In what is expected to be a wide open NCAA Tournament and a complicated bracket to navigate, you can make things a little easier by narrowing your attention to the point guards. Experienced coaching, rebounding margins, and free throw shooting are important factors in determining game outcomes but the quality of point guard play has had a greater impact on determining NCAA champions over the last decade than any other meaningful statistic. A "closer" is not an official term in basketball but having a player that can consistently close out games by navigating the clock, distributing the basketball safely, and knocking down clutch shots is a necessity. You simply cannot win six games in a row without one.
If you break it down statistically, a team needs a point guard who scores in double figures, averages more than 4.5 assists per game, and knocks down over 80% of their free throws. Additionally, the point guard should be at worst a borderline NBA prospect and more often a player likely to be drafted in the NBA. In the midst of the talk of Cinderellas, NBA prospects, and dynamic wing scorers--teams find their resilience in tournament play through the player with the ball in his hands at the end of the game. Here are the numbers behind the last 10 point guards to lead their respective teams to the national title:
|Year||Player (School)||Points||Assists||FT %||Draft Pick|
|2015||Tyus Jones (Duke)||11.8||5.6||89||24|
|2014||Shabazz Napier (UConn)||18.0||4.9||87||24|
|2013||Peyton Siva (Louisville)||10.0||5.7||87||56|
|2012||Marquis Teague (Kentucky)||10.0||4.8||71||29|
|2011||Kemba Walker (UConn)||23.5||4.5||82||9 (ed.)|
|2010||Jon Scheyer (Duke)||18.2||4.9||88||---|
|2009||Ty Lawson (UNC)||16.6||6.6||80||18|
|2008||Mario Chalmers (Kansas)||12.8||4.3||75||34|
|2007||Taurean Green (Florida)||13.3||3.7||85||52|
|2006||Taurean Green (Florida)||13.3||4.7||89||52|
Looking at the exceptions above is helpful as we turn toward looking at this year's tournament. The only player not drafted was Jon Scheyer who shared the position with Nolan Smith who was the 21st player selected in the draft that followed. Scheyer (now an assistant coach) may have made an NBA roster if he had not suffered an eye injury in the NBA Summer League. Frank Mason of Kansas may be in a similar position this season as a player who is not much of an NBA prospect but shares the ball with two strong prospects in Devonte Graham and Wayne Selden.
Marquis Teague does not check the box as a free throw shooter but that was mitigated by two factors: he played on one of the greatest teams ever and he was much better in the NCAA tournament than the regular season (13.3 points, 6.2 assists, 76% FT in 2012 tourney). This season's Kansas team is relevant here as well since Devonte Graham has improved his free throw shooting throughout the season and has been just shy (78%) of the 80% standard during the last 14 games.
Mario Chalmers was not the ideal point guard at Kansas nor has he been so at the next level, yet he has never been afraid of pressure at either level and that was ultimately the most important factor in the Jayhawks cutting down the nets in 2008--with the obvious exception of John "My players don't practice free throws" Calipari watching his first national title choked away at the charity stripe by Derrick Rose and company. Taurean Green was a better player in Florida's 2006 title run than in 2007 (which in hindsight explains some of the Gators' struggles that season). He checked all the boxes in 2006 but was not as strong a distributor in 2007. North Carolina will be hoping that Marcus Paige (3.7 assists and 77% FT this season) can be a hybrid of Chalmers and Green as he seeks to find the swagger and production of 2014-15 (14.1 points, 4.5 assists, 87% FT). Even with the emergence of Joel Berry for the Tar Heels, their path to the title may be limited to Paige returning to last season's form.
So what point guards best fit the profile of the previous ten champions? Incredibly, none of the point guards that led their teams to the title were lottery picks (correction: Kemba Walker was selected 9th overall). In addition to the qualities of the point guard position, each team of the last decade was led by a coach who previously made the Final Four or whose players had played in one (2014 UConn). The following five point guards best fit the profile of our previous champions:
(Almost) Never Doubt the Izzo
Denzel Valentine, Senior, Michigan State (6'6, 223)
The Spartans are 24-1 (loss at Purdue) over the last 2 seasons when Valentine (19.4 points, 7.6 assists, 85% FT) has 7 assists. Michigan State would be the overall #1 seed if not for Valentine's midseason injury.
