With a full roster, the Gophers were rolling towards the Sweet 16 or better. Without a point guard, they couldn’t win a game. There is no position more important to a basketball team, and no bigger question mark about this basketball team.
By now everyone has heard point guards referenced as an extension of the coach on the court and as the quarterback of basketball. Even more than that, they are an escape hatch, a player that can bail out their team with the shot clock winding down and the offense stuck in a rut. Minnesota’s lack of a point guard last season was most glaring in these situations. For all his faults, Al Nolen could get by just about every defender in the Big Ten. He didn’t always make the best decisions after beating his man, and he certainly left more than his fair share of easy points dangling on the rim, but his ability to break down the defense at the very least got the defense collapsing, created some room for his teammates, and gave the offense hope. Tubby Smith’s offense is dependent on getting the ball down low, and if that isn’t successful within the first 20 seconds of the possession, as it occasionally isn’t, the only hope to score is to drive at the basket with the shot clock winding down. Without Nolen, a lackluster malaise took hold of Minnesota’s offense. No one moved, because everyone knew it wasn’t worth the effort.
The no point guard problem manifested itself on the defensive half of the court as well. Al Nolen was the team’s best perimeter defender, and the only player quick enough to stay in front of even moderately elusive ball handlers. Without any guards capable of staying between their man and the basket, the Gophers were forced to play zone, and we were all forced to watch team after team shoot an absurd number of three pointers, and make just enough to win. Zone defenses also create few transition opportunities and allow too many offensive rebounds. Minnesota’s already handicapped offense rarely got as many opportunities as their opponents.
Even with eight new players on the roster, the Gophers still don’t have a clear answer for the biggest question. The best answer is that there is not and will not be a true point guard on the Gopher roster during the 2011-2012 season. The real question Gopher basketball fans and the coaching staff should be asking is not who the point guard will be, but what the point guard should be.
The lack of true point guard should actually be an advantage for the Gophers this season. True point guards are something of a relic in modern college basketball. In the vast majority of cases, the “true” point guards actually have a fatal flaw that most fans and coaches are reluctant to recognize. Al Nolen couldn’t shoot for most of his career. Lewis Jackson, the most experienced true point guard in the Big Ten, won’t shoot. Even Kendall Marshall, who more or less single-handedly turned around North Carolina’s season, and who may be the best point guard in the country, couldn’t shoot and couldn’t score, even when he wasn’t guarded.
Combo guards have become they key to success in college basketball. Kalin Lucas, Talor Battle, Jordan Taylor, Darius Morris, Bryce Cartwright, and Demetri McCamey were all one of the top two scoring options for their team, and it would be difficult imagining any of their teams being more successful if they didn’t have a multifaceted guard running their offense. The Gophers will have two combo guards, and with the potential for both to be on the floor at the same time, it gives the team options. For a team that all too often dumps the ball inside and hopes for the best, or shoots a wild three with the shot clock winding down, the possibility of a player attacking the basket in a controlled manner, with the option to pass or shoot, maybe making a mid-range jumper or two, will be a sight for sore eyes.
The question now becomes who will play where in the back court, and how often. The short answer is that Tubby Smith should have Andre Hollins and Julian Welch on the court as much as possible, and that one or the other should be on the court at all times, regardless if they are the primary ball handler. Given his edge in experience at the Division I level, Julian Welch will get more playing time, around 30 minutes per game, with around 25 of these handling the ball. Andrew Hollins should get around 20 minutes per game, with 15 at point guard. Having both on the court at the same time should protect against the full court press. Without a true point guard or any player who has consistently handled the ball, it will be more than tempting for other teams to try to create turnovers in the back court.
There is one player who hasn’t been mentioned yet who will be in the mix at the point guard. Maverick Ahanmisi averaged 10 minutes per game last season, eight more than he or Tubby Smith or anyone else expected him to play. While he wasn’t an utter disaster (his assist to turnover ratio was 1:1) he didn’t show that he was a legitimate Divison I point guard, and he was never supposed to be, at least not yet. He was taken on to be option number three with a realistic goal of being a reliable substitute by his junior or season year. Attrition forced him into a more prominent role for which he was not ready. Unless Ahanmisi has significantly improved his quickness, defense, dribbling, and “basketball IQ” he’ll be buried on the bench. Tubby Smith is still coach though, and no one on a Tubby Smith team is truly buried. Maverick will still get his 10 minutes per game, hopefully fewer as the season goes on. Coach Smith favors the devil he knows over the devil he doesn’t, and until he knows Hollins and Welch better, he’ll favor Maverick.
At the end of last season, Tubby Smith said he would never let last year’s point guard problems happen again. At least he has numbers to throw at the problem. It remains to be seen if the numbers he has are enough to solve it.