College basketball is a guard-dominated game — plain and simple. As much talk as there is about big men who patrol to control the paint, it's really the little guys that act as the engines making their teams go. 

Call it whatever you want: Giving him the keys, giving him a leash, giving him the deed; at the end of the day this is the guy likely to have the ball in his hands as the clock winds down. And to put it bluntly, most coaches only have a handful of guys worth trusting with the rock in a pick-and-roll scenario.

 
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But running the two-man game is a delicate art form, one that requires a bevy of skills and instills a certain confidence in those who run it well.

That said, let's take a look at some of the more prolific playmakers at the point guard position across the nation.

Monte Morris, senior, Iowa State Cyclones: 13.8 points per game, 6.9 assists/game, 3.9 rebounds/game, 35.8 percent from 3-point line

Morris, a native of Flint, Mich., has seen his minutes, shot attempts, points and assist totals rise steadily in each of his three seasons with the Cyclones. That stems from a confidence instilled by former coach Fred Holberg (now of the Chicago Bulls), one that has carried over into the tenure of Cyclones head coach Steve Prohm (formerly of Murray State).

Prohm has had a lot of success with his guards in the past (Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne come to mind), but this season he will focus his attention on Morris’ swan song before graduating in the spring.

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ISU vs. UVA: M. Morris floater

Morris has spent a number of years playing second fiddle to players like DeAndre Kane and Georges Niang, but he will now get to show off his entire arsenal. The jump shot has not always been the main focus for Morris, but he is a more-than-capable shooter between the 3-point and midrange variety, albeit a bit more inclined toward the latter.

Morris’ stock and trade is his quick first step. He also has an ability to finish with both hands, in addition to what some might so endearingly call the "playground dribble". Case in point, in this example from last year’s Sweet 16 matchup against Virginia, Morris runs one of the signature features of the Iowa State attack.

Georges Niang, the recently departed stretch-four, employs a drag screen — a staple of Fred Holberg’s time in Ames, Iowa — which gives Morris a number of reads when he begins his attack of the defense. 

After coming off the screen, a brief hesitation freezes his defender and opens up a lane to the hoop. Morris now has three options. Lay the ball off to the wings, find the man at the top of the key, or keep his dribble alive and call his own number.

A breakdown of Morris' dribble penetration highlights the options opened by his driving lane to the rim.
NCAA
A breakdown of Morris' dribble penetration highlights the options opened by his driving lane to the rim.
In this case Morris challenges Virginia’s 7-footer Mike Tobey with a teardrop floater, but the option of a drop pass to the baseline cut man remains. Every guard in America has his own iteration of this shot, but it’s an essential tool when a guard finds a crease to the hoop.

Going into 2016 with the departures of four of the Cyclones’ top five scorers and the team’s three leading rebounders leaves a lot on the plate for this senior floor general, so don’t be surprised if his name is mentioned in Cousy Award circles.

London Perrantes, senior, Virginia Cavaliers: 11 ppg, 4.4 apg, 3.0 rpg, 48.8 percent from 3-point line

Nothing boosts your confidence like a deep playoff run, and that’s exactly what London Perrantes had last year as the Cavaliers made it all the way to the Elite Eight.

Perrantes’ job orchestrating the offense for head coach Tony Bennett revolves around two things: find the open man and keep the defense honest with long-distance shooting. The LA-bred point guard has the quickness to shake most defensive coverage, but opts to do his damage with the jump shot to a large degree. In 2015-16 he boasted one of the best marks in the country, flicking the nets at a clip of 48.8 percent from deep.

Let this be a reminder that a ball screen does not necessarily have to be on-ball, some like Perrantes prefer a chance to operate in open space. Still the same basic principles apply, KYP. Know your positioning.

In this example against Cal, the play calls for Perrantes to give the ball up early to get it back later in the shot clock. A simple misdirection read allows Anthony Gill to set up a screen on the ball side, opposite the direction that the defender is moving.

A quick first step creates all the space needed to get the shot off, and boy did Perrantes need it here. More to the point, in coach Bennett’s mover-blocker offense, we are still seeing the same screening action along the baseline and free-throw line areas. 

Late in the game, we see a team executing its offense properly. That type of precision normally begets success. Granted taking and making a game-winning shot are two different issues altogether.

