Sixty-four teams spent nearly four months trying to get in the
NCAA tournament. Now that they've secured berths, they're right
back where they started, still trying to get in. Trying to get
in the lane, either to score, to get fouled or to draw the
defense in and dish the ball out for a three-pointer. "[The
proliferation of] guards who can penetrate and make plays is the
biggest change in college basketball since the jump shot," says
Indiana coach Bob Knight. "These guys get into your defense and
force you to help and rotate. And every time you rotate, it
opens up a hole in your defense."
This is an article from the March 17, 1997 issue
The start of this week's NCAA tournament caps off the first
season of this Avant-Guard Era. Teams that couldn't tend to
simple backcourt chores like handling and shooting the ball are
peeling paper off butter patties at their postseason banquets
right now. And any school without a guard who can get the ball
into the paint will soon be calling its caterer too. Why have
Kansas, Minnesota and South Carolina received three of the
highest seeds in the field? Because the Jayhawks have the
nation's best point guard (Jacque Vaughn), the Golden Gophers
have its best pair of guards (Eric Harris and Bobby Jackson),
and the Gamecocks have the best trio of guards (Larry Davis,
B.J. McKie and Melvin Watson). "The evolution of college
basketball is complete," says former Southern Cal coach George
Raveling. "A generation ago you couldn't win without a dominant
post player. Now the big guy is irrelevant. [Wake Forest's 6'10"
center] Tim Duncan is the only great inside player in a long
time who has stayed in school for four years. We'll never see
The early exodus of big men to the NBA partly explains why the
game's petite are now its elite. But guards rule for other
--Elimination of the five-second closely guarded rule. This
change allows backcourtmen to wait out a defense, looking for a
soft spot. "It's not as pretty as the passing game, but if you
have somebody who can dribble and penetrate, you have an
advantage," says North Carolina coach Dean Smith. That's
particularly true when the 35-second clock winds down.
--The ineffectiveness of motion offenses. Referees nowadays
permit defenders to claw their way over and around screens, and
that hinders the efficacy of the passing game. Thus screening
and cutting, which were as likely to present a forward as a
guard with a shot opportunity or a path to the hoop, have mostly
given way to the drive-and-dish, for which frontcourters need
not apply. "We were relative pioneers in switching on defense,"
says Knight, "but now when you take away a team's cuts and
screens by switching, they can still beat you with a guy who can
penetrate and pass."
--The three-point shot. How much of a payoff is that extra
point? Enough to make a sally into the heart of a defense
worthwhile--even at the risk of an offensive foul or a strip--if
the move results in a three. In the NBA, three-pointers come
when the ball is dumped into the post and a big man whips a pass
out following a defense's double down; in college, penetration
and pitching by the guards begets treys.
The evolution of which Raveling speaks has really been a
revolution, and revolutions can be messy. Two of college
basketball's hoariest conferences, the Big East and the Big Ten,
have watched their roughhouse teams fall into eclipse because
they are ineffective against opponents with greater quickness
and wider spacing. Villanova had a bounce in its step when it
went to Lexington to play Kentucky on Feb. 9. The visiting Cats
figured that with their superior size they would whup the host
Cats on the boards. But Villanova struggled even to inbound the
ball against Kentucky's withering press and turned the ball over
24 times while losing 93-56.
Meanwhile, teams with three-guard offenses have prospered. Duke
hasn't started anyone taller than 6'8" since Jan. 29, but the
Blue Devils have gone 8-3 since then and wound up with a No. 2
seed. Guards Jeff Capel, Trajan Langdon and Steve Wojciechowski,
who average 6'2", have combined to score 37.9 points a game
since becoming a three-man unit. Arizona, Clemson, Illinois,
Maryland, UCLA and UMass have all used small lineups to good
effect too. "It's hard to find size, and that's why everyone is
going to three-guard sets," says Utah coach Rick Majerus.
As for those teams that have been surprises, we need look no
further than their backcourts for an explanation. Colorado
has--can you resist any opportunity to utter his name?--the
estimable Chauncey Billups. St. Joseph's won the Atlantic 10
tournament thanks to a point guard, Rashid Bey, who can
bench-press 300 pounds. Conference USA's tournament champion,
Marquette, won four games in four days even though its leader,
Aaron Hutchins, must take oxygen for half an hour before and
after each game because of a sickle-cell blood deficiency.
Xavier appears to be an X-ception to the March maxim that you
need experience at guard because starters Lenny Brown and Gary
Lumpkin, though sophomores, play like seniors, having been
together for seven seasons, since junior high in New Castle, Del.
For the next few weeks, keep your eye on the ball--and the
guards who will be handling it:
THE TOP FIVE PENETRATORS IN THE FIELD
Jacque Vaughn, Kansas. "He's already at half-court by the time a
team sets up its presses and traps," says Connecticut coach Jim
Melvin Watson, South Carolina. In two wins over Kentucky, he
turned Wildcat Anthony Epps into a wax museum piece.
Brevin Knight, Stanford. He's the college game's answer to Utah
Jazz veteran John Stockton at working the pick-and-roll.
Kiwane Garris, Illinois. "He's tremendous at drawing fouls,"
says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. Indeed, Garris set a school
record for free throws made (181) this year.
