Point Guard Play in the Big Dance
It’s a guard’s world.
Especially in the modern era of college basketball, you ain’t going anywhere without solid guard play. The dominant, back-to-the-basket big is endangered if not extinct, hand-checking is no longer the cultural norm, and the dribble-drive offense is being featured more than ever. Break down the D, make good decisions in the lane, knock down some 3s, get Ws. This year’s no different, and there have been a few PGs beyond the usual suspects who have caught my eye in the early days of the tournament.
Hank Bassett went off last night against Georgetown. The Hoyas did not play all that poorly on offense; what killed them was their inability to keep Bassett from penetrating and creating scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates (also, Ohio shot the ball extremely well from distance). The Indiana transfer has big time quickness, decent strength, and a toughness and aggressiveness with the ball that makes him very difficult to handle. G-Town threw a number of different defenders at him but nobody had the answer. He’s equally comfortably attacking with both hands and is proficient changing direction with the cross, between-the-legs, and behind-the-back dribbles. Perhaps most impressive about Bassett is that even though he plays at such intense speed, he’s rarely out of control; he can stop on a dime off a full-speed push and evaluate his options from there. When a guard as quick as Bassett is also proficient at changing speeds, it becomes extremely difficult to get any kind of defensive rhythm and you end up getting torched.
Though they just got dropped by the exceedingly impressive Cornell Big Red, I liked what I saw from Temple PG Juan Fernandez. He’s got good size for a lead guard, standing at a legitimate 6-4, and is comfortable playing both on and off the ball. He’s a very smart passer, especially in transition (although Cornell kept Temple hemmed up in a half-court game for the most part), and a good shooter with a quick release from distance (46% 3PFG this season). Fernandez is accomplished shooting off the bounce and off the catch, and displays great creativity when getting into the lane. He’s very quick and aggressive on the defensive end, constantly pressuring and extending his man away from the basket, denying passes, and harrassing with his hands in hopes of poaching a steal. When caught on switches with Cornell’s 7-footer Jeff Foote, Fernandez was anything but intimidated while grappling for position (despite getting the worse of the physical exchange, as you might imagine).
Perhaps most importantly, Fernandez also has that strange combination of feistiness, swag, and unorthodoxy that seems endemic to Argentine basketball players. Like the Ginobilis, Nocionis, Scolas, and Sanchezs before him, you’re not always quite sure how Fernandez will score and you’re not sure why your team is letting him score. Shit, I’m not sure Ginobili has ever driven to his right hand in his entire career but defenders bite on his fakes anyway, and Scola’s one of the League’s best finishers despite having a 12 inch vertical, max. Fernandez similarly uses his body and an assortment of fakes well to find space for a shot and plays with a style that is very difficult to get a beat on. Like his countrymen, he’s fiercely competitive and a very intelligent team-player, too.
Evaluating Fernandez isn’t the easiest venture for a number of reasons. Firstly, Temple’s offense is a bit compressed, closing down a lot of driving lanes because of the number of bodies they keep traversing the interior. Furthermore, Fernandez shared a lot of the ball-handling responsibilities with Luiz Guzman, so the system is not a perfect one for featuring Fernandez’s many talents. Throw into the mix that they were playing a Cornell team that jumped seamlessly from zone to man and kept help-side defenders in the lane with great discipline, and you can understand that this was far from an ideal showcase for the young man. Still, though, Fernandez showed the goods, flashing some post skills, knocking down a nice runner off the bounce, and burying a few 3s. Last summer he led Argentina to a solid 5th place showing at the under-19 World Championships, and even in the losing effort today, there was something irrepressible about his confidence and will. As Coach Fran Dunphy so perfectly put it, he’s got “burglar’s guts”, and look for the young man to make a lot of noise in the years to come. He’s clearly got some work to do on his body but to be fair, by the look of his face you’d probably guess he’s 16 years old, so give him some time.
Enough has already been or will be said about this year’s predestined ‘it’ player, Jimmer Fredette, but I figure I should give him a shout-out anyway. People like to emphasize the cleverness of his game along with his assortment of floaters, scoop shots, and other legacies of the old school. Fair enough. But I think that discredits what a strong, quick athlete he is as well. Dude’s not a circus act. He can really ball. Saturday’s contest with Frank Martin’s boys might top 200 points.