Point guards lead the way in Sweet 16
We may be living in the year of the quarterback, but March will always be the month of the point guard.
When the Sweet 16 gets under way on Saturday afternoon, some of the biggest stars on the court will be the smallest players on the court. From eight standout seniors looking to play at least one more game to four freshmen who appear ready to battle for bragging rights for years to come, the weekend's most intriguing subplots may come from duels between players who do considerably more than merely bring the ball up the floor.
1. Precocious freshmen meet proven stars
Shoni Schimmel, Louisville vs. Courtney Vandersloot, Gonzaga: Sure, a Final Four with all four No. 1 seeds would offer its own supply of marquee matchups, but short of immediate championship ramifications, the two point guards on the floor in Spokane, Wash., for the Sweet 16 games between No. 7 Louisville and No. 11 Gonzaga may just put on the tournament's best show.
Vandersloot is the best point guard in the sport, a subjective title she nonetheless earned even before she put on a show in the first two rounds with 34 points and seven assists against Iowa and 29 points and 17 assists against UCLA. She is a pure point guard who can score 30 points, not a scorer who can play point guard, a distinction that matters for the highest-scoring team in the nation because as good as the Bulldogs senior is on her own, a sizable part of her value stems from how much better she makes everyone around her.
By the time Schimmel's done, she may have an equal impact on the scene. She already offered a glimpse, eliminating Xavier with 33 points in the second round. As it is, the freshman still shows the impetuousness of youth on occasion (and as was true for Vandersloot, it takes time for teammates to adapt to passes arriving at times and places that seem to defy conventional wisdom, if not physics). But she's fearless and single-handedly worth the price of admission.
Meighan Simmons, Tennessee vs. Samantha Prahalis, Ohio State: In a Sweet 16 field that includes four freshman point guards, there is no bigger wild card at the position than Prahalis as she leads No. 4 Ohio State against No. 1 Tennessee.
The Buckeyes junior is a gifted ball handler and passer. She is capable of scoring 20-plus points on any given day. And she is undeniably entertaining. But like a quarterback in football, point guards are judged more than most of their peers on results. And as the player running the show for the most enigmatic team in the sport this season, particularly a player who wears her frustrations on her face, she's going to be a lightning rod.
Simmons is proof that a good point guard is often the one who best fits the talent around her. A brilliant prep scorer, she doesn't need to step outside her years or comfort zone to become Tennessee's version of George Patton -- not with a senior, two juniors and an experienced sophomore around her in the starting lineup most of the time. The freshman just needs to keep things moving (something a player nicknamed "Speedy" is more than capable of doing) and make sure the team's leading scorer (that would be her) gets some good looks at the basket.
Odyssey Sims, Baylor vs. Celeste Hoewisch, Green Bay: Both guards involved in the game between No. 1 Baylor and No 5 Green Bay recently landed on the list of 40 finalists for the WBCA State Farm All-America team, and deservedly so in each case.
Hoewisch is the walking (or more often diving, trapping and battling) definition of a veteran point guard. The fifth-year senior is a coach on the floor in a sense more literal than cliched, actively speaking up and making suggestions for fine-tuning strategy in practice. Undersized at 5-foot-7, she nonetheless ranks third on the team in offensive rebounds and is often found guarding bigger players in the post or herself posting up players less comfortable in the paint on the offensive end. By skill set and system, she's a combo guard with a hand in everything more than a pure distributor, but she's also all floor leader.
If Hoewisch was the first piece of the puzzle as Green Bay's elder stateswoman, Sims is equally valuable as perhaps the last piece of the puzzle for Baylor. And like Hoewisch, while she has more than 100 assists, her role is more diversified than the traditional point guard model. She's hit 63 3-pointers so far this season, 23 fewer than the entire team hit last season, when opponents could collapse every available body on Brittney Griner in the post. But she's more than a shooter -- she's on pace to attempt more free throws than any Baylor player, save Griner, did last season.
2. Eight seasons of experience, one game to advance
Cetera DeGraffenreid, North Carolina vs. Jeanette Pohlen, Stanford: Slowing top-seeded Stanford shapes up as daunting challenge for DeGraffenreid and the fifth-seeded Tar Heels, but North Carolina's senior point guard has some experience with stepping in front of stampedes without getting run over. DeGraffenreid ranks sixth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, which for a Sylvia Hatchell offense is roughly equivalent to a quarterback at option-happy Navy leading the nation in passing yards. She has her limitations as a scorer, but her value running an offense has rarely been more apparent than in 34 minutes against Kentucky's pressure in the second round.
