Sixty-four teams spent nearly four months trying to get in the NCAA tournament. Now that they've secured berths, they're right back where they started, still trying to get in. Trying to get in the lane, either to score, to get fouled or to draw the defense in and dish the ball out for a three-pointer. "[The proliferation of] guards who can penetrate and make plays is the biggest change in college basketball since the jump shot," says Indiana coach Bob Knight. "These guys gel into your defense and force you to help and rotate. And every time you rotate, it opens up a hole in your defense."
The start of this week's NCAA tournament caps off the first season of this Avant-Guard Era. Teams that couldn't tend to simple backcourt chores like handling and shooting the ball are peeling paper off butter patties at their postseason banquets right now. And any school without a guard who can get the ball into the paint will soon be calling its caterer too. Why have Kansas, Minnesota and South Carolina received three of the highest seeds in the field? Because the Jayhawks have the nation's best point guard (Jacque Vaughn), the Golden Gophers have its best pair of guards (Eric Harris and Bobby Jackson), and the Gamecocks have the best trio of guards (Larry Davis, B.J. McKie and Melvin Watson). "The evolution of college basketball is complete," says former Southern Cal coach George Raveling. "A generation ago you couldn't win without a dominant post player. Now the big guy is irrelevant. [Wake Forest's 6'10" center] Tim Duncan is the only great inside player in a long time who has stayed in school for four years. We'll never see another one."
The early exodus of big men to the NBA partly explains why the game's petite are now its elite. But guards rule for other reasons:
•Elimination of the five-second closely guarded rule. This change allows backcourtmen to wait out a defense, looking for a soft spot. "It's not as pretty as the passing game, but if you have somebody who can dribble and penetrate, you have an advantage," says North Carolina coach Dean Smith. That's particularly true when the 35-second clock winds down.
•The ineffectiveness of motion offenses. Referees nowadays permit defenders to claw their way over and around screens, and that hinders the efficacy of the passing game. Thus screening and cutting, which were as likely to present a forward as a guard with a shot opportunity or a path to the hoop, have mostly given way to the drive-and-dish, for which frontcourters need not apply. "We were relative pioneers in switching on defense," says Knight, "but now when you take away a team's cuts and screens by switching, they can still beat you with a guy who can penetrate and pass."
•The three-point shot. How much of a payoff is that extra point? Enough to make a sally into the heart of a defense worthwhile—even at the risk of an offensive foul or a strip—if the move results in a three. In the NBA, three-pointers come when the ball is dumped into the post and a big man whips a pass out following a defense's double down; in college, penetration and pitching by the guards begets treys.
The evolution of which Raveling speaks has really been a revolution, and revolutions can be messy. Two of college basketball's hoariest conferences, the Big East and the Big Ten, have watched their roughhouse teams fall into eclipse because they are ineffective against opponents with greater quickness and wider spacing. Villanova had a bounce in its step when it went to Lexington to play Kentucky on Feb. 9. The visiting Cats figured that with their superior size they would whup the host Cats on the boards. But Villanova struggled even to inbound the ball against Kentucky's withering press and turned the ball over 24 times while losing 93-56.
Meanwhile, teams with three-guard offenses have prospered. Duke hasn't started anyone taller than 6'8" since Jan. 29, but the Blue Devils have gone 8-3 since then and wound up with a No. 2 seed. Guards Jeff Capel, Trajan Langdon and Steve Wojciechowski, who average 6'2", have combined to score 37.9 points a game since becoming a three-man unit. Arizona, Clemson, Illinois, Maryland. UCLA and UMass have all used small lineups to good effect too. "It's hard to find size, and that's why everyone is going to three-guard sets," says Utah coach Rick Majerus.
As for those teams that have been surprises, we need look no further than their backcourts for an explanation. Colorado has—can you resist any opportunity to utter his name?—the estimable Chauncey Billups. St. Joseph's won the Atlantic 10 tournament thanks to a point guard, Rashid Bey, who can bench-press 300 pounds. Conference USA's tournament champion, Marquette, won four games in four days even though its leader, Aaron Hutchins. must take oxygen for half an hour before and after each game because of a sickle-cell blood deficiency. Xavier appears to be an X-ception to the March maxim that you need experience at guard because starters Lenny Brown and Gary Lumpkin, though sophomores, play like seniors, having been together for seven seasons, since junior high in New Castle, Del.
For the next few weeks, keep your eye on the ball—and the guards who will be handling it: