The point guard is the engine making your favorite college basketball team go, often on both ends of the court. Entrusted with handling the ball on offense and harassing the other team's primary handler on defense, he can make an opponent's life miserable in a variety of ways.
Since 2004, the Basketball Hall of Fame has annually presented the Bob Cousy Award to the nation's top floor general. The award bears the name of a man who was dubbed the "Houdini of the Hardwood" for his superb ball-handling skills.
The winner will be announced on the Thursday before Final Four weekend, and the award presentation will coincide with the Hall of Fame class announcement on Championship Monday.
Finalists are honored by simply being mentioned in the same breath as a legend like Cousy, and the winner will join a distinguished fraternity of recent college greats. The award's past recipients include the likes of Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton, Dee Brown, Ty Lawson and Kemba Walker.
Of the 12 finalists, who should be most likely to capture this year's trophy?
Keith Appling hit the ground running this season, scoring in double figures in seven of Michigan State's first eight games and shooting just under 50 percent. In the final minutes of the Champions Classic meeting with Kansas, Appling took over and scored a pair of brilliant baskets to seal the game.
In his most recent five games, however, Appling's struggles have cost the Spartans dearly. He's shooting 25 percent in that span with 14 turnovers to 13 assists.
Although the Spartans can still pull out a share of the Big Ten title, MSU fans have reason to be concerned heading into tournament season. In State's most important games, Appling has not always been up to his dual responsibility of leading the offense and guarding the Big Ten's best point guards.
Against the four other teams that remain in contention for a share of the championship (Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin), Appling has come up small. He's shot 22-of-71 in those games, a sickly 31 percent. He has 14 assists and 19 turnovers in those games, and the Spartans have lost four of seven.
Michigan State needs the junior guard to rediscover his early-season form if it is to make coach Tom Izzo's typical deep NCAA run.
There are some nights that Phil Pressey looks like one of the best players in America. Witness his game of 27 points, 10 assists and four steals against Kentucky.
On other nights, Pressey looks out of control and frustrated, such as in his 10-turnover, two-point struggle at Florida.
Still among the top 10 nationally at 7.1 assists per game, Pressey has recently reined in his sometimes-destructive shot selection. Mizzou has won four of its last five games, and in the wins, Pressey has scored only 30 points on 19 shots while dishing 33 assists.
Seven times this season, the junior has put up 18 or more shots in a game, which would be well and good if he were shooting better than 36 percent on those nights. No other Tiger has taken that many shots more than twice.
Compared to last season, Pressey's steal percentage is down and all of his shooting efficiencies have dipped. The Tigers can still be dangerous with the right matchup as long as their point guard's decision-making is—pardon the pun—on point.
It takes some solid competition to rattle NC State's Lorenzo Brown.
Only three times this season has Brown finished a game with more turnovers than assists. Two of those came against a fellow Cousy finalist (Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart) and a player who probably should be a finalist (Shabazz Napier of UConn).
In ACC play, Brown is the conference leader in assists and ranks second in steals, with an A/T ratio of 2.2, seventh in the league. To be fair, he's committed more turnovers than anyone in the conference, but his tempo-free turnover percentage ranks 18th.
The Wolfpack's only losing streak of the season began when Brown injured an ankle against Virginia. State lost that game and the next two as well, falling to this season's ACC titans, Miami and Duke.
The Miami game, though, wasn't decided until a last-second tip-in, leaving Wolfpack Nation to ponder what might have been if Brown had played. Since he returned, the Pack has won six of seven, despite Brown shooting below 40 percent. His typical seven assists per game, however, have remained rock steady.
If Brown can rediscover his shot, the Wolfpack could duplicate last season's Sweet 16 finish. That would be a comedown from the preseason Final Four hype, but for a team that lost five of seven in January and February, it would provide at least a little validation.
After four years of college, Peyton Siva is still not a shooter. Apparently, he never will be.
What he is is the general of the Big East's peskiest backcourt, running an efficient, if unspectacular, offense and tormenting opposing guards with his defense.
Siva, Russ Smith and reserve Kevin Ware are three of the Big East's top seven leaders in steal percentage, helping get the Cardinals out on frequent runouts for easy scores. Only VCU forces a higher turnover percentage nationwide than Louisville's 27.6.
The Cardinals' only loss in their last 10 games was the five-OT epic against Notre Dame, a game that Siva fouled out of in the middle of the second overtime. While Siva's numbers in that game (two points, four assists, 1-of-6 shooting) weren't sexy, he could have been a calming influence dissuading backcourt mate Russ Smith from trying too hard to take over the game.
