*Duke had John Wall. The Kentucky freshman scored 25 points, 12 of them down the stretch, in his team's 64-61 win over UConn last night. Even though he's probably a 1-and-done guy (NBA draft after his freshman year) and Duke usually stays away from those types, Coach K turned up the recruiting heat last year in an attempt to woo him away from UNC and Kentucky. We can only imagine the litany of charm and persuasion pouring forth from the Gothic campus.
There's no telling how close we came to actually winning the race, but it's certainly a nice fantasy to imagine him on this year's team. After 9 games, it's clear that he's every bit the phenom the hype machine led us to believe, and he's well on his way to a Freshman of the Year award and who knows what else. Duke's starting lineup with Wall would look like this:
C Mason Plumlee/Lance Thomas
With Dawkins coming off the bench to provide an outside shooting spark, Miles Plumlee and the other of the Mason/Lance duo giving us fungible big bodies, and Zoubek sitting on his hands somewhere in the fifth row, that's a very, very formidable club. It also relieves Scheyer of onerous point guard duties and lets him excel where he belongs, as a spot-up shooter. With Wall's ability to draw defenders with penetration, he and Smith would be deadly from 3, and the stretched defense would only augment Singler's slashing style, along with creating oodles more offensive rebound opportunities.
Again, this is an exercise in mirage-building, but it does show how badly we miss a great point guard. As it stands, Duke is a team of good players who have to operate at 100 miles per hour at all times just to tread water. Someone like Wall would let everyone settle into their natural role, relax, and become great. That's what the really talented point guards do, and it's why theirs is the most important position on the court. Without a top-notch point guard, it's too easy for other talented players to be marooned on an offensive island. The obvious sports analogy is a great receiver whose capacities go to waste because of a quarterback who can't throw. It may seem like that situation is more extreme, but at the highest levels I'd argue that a great point guard is equally important.
Take a look at the last few national champions, and the point guards who led the team:
2009 - UNC - Ty Lawson
2008 - Kansas - Mario Chalmers
2007 - Florida - Taurean Green
2006 - Florida - Taurean Green
2005 - UNC - Raymond Felton
2004 - UCONN - Ben Gordon/Taliek Brown
2003 - Syracuse - Gerry McNamara
2002 - Maryland - Steve Blake
2001 - Duke - Jason Williams
2000 - Michigan State - Mateen Cleaves
And the list goes back. The worst of that bunch is Taurean Green, on a loaded Florida team that was arguably one of the best in college basketball history, and he still plays professionally in Greece. This is an obvious point to make, probably, and each of these national title teams had other great players in other positions (going down the list: Hansbrough, Rush, Noah, Brewer, May, Okafor, Anthony, Dixon, Battier, Peterson). But the one constant, the only constant, actually, was great point guard play. In college basketball, it's the sine qua non. You can't get by without it.
Which is why my mind wanders to players like John Wall, and why I'm pretty pessimistic about Duke's chances for a Final Four run. So who are the contending teams with great point guards? The ones who should logically be considered real national title contenders? According to this site, the top point guards in college ball are as follows:
1. Sherron Collins, Kansas
2. Kalin Lucas, Michigan State
3. John Wall, Kentucky
4. Jerome Randle, Cal
5. Greivis Vasquez, Maryland
6. Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
7. Jon Scheyer, Duke
I've seen Randle in person, and he's not that great. Vasquez for Maryland has a really poor supporting cast. And Scheyer, though a steady-Eddie of the first rate, is not a natural point guard or someone you'd ever call a 'creator.' That leaves Collins, Reynolds, Wall, and Lucas. Unsurprisingly, their teams are ranked 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 12th, with Kansas cast as the year's prohibitive title favorite.
A quick final note...
In a really sad piece of news, Duke freshman Andre Dawkins' sister was killed in a car accident this past weekend. Lacey Dawkins was 21, and she was on the way to see the Duke-St. John's game with her mother when they crashed on a highway in West Virginia. Dawkins played 21 minutes in that game and scored 3 points, presumably unaware of the tragedy. Here's hoping the mother is okay, and that Andre can find some peace during his leave of absence with his family. By all accounts, he's mature beyond his age (don't forget, this is the same guy who graduated high school in three years to come early and fill the spot vacated by Elliot Williams, who also left school due to family issues), and it's a shame that he has to shoulder this new burden. Most of us can only imagine.