NEW ORLEANS — From Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves a dozen years ago to Connecticut’s Kemba Walker last season, the Final Four has long provided a high-profile stage for point guards who ultimately left an indelible mark on the NCAA tournament.
But the best-known commodities this year are big men — Kansas’s Thomas Robinson, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, who were all named to the Associated Press all-American first team — while the quartet of starting ballhandlers, young and old, include those who have been criticized, erratic or overshadowed during much of the season.
Among the four, the only one who averages double figures in scoring is Kansas’s Tyshawn Taylor, who has been the most erratic of the bunch during the NCAA tournament.
Will Taylor avoid his early-season penchant for turnovers against the relentless on-ball defense of Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, whose performances have been obscured by more nationally recognized teammates? And will Louisville’s Peyton Siva stay out of foul trouble against Kentucky’s Marquis Teague, who has been called the weak link of the nation’s top-ranked team?
When Ohio State Coach Thad Matta first scouted Craft in high school, he was astounded by Craft’s ability to move his feet defensively and always stay in front of his man. In just his second season with the Buckeyes — his first as a starter — Craft has used the unglamorous skill set to carve out a special niche for himself.
The Big Ten’s defensive player of the year does not merely guard his man; he covers his opponent like a second skin. After Craft collected six steals in the Sweet 16 against Cincinnati, LeBron James tweeted that Craft was college basketball’s best defender. Florida Coach Billy Donovan earlier this season said Craft “physically beat up our guards.” And Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas likened Craft’s ability to irritate ballhandlers to “a rat that won’t leave.”
The son of a high school coach, the 6-foot-2 Craft refined his defensive technique while playing games against older brother Brandon and friends. On a team with more acclaimed offensive players, it is the tenacity of Craft, the school’s all-time single-season steals leader, that proves infectious during games.
Teammates saw Craft in the East region final against Syracuse “landing in the fourth row of the Boston Garden, and then coming back and getting the ball on the other side,” Matta said. “His leadership on the defensive end is something we can’t ever take for granted.”
Taylor’s inconsistent on-court performance in the NCAA tournament has mirrored the up-and-down nature of his off-court history in four years at Kansas. There was a fight with players on the football team, as well as an ill-timed Facebook post and multiple suspensions that tarnished his career as a four-year starter.
Taylor is the first to acknowledge “I have not always been the easiest guy to coach.”
Early this season, Taylor appeared like a liability. He committed 58 turnovers in his first 14 games, including 11 in a Maui Invitational loss to Duke.
“I’m a completely different player now,” Taylor said.
During the Sweet 16, Taylor made just 2 of 14 shots against North Carolina State. Then in the Midwest Region final, Taylor exploited a North Carolina team playing without injured guard Kendall Marshall. Making 10 of 19 field goal attempts, Taylor scored 22 points and had six rebounds, five assists and five steals.
There is one hurdle left for Taylor to clear: He is 0 for 17 from three-point range in domes during NCAA tournaments.
“I have a lot of experience shooting in domes,” Taylor said. “Not too much in making it.”
At one point during Siva’s uneven regular season, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino called his point guard in for a meeting, telling Siva that he knew how to play at just one hyperkinetic speed. Pitino cued up a tape of how Steve Nash dissected defenses, slashing into the lane to probe then keeping his dribble alive to attack again.
Late in the season, Siva learned how to better change gears. Not an overpowering offensive threat, Siva darts into the lane and can convert acrobatic layups — like he did on his way to being named most outstanding player in the Big East tournament — or drop off passes to teammates.
“I feel like it’s 1987,” Pitino said. “And I feel like Peyton Siva is Billy the Kid,” a reference to Billy Donovan being the catalyst on Pitino’s Final Four team at Providence.
On defense, Siva is one of Pitino’s self-described “mosquitoes,” harassing and hawking ball-handlers in the press. The problem arises when the mosquito leaves bite marks. Siva has fouled out of two NCAA tournament games and has had at least four fouls in 15 games this season.
“I am a hack,” Siva admitted.
Teague’s introduction to college basketball came the first time Kentucky’s players met for a summer pickup game. Teague matched up individually against someone with a decent basketball resume: Russell Westbrook.
After that baptism against NBA stars Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Westbrook, Teague’s competition softened but his evolution remained a work in progress. After being an accomplished scorer in high school, Teague was tasked with being a distributor as he succeeded a litany of great former John Calipari-coached point guards, including No. 1 draft picks Derrick Rose and John Wall.
Early this season, Calipari said, Teague knew only how to push the ball 100 mph and try to make 100 difficult plays. His shot selection was suspect. His defense was inconsistent.
In the SEC tournament, Louisiana State sagged off Teague, daring him to shoot from the outside. Teague missed all five of his field goal attempts. Calipari took him aside afterward and told Teague he needed to keep shooting.
Teague was at his best when he scored a career-high 24 points in the second-round victory over Iowa State, providing yet another threat on a team with several others.
“Everything we do is through that position,” Calipari said. “His pace of game right now is as good as any point guard in the country. The reason we have become the most efficient team in the country, I can rest it right on his shoulders on what he has done.”