Commentary

PGs for the Big Four hope to defy odds

Originally Published: October 27, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

If any of the four preseason favorites -- North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio State or Connecticut -- wins a national title this season, it will do more than fulfill its promise.

It will add a footnote to the record books.

Only three freshman and three sophomore starting point guards have led their teams to national championships since 1990. (See list below.)

Which means that Kendall Marshall, Marquis Teague, Aaron Craft and Shabazz Napier would have to defy the odds to enjoy their shining moment.

The question, then: Is the dearth of young point guard champions merely a coincidence or something more?

"I don't look at it quite like a quarterback in the NFL," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who relied on sophomore Taurean Green to win his first national title in 2006. "You've got to have a great quarterback to win the Super Bowl. I don't know that you have to be off the charts as a point guard. But I will say that a point guard does breed team chemistry, and you have to have good chemistry to win."

[+] EnlargeKendall Marshall
Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesKendall Marshall's uncanny vision makes him a big asset for UNC.

Good chemistry, of course, takes time, which is why a title-winning young point guard is such a rarity.

Trust and respect aren't handed out like new sneakers. Each has to be earned from coaches and teammates.

"It can happen, but it really depends on the player," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who coached the last starting freshman -- Gerry McNamara in 2003 -- to win a national title. "Some guys have to grow into the position, and they really aren't ready. Some guys, though, they're special."

The quartet leading this season's crop of favorites is special. Very few would argue that. Marshall, injected as the starter in midseason, almost single-handedly spearheaded North Carolina's turnaround a year ago; Craft came off the bench and logged nearly 30 minutes per game for the Buckeyes' Sweet 16 run; and Napier was an understudy to Kemba Walker en route to the Huskies' national title.

And what Teague may lack in college experience, he makes up for in résumé. The eighth-rated player in the ESPNU 100 was also a finalist for national player of the year honors.

"You're looking at guys who are young classification-wise," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who won the 2008 national title with sophomore Sherron Collins as his primary -- if not starting -- point guard. "But in terms of basketball, they are wise beyond their years."

None, however, is perfect. Each will -- and does -- make mistakes, going for a million-dollar pass when a two-cent one will do, opting to dish when he should have shot or shot when he should have dished.

Magic Johnson, arguably the best young point guard in history, committed six turnovers in the 1979 national title game. It is enough to push more than a few gray hairs through the scalp of any coach.

"As a coach you have to take into account they're going to make mistakes," Self said. "Sometimes we as coaches have such expectations because of their talent level. We forget about the process that they have to go through. Good thoughts that lead to mistakes should be complimented, and good results from bad thoughts have to be corrected."

The pratfalls and challenges for a young point guard are everywhere.

For starters, he has to learn to understand his coach. There isn't a basketball coach in this country -- from pee wee to NBA -- who would argue with the notion that a point guard is a direct extension of himself.

Self, Boeheim and Donovan all agreed that getting their message through to their point guards is as critical to the success of their team as anything else.

But that, too, requires the luxury of time, an impossibility with a freshman or a newly anointed sophomore starter.

So the question is: How to do it? How to get a young player who hasn't been around much to understand what you want to do but also to play with freedom, without feeling the need to constantly check over his shoulder?

"There are a lot of firsts," Donovan said. "First time in a college game. First time playing for me. You don't want your player to be a robot, but you also need him to understand you. I try to give a guy his freedom but also let him know that he has someone to fall back on. I'm not sure you ever achieve that perfect balance with a young player."

Then comes the even more delicate challenge of earning teammates' respect.

Floor generals, they are called in the hoops lexicon, and it is an accurate description. The challenge: generals don't follow. They lead.

For some players, that doesn't come easily.

In his freshman season at Villanova, Scottie Reynolds admitted he deferred to his older teammates. Not until Jay Wright told him, with authority and on the court after a loss at West Virginia, did Reynolds take the reins.

By season's end, he was the Big East rookie of the year.

"Guys want to fit in; they want to be liked," Self said. "I tell guys all the time, leaders don't give a crap if they're liked or not. You're not a true leader if you're worried about hurting someone else's feelings. A true leader knows that if we win, everybody will be happy and love me and if we lose, it won't matter how well-liked I am."

Self, though, understands that arrogance can be a team killer, as can favoritism.

During Collins' sophomore season -- and with other young players since -- Self frequently would hold a private pre-practice meeting where he'd lay out his ground rules.

"I'd say flat-out, 'I'm going to ride your butt today because I want them to see how you react,'" Self said. "And I'd tell him, 'If you don't do a good job, I'm going to run the whole frigging team. And if you let them know we had this conversation, I'll run you twice.'"

The special ones get it.

They get what their coaches are trying to say. They know how to massage the egos of their teammates without sacrificing their own place in the on-the-court hierarchy.

There have been six special ones in the past two decades.

Is this is the year to add another name to the list?

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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