Making good points

Basketball: In a league long known for its backcourt play, the ACC is loaded at point guard this season.

Acc Tournament

March 11, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

John Gilchrist has no doubts about his ability to lead the Maryland Terrapins at a position that often demands a take-charge guy.

Throughout his first year as a starter, Maryland's sophomore point guard also has been a sponge of sorts, studying the ways of his counterparts, trying to make himself better by incorporating some of their strengths into his game.

And Gilchrist marvels at the material that is available to him.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has long been a league rich in the backcourt. This season, a year in which the conference has been rated for several months as the best in the nation and appears ready to send at least six teams to the NCAA tournament, it is no coincidence that the point guard position has yielded an array of talent.

How good is the position this year? Consider that Gilchrist is the first Maryland point guard to lead the Terps in scoring and assists since John Lucas 30 years ago, but when the All-ACC teams were announced recently he was only on the third team. Not that Gilchrist is complaining. He knows the deal. His spot is stacked.

There is Duke senior Chris Duhon, the engine that makes the Blue Devils go at both ends of the court. And Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack, the rugged, 200-pound floor general who can be a bully in the lane and soft-handed with a pass. And North Carolina sophomore Raymond Felton, who runs the fast break in a blur. And Wake Forest's super-quick freshman Chris Paul, who penetrates defenses and creates his own shot with the nerve of a seasoned veteran.

"We all use our own styles of play to help our team win ballgames," Gilchrist said. "Certain point guards [look to] score. Certain point guards [look to] assist. The best point guards are the ones who get everyone else on the team to play good.

"You've just got to be ready to play every night, because you know you're going to face some tough competition every night. It's definitely made me better."

"I've always looked at the ACC as a league with great guards," said Jack, Georgia Tech's 6-foot-3 sophomore from Fort Washington. "The point guard spot this year is another year of the same old stuff. A lot of guys are playing well and leading their teams. You don't get a night off."

The league has had its share of exceptional court quarterbacks. Back in the mid-1980s, Tech's Mark Price, Duke's Tommy Amaker and North Carolina's Kenny Smith led the group. A few years later, the stage was shared by Duke's Bobby Hurley, Tech's Kenny Anderson, Virginia's John Crotty and North Carolina State's Chris Corchiani. As recently as 2002, Duke's Jason Williams, Clemson's Ed Scott and Maryland's Steve Blake graced the court.

The point guard typically sets the tone and supplies the pulse for his team.

Offensively, he gets his team into its set, calls the play, and starts the passing sequence that is supposed to lead to an attractive shot. Sometimes, the point guard is best equipped - such as Gilchrist - to break down a defense off the dribble and create his own shot or one for a teammate. Defensively, his main focus is often trying to disrupt the flow of his opposing playmaker, or leading a press or a trap formation.

"So much of what you try to do offensively and defensively begins at the beginning, with your point guard position. When he plays well, your team has a chance," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said.

Five of the ACC's top six teams are especially strong at the point guard spot. And even seventh-place Florida State, which heads into the conference tournament with a chance to earn its first NCAA tournament bid in six seasons, has a fine leader in senior point guard Nate Johnson.

Johnson reminds one of a traditional point guard, a pure set-up man who looks at scoring as a last resort, usually if he is being left wide open and is unable to find a hot shooter on the floor.

Johnson averages only 5.5 points per game, but no point guard in the league has taken more precious care of the ball. With 3.8 assists and only 1.2 turnovers per game, Johnson's assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.17, more than a full point better than Duhon (2.19), the next closest at his position. Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton calls Johnson "the consummate point guard."

"I like to pass first. I love assists. I hate turnovers," Johnson said. "Some guards like to push the ball. That's not me. I'm a point guard, not a point scorer."

Different point guards respond to different schemes and team make-ups. Duhon, who used to jack up three-point shots freely, averages just 10.1 points per game, largely because he is surrounded by scoring threats he is all too happy to feed. Duhon is also 12th in the nation in assists (6.3), averages 2.3 steals per game, and has condensed much of his scoring into a series of clutch plays that have turned numerous games in Duke's favor.

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