Pohlen arrived at Stanford with the potential to be a great guard. That the senior and Pac-10 Player of the Year is exiting as one of the nation's best point guards is proof as much of her work ethic as of her abundant physical gifts. In some ways forced into the position by default early in her career, Pohlen, with some help from the likes of assistant coach Kate Paye, became someone who could manage a demanding coach and a court full of stars. If she was once a shooting guard playing point, she is now more a point guard with added bonuses of the size, skills and scoring touch of a shooting guard.
Sam Quigley, DePaul vs. Jasmine Thomas, Duke: In the case of No. 2 Duke against No. 3 DePaul, it's actually nine seasons of experience going head to head between fifth-year senior Quigley and true senior Thomas.
When you've got some natural ability and you grow up getting the ball to one of the more prolific scorers in recent Big East memory, as Quigley did playing alongside her older sister, Allie, you have a good start on playing point guard. Throw in five seasons with coach Doug Bruno, including a redshirt season because of a knee injury, and Quigley isn't likely to be awed by the stage in her first trip to the Sweet 16. She's got all the intangibles of a great leader, but the tangibles -- namely, her 3-point shooting -- are also crucial for DePaul.
A combo guard in the most complimentary sense of the term, Thomas is perhaps best described as Duke's playmaker, whether the play ends with her taking the shot or someone else taking it. That balance has improved this season with a talented freshman class around, which may help explain why she's shooting nearly 40 percent from the 3-point line, easily a career best. But when it comes down to it, Thomas still has as much on her shoulders as any guard in the country for a team that needs her to lead the way.
3. Anything you can do, I can do better
Danielle Robinson, Oklahoma vs. Skylar Diggins, Notre Dame: No point guard is better at getting into the lane off the dribble than Robinson, who has attempted 365 free throws in the two seasons since Courtney and Ashley Paris departed (the next closest Sooner has attempted 162 in that span). That ability to shift from facilitator and secondary scorer in her first two seasons to become the focal point, emotionally and statistically, for a team with a 6-1 record in the NCAA tournament over the past two seasons sums up why a player with not inconsiderable parts is still more valuable than the sum of them.
Change a few locations and numbers around and the same might be written about Diggins in the final weeks of March in 2013. They aren't clones -- Diggins has shown more of an ability to hit the 3-pointer and might not be quite as quick on her first step -- but they are similar in their ability to play point guard inside the arc and play the role of scorer while still distributing the ball. And while Diggins didn't have the shadow of something like the Paris twins to play in during her freshman year in South Bend, she did find a way to fit in on a senior-laden team last season before stepping into her own this season.
4. The wild cards
Sydney Colson, Texas A&M vs. Jasmine James, Georgia: Colson is one of only two guards in the Sweet 16 with more than 200 assists and an assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks in the top 10 nationally. And any time you share a category with Vandersloot as a point guard, you're doing something right. And like Hoewisch and Quigley, in particular, there's a certain strength and determination in the way she plays that carries weight well beyond her statistics.
On the other side, James can claim the most direct cause-and-effect relationship between her play and her team's place in the Sweet 16, courtesy of an offensive rebound and putback in the closing seconds to beat Florida State in the second round. But after a season as a secondary distributor behind Ashley Houts, James has emerged as a more consistent presence during her sophomore campaign.
Bria Hartley, Connecticut vs. Rubylee Wright, Georgetown: The fourth freshman point guard on this list, Hartley shares something in common with Sims in that she is not her team's leader in assists -- nor is she asked to be. As long as Maya Moore is around, the ball is going to run through her a lot of the time, while Tiffany Hayes and Kelly Faris, like Baylor's Melissa Jones or Tennessee's Shekinna Stricklen, are also outstanding passers. All of which just means Hartley is that much more effective as a scorer, shooter and, when needed, point guard.
It would be easy to say Wright's role is to get the ball to Sugar Rodgers. And then get it to her again if she misses. And the degree to which that's true isn't a slight to Wright; it's not easy to keep an offense moving when everyone in the arena knows where the ball is likely going. But for a team that thrives on points off turnovers, the junior point guard is also key to keeping the Hoyas moving in transition. And a single-season program record for assists suggests she's doing that pretty well.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.