Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart guards Iowa State point guard DeAndre Kane.
Come March, the point guard is the most important position in college basketball.
Take a look at the last four national champs. In 2013, Louisville had Peyton Siva. In 2012, Kentucky had Marquis Teague. Connecticut had Kemba Walker in 2011. Duke had Jon Scheyer in 2010.
It's not exclusive to the champs, of course. Plenty of Cinderellas were keyed by point guard play. Remember Tony Skinn from the 2006 George Mason team that set a new standard for underdogs? What about Joey Rodriguez, the bulldog who sparked Virginia Commonwealth's magical 2011 squad?
The list goes on. More than any other place on the court, the point guard spot demands a steady presence when March hits and the mercury starts to climb. Because if you have a steady floor general, chances are you'll have a steady squad. You can't put a price on that in the big dance.
Here are 10 point guards who could either lead their teams deep into the big tourney or catalyze a surprise dance invitation.
This is not simply a list of the nation's best point guards. Nor is it a list of the point guards on the nation's 10 best teams. These are the point guards who are most indispensable to the success of their teams, and who are most likely to translate that role into big dividends for their team and this spring.
They are ranked on their level of indispensability, if you will, to their teams, and on the team's overall chances of success in March.
All statistics provided by ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.
A/TO ratio: 2.9
LIU Brooklyn may not be great favorites to achieve a third consecutive Northeast Conference tournament title and Big Dance berth. But with Jason Brickman at the helm, it's hard to count them out.
At 9-18, they would indeed need to net that conference tourney trilogy to return to the dance floor. But when you have a guy like Brickman, who has tremendous handle, possesses great passing skills and court vision, lives to create for teammates (he comfortably leads the nation in assists per game) and never gets too high or low on the court, you have to believe the Blackbirds could take flight at any time.
A/TO ratio: 2.44
Providence has a lot of work to do if the team wants to make Selection Sunday interesting for themselves. But they've done well just by staying in the conversation, and if they can get over that final glorious finish line, it will almost certainly happen under the hand of Bryce Cotton, the do-it-all kingpin who ranks among the nation's elite in assists and scoring.
The Friars are lagging behind in the Big East, sitting in fifth place with an 8-7 conference mark and an 18-10 overall record. They lost an overtime heartbreaker last week to Villanova, but they can make some hay in their next three against Seton Hall, Marquette and then at conference leader Creighton.
Credit Cotton and coach Ed Cooley for getting the team this far. Star point guard Kris Dunn went down for the season with an injury in December, and Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock broke team rules and never even saw the court.
Cotton and his buttery offensive game are about as crucial as they can be. If he gets hot, who knows? Providence could sneak into the bracket and be a dangerous player in any region's first round.
A/TO ratio: 1.79
The mayor of Dunk City doesn't do a lot of throwing down himself, but he sure as heck does the job when it comes to swizzling up one of college basketball's most potent cocktails. This year, he picked up right where he left off in 2013 when, as a sophomore, he catalyzed that living meme of an Eagles team all the way to the Sweet 16.
The Eagles, currently running second in the Atlantic Sun conference, knocked off conference leader Mercer last week, thanks in part to 15 points, four assists and five boards from Comer. It's a good bet to suspect Comer and his high-wire setups can again lead Florida Gulf Coast to a head-turning spring.
A/TO ratio: 2.21
At only 5'9", Chaz Williams is the latest undersized point guard to capture a fanbase's imagination, and he's leading the Minutemen to an oversized performance in 2013-14.
The senior from Brooklyn has held steady numbers-wise from his junior season. His three-point shooting is a bit better (.372 compared to .333 a year ago) and his rebounds are down from 4.2 to 3.0, but everything else is virtually identical.
The big improvement, though, is outside the individual standings. UMass ended up sixth in the Atlantic 10 last season and outside the national tournament field. This year, they're 21-5 overall, 8-4 and third place in the conference. Thanks to that, and a national RPI of 15, they are right in the tourney mix.
The difference from last year to this one? In 2013-14, they've converted the close losses of last season (four by five points or less) into the close wins of this season's (five by five points or less), feeding in large part off of the motivation of their leader, Williams, who turned down the NBA draft to return to the Minutemen. Here's guessing the decision pays dividends when the team hears its name called on Selection Sunday.
A/TO ratio: 3.93
Fred VanVleet is not going to play in the NBA. He is 5'11" and not especially amazing in any particular physical phase.
But you know what? He's the clear MVP for D-I's only remaining undefeated team. So maybe he's not great at anything, but he's pretty darn good at everything.
Look at that assist-to-turnover ratio, for example, good for fourth in the nation according to NCAA statistics. He converts 48 percent of his field goal attempts (pretty doggone good for a point guard), shoots 43 percent from deep and hits 84 percent of his free throws. He also chips in four boards and two steals each contest, on average.
And that's to say nothing of the fact that he's the team's unquestioned floor leader. With VanVleet at the helm, the 30-0 Shockers have overcome test after test, and there's no reason to think that momentum can't or won't stay rolling in the big tournament, where, in case you forgot, Wichita State reached the Final Four last season. Just saying.
