After rocky start, Marquis Teague evolves into Kentucky standout
NEW ORLEANS -- To understand the journey of Kentucky's Marquis Teague from score-first freshman to Final Four point guard, simply rewind the collected interviews of Wildcats coach John Calipari and measure the level of exasperation.
Calipari need not publicly criticize Teague yet. That comes in practice, where the coach is trying to convert a scorer -- who averaged 22.7 points for Pike High in Indianapolis -- into a distributor. Unlike Calipari's three previous point guards, Derrick Rose at Memphis and John Wall and Brandon Knight at Kentucky, Teague is not the best player on the team. That honor belongs to center Anthony Davis, and with Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb also in the starting lineup, the last thing Teague needs to worry about is his scoring. But Calipari knows Teague comes from good point guard stock. His older brother, Jeff, starred at Wake Forest and currently makes the Atlanta Hawks go.
Calipari loves what he sees in Teague early. He calls him a "pit bull." Teague's teammates saw those tenacious tendencies even earlier. Last summer, during the open gym games with NBA players during which the core of this Kentucky team played together for the first time, Teague matched up with Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook. Teague showed no fear. "He just wanted to compete," says Kentucky senior Darius Miller. "We all had fun with it -- especially him. He just wanted to see where he was at. I mean, he was going against the best in the business."
Playing alongside Davis and Miller in an intrasquad game, Teague shoots 5-of-13 and commits four turnovers to go with his eight assists. Calipari worries whether Teague can steer a cart pulled by thoroughbreds. Calipari does not, however, run on to the court to stop Teague once the real games begin. But not because he doesn't want to.
With three freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, Kentucky's offense still sometimes resembles a pickup game. Teague breaks off plays instead of running them to completion as ordered. He makes the occasional poor decision. "Early, it was tough," Teague says months later. "I wanted to get out and score and do the things I normally did. For my team to win, that's not what I need to do. I had to make the adjustment. Get more people involved and just be a true point guard."
The good news? Kentucky wins by 10 against a team that also will make the Final Four.
The Wildcats open SEC play by crushing South Carolina, and Teague shows his coach that he is learning. The Gamecocks try to press Kentucky, and instead of taking on the sole responsibility for breaking the press himself, Teague gets his teammates involved. He makes crisp passes and commits only two turnovers. "Instead of him trying to beat it," Calipari says, "he was letting us try to beat it."
Teague finishes with four assists, but Calipari counts four instances in which Teague set up teammates with open looks that they didn't convert. Despite a brutal outside shooting day (1-of-10 from three-point range), Kentucky wins by 25. Calipari compares Teague to a quarterback. Against the Volunteers, Teague is Peyton Manning.
The Tigers don't fear Teague's scoring capability. They sag away and guard the other Wildcats harder. Teague, after a season of being told to pass first, is slow on the trigger. He misses all five shots he takes, and he turns the ball over four times in an ugly win. This is a necessary lesson. Teague has learned to control his scoring instincts. Now, he knows he must unleash them when the team needs him to score.
Like LSU, the Cyclones sag away from Teague. Instead of hesitating, he shoots. He drives. He punishes Iowa State for a career-high 24 points while also dishing out seven assists and committing only two turnovers. Though he doesn't shoot as well, Teague replicates the seven-assist, two-turnover performance in Kentucky's Sweet 16 win against Indiana.
Entering the Final Four, Calipari understands the weapon he has in Teague. Teague understands exactly what Calipari wants. The journey may have been frustrating, but the end result may be a national title. "He's getting more confident in me every game," Teague says.