Siva's value to the Cardinals can also be underscored thusly: Louisville outscores its opponents by 12.7 points per game when Siva's on the court, the second-highest figure in the Big East behind only Smith.
Like Phil Pressey, many of Aaron Craft's efficiency numbers have dipped since his first two seasons. While Pressey can be prone to ignoring the more talented scorers surrounding him, Craft's shot selection is a function of necessity.
In the preseason, the Buckeyes knew they needed a second scorer behind Deshaun Thomas. As we near the postseason, many candidates have stepped forward, including Craft. All have then taken steps back, producing some ugly shooting nights.
As he's become a greater focus of opposing defenses, Craft's effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage have both dropped almost 10 points. Those occasional struggles take away from another solid all-around season.
Craft is second in the Big Ten in assists and steals, despite posting the lowest per-game averages of his career. What's important, though, is that he may be learning to balance scoring with those other duties.
In last week's win over Michigan State, Craft recorded 21 points and six assists, shooting 7-of-12 from the floor. In his other games of six-plus assists, the junior averaged 7.4 points per game on 41-percent shooting.
This week against Indiana, Craft carded 15 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals. Good all-around lines like that could propel OSU deep into March, as long as Craft can involve everyone as well as he has recently.
Pierre Jackson has been a perfect symbol for Baylor's often-frustrating up-and-down season.
He's had so-so games in victories, such as his 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists, four steals and seven turnovers against Kentucky.
He's had good games in losses, like 26 points and six assists (OK, and seven more turnovers) against Gonzaga.
He's even hit double figures in miscues, turning the ball over 11 times in an overtime loss to Oklahoma State. Those errors canceled out his 24 points and eight assists.
Much like Phil Pressey, Jackson's decision-making is often questionable, as evidenced by all the turnovers and the 41 percent shooting on the season. Still, when you're leading the Big 12 in scoring and assists and ranking second in steals, you tend to get some slack.
Jackson handles the ball so much for the Bears and uses so many possessions that his 3.6 turnovers per game (22nd in the nation) compute out to a 20.1 turnover percentage (31st—in the Big 12).
With so many of Baylor's other scoring options providing inconsistent production, Jackson may have a larger burden to carry than any of the other Cousy Award finalists.
Unfortunately, the fact that he's likely to be the only one of the 12 not playing in the NCAA tournament says something about how he's handled that load.
While the quality of the competition in the West Coast Conference is being hotly debated in the wake of Gonzaga's No. 1 ranking in both the AP and B/R polls, don't paint Saint Mary's Matthew Dellavedova with the "overrated" brush.
The 6'4" Australian is a 58 percent true shooter, similar to Shane Larkin and Trey Burke.
Dellavedova's 33.2 assist percentage is a good six points higher than Marcus Smart's.
Players like Peyton Siva and Michael Carter-Williams can only envy Dellavedova's 18.3 turnover percentage.
Most memorably, Dellavedova proved some assassin cred in January, when he stuck a mid-court runner to beat BYU.
The senior fully intends to write a scintillating finish to his career. Over his last four games, he's averaged 21.3 points, five rebounds and 4.8 assists. Three of those four games have been against BYU, Creighton and a Santa Clara team that gave Duke some fits at Cameron in November. In those three games, Dellavedova sat for a total of one minute.
A guy who hits clutch shots, creates for others, doesn't hock up a ton of turnovers and hates to leave the floor, Dellavedova's what any coach wants in his point guard. Any coach who wants to win, that is.
Of the 12 Cousy finalists, Michael Carter-Williams may be the most likely to record a triple-double. He fell one assist short of doing just that against Arkansas in November.
He's also the most likely to shoot 1-of-13 from the floor. That happened, too, on January 6 against South Florida.
A 38 percent shooter from the floor, MCW makes more headlines with his passing and defense. His assist and steal averages are both top five nationally, and his tempo-free percentages are among the top 15.
While Syracuse fans are often exasperated by his tendency to try too hard for the spectacular play, the most surprising line on Carter-Williams' stat sheet is a respectable 20.7 turnover percentage in Big East play, a good five points better than Peyton Siva's.
The downside of those turnovers is that, in Big East play, the games get tight and every turnover means something. MCW could certainly use another year of college ball to improve his decision-making, but that's a year that's unlikely to come if he's rated as a lottery pick at year's end.