If you take this to an on-the-ball scenario, Perrantes’ ability to pull up off the dribble to the left and right is a valued asset. A lot of players are comfortable receiving a pass in the shot-ready position, but catching the ball on the move and getting a good shot attempt while doing it is far more difficult than it looks. It’s an asset that gives a player the potential to score without having to put the ball on the floor.

Emmett Naar, junior, Saint Mary’s Gaels: 14 ppg, 6.4 apg, 3.7 rpg, 41.8 percent from the 3-point line

Naar is the leading scorer and lead playmaker on a team that returns its top six scorers from a year ago, though many Gaels fans are likely still upset over playing in the NIT.

It’s worth mentioning that the Sydney native saw a huge jump in minutes his second year, so the expectations are likely to be high heading into another packed season in the West Coast Conference.

That said, this team boasted the best assist-to-turnover ratio in 2015, ahead of the likes of Michigan State and North Carolina. Stats don’t always tell the full picture though, but Saint Mary’s offense is definitely worth watching.

And sometimes seeing is believing.

Solid floor spacing is a prominent feature for Saint Mary’s on offense and here it gives Naar a world of options as he drives left and into the lane. A quick turn around the screen and a late defensive rotation has Naar squared up to the hoop and operating in a moving triple threat position (ability to dribble, shoot or pass).

The lane for a left-handed layup is available but at 6’1” Naar knows that he’s still vulnerable to a player making a play from behind. His decision to go off the wrong foot while shooting with his right hand is purposeful because it allows him to use the rim to his advantage.

Just like one might see a defender use the baseline or sideline to their advantage, the offensive player can use the rim to shield himself from the defender. It’s undoubtedly a more difficult play, but Naar’s basketball IQ more than makes up for his diminutive figure here.

This type of point guard play is essential at the college level because it shows a solid grasp on floor spacing. Even if Naar did not take his shot at the hoop and instead kept his dribble alive, there would be a mismatch created by the on-ball action.

Naar could have easily moved into the corner off the penetration to allow his screener to post a smaller defender, but the point is that solid execution in the two-man game gives any team a bevy of options offensively.

Melo Trimble, junior, Maryland Terrapins: 14.8 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.6 rpg, 31.5 percent from the 3-point line

There was a bit of a backslide in Trimble's sophomore year, but the hyperquick guard led a potent Maryland offense all the way through the postseason. There's invaluable experience in that playoff atmosphere and some say the best way to grow is to go through some adversity.

This Maryland team lost a lot of talent to the draft and graduation, which makes Trimble's job all the more important heading into the upcoming year under head coach Mark Turgeon.

But there's reason for optimism, even if it rests squarely on Trimble's slender frame.

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While the shooting figures from the field and from deep took a dip last year, Trimble saw his assist totals increase by nearly 60 percent per game (3.0 in 2014 to 4.9 in 2015). It's not clear if there's any direct correlation between the increased offensive duties and the downtick in scoring, but a lot of signs would point to that as the likely culprit.

As many have said though, this year's team is clearly Trimble's to lead.

One thing Trimble is sure to miss are the human building blocks that set screens for him last year (Robert Carter Jr. and Diamond Stone), but he will likely find other running mates in due time. His ability to maneuever his body and control his dribble in tight spaces is a skill that will certainly ease that transition.

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SDSU vs. MD: M. Trimble layup

In this example, Trimble uses a screen set by Damonte Dodd to size up the defense.

After squaring to the hoop, the point guard sees extra space in the lane because the defense is well aware of his speed. With players like Trimble you have to pick your poison, give him space to shoot the jump shot or risk the potential of a blow-by drive.

That's where the guard turns it into another gear, splitting the lane opened by the trailing player and rotating help defender. By the time the defense can react Trimble is already en route to the hoop.

He who holds the ball holds the key, but quickness is a skill that allows this Maryland native to dictate the flow in the two-man game.

A breakdown of Trimble's drive to the hoop highlights his use of the ball screen.
NCAA Photos
A breakdown of Trimble's drive to the hoop highlights his use of the ball screen.

Austin Luke, junior, Belmont Bruins: 6.2 ppg, 6.3 apg, 2.7 rpg, 39.2 percent from the 3-point line

Much like Naar and St. Mary’s, Austin Luke and the Belmont Bruins make a living as one of the teams perennially located at the top of the charts in terms of field goal percentage. That is due in large part to the fact Rick Byrd's Bruins work to get good looks just as well as any team in the country, and it starts with the guards who handle the majority of the dishing.

