MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - As you listen to the analysts, experts and knowledgeable people break down the NCAA Tournament, you frequently hear them talk about the value of having older, experienced backcourts.
Yes, college basketball is a guard-oriented game these days and basically has been that way ever since the NBA starting drafting underclassmen.
Veteran, battle-tested guards can pay big dividends in those pressure-packed situations that come up during NCAA Tournament play, and having older, more mature players with the ball in their hands at the end of games can oftentimes mean the difference between winning and losing.
But not always.
“I think it depends,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said yesterday. “Cal (Kentucky coach John Calipari) has done pretty well and he’s had all-freshmen guards. There are some really, really good 18-, 19-year-old guys out there. I think everybody would take (Lonzo) Ball, right? He’s a freshman. It depends who they are.”
That’s a reasonable statement.
Last year’s national champion, Villanova, did have a freshman at the point in Jalen Brunson, but surrounding him were veteran guards Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart who had a combined 252 games worth of college experience heading into last year’s national championship game against North Carolina.
This year, all of the teams not named Kentucky or Arizona that made the Sweet 16 rely on veteran backcourts, with several of them starting more than two guards.
Wisconsin’s starting backcourt of Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter is the most experienced duo left in the tournament with Koenig and Showalter boasting a combined 275 games played during their careers, which averages out to 137 ½ contests between them.
That’s a ton of experience.
Michigan’s backcourt trio of Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is also extremely seasoned, each of them with at least 102 college games under their belts heading into Thursday night’s clash with Oregon.
Eleven of the 16 teams remaining in the tournament start at least three guards, and one, Xavier, utilizes a four-guard lineup consisting of Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Malcolm Barnard and Quentin Goodin. Three of the four - Bluiett, Macura and Bernard - have logged at least 105 games during their college careers.
Of course, there is also Kansas with possibly the most lethal backcourt in the country, headlined by national player of the year candidate Frank Mason III.
Only North Carolina starts one guard, but junior Joel Berry II does have plenty of experience with 104 career games for the Tar Heels heading into Friday night’s matchup against Butler. If things get hairy with all those Carolina bigs on the floor, veteran coach Roy Williams can also bring in senior Nate Britt, whose 147 games make him one of the most experienced players in the tournament.
As for Kentucky and Arizona, the two teams possessing the least experienced backcourts left in the tournament, the Wildcats can give star freshman guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox a breather by bringing in senior Dominique Hawkins, a veteran of 119 career college contests.
Arizona, too, has the luxury of bringing in Parker Jackson-Cartwright when things become unsettling for star guard Alonzo Trier. Jackson-Cartwright is a veteran of 98 college games.
Even UCLA’s sensational freshman Lonzo Ball is surrounded by two experienced, savvy backcourt mates in Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford, who just happens to be the son of UCLA coach Steve Alford. The younger Alford is almost an extension of his dad on the court with 140 Bruin games to his credit.
All of this brings us to West Virginia’s matchup on Thursday night against Gonzaga.
The Mountaineers start two experienced, battle-tested players in Jevon Carter
and Daxter Miles, Jr. - both getting significant minutes in West Virginia’s last trip to the Sweet 16 in 2015. Carter and Miles have now played in two Big 12 championship games in front of basically opposing home crowds, and they’ve also performed in many pressure-packed atmospheres in sometimes hostile environments.
So, too, has senior guard Tarik Phillip
, who has played just one fewer Mountaineer game than Carter’s 106.
“The league we play in, if you get the yips that’s a bad league for you because every place you go is really a hard venue to play in,” Huggins noted. “Pretty much the last three years we’ve gone into places ranked so they’ve had good crowds when we went in.”
That will certainly be helpful against Gonzaga, which also boasts experienced backcourt players. The ‘Zags start three guards - Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews and Josh Perkins - and bring another experienced guard off the bench in Silas Melson.
It’s not a coincidence those four players lead Gonzaga in minutes. It’s also not a coincidence Gonzaga has lost just once this year and is seeking its 35th victory.
Sure, 7-foot-1-inch, 300-pound center Przemek Karnowski is going to be a matchup nightmare, as will 6-foot-9-inch, 228-pound junior forward Johnathan Williams. Both shoot nearly 60 percent from the floor - mostly close to the goal.
But these older guards, particularly Williams-Goss, are what make this team go.
The same, too, can be said of West Virginia’s Carter, Phillip and an emerging Miles Jr., who recently had a terrific game at the Coliseum against Iowa State and performed well last Saturday against Notre Dame.
These are two teams with tough, experienced, battle-tested backcourts familiar with the pressures that go along with winning closely contested basketball games.
That’s why Thursday night’s West regional semifinal promises to be so interesting, and could very well come down to which experienced backcourt can come up with one more play than the other.