Every year at this time, the smallest player in men’s college basketball — the point guard — becomes the Big Man on Campus.
Analysts love to remind us during the lead-up to the NCAA tournament that any school without a really good point guard cannot go deep into March.
The point guard suddenly gains prominence during the tournament, when a premium is placed on making the most of each possession. Getting the ball into the right players’ hands while avoiding turnovers is essential to success.
Although a talented point guard can get his team to the Final Four, it still takes an above-average big man — defined here as 6 feet 9 or taller — to win a national title. Looking back at the past 20 NCAA champions, all but two had a starting big man eventually drafted into the NBA.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, adept at intelligently poking holes in conventional wisdom, thinks big men get shorted come NCAA tournament time. Once the kings of the court, centers have lost that crown to the ball-handlers.
“This time of year, the easy thing to say is you can’t win without a point guard, but I say you can’t win without big guys,” Bilas said this week. “You need someone to defend and score in the post. Maybe you pull a few upsets in the tournament, just because you’re good, but you won’t win the thing.”
Last season, Louisville relied on an excellent point guard in Peyton Siva to run the offense, but the Cardinals would not have won the title, would not even have reached the championship game, without Gorgui Dieng in the lane. Two years ago, Kentucky leaned on 6-foot-10 freshman Anthony Davis to win its championship, and lesser-known Alex Oriakhi helped Connecticut win in 2011.
The past two decades recall such prominent middle men as Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina, Joakim Noah of Florida, Emeka Okafor of UConn and Carlos Boozer of Duke.
Given that a big man is necessary to win titles, the teams to keep in mind when filling out office pools next week would be Florida (6-9 Patric Young), Arizona (7-0 Kaleb Tarczewski), Kansas (7-0 Joel Embiid) and San Diego State (6-10 Skylar Spencer).
Teams such as Wichita State, Syracuse and Louisville are good enough to reach the Final Four, but without a true big man protecting the rim, their quest to win a title becomes more challenging.
It can be done but requires a special set of circumstances. For example, Arizona won the title in the 1996-97 season with center A.J. Bramlett averaging a respectable, but not spectacular, 8.1 points and 6.9 rebounds. The Wildcats, however, also used a three-guard lineup of future NBA players Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Miles Simon.
Applying the “big man” theory to Ohio State, no one is suggesting the Buckeyes will win a national title, but how far can they go without having a highly effective center?
The answer is iffy. The numbers for 6-11 center Amir Williams (8.2 points and 5.8 rebounds) are solid enough to land the Buckeyes, if they shoot well — I know, I know — in Elite Eight territory. But Williams is maddeningly inconsistent on both ends of the court. Imagine how much more threatening the Buckeyes’ seventh-ranked scoring defense would be if the junior intimidated shooters more regularly.
“When I talk about needing a big man, it’s not only (or mostly) about scoring. I’m talking rim and lane protectors,” Bilas said.
Keep your eye on the tall dudes in the coming weeks. Point guards are important. Big men are essential.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.