Saturday, March 27, 1999

Point guards rule Final Four

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — If you had your pick, perhaps you would take William Avery's shooting range, Scoonie Penn's leadership, Khalid El-Amin's daring and the muscle of Mateen Cleaves.

  • Duke (36-1) vs. Michigan State (33-4), 5:42 p.m.
  • Ohio State (27-8) vs. Connecticut (32-2), 30 minutes after first
        Choosing all the best qualities of the Final Four point guards is a lesser challenge than choosing the best of the point guards themselves. One thing is certain, though. For any coach picking among them, it would be a nice problem to have.

        “They're certainly part of the recipe you need for success in college basketball,” said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. “You are not going to get here without having that kind of player, a guy who controls the ball.

        “In college basketball, you can't create isolation. You have to play five-on-five, not two-on-two or one-on-one. Therefore, the people that have the ball in their hands the most control the game.”

        A 6-foot-2 junior, Cleaves is 55-12 the past two seasons as Michigan State's point guard. Avery, a 6-2 sophomore,is 36-1 in his first season as starter at Duke. Sharing some point duties with senior Ricky Moore but always serving as the Huskies' principal playmaker, El-A min has a 64-7 record. Penn turned a 9-19 Boston College team into an NCAA Tournament club in 1995-96, then rescued Ohio State from an 8-22 season to 27-8 and the Buckeyes' first Final Four in 31 years.

        There is no coincidence in these numbers.

        “Coaches have a lot to do until the game starts, and then the point guard takes over,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo. “There's so many things a point guard can see on the floor that you can't seen from your bench. If you're not on the same wavelength with him, I don't think you can be as successful.”

        Although it will be this year because of the players involved, having a great point guard is not a prerequisite to winning a national championship. The list of past NCAA champions is overloaded with guys who filled that position confidently and efficiently but not spectacularly.

        “It's critical to have good guards. They can make up for a number of other deficiencies more so than any other position,” said CBS-TV analyst Clark Kellogg. “They're probably more important than any other position. But just because you have them, doesn't mean you get here.”

        The two guards voted first-team All-American by the Associated Press, Jason Terry of Arizona and Andre Miller of Utah, were gone after the second round. A great guard can't do it alone, and Terry's struggle in a first-round loss to Oklahoma demonstrated it only gets worse the harder he tries.

        The four playmakers managed not to trap themselves in this manner, at least in the tournament. Cleaves struggled horribly in the early months of the season, when he was out of shape because of conditioning time he missed to recuperate from injuries.

        Cleaves was 3-of-17 from the field in the first Michigan State-Duke game, in December. He admitted he was “not playing Mateen Cleaves basketball” and promised he would improve. He was 3-of-14 in a regional semifinal win against Oklahoma, but otherwise shot 47 percent in his past half-dozen games.

        “I don't even think about that last game,” Cleaves said. “I'm not going out there to play for payback or prove I can shoot better against Duke. I think the most important role in this tournament would just be to run your team. Don't get caught up in the hype, don't get caught up in the scoring or the fancy pass.”

        This is especially true for Avery. Duke's brilliance is in the simplicity of its attack: use quickness to penetrate, force the defense to react, read the reaction and take advantage.

        Avery understands that being surrounded by Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon and Corey Maggette means there always is a great teammate to either set up a deep shot for him or, more often, to take advantage of Avery's violation of the defense.

        He had a difficult time giving up his scoring habit. “It was hard my freshman year — when I was young,” Avery said. “Now, I understand the game a whole lot more. I've matured. That's not my role. I have great players around me.”

Cleaves, El-Amin considered UC