Jim Harris: Twenty Years Later, Final Four Teams Still Rely on Guard Play


Final Four Teams Still Rely on Guard Play

We see it said in various quarters that the college basketball game has changed so much since Nolan Richardson and the Arkansas Razorbacks made their run to the 1994 national championship.

Sure, there are more full timeouts per half to get more advertising dollars, and the three-point line is a foot further back. The one-and-done rule for players jumping to the NBA has changed the game somewhat — programs like Kentucky hoard a lot of the talent over a four-year period now. Think of how many more teams could be populated with stars if the colleges and the NBA got together on fixing the one-and-done ridiculousness with either an 18-year-old or 21-year-old eligibility for the draft, like pro baseball. Either you declare for the pros out of high school or you’re not eligible again until you’re 21.

Other than those differences, much looks the same. The shot clock hasn’t changed, though after watching this constant milk-down of 20 seconds or more every possession during many of the NCAA Tournament games, the men at least should adopt the women’s 30-second clock.

As Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Kentucky move into Saturday’s national semifinals, the Final Four, in Arlington, Texas, much looks similar to what we saw in Charlotte 20 years ago: It’s still about great guard play.

Sure, power forward Corliss Williamson was the 1994 most outstanding player and swingman Scotty Thurman hit the deciding three-pointer against Duke in leading the Razorbacks to the national championship on this very day 20 years ago, but the starting backcourt of Corey Beck and Clinton McDaniel were defensively the difference for the Hogs, particularly in overcoming Arizona’s outstanding backcourt of Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves in the Saturday semifinal. The Wildcats’ duo had their worst shooting day of the season dealing with the longer, taller and as-quick Beck and McDaniel. And, remember Richardson took a big gamble playing Beck with four fouls for the last 10 minutes of the game, when the Hogs rallied from five-points down to win going away, 91-82.

Beck was particularly amazing in close games not only with his defensive rebounding and ability to score in the clutch, but in his efforts to hit the boards though being the shortest Hog on the floor at 6-foot-2. Only when sharpshooting sub Al Dillard came in did Beck not feel like the littlest man on the court.

McDaniel came to Arkansas with a tremendous reputation as an outside shooter and left in 1995 as a terrific lockup defender. His thigh injury late in the first half of the 1995 final with UCLA was a huge factor in the Bruins’ pulling away in the second half to deny the Hogs back-to-back championships (and yes, Williamson and Thurman had subpar nights in that title game while the O’Bannon brothers excelled and Cameron Dollar had the game of his life in subbing for the injured Tyus Edney).

Saturday, we will see as good a guards as the college game offers today. Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin may not have had the scoring average to earn higher than third-team Associated  Press All-American, but we’d take him over anyone but maybe UConn’s Shabazz Napier if we were starting a team. Imagine them together.

Wilbekin has willed Florida to this point just as the Memphis-native Beck refused to lose for Arkansas back during the 1993-95 run, and Wilbekin has provided the key clutch baskets the way Thurman would drain them for the Hogs in desperate moments — really, it never look like desperation when Thurman stepped up, just as it never appears that Wilbekin loses any sense of the moment for the Gators. One unforgettable moment from last weekend’s Elite Eight round had a TV camera catching Wilbekin urging his Gator teammates to calm down in the ugly final minutes against Dayton when it appeared Florida’s hold on the Flyers might slip.

The Gators kept control because of the defense that Wilbekin also leads despite his small stature.

Kentucky is here because the Harrison twins finally grew up. Freshmen Aaron and Andrew no longer seem to make the careless mistakes that beset them at times during the regular season, and they no longer seem to be awed by any other veteran backcourt they face, including Louisville’s terrific pair of Russ Smith and Chris Jones. The Wildcats’ problems were never on their front line before the tournament, thanks to Julius Randle, but the backcourt seemed to be a work in progress that might not come together until next November.

Instead, led by the Harrisons’ surge in March, which then opened up more opportunities for shooter James Young and more chances for reserve big men like sophomore Alex Poythress, freshman Dakari Johnson and, against Michigan, freshman Marcus Lee, Kentucky seems like a complete team now — certainly capable of bringing back yet another national title to the Bluegrass State.

Now, the Harrisons look like the one-and-dones they were supposed to be when Kentucky was pegged No. 1 in preseason polls.

Wilbekin aside, no single guard has willed his team further than UConn’s Napier. Remember that just two weeks ago, the Huskies were on the brink of elimination against St. Joseph’s before rallying to force overtime. If  Coach Kevin Ollie and the Huskies can manage a slow pace against Florida and stay within striking distance, Napier could be the difference again, as he was in hitting a buzzer beater in December in Connecticut to hand the Gators one of only two losses this year. The senior Napier has the perfect backcourt complement in junior Ryan Boatwright, who has had an outstanding tournament finishing at the rim and with his perimeter defense.

Wisconsin, coincidentally, gave Florida its only other loss. We’d bet 90 percent of the country outside of Wisconsin could name its backcourt, though certainly big man Frank Kaminsky became well known in leading the Badgers past Arizona and its solid guards.

But Ben Brust is the school’s all-time leader in three-pointers with 232 over four seasons, and while Kentucky is all about the freshmen, Wisconsin has three starters that are juniors along with one senior.

Might the moment in Jerry’s World, Cowboys Stadium, prove too much for Kentucky in the Final Four, which lost there earlier in the season to Baylor?

We’d go with team who has the best performing backcourt.

Which leads us to one final point — Arkansas fans continue to ask, perplexed, when the Razorbacks will return at least to the NCAA Tournament, if not another Final Four. That will be when the backcourt is in solid hands, and it’s been the hardest position so far for Coach Mike Anderson to equip with big-time talent. Incoming freshmen Anton Beard and Nick Babb will change that. Asking them to be Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel might be a bit much, though.

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