Unique guard play at Final Four

Originally Published: April 5, 2013
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

The collection of squads in Atlanta for this weekend's Final Four earned their spots on this stage based on efforts that demanded contributions from multiple players.

Michigan clearly needed Trey Burke to reach Atlanta, but would the Wolverines be in the Final Four without the sudden growth of Mitch McGary? Michael Carter-Williams' squad regained a lengthy defender and shooter when James Southerland returned to Syracuse in February following an academic issue. Louisville's explosive defense is just as important as Peyton Siva's leadership. And Wichita State's Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early have complemented point guard Malcolm Armstead, who was named MVP of the West Regional on Saturday in Los Angeles. Coach Gregg Marshall will need all three to become the first No. 9 seed to win it all.

But the four starting point guards in the field -- Armstead, Burke, Carter-Williams and Siva -- enter the weekend as the most significant performers on their respective rosters. That's typical for this chapter in the NCAA tournament. Final Four squads typically are led by capable point guards.

The members of this quad in Atlanta possess specific and unique skills that have fueled their respective teams' paths to the final weekend of the 2012-13 season and could lead to more success in the coming days:

Peyton Siva (Louisville) -- Speed

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Siva is a veteran leader for Louisville.

(Point Guard Power Meter: Scale of 1 to 10)
Toughness: 8
Athleticism: 8
Skill: 8
Individual Playmaking Ability: 7
Defensive Awareness: 9
Decisions: 7

Quote from an opponent: "Him being so quick, he can stick the ball screen and go right around the defender. He's always a really tough matchup. For one person to stay in front of him, it's going to be extremely hard. If he gets into the paint, anything can happen." -- Northern Iowa point guard Anthony James, whose squad faced Louisville in November.

Siva (9.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 2.2 SPG, 2.7 TPG) has led Louisville to the Final Four for the second year in a row. The senior's poise and leadership have been a constant for Rick Pitino's program in recent years. He's a veteran who pushed a squad that's ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. On Louisville's roster, Siva's 32 deflections in the NCAA tournament are second to Russ Smith's 38, per ESPN Stats & Info. He's also the catalyst for an offense that has registered 74 points or more eight times in Louisville's current 14-game winning streak.

Avoiding foul trouble (three fouls in each of his past two games) has been a challenge for Siva throughout the season. And Louisville's only single-digit win of the tournament -- over Oregon in the Sweet 16 -- included four Siva turnovers. He's certainly reckless at times.

But he's a dangerous distributor. So any time he gets into the lane, he's a threat. His ability to maneuver off screens and burst past defenders is as devastating as his individual playmaking ability. His raw speed is an element that few in the country can match. And it's a trait that triggers the Cardinals' true knockout ability. In the last 15 minutes, 22 seconds of Louisville's victory over Duke, the Cardinals outscored the Blue Devils by 22 points. They're the Mike Tyson of college basketball. When they pounce, they can end games. Quickly.

And Siva's explosiveness and next-level speed have been a trigger for many lopsided victories for the Cardinals. In the Cardinals' victory over Notre Dame in the Big East tournament semifinals, Siva pressured Fighting Irish guard Eric Atkins as Louisville pressed in the second half. He tracked Atkins all the way up the floor but kept his eyes on Jack Cooley. When Jerian Grant threw a pass to Cooley inside, Siva intercepted it and raced down the floor. He stole that pass at the 16:30 mark of the first half. Four seconds later, he was at the rim.

Yes, Burke is very fast, too. But Siva's quickness is unrivaled by any player in Atlanta.

Malcolm Armstead (Wichita State) -- Strength

(Point Guard Power Meter: Scale of 1 to 10)

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Armstead
Jaime Green/Wichita Eagle/Getty Images)Wichita State's Malcolm Armstead creates matchup problems.

