Good guard!

LSU already clinched at least a tie for the SEC West title, and South Carolina is closing in on the East championship.

Much is being made of the fact both teams have first-year head coaches but a much bigger factor is this: Both have outstanding guards.

Check out the numbers:

- LSU's backcourt features seniors Marcus Thornton and Garrett Temple. Thornton ranks second among SEC players in scoring (20.9 points per game), seventh in field-goal percentage (48.9), sixth in 3-pointers (2.21 per game) and sixth in steals (1.68 per game). Temple ranks second in assist/turnover ratio (2.02 to 1), fourth in steals (1.93 per game) and fifth in assists (4.18 per game).

- South Carolina's backcourt features junior Devin Downey and senior Zam Fredrick. Downey ranks third among SEC players in scoring (20.1 points per game), ninth in field-goal percentage (45.4), No. 1 in steals (3.08 per game) and No. 4 in assists (4.35 per game). Fredrick ranks No. 10 in scoring (15.3 points per game) and No. 10 in 3-pointers (1.81 per game).

Simply put, your chances of fielding a great team are greatly enhanced by having great guards. Tennessee proved as much last season, when the senior backcourt tandem of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith guided the Vols to a school-record 31 victories and a brief stint as the NCAA's No. 1 team.

Minus Lofton and Smith, Tennessee's guard play – and its record – have suffered in 2008-09. Forced to rely on true freshman Scotty Hopson, redshirt freshman Cameron Tatum and first-year junior college transfer Bobby Maze, this year's Vols are struggling along at 17-10.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and Florida's Billy Donovan exposed one of them on Thursday's SEC Coaches' teleconference when asked about the importance of quality guard play these days.

"Two years ago we were fortunate enough to win back-to-back national championships, and that was due mainly to our frontcourt," he recalled. "We had really good guard play but we had three lottery picks across the front line (Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer) that were really, really good players."

Of course, the Gators were blessed in the backcourt during that time, as well.

"Taurean Green, our point guard, was really good," Donovan noted, "and Lee Humphrey was the all-time 3-point field-goal maker ... a good player."

Although his two national title teams relied more heavily on inside players than perimeter players, the Gator coach concedes that guards generally have a greater impact on games than they did a few years ago.

"Because of changing defenses, because of pressing, because of zones, because of a lot of different things – it's a lot easier to take a big guy out of the game than it is a guard," Donovan noted. "The guards have got the ball in their hands most of the time. If you've got good guards you can play faster, you can play slower. They can monopolize the ball.

"If you've got a really, really good frontcourt player and you don't have great shooting around him, it is very, very easy to take a guy like that out of the game. (That's) because our lane, in relation to the NBA, is a small lane, and defenses can pack back in. It's very hard for a frontcourt player to score big, big numbers night in and night out because defenses can prevent big guys from catching the ball. It's awfully difficult to keep the ball out of good guards' hands."

Perhaps that's why the top five scorers in the SEC this season are guards – Jodie Meeks of Kentucky (25.1 ppg), Thornton, Downey, David Huertas of Ole Miss (18.7) and Nick Calathes of Florida (18.4).

Bottom line: Great college teams tend to be built around great guards ... unless, of course, you've got three lottery picks in the frontcourt.

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