Early in Miami's improbable run to the ACC penthouse, Shane Larkin was tossing passes off the backboard to clown North Carolina. More recently, the 'Canes have lost three of their last four and barely survived the two before that, but Larkin's mostly done his part.
Over those last six games, Larkin has averaged 15.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists against only two turnovers a night. Near the end of the loss at Duke, Larkin did commit a costly turnover and miss a potential game-tying three-pointer with six seconds left. Before that, though, he had 25 points.
Larkin has improved markedly from his freshman year, upping his effective FG percentage by almost 14 points and decreasing his turnover rate. The recent losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, however, cast questions on how he and his Miami teammates will handle the postseason spotlight.
A senior-laden team is nonetheless a crew of players who will be new to the NCAA tournament. Coach Jim Larranaga will need to pull out some more impressive halftime speeches to help his team rebound from this season's first sustained stretch of futility.
Fifth in the nation at 37.8 minutes per game, Nate Wolters is tireless.
One of America's top 100 true shooters (61.2 percent), Wolters is versatile.
Fourth in the country in scoring and 30th in assists, Wolters is prolific.
Packing a ludicrously low 12.5 turnover percentage and a solid 2.5 A/T ratio (40th in Division I), Wolters is efficient.
Now, get thee to the comment thread and complain about how Wolters shouldn't be ranked this high playing in the Summit League. But first, look at some numbers from South Dakota State's nonconference schedule.
At Alabama in the season opener: 30 points on 10-of-15 shooting, 5-of-6 from downtown.
At New Mexico, a team some want to complain isn't getting enough No. 1 seed love: 28 points, five rebounds, seven assists and 9-of-15 shooting. Plus, the Jackrabbits won in The Pit, so there's that.
Oh, and he dropped 89 points in a two-game span in February. No matter what league you're in, that's swag. But go whine about how he'd be a scrub in the Big Ten, if it makes you feel better.
Just have the good sense to be nervous if your favorite team draws South Dakota State in the first round. Remember, it had an eventual Elite Eight team nervous as a No. 14 seed last season.
Your national freshman of the year? Absolutely. Best point guard in the country? Close. Still in college basketball next season? Bloody unlikely.
Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart has put up digits in major games since the first time he pulled on his jersey. He averaged 17 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.3 steals in winning the MVP trophy at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The Cowboys beat Akron, Tennessee and NC State along the way, wins that all look pretty strong right now.
Smart struck for 23 points and six assists as OSU came within one point of knocking off Gonzaga. The bad news is that his missed free throws cost the Pokes a chance to tie the game with eight seconds left.
In a similar vein, Smart's 2-of-14 shooting may have cost OSU a season sweep of Kansas, but without his 25 points, nine rebounds and three steals, Oklahoma State doesn't beat KU at the Phog.
Smart's gotten a great deal of much-deserved notoriety for clutch antics like his dual buzzer-beaters at Iowa State. Not only did he knock the game-winner, but he ended the first half with a sick 60-foot bank shot.
A clutch block sealed a win over Oklahoma, capping a night in which Smart scored 28. Oklahoma State should be considered a threat in the NCAA tournament, and if the Cowboys live up to that potential, Smart will be the primary cause.
Now, this may well be your player of the year, certainly in the Big Ten, if not nationally.
Trey Burke has played on another level this season, ranking as one of the 20 most efficient offensive players in America. Michigan has scored 1.27 points per possessions Burke has used this season. The only Big Ten players with a better rating are Indiana's Jordan Hulls and Burke's teammate Glenn Robinson III.
The sophomore has dished assists on 39.3 percent of his possessions, 16th-most in Division I. Turnovers? Not so much, as they come on less than 12 percent of his possessions. His 3.6 A/T ratio is fourth nationally.
As well as he creates for others, he gets his just as well. Only three times all season has he been held below 15 points in a game, none of those coming in Big Ten play.
That streak looked to be in danger Wednesday night at Purdue, when Burke had only four points with 12 minutes remaining and Michigan trailing by 12. From there, Boilermaker trash talk ignited the competitor in Burke, and he scored 15 of the Wolverines' next 20 points. He finished with 26 in UM's 80-75 win.
A win Sunday afternoon against Indiana would put the Wolverines in a tie for the Big Ten championship and potentially start a push toward a No. 1 NCAA seed. All March long, opponents need to bring their best defense to slow Burke and the Wolverines.
To paraphrase the late, great Jim Croce: don't tug on Superman's cape, don't spit into the wind and don't tell Trey Burke he can't guard you.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including this week's players to watch at every conference tournament, check out The Back Iron.