Tyler Ulis, Sophomore, Kentucky (5'9, 160)
Would the Wildcats have run the table to 40-0 last season if Ulis had replaced Andrew Harrison as the starting point guard? Down the stretch Harrison took 97 shots while recording only 28 assists while the diminutive Ulis took 54 shots versus 44 assists. No one will know what might have been in 2015 but Ulis (17/7/86%) and teammate Jamal Murray can get the Wildcats back to the Final Four if one of their 5-star bigs will at least rebound like a 3-star talent.
Yogi Ferrell, Senior, Indiana (6'0, 178)
No team has rallied from disaster in recent history like Indiana and Ferrell's leadership is at the heart of steadying the ship. Ferrell (17/6/82%) is mostly off of draft radars but he is a candidate to lead a Napier-like run for the Hoosiers.
Isaiah Taylor, Junior, Texas (6'3, 168)
The former highly-touted high school talent is reaching his potential under Shaka Smart. Taylor (15/5/81%) fits the type of player Smart loves and will be the leader of a Texas team poised for higher seeds in future seasons.
Fred VanVleet, Senior, Wichita State (6'0, 197)
No one enters the tournament with more experience than VanVleet (12/6/81%) who has played in 10 NCAA tournament games including a Final Four run as a freshman, an epic second-round loss to Kentucky in 2014, and an upset of Kansas last season before falling to Jerami Grant and Notre Dame. There would be nothing shocking about the Shockers making the Final Four even as an 11-seed due to VanVleet's in-season injury masking how good this team is.
Ollie Knocks Out Frazier
Melo Trimble, Sophomore, Maryland (6'3, 190)
Trimble (14/5/87%) has had a disappointing season for his draft stock but remains an ideal college point guard for closing games in March despite his struggles. Melo holds the keys to getting Mark Turgeon to the Final Four.
Demetrius Jackson, Junior, Notre Dame (6'1, 194)
The most likely player on this list to be selected in the NBA Lottery, Jackson (16/5/80%) has emerged from Jerian Grant's shadow this season. Jackson nearly drew a charge that could have put the Irish in the Final Four last season but the 50/50 call went the other way.
Monte Morris, Junior, Iowa State (6'3, 175)
Morris (14 points and 7 assists per game) has faced good point guards all season in Big 12 play but needs to take another step forward to carry the Cyclones in the tournament. That will include improving upon his shooting 75% from the free throw line.
AJ English, Senior, Iona (6'4, 190)
The best player in college basketball that few know, English (22/6/84%) is the most likely candidate to carry a small school to multiple upsets. A better defensive player than several on this list, English can also hit from outside (37% from three).
Josh Hagins, Senior, Arkansas-Little Rock (6'1, 180)
UALR has abnormal depth at guard for a small school and Hagins (13/5/83%) is at the heart of what they do. Little Rock has a great chance to sneak into the Sweet 16 due to their outstanding guard play.
Is 2 More Than 1?
Frank Mason, Devonte Graham, and Wayne Selden, Kansas
Will Mason continue to defer to Graham? In the Jayhawks' 14-game win streak, Mason has not taken more than 11 shots in any game after doing so 7 times earlier in the season. Selden is a streaky player but bring legitimate NBA skill and size at guard. Perry Ellis gets the headlines for the team but if Devonte Graham is the best two-way player for Kansas, Bill Self will be cutting down the nets for a second time.
Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes, Virginia
Brogdon is a consistent scorer and possibly the best defending guard in college basketball, but Perrantes is the key for the Cavaliers. When he plays with confidence and makes good decisions, Virginia is as good as anyone. Unfortunately, he struggles to do so for multiple games.
Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma
Hield is the best scorer in the country and the rest of his game is underrated. However, he is not a closer due to his limitations in handling the basketball. That leaves the Sooners' hopes in the hands of Cousins who only makes 67% of his free throws. One of the best passing team in the country is ironically absent of a point guard that can close out games.
Myles Davis and Trevon Blueitt, Xavier
The best backcourt that no one knows about can get Xavier to the Final Four. Most people identify with the toughness of the Musketeeers but it is the solid guard play that has raised them to new heights. Davis and Blueitt are both capable of closing out games for Chris Mack.
Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McLellan, Miami
Jim Larranaga has made runs in March before and has the backcourt to do so. McLellan is a second-round prospect but Rodriguez is an outstanding college point guard. Miami looked as good as anyone early in the season and closed the year looking closer to their initial form.