The point guard question

Coming out of Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis Oscar Robertson was already regarded as one of the best high school players in the game at the position that demands the most discipline on the floor. Then, for three seasons, he made the college basketball world bend to his will. At Cincinnati he showed just what a point guard was capable of if he had the talent and will to win by any means necessary.

Robertson was smooth. He could dish. He could spot up. He could hit the fade-away. He could go by you straight to the bucket, or come down with a rebound you were sure was in the other guy’s hands. He was, for a time, the most indefensible basketball player in the game. At Cincy, he averaged 33.8 points, 15.2 boards per game. This at a time when freshman players weren’t allowed to play varsity, so who knows what Robertson could’ve done with a fourth year?

Some folks have estimated how many assists he might have averaged but the disconcerting thing is the NCAA didn’t actually start officially keeping the assist stat until the 1983-84 season. So there’s really no way to judge perhaps the greatest aspect of Robertson’s game, which was making the other four men around him better. But this much we know: At 6-foot-5, he was a handful in all areas of the game. Some say the best ever.

“He could rebound and box out guys four and six inches taller than him,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. “He was ruggedly built. He had fluid, quickness, and just understood the game. No flair, he just got the job done every night. Who’s going to average double figures in points, assists and rebounds?”

The Bearcats were 79-9 with Robertson running the point, and he led them to two Final Fours. When he left college basketball, he left it as the game’s all-time leading scorer. Essentially, Robertson is one answer to Kansas coach Bill Self’s point guard question.

***

It was the game where Self dropped compliment profound on Cam Clark and Ryan Spangler alike that KU point guard Naadir Tharpe broke out with one of his better games of the season. Tharpe beat OU for 17 points. Five days later he would drop 23 points on Iowa State and 21 on Oklahoma State.

But before the Jayhawks beat the Sooners, Tharpe had only put together three double-digit scoring performances all season. He matured before our eyes when he put the game out of reach for the Sooners in winning time. That was the kind of game Self had been waiting to see from his floor general. And he made his point by asking a very good question.

“When’s the last time a team had a great, great year — I mean a great one — unless you have a point guard that’s a closer?” he asked. “It’s kind of like having a good quarterback. You know in the two-minute drill he can get something out of nothing.”

Elijah Johnson became that kind of guard for Kansas last year. Self’s hoping Tharpe continues to emerge as that kind of guard for KU this year.

Tharpe has never averaged double figures scoring for an entire season. But he’s sitting on 9.5 points per game through late January, and he’s playing on the team at the top of the league standings. I think the two are related.

The Big 12 is filled with good point guards this year, and most of them can be found on teams at the top of the conference. It seems to have at least one or two players each year that are capable of playing with anyone in the country and even capable of impressing enough to become Wooden Award finalists.

The most recent one — and, of course, you know this — is Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart. Last year Marcus Smart stole college basketball headlines before he even played a game for the Cowboys. Then he vindicated all the hype with his play on the floor. A big powerful point guard, he gave opposing teams all they wanted in the stat book with points, assists, boards and steals — a lot of steals. He tied OSU school record for steals in a season with 99.

He likes to try to take a charge every now and again, and that’s sparked some message boards to come up with some pretty entertaining memes at his expense. But nobody falls down in basketball who isn’t looking to take one for the team. In the game for the Texas 5A state title, Smart scored 16 points, pulled down 11 boards, recorded four steals and took five charges.

“That’s not an exaggeration. That’s five called charges,” said Smart’s high school coach Danny Henderson. “How do you put a price on that?”

That’s Marcus Smart. He just hustles. His teammates enjoy him, and OSU coach Travis Ford enjoys coaching him. That’s also par for the course for most of the folks who have played with him.

Isaiah Taylor has helped turn Texas basketball around and made UT coach Rick Barnes look like the smartest guy in the room. Taylor averages 10.8 points, 3.7 assists and 3.4 boards per game. But the best thing he’s done for the Longhorns is free up sophomore guard Javan Felix.

Last year Felix was thrust into the point guard position while the NCAA drug its feet on Myck Kabongo’s case. He was average last year — 6.8 points, 4.1 assists per game — but he’s come into his own this season. He’s scoring 12.5 points per game and shown when he gets hot he’s hard to cool. He dropped 28 on the Sooners in a game OU won by just three points.

Kenny Chery gives No. 24 Baylor 11 points and five assists per game at the point. His production will be undervalued though, now that the Bears are 1-5 in Big 12 play and will almost certainly drop out of the rankings come Monday.

Marcus Foster was a PARADE All-America point guard before he arrived in Manhattan, Kan., but it was almost immediately apparent he could compete with the best in the Big 12. He dropped 25 on Oral Roberts in the Wildcats’ second game of the season. That began a streak of 10 straight games in double figures.

Only three teams have held Foster to single-digit scoring. Against two of those teams, he scored eight points. Foster scored 17 on a top 10 OSU team in a win. He hit 6 of-12 shots — including 4-of-8 from 3-point land — for 18 points in a win against the Sooners.

KSU was a team picked to finish tied for fifth with Oklahoma in the Big 12 standings by the media members who vote in the poll — and I don’t — but made its way into the top 25 rankings before Martin Luther King Day. It’s fair to say, with Angel Rodriguez electing to transfer to Miami last season, the Wildcats don’t get there without Foster on the roster this year. You could say the same for Jordan Woodard and the Sooners.

***

Woodard came along at a time when the Sooners were anything but settled at the point. Sam Grooms helped get the 2012-13 squad through some rough times while Isaiah Cousins found himself as a scorer and Je’lon Hornbeak learned to play the position. But Grooms was not a pure scorer, was not a creator. He was a facilitator and one of the premier dime men in the league, and then he was gone. Before Woodard even stepped foot on campus, it was a given he was going to have to contribute early and often.

When I asked Marcus Woodard about his son, he summed up best how the man wearing jersey No. 10 in OU’s crimson and cream sees the game.

“It’s his determination to do what it takes to win,” he said. “You saw it in the Seton Hall game. You saw it in his high school senior year, the championship game. He just never gives up. He’ll do whatever it takes to win until that buzzer goes off.”

It’s one thing to be willing to do whatever it takes. Many like to think they are. Most just aren’t. Fact of life. But what Marcus didn’t say, and what’s intriguing about Woodard is he has shown all the tools needed to DO whatever it takes to go along with his desire to win. He can get to the bucket with the shot clock running down. He can create for his teammates. He will hustle after loose balls, and he’ll challenge guards on defense.

In the Sooners’ game against Texas Tech on Saturday he scored 11 points, dropped four dimes, pulled down three boards and notched two steals in only the first 20 minutes of play not because he could but because that’s what was needed.

He’s had games where he hasn’t been his best* but there have been more games than not where Woodard led the Sooners to victory than to losses.

*See: OU’s home game against Texas Christian.

In the final seconds of OU’s game against Baylor in Waco, Texas, he was at the charity stripe to put away the win. In the final seconds of OU’s game against Seton Hall in Brooklyn, he came up with a point, a big steal and a big rebound to win the game.

The Sooners returned to the AP top 25 rankings for the first time in four years with Woodard as the starting point guard. And now the Sooners aren’t just playing to get into the NCAA tournament. They’re playing for seeding with a very good OSU team coming to Lloyd Noble.

Each team has an opportunity to do something special, to experience one of the more memorable seasons in either program’s history with just over a month left to play in the regular season. The point guard battle between Woodard and Smart will be at the forefront for two teams with aspirations of a great season. And like Self asked earlier, what truly great team has had a great year without a point guard who can score, who can facilitate, who can close? Someone will to have to answer Self’s point guard question.

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