A/TO ratio: 3.39
Minutes played by Tyler Ennis in his last five games: 35, 36, 43 (OT), 40 and 40. That should tell you all you need to know about how indispensable he is for the Orange.
Syracuse has experienced a bit of a market correction of late, losing two of their last three and barely escaping Monday at Maryland. But they are too talented and too savvy to stay down, and that's largely a function of Ennis. C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant may pull down gaudier stats or catch larger shares of the pixels and column inches, but Ennis is the Orange's steadiest and most clutch player. That buzzer beater at Pittsburgh is only the most salient evidence of that.
The freshman plays beyond his years and will be a key stabilizer if Syracuse is to live up to its midseason promise once the weather gets warmer.
A/TO ratio: 2.05
The junior from Chesapeake, Va., doesn't have what you'd call a classic point guard's game. But he is the engine that has fueled the Rams to a 20-7 record and fourth-place spot in the very deep Atlantic 10 conference.
For Weber, it all begins and ends with defense. He's constantly hawking the passing lanes and diving for loose balls—a perfect fit for coach Shaka Smart's high-octane, high-pressure manner of play.
The numbers bear it out. Weber is the Atlantic 10's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, pouring in a crazy nation-leading 3.7 steals per contest, according to NCAA stats. And his rebounding isn't bad either, with about four per game.
Weber's approach has its downside, typically in the form of fouls and failed gambles. But that's how VCU rolls. When it works, it can be absolutely smothering.
The A-10 sent five teams to the big dance last year. It's entirely feasible the conference could do so again, and VCU would be right there. If that's the case, Weber's right at the tip of the spear.
A/TO ratio: 1.73
Hey, did you hear that Marcus Smart shoved a fan? Breaking news right here.
Here's another breaking news item: He served his suspension and is back on the court. So, as an old mentor of mine once told me, it's time to build ourselves a bridge and get over it.
Back on the court, Marcus Smart is not your father's point guard. He doesn't purely play the floor general or facilitator type of role. But Oklahoma State cannot afford to be without his leadership and his dynamic playmaking. No secret or surprise that (or why) the Cowboys lost all three games Smart missed because of that suspension you might have heard about.
The sophomore isn't going to blow anyone away with athleticism, but the guy just knows how to play ball. He sees the moves and executes them. He has a nice stroke on his mid-range jumper. He has a rock-solid build that he uses to bull through defenders. He can go at you from outside or he can take it to the rim. He can play both ends of the court. There are a lot of positive marks in his column.
At the same time, I don't want to make him out to be a one-man gang. His three-point shot is not always an asset. He doesn't jump out of the gym.
But it feels like those things are picking nits. Smart is Oklahoma State's best player and one of the best in the country, and he's demonstrated that since his return, averaging 16.5 points, 8.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds in wins over Texas Tech and TCU.
If the 18-10 Cowboys are going to go deep in March, it will be on the back of their talented point guard. They're decidedly bubbly as of now, but with Smart back, things are looking up.
And by the way, if you're not plugged into that Kansas game this Saturday, you should be ashamed to call yourself a college basketball fan.
A/TO ratio: 2.2
I learned a lot about DeAndre Kane and the Iowa State Cyclones after Kane suffered a sprained ankle and was carried off the court during a Jan. 11 loss at Oklahoma.
How long would he be out? Entering the murderer's row portion of its schedule, how would Iowa State fare without its best player?
The answers never came, because two days later on Jan. 13, Kane was back on the floor. Kane notched 21 points, three assists and eight boards in a losing effort to Kansas. Not the best performance of his season. Neither was his next game, a surprise defeat to Texas in which Kane finished 3-12 from the floor.
But he was back out there, man. That's the point. And after that tough stretch, ISU has rebounded, going 7-2 behind 15.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.3 dimes per contest from Kane.
The 21-5 Cyclones are second in the Big 12 and a mortal lock for the dance. The kind of toughness Kane—a 24-year-old transfer from Marshall who has faced personality questions throughout his college career—displayed in fighting through his ankle injury can permeate an entire team. It's the kind of quality that will keep Iowa State coming off the mat time and again when it matters most, and earn the team the most springtime buzz it has seen since Marcus Fizer.
A/TO ratio: 1.95
Shabazz Napier isn't the only talented player for the Connecticut Huskies. But he sure is the one who matters most.
For proof, let's set the time machine for Feb. 20. Against a frisky Temple Owls team looking for its second consecutive upset win, Napier, UConn's leading scorer, suffered through a dismal 3-11 shooting performance. But he kept at it. He found other ways to contribute. He dished out seven assists. He got to the line, where he hit all 11 of his free throws. He grabbed 12—yeah, 12—rebounds.
The recent loss to SMU was bad. No denying that. In that game, Napier shot 5-16 and had two assists to five turnovers. He'll need to do better.
But it's evidence of how much the Huskies need him. And their 21-6 overall record indicates how much success he's helped them generate, not to mention how much he's likely to generate for them this spring if he can regain his form. The team has to hope for it. They have no choice. They need him like no other team needs its point guard.