As usual, 4 finalists get to point Excelling point guards mark title bids by Ky., N.C., Stanford, Utah

Matchups key to semifinals

Since Kansas' Manning, PGs have ruled tourney

March 28, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- If you don't have a good point guard, what's the point of thinking about a spot in the Final Four?

A dominant post player, a three-point ace and a baseline artist are nice, but none are absolute necessities when coaches list the items that will get them an NCAA basketball championship. If you want your $750 suit doing the live, midcourt interview at midnight Monday, you had best have a steady hand on the point.

"You could have an outstanding center, and an outstanding forward," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "But in order for you to be a team that wins championships, you have to have that guy who can distribute the ball, pressure the ball when he's on defense and create shots when you don't have an offense."

Just like the four guys who will bring it up at the Alamodome tonight.

In the first (5: 42 p.m.) of the semifinals it's Kentucky and Wayne Turner against Stanford and Arthur Lee. In the second, it's North Carolina and Ed Cota against Utah and Andre Miller. Lee, Miller and Turner were the MVPs in their respective regions, while Cota's value is understated because the Tar Heels spent Sweet 16 weekend at the East Regional.

All four learned the game on urban playgrounds, Lee and Miller in Los Angeles, Cota in New York and Turner in Boston. One of them will add to a pattern that is a decade old, one that followed the introduction of the three-pointer and a shot clock in the 1980s.

Back in 1988, Kansas got a passing season from sophomore Kevin Pritchard. The Jayhawks had the prototype point forward in Danny Manning, but every champion since has had a superb guide at point guard.

Remember how Michigan's Rumeal Robinson delivered in 1989? Nevada-Las Vegas' Greg Anthony put the run in the Rebels in 1990. Duke's repeat titles saw Bobby Hurley become the game's all-time assists leader. North Carolina's 1993 championship started in Derrick Phelps' hands.

Corey Beck didn't win any style points, but he was the undisputed leader of Arkansas in 1994. Tyus Edney lifted UCLA to the title game in 1995, and the Bruins wouldn't have completed the task if Cameron Dollar hadn't ably filled in when Edney went down with a hand injury. Anthony Epps emerged as the starting point for Kentucky two seasons ago.

Last year, Arizona's Mike Bibby might have been the coolest freshman point ever seen.

Possibly the most dangerous package at the position since Isiah Thomas got Indiana the 1981 championship, Bibby figured to get the tour of the Alamo on Thursday. Arizona's defense of its title, however, was overthrown by Miller and the stat line of the season: 18 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists.

Miller time

Miller is the most experienced of the group, a three-year starter who sat out the 1994-95 season while working on academics. To coach Rick Majerus, he did not represent a gamble.

"He has the three aspects that all great point guards have," Majerus said. "He can pass the ball in transition, he knows when to push the ball up the floor at the appropriate time and kind of set the table, and he can draw a defense to him in the half court, then kick it out or feed the post."

Miller has been a revelation to observers outside the Western Athletic Conference; he has made this tournament his personal stage. North Carolina doesn't press as much as others because of its lack of depth, but Utah's first four opponents in the tournament did, and Miller made every one pay.

Miller has led Utah in field-goal attempts in the tournament, as has Lee for Stanford.

An afterthought the last two seasons, when Brevin Knight was an All-American, Lee got the Cardinal off to a school-record 18-0 start. They hit a midseason lull and appeared to be done in the Midwest final, when they were down six to Rhode Island in the final minute, but Lee led a ferocious comeback.

Did that game -- 26 points, seven assists, no turnovers -- finally free him of the comparisons to Knight?

"That was big for me personally," Lee said. "I was just really happy that I was able to lead the team to the destination. That was a very crucial, defining moment for me."

Nasty Lee, too nice Turner

Lee's emotions got the best of him at the end against Rhode Island. He put his hands to his throat in the choke sign after Tyson Wheeler missed the first of three free throws that would have forced overtime. He admitted it was a mistake, and wrote a letter of apology to Wheeler.

Turner, meanwhile, has been accused of being too nice. After Kentucky stomped South Carolina State in the first round, Roderick Blakney remarked about how kind Turner had been in beating him up. Two years ago, Turner started eight games, but his role dwindled, and he didn't even play in the 1996 title game.

Kentucky's run to the 1997 final began when Rick Pitino made Turner the starter heading into the Southeastern Conference tournament. He directs the deep lineup that has six players averaging in double figures in the NCAA tournament, but Turner was the one who stepped up when the Wildcats were down 17 to Duke in the South final.

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