No guarded expectations

Backcourts: The best of the talented players in the Final Four are, again, the guards, whose play will be a crucial element in determining the next national champion.

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 31, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Guards rule. They always have.

"We have the ball all the time," said Chris Duhon, a guard for Duke, one of the teams playing in the Final Four.

As usual, they will likely determine the outcome this weekend when the semifinalists compete for the national title in men's basketball. And never has rating the guards been less of an indicator than it was yesterday, when several analysts described the matchups as even.

The last time the Final Four had a group of guards this good was two years ago, with the likes of Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin, Ohio State's Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn and Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves.

Duke has the standout in Jason Williams. Arizona has the best combo in Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas. Michigan State has the most depth, and Charlie Bell is the most resourceful. And Maryland - almost the best in toughness and resourcefulness - has the most underrated backcourt in Steve Blake and Juan Dixon.

It all ends up as a wash. "That's very rare," CBS analyst Dan Bonner said. "That's one thing about this Final Four, that I don't see any clear advantage for any team."

The most recognizable duo is Gardner and Arenas. Duhon, Blake and Dixon mentioned the Arizona pair when speaking of the quality of the Final Four backcourts, and CBS analyst Clark Kellogg called them "the most explosive guards in the country."

ESPN's Jay Bilas described Gardner - who averages 10.7 points and has dished out 144 assists this season - as being "really quick, really strong," but he gushed about Arenas, who leads the team with a 16.5-point average and has emerged as a solid defender this season.

Of the shooting guards still playing, Bilas predicted: "Gilbert Arenas will be the best pro. ... He's really good in transition, and he's extended his [shooting] range."

Brad Daugherty, also of ESPN, predicted that the ability of Gardner and Arenas to shoot the ball well from outside will be important, because of what Daugherty described as a prospective "quagmire" in the paint in the Wildcats' game against Michigan State.

Daugherty, a former NBA star, said the same holds true for Michigan State's backcourt. "Those guys are going to have to make shots to give the big men a chance to go inside with some freedom," he said.

Bell - a converted shooting guard who has averaged 13.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists this season - leads four physical Michigan State guards. Some consider David Thomas to be more of a forward. At 6 feet 7 with long arms, "he plays like a 6-10 guy," according to CBS analyst Billy Packer.

Others consider 6-6 highlight specialist Jason Richardson to be the other guard, and one-time starter Marcus Taylor comes off the bench to spell Bell. Overall, Bonner likes the group despite inconsistent three-point shooting. His only misgivings concerned Taylor's decision-making.

"Marcus Taylor tries to make plays that when they work, it's great, but can get you in trouble," Bonner said.

For Duke, Duhon has been valuable. He scored 13 points in his team's win over Southern California in the East Regional final. "He's been fortunate to be able to blend in," Packer said.

But everyone loves Williams, who averaged 21.7 points and had 229 assists this season. The analysts consider him virtually unstoppable, part of the reason he has averaged 28.8 points in the four tournament games.

"He shoots the ball so well off of back screens," Bilas said. "USC tried to keep the ball away from him, and they couldn't. His shot is so solid that he's been a guy that no one can really guard."

Though Blake is taking on Williams "at a very hot period," Packer said, the Maryland guard has done as good a job as anyone of limiting the Duke standout this season.

Williams, with Blake (6.7-point average with 243 assists) doing most of the primary defensive work on him, has made only 19 of 52 shots in three games against the Terps this season.

"No one stops Jason Williams one-on-one," Kellogg said, "but Steve Blake has had a little success. ... He [Blake] makes shots, is smart and more athletic than people give him credit for. He does a good job running Maryland's team."

Dixon is similarly praised by the analysts, who praise his toughness, defense and shot-making. The former Calvert Hall standout was given credit for his sense of anticipation that only Arenas can match on both ends of the floor.

"He's tough, a great anticipator, a fearless player," Packer said. "Of all the players in this Final Four, he's the most underrated on a national basis."

It all makes for an exciting mix.

"There's great guard play," said Dixon, who is averaging 16.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in the NCAA tournament. He's also shooting 52.3 percent from the field. "We've just got to come out, compete and, hopefully, we'll get it done."

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