radar since Calipari left but if guards are the key to the postseason this is a team to watch. Soph PG Joe Jackson is another McDonald's AA who isn't afraid to step out and say "I'm the man."
Doc Ock ballin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pI2QAGdJsQ
Matthew Dellavedova, Junior G, St. Mary's, 15.4, 3.3, 6.5
Not a huge scorer, but any 6'4" PG who made the Australian national team, sports a scraggily beard and leads a 25 win WCC team is worth watching. The Gaels roster has reached the point of "comically international." Five Aussies, plus a Lithuanian, and a Trinidadian for good measure. Anyone who has played against Spain's national team in Spain isn't likely to be rattled by anything a college team throws at him.
G'day mate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQzrvXyzRpE
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