They Have the Guards to Go Forward
Maryland: In the Tournament, Back Court Is Front and Center
Thursday, March 19, 2009; Page E01
KANSAS CITY, Mo., March 18 -- Maryland Coach Gary Williams addressed the issue Oct. 11 during his first news conference of the season. He addressed it again the following week. And again in November. And again once conference play began in January.
"One of the keys to our team this year, just looking at it, is you've got to use the experience that you have," Williams said in October. "With our guards, you know, we go pretty deep in the back court in terms of experience, but we have to find a way to defend and rebound inside."
But as the 10th-seeded Terrapins prepare to take on seventh-seeded California on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a significant shift has taken place. Each March, a prevailing notion sweeps across the college basketball landscape: Guard play ranks supreme, and a quality back court can carry a team a long way.
Whether because of more lenient officiating or greater necessity for precise execution, postseason play creates an environment in which guard-reliant teams can thrive. One such team from College Park sees that as a good sign.
"If you have a good point guard, you have a chance to overcome some deficiencies that you might have somewhere else on your team because you can control the tempo if you run the right thing at the right time," Williams said Tuesday. "Some teams don't have that luxury. We're fortunate to have several people that can play the point guard position for us and do a good job there."
Indeed, Maryland alternates the player through which its offense is run -- not merely from game to game or half to half, but many times from possession to possession. Junior guards Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, along with sophomore Adrian Bowie, orchestrate the Terrapins' attack in their own unique way.
Vasquez, the team's leader in scoring, rebounding and assists, offers a flashy style high on risk as well as reward. His no-look and behind-the-back passes are sometimes so deft they catch their intended receiver off guard.
Bowie, who at 6 feet 2 is the team's shortest player, has accumulated the second-most free throw attempts on the team because he has yet to meet an opposing front court imposing enough to deter him from driving to the basket.
Hayes, who has come off the bench during the latter stages of the season, is the steady game manager whose long-range marksmanship has become more evident in recent weeks.
The Terrapins have leaned on each of the trio's components at different times throughout the season. Now that postseason play has begun, Maryland's format widely is being considered "a luxury," as Williams called it.
"With the proliferation of three- and four-guard offenses in recent years -- and you'll see a number of teams in [the NCAA] tournament that are employing that tactic -- I think it's a misnomer that size trumps speed and quickness in a mismatch situation," said Fran Fraschilla, who coached at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico and now is an ESPN analyst. "I'd much rather have the smaller, more skilled players in the NCAA tournament than I would big guys who we couldn't get the ball to."
Feeding the ball into the post becomes increasingly difficult come tournament time, California Coach Mike Montgomery said, because referees call games more liberally.
"It's really hard to score in the low post in the tournament, because there's not much called," Montgomery said. "It gets very physical, and it almost negates the ability of big guys inside. So it puts the ball in guards' hands, where everything's out in front of everybody in terms of foul calls and the way that the game's being called in terms of wanting hands off and all that kind of thing."
Fraschilla agreed that post players can be neutralized at times by the officiating in the NCAA tournament and said teams have to adjust by finding easier ways to score, such as in transition off turnovers or by making shots along the perimeter.
For teams like Maryland and California, few alterations are necessary because neither squad possesses quality, back-to-the-basket post players. The Golden Bears have the top three-point shooting percentage in the country (43.4 percent).
Maryland is not nearly as accurate from beyond the arc (33.1 percent), but its lineup has adapted to suit its strengths. The Terrapins' starting forwards shoot ably from long range and run the floor well, which makes their transition game more fluid.
The single-elimination reality of the NCAA tournament necessitates near perfection -- a team has to take good care of the ball, has to make the right play at the right time and has to get into offensive sets swiftly -- and that means Maryland's guards will shoulder a sizable onus. It's a load they've carried all season.
"Let's put it this way: There are very few teams in this tournament who don't have good guard play," Fraschilla said.