Toughness: 10
Athleticism: 7
Skill: 8
Individual Playmaking Ability: 8
Defensive Awareness: 8
Decisions: 7

Quote from an opponent: "He's good at controlling the tempo and being able to lead a team, making great plays, offensively and defensively. He's smart and he's fearless when it comes to being aggressive. He's great at changing pace, stopping and going." -- James, who faced Wichita State twice in Missouri Valley Conference play. So, Wichita State is the surprise of this year's Final Four. The Shockers' journey to Atlanta took more turns than a midday soap opera. Marshall endured a multitude of injuries and a losing streak that jeopardized his team's postseason future.

But the Shockers are healthy now. That's why they've jelled so late in the season. Yes, they suffered a loss to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference title game and endured three consecutive losses in league play, but they always had this potential. The roster doesn't feature any household names. Yet. This assembly, however, features talented players who could contribute on most high-major rosters.

Armstead's Division I career began at Oregon. He was a solid player for Dana Altman and Ernie Kent but ultimately decided to transfer to Wichita State.

His greatest characteristic -- his most unique asset among his point guard peers -- is his physical presence. The 6-foot, 205-pound point guard outweighs Siva, Burke and Carter-Williams by 15 pounds or more. He's built like a college running back. He plays like one, too.

Armstead (10.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.9 SPG, 2.3 TPG) loves to attack defenders off the dribble by utilizing his brawn. He has a solid first step, but he gets to the lane with strength that most point guards lack. In Wichita State's win over Ohio State, Aaron Craft had the agility to stay in front of Armstead. But his challenge was Armstead's physicality.

Sometimes, there's just too much Armstead. He might choose a tough drive over a good pass, which can lead to questionable shot selection. The Florence, Ala., native, however, is a complete point guard who can ruin game plans on both ends of the floor.

Late in the first half of Wichita State's win over the Buckeyes in the Elite Eight, Armstead drove right against sophomore Shannon Scott. Again, it wasn't his speed but his bulk that really helped him create space. Amir Williams swatted his first shot. But Armstead is relentless. He snatched the rebound, and scored over Williams and Deshaun Thomas on his second try.

Armstead is not the quickest guy in the Final Four. But he has an edge when it comes to physicality.

Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse) -- Length

(Point Guard Power Meter: Scale of 1 to 10)

[+] EnlargeMichael Carter-Williams
Jonathan Newton/Getty ImagesMichael Carter-Williams' production has been key for Syracuse.

Toughness: 9
Athleticism: 8
Skill: 9
Individual Playmaking Ability: 9
Defensive Awareness: 9
Decisions: 8

Quote from an opponent: "The biggest difficulty is his size and his length. He, offensively, gives [Syracuse] a guy that can see over the defense and get the ball to people. He's become a very good offensive player. He's really gotten confident in his own shot as well. A lot of teams would have a 6-foot guy and then, defensively they'd become a liability. [Carter-Williams] has become one of their best defenders. He's playing with such confidence, and that has been the biggest key to their success." -- Long Beach State's Dan Monson, whose squad played Syracuse in December.

Syracuse finished the regular season 5-5. And the Orange were positioned in the East Region with Indiana and Miami. So it was difficult to project a run in the Big Dance based on that finish and field.

But the only thing that matters is now. And right now, Syracuse is a ferocious defensive dictator that has locked up teams in the NCAA tournament. Marquette recorded just 12 field goals against the Orange in the Elite Eight. Jim Boeheim's team defeated No. 1 seed and preseason national title favorite Indiana by double digits in the Sweet 16. It squeezed by Cal in the round of 32 -- Carter-Williams finished with five turnovers in that game -- and beat Montana by 47 points in the second round.

Syracuse's defense has been the key to this rally.

But the production of Carter-Williams (12.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 7.4 APG, 2.8 SPG, 3.4 TPG) has been vital for Boeheim's program, too.

Per ESPN Stats & Info, the sophomore has been responsible for 41.8 percent of the Orange's points this season, and the team has lost just four of 24 games when he has been credited with 40 percent of the offense (via points or assists). So when MCW shines, his squad usually wins.