Belmont was the 10th-best team in the country averaging 17 assists a contest, and Luke is a prime example of how the team operates to that effect. The team normally employs a staggered screen setup to open up space for its guards operating out of the wing area, but here we looking at an opportunity in the open floor.

Technically there's not even any screening action in this set, but the pressure a potential screen can create is evident.

Luke brings the ball up in transition after a steal and does his job as a point guard to keep an eye on the big man running the lane in the middle of the court. A crossover dribble to regain balance feigns the appearance of an impending ball screen to his right side.

The defense freezes with little communication, Luke maintains his dribble with his head up, and all the while the big man never stops streaking to the rim. This may seem like a normal fast-break scenario, but it also demonstrates a keen understanding of pick-and-roll basketball.

Just like any good pump fake, sometimes the name of the game is deception.

Luke sets up the defense with his pacing —forcing the defenders to commit and converge on the ball — and makes an on-time delivery with a picture-perfect bounce pass just like they practice it.

Bryant McIntosh, junior, Northwestern Wildcats: 13.8 ppg, 6.7 apg, 3.6 rpg, 36.6 percent from the 3-point line

McIntosh is not built like a lot of guards in college basketball. He does not have explosive athleticism or an extremely built frame, but what he lacks in strength he more than makes up for with basketball savvy, creativity on offense, and a seemingly endless supply of energy.

The 6’3” junior has a knack for making plays for both himself and teammates, but some might find his play at the point a bit erratic. Nonetheless, this herky-jerky tempo is where McIntosh is most comfortable operating.

Head Coach Chris Collins’ offense, which includes some basic elements of the Princeton Offense run under former Coach Bill Carmody (currently at Holy Cross), instills that kind of hyperactive energy in its players. That said, the main focus of McIntosh's game is testing the patience of the defense, and he is constantly probing the lane off the dribble to create action on offense. An above average jump shot — both of the off-the-dribble and pull-up varieties — forces defense to stay home and not help to other defenders.

In this pair of plays you see McIntosh’s entire repertoire on display. Quickness and ball-handling are a few things in his favor, but the far more important aspects of his game is his ability to set up driving and passing lanes off of a ball screen.

via GIPHY

via GIPHY

Basketball, like most sports, is all about timing. In both cases you see a slight change of pace (or even a full split-second stop) to keep his defender off balance, but McIntosh does not upset the timing with his screening teammate.

Not necessarily the fanciest dribbling you’ll see on the hardwood these days, but the ball is protected and the point guard is in complete control of the look his team is getting at the basket. 

More importantly, in both cases we see the same result: a bucket.

Defense is about staying engaged to your assignment and staying disciplined, but knowing when to press the gas or to employ a simple stutter-step dribble can create a crease to the hoop or a lane for a teammate. Northwestern will be looking for a new leading scorer in 2016, which should mean even more antics from the lead guard position this year in Evanston — antics being a term of endearment of course.

Dallas Moore, senior, North Florida Ospreys: 19.8 ppg, 6 apg, 4 rpg, 39.5 percent from the 3-point line

There’s always something novel about a left-handed player that gets to people. In most cases it’s just the lefty being the odd man out, but in the case of Dallas Moore there’s way more than meets the eye.

Moore blends a lightning quick first step, a slick dribble and an ability to finish around the rim — more often that not with the left hand. He also makes his mark as a deadeye shooter. 

Moore was among the league leaders in the Atlantic Sun conference from deep, while the team also ranked in the top 10 nationally from beyond the arc. That shooting prowess is a deterrent for defenses that look to cheat around and underneath ball screens.

In a March matchup against South Carolina Upstate in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, Moore used a weak-side screen to his advantage against an overzealous defender.

Here the decision to decline the ball screen option gets Moore in a position for a straight-line drive to the rim, and the defender’s choice to drop off and undercut the screen puts him in a compromising spot.

A crossover dribble would have worked to the same effect, but the choice to opt for a little razzle-dazzle is a testament to soft defense. Admittedly, Moore might benefit from the fact that some defenders forget his dominant hand but that’s not an excuse at the D-I level.

The fact that he is also a willing passer actually opens up his offensive game, despite his role as the leading scorer on a team that featured five players averaging double-digits. Though the makeup of this year’s squad will be a bit different, be sure to look for much more of the same from No 14.