Point guard Kresge makes Marist tick
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- Champagne isn't really champagne unless it comes from a particular region in France. Bourbon isn't really bourbon unless it comes from Kentucky. And a basketball player isn't a point guard just because she dribbles the ball up the court.
If you want an example of point guard distilled to its purest form, just watch Marist's Alisa Kresge.
"She knows every option in our offense and what every player is supposed to do, and to counteract how the defense is playing," explained teammate Meg Dahlman, whose Red Foxes face top-seeded Tennessee on Sunday (ESPN, noon ET). "She has an incredible vision for seeing the floor and seeing the open the man -- she threads the needle all the time."
Mississippi's Armintie Price made a strong case for herself as the unofficial MVP of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but Kresge had a compelling argument of her own after guiding the No. 13 seed to upsets against Ohio State and Middle Tennessee. Not bad for someone who scored just six points in those wins.
Marist's senior point guard has earned that label during her time in Poughkeepsie. The three-time reigning MAAC defensive player of the year, Kresge will depart as her school's all-time leader in assists and steals whenever the Red Foxes' remarkable NCAA Tournament run comes to a close. Just as she led Red Bank Catholic High School as that program's all-time leader in assists and steals.
In Kresge's case, the concept of a pass-first point guard is redundant. She averages 5.4 assists and just 3.2 field-goal attempts per game (and has four double-digit assist games against just one game with double-digit field-goal attempts). Despite playing a team-high 31 minutes a game, she has taken fewer shots than five of her teammates this season.
She credits her father, a former college basketball player, for crafting her skills, but it seems she was born to be a point guard.
"I don't know how much it is you can teach," coach Brian Giorgis said. "I think a lot of it is more of a desire. In this day and age of me-first people, it's hard to find somebody that wants to give it to everybody else, so they score the points and get the attention and things like that. And also, at the same time, wants to play defense -- most people just want to play offense. Those people are just few and far between."
Ask Kresge to explain how she views the job description and you get a lot about her team, a lot about distributing and defending but nary a word about scoring.
"For this team -- I mean, other point guards probably do different roles -- but for this team, I think just to try and run the team and calm the team down," Kresge said. "I'm basically there to help everyone, point people in the right direction hopefully. I like to play defense, I try to get everyone going on defense. I feel like I kind of play like a coach on the court, and that's something that I feel like they look on me to do."
Watch her marshaling teammates around the court, organizing the defense and barking out commands and one picture emerges. Like so many great point guards, she seems to have a personality far bigger than her frame and a larger-than-life confidence. But she's a leader with no affinity for power or attention. What comes out so naturally under fire on the court retreats just as quickly when the game ends.
The soft-spoken New Jersey native, who will turn 22 on April 1, the day of the national semifinals, has a self-professed dread of interviews and would rather not play the role of big woman on campus. She recalled feeling mortified earlier this week upon realizing she had inadvertently donned a sweatshirt emblazoned with the team logo before heading to class earlier this week, knowing the attention it would bring on a campus already in the late stages of tournament frenzy.
"I'm more kind of shy and laid back," Kresge admitted, laughing at the thought of playing the same kind of starring role off the court she does on it. "I'd rather not do anything, like interviews -- I'm always like, 'Please don't pick me, please.' I'm kind of more laid-back when it comes to off the court."
Discuss the nuts and bolts of playing the point, however, and words spill out. She describes the process of recognizing not only where the open man is, but who that player is and what they're going to do if given the ball. It's a paragraph's worth of analysis and instructions that she processes in less time than it takes to blink an eye.
"I think you're taught that from the beginning," Kresge said. "Coming down on the fast break, you kind of check real quick who's on what side, if it's a righty on the right side and a lefty on the left side -- you know, just who is on which side and who finished better in that spot. It's a quick thought that you try to have go through your head really quick, in the instant that it's going on. I think it's something that is there, you think about it a lot, but you don't stop and have to worry about it; it's just something quick that you think about."
It's that instinctive knowledge and ability to communicate that allows her to play a role for Giorgis that extends beyond just passing and defending.
"Alisa is just a refuse-to-lose type of kid," Giorgis said. "She's just like an extension of a coach out on the floor. She's always, especially during a free throw or a timeout, instructing the kids what they need to do -- watch for the press here, make sure you get here, make sure you watch there. She knows what we want."
Her teammates soak it in. Rachele Fitz, the MAAC's player of the year as a freshman, credits Kresge for guiding her through the transition to Giorgis' system. And asked to explain the core principle of a defensive philosophy that has allowed the Red Foxes to limit opponents to 36 percent shooting from the floor, Dahlman needs just two words: Alisa Kresge.
"I've never played with a better player than her," Dahlman said.
Without Kresge, the Red Foxes are still a collection of very good individual players. Fitz and Dahlman, especially, are atypical in the blend of size and skill they brings to a mid-major program. But it's the point guard with a 3:1 turnover-to-assist ratio who brings everything together, running an offense that led the nation in fewest turnovers per game and a defense that handled both Jessica Davenport and Chrissy Givens last week.
Kresge's high school coach warned Giorgis that the only downside to bringing her aboard was that it would be unfair to all the guards who followed that they would be compared against her. That legacy is exactly what she'll leave at Marist when this run ends, but any pride she takes in playing a pivotal role in lifting the program to its current lofty position is bittersweet at best.
"It's nice, but at the same time, I wish I was coming back with these girls," Kresge said. "This is a great team, and I'm actually sad I have to leave these girls. I would love to play more games with these guys, I really would, but it's exciting that I could be in a role to help the freshman when they come in and stuff. It's been nice, but I really don't want to leave."
As might be expected, she hopes to eventually return to the game as a coach -- although she admits with an embarrassed grin, "But my parents say I'm an expensive girl, and I need to make some money first." For now, she'll lead from the front for at least one more game.
Like a point guard should.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
MORE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Stricklen stretchered off in Storm loss to Lynx
- Sparks rout Sun in Ogwumikes' 1st meeting
- Hayes scores 21 to lead Dream past Fever
- Meesseman, Latta team up to propel Mystics