Excluding the Cal game, he's sporting a 4.0 assist-to-turnover ratio in three NCAA tournament games. Not only is he a fluid playmaker for Syracuse, but his precision at the top of the zone is one of the reasons recent opponents have struggled to get inside against the Orange.

That's because Carter-Williams' size is a unique tool that causes matchup problems for teams that face Syracuse. He's 6-6. No other point guard in the Final Four -- or in the country, really -- possesses his combination of size, mobility and talent. He can crash the boards (23 rebounds in four tournament games). He can post up smaller guards or score over the top of them. He's one of the country's most versatile players and a talented defender. "He's always in attack mode. He's a downhill guy," said Detroit coach Ray McCallum Sr., whose squad faced Syracuse in December.

In the first half of the Big East tournament title game, Carter-Williams went left against Louisville's Russ Smith. Smith played him tight. But Carter-Williams crossed right and went toward the bucket. As Carter-Williams extended his arms toward the rim, Smith couldn't do anything about it except watch the shot fall. It's a factor that makes the point guard one of the most potent players in the country.

Now, he's not perfect. That effort against Cal proved as much. He was harassed and he committed multiple turnovers. He's averaging more turnovers per game than any other starting point guard in the Final Four.

But that hasn't been a major issue for him overall. MCW is legit.

Trey Burke (Michigan) -- Unpredictability

(Point Guard Power Meter: Scale of 1 to 10)

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMichigan's Trey Burke is the best player in Atlanta this weekend.

Toughness: 10
Athleticism: 8
Skill: 9
Individual Playmaking Ability: 10
Defensive Awareness: 8
Decisions: 9

Quote from an opponent: "What he does is he'll prey on any weakness. If he can get you leaning one way, he'll go the other. If he sees a seam, he'll split it. You've got to just try and take away some of his options, make him one-dimensional. That's really difficult to do because he's got such an array of offensive shots and moves. It's just hard to pin him in. At the end of the day, he's one of those guys, he'll find the window, he'll find guys picking and popping. You have to decide on what you're going to put on Trey." -- Nebraska coach Tim Miles, whose Cornhuskers played Michigan in Big Ten play this season.

Last but certainly not least.

Burke is arguably the best player in America. On Thursday, he won the Associated Press national player of the year honor and on Friday, he won the John R. Wooden Award.

Michigan's inconsistent defense and rebounding challenges in the regular season suggested the Wolverines would struggle to make a run at the national title. But they have played better defense and have been more consistent with rebounding. Combine those pluses with the fact that Burke leads a group that's ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency and turnover rate (14.5 percent), per Ken Pomeroy, and it's much easier to see why the Wolverines are in the Final Four for the first time in 20 years.

Burke's presence helps everyone on Michigan's roster. He creates space off the dribble and draws extra defenders. That opens up room on the perimeter for John Beilein's shooters. But he also can get to the rim whenever he desires. He'll step back and hit jump shots and 3s, too. He's so comfortable on the court. His 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio is third in the nation. Per ESPN Stats & Info, no player in the Big Dance has been responsible for more points than Burke (134 points on assists, field goals and free throws).

He's a special player. His greatest gift, however, is his unpredictability. You just never know what Burke is going to do. And since he's such a complete player, defenders and coaches must prepare for everything. So they're always uneasy against him.

Proof?

Everyone knew Burke was going to take the final shot in regulation in his team's upset of Kansas in the Sweet 16. But the Jayhawks couldn't stop it. Part of KU's challenge on the shot was the fact that Burke was 5 or 6 feet behind the 3-point line. Players rarely make those shots, especially in those moments. Still, Jeff Withey tried to block it. But Burke was in a zone, and the Jayhawks paid the price in that overtime loss.

He's not perfect. Those gambles can lead to sloppiness and forced shots.

But he's the best player in Atlanta. And probably America.