With every curl he ran off of to perfection, with every 3-pointer he attempted with ease and with every transition attempt he confidently attacked the basket on, Shabazz Napier left those watching Monday’s national championship in more awe than the play before. This wasn’t anything new for Connecticut’s senior point guard, who scored 25 points in a win over defensive-minded Michigan State in the Elite Eight and entered Monday’s matchup against Kentucky averaging 21 points per game in the tournament. Still, it was incredible to watch him as he diced up one of the country’s best defensive backcourts for 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting, including four 3-pointers, in the Huskies’ 60-54 win — their fourth title in program history — and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
Napier’s historic run in the tournament — the No. 7 seed Huskies are the second lowest seed to ever win it all — proceeded a stellar regular season campaign in which he scored 20 or more points 10 different times, including scoring outputs of 26, 27 (twice), 30 and 34 points. Connecticut’s point guard was also its leading scorer, and it further pushed the narrative of scoring point guards in college basketball being a necessity, not an option. And it’s also why Marquette can follow Connecticut’s suit with its current roster and incoming talent.
Marquette’s starting point guard hasn’t led the team in scoring since 2007, when sophomore Dominic James averaged 14.9 points per game for Tom Crean’s Golden Eagles. Travis Diener also led Marquette in scoring in 2004 and 2005, and Dwyane Wade (very much a shooting guard with point guard abilities) was the leading scorer in 2002 and 2003.
But since James’ junior season in which he ranked second in scoring, the Marquette point guard position has been lackluster, at best in the scoring department. In fact, the last six seasons the starting floor general has ranked no better than fourth in scoring. That, in itself, doesn’t mean everything, seeing as the Golden Eagles have had other positions put together impressive scoring seasons, namely Jerel McNeal, Lazar Hayward, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. This season’s Arizona team had point guard T.J. McConnell rank sixth in scoring, and the Wildcats won 33 games.
But consider that in those six seasons, five different starting point guards have combined to average 8.0 points in 200 career games. James’ senior season led the way (11.0 points, 2009), followed by Dwight Buycks (8.8, 2011), Mo Acker (8.7, 2010), Junior Cadougan (8.5, 2013; 6.3, 2012) and Derrick Wilson (5.0, 2014). Buycks was the closest thing Marquette had in that span to a shoot-first point guard, while Acker’s shooting (49.5 percent from 3 as a senior) made him a perfect point guard for the Golden Eagles’ offense. But as a whole, the point guard position has lacked scoring prowess, bottoming out this past season with Wilson’s scoring woes.
First-year head coach Steve Wojciechowski was known for his defensive work as a point guard, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2007 and trademarking the now-famous floor slaps. And while Wojciechowski said Marquette’s style of play begins with tenacious defense, he comes from a place that put an emphasis on scoring point guards.
This past season point guard Quinn Cook ranked third in scoring (11.6 points), in 2012 Austin Rivers was the Blue Devils’ leading scorer, in 2011 Nolan Smith averaged a team-best 20.6 points per game, and in 2010 Jon Scheyer, playing the point for the first time, led the Blue Devils in scoring while also handing out a team-high 4.9 assists per game. That’s not even including Kyrie Irving, who averaged 17.5 points in the 11 games he played in 2011. Say what you will about the talent Duke brings in, especially at the point, but on a roster littered with talent at every position the point guard was always at the top of the scoring ranks.
We don’t yet know the style of play Wojciechowski will install, and he won’t have much to work with in Derrick Wilson next season. But if Duke’s past teams are any indication, the future of Marquette basketball should include a high-scoring point guard or, at the very least, better than the 8.0 points per game they have averaged the last six seasons.
The first player who could make this transition at the point is Duane Wilson, who redshirted a year ago after breaking his leg in preseason workouts. Wilson is more of a combination guard — Deonte Burton said he’s actually better suited as an off-ball slasher — but so were players such as Rivers, Smith, Scheyer and Irving, all of whom thrived in a Duke system that Marquette could mirror. John Dawson projects as more of a passer, though there’s an influx of talent entering the program at the point in Sandy Cohen, Ahmed Hill (another combo) and potentially Nick Noskowiak.
In a perfect world Marquette would find a Shabazz Napier in every recruiting class, let him blossom behind a Kemba Walker (who won a title himself in 2011) and celebrate another NCAA championship, but there’s a reason Connecticut cut down the nets Monday evening in North Texas. They simply don’t grow on trees. And a great point guard isn’t the end-all, be-all. Fellow guard Ryan Boatright and wing DeAndre Daniels were major contributors to the Huskies’ run, and a great coach is necessary for any team to succeed, no matter the players or system.
But it’s becoming clearer than ever that a point guard with scoring capabilities is no longer an option, but a necessity for any team to succeed. Of the final eight teams in the NCAA tournament, the teams’ starting point guards averaged between 7.9 and 17.9 points, and the low man was Michigan freshman Derrick Walton Jr., who had Nick Stauskas handle the ball on most possessions. The eight teams’ point guards averaged 11.5 points per game this season, more than any Marquette point guard has in seven seasons.
Marquette may never have a Napier, a Walker or another Wade, and it’s true the Golden Eagles advanced to a pair of Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight with point guards who didn’t score much. But if Napier’s play Monday night and throughout the tournament taught us anything, it’s that a scoring point guard has the ability to change a possession, a game, a team and a season.