Andre Woolridge, Iowa. He's the Big Ten leader in assists and
scoring. "I think Woolridge is the MVP of the Big Ten," Knight
told the press after Iowa beat the Hoosiers on Feb. 4, "and
since I've forgotten more about the game than all of you put
together, I suggest you vote for him as well."
A PENETRATING INSIGHT
"We always try to make as many free throws as our opponents
attempt," Dean Smith said several weeks ago while sitting in the
Dean Smith office of the Dean Smith Center. "Now look at this."
The Deanster produced a stat sheet he had just consulted during
a conference call with former assistants Roy Williams of Kansas
and Eddie Fogler of South Carolina, both of whose teams were
then ranked ahead of Smith's. Each team's stats in selected
categories, along with its opponents' totals, graced the page,
and Smith had circled two figures that explained why the
Carolinians to his south were the class of the SEC's regular
season. As testament to the aggressiveness of their guard play,
the Gamecocks had made 381 free throws; their opponents had
attempted only 325. That stat bodes well for a critical task
come tournament time: holding a lead.
HOW TO STOP PENETRATION
The first rule of most defenses is to refuse a penetrator
admittance to the middle, where he has a range of choices.
Better to fan him to the wings, where defensive help is more
readily available and where the sidelines serve, in effect, as
extra defenders. But teams with a shot blocker--like Iowa State,
whose 6'11" center Kelvin Cato led the Big 12 in blocks--often
prefer to do exactly the opposite. "Vaughn hasn't hurt us as
much as he has other people," says Cyclones coach Tim Floyd. "We
gear our defense to funnel everything toward the middle and not
provide help from the wings like most do."
The zone defense can also be a vital tool in stopping dribble
penetration, as Syracuse proved with its improbable run to the
championship game last year. Though it's limping into the
tournament with four losses in its last seven games, Wake Forest
can throw up a superb zone that throttles all penetration. And
no one wants to play Temple, whose tricky matchup zone can leave
an ill-prepared team no recourse but to launch outside jumpers.
But for sheer shrink-wrap, man-to-man defense, here are the
guards to watch.
THE BEST ON-THE-BALL DEFENDERS
Jacque Vaughn, Kansas. He's the only player who makes the list
of best penetrators and defenders. "The toughest guy to guard in
basketball is the dribbler," says Floyd of Iowa State, "but
Vaughn can do it because he has great footwork and great balance."
Sydney Johnson, Princeton. He plays defense without
sentimentality; a year ago Brown's Eric Blackiston entered a
game against the Tigers with 999 career points, and Johnson held
Steve Wojciechowski, Duke. North Carolina's Smith credits Wojo's
huge improvement since his freshman season to footwork
attributable to a soccer background.
Eric Harris, Minnesota. He ranked second in the Big Ten in
steals, while his backcourt mate, Bobby Jackson, was third.
Cameron Dollar, UCLA. He had seven steals in one game against a
good Cal team and had three or more in 14 games.
WHY KANSAS IS THE FAVORITE TO WIN IT ALL
A key to Kentucky's national title last spring was forward
Antoine Walker. He served a sort of drive-and-dish function from
the forecourt, flashing through the middle, taking passes there
and returning the ball to shooters beyond the three-point line.
Similarly, top-ranked Kansas goes into this year's tournament as
the favorite because the Jayhawks can effectively penetrate a
defense in a variety of ways:
1) Vaughn breaks down his defender on the dribble or runs the
old-fashioned pick-and-roll with frontcourt players Raef
LaFrentz, Paul Pierce or Scot Pollard.
2) Pierce flashes into the middle and takes a pass from the wing.
3) Guard Jerod Haase stampedes along the baseline, looking for a
hoop, a foul or a pitchout for a three, often to reserve
swingman Billy Thomas.
4) The Jayhawks run a traditional motion offense, which is still
devastatingly effective because they have threats both inside
(LaFrentz and Pollard) and out (Haase, Pierce, Thomas and Vaughn).
THE COLD WAR IS OVER, AND THE RUSSIANS WON
Rick Pitino, the college game's earliest exponent of the
three-point shot, says he took inspiration for his tone-setting
offense from the spread-it-and-swish-it Soviet teams of the
1980s. Going into the 1986-87 season, the one in which the
three-pointer was introduced into the U.S. college game, Pitino,
then coaching Providence, decided he wanted the Friars to launch
at least 20 treys a game. But just before the season began,
Providence hosted an exhibition game against the Soviets and had
to come from behind to win as the visitors squeezed off 30
three-pointers. "That's when I raised our goal to 25 a game,"
says Pitino. With guards Billy Donovan, Delray Brooks and
Carlton Screen penetrating and kicking the ball out, the Friars
made the '87 Final Four.
A decade later the rest of college basketball has caught on.
We--and Pitino's defending NCAA champs at Kentucky--will soon
find out if anyone has caught up.
A LEXICON OF BACKCOURT TERMINOLOGY
BREAK HIS ANKLES
To beat a defender so completely that he stumbles and falls.
BUST HIM UP
To beat a defender off the dribble.
To steer a penetrating guard to the wings of a defense (see
To steer a guard to the middle, where there's a shot blocker to
help stop him.
Respect in the form of room. "Give him pad," says Oklahoma State
coach Eddie Sutton when asked how to thwart a penetrating guard.
"Pressure him, sure, but don't give him an angle to blow past