Making a point without a point is proving to be difficult this winter in Southeastern Conference men's basketball.
Experienced point guards have helped separate the contenders from the pretenders during the early stages of the SEC race. Tennessee's Jordan Bone, Auburn's Jared Harper and LSU's Tremont Waters are proven floor generals for teams that are a combined 41-7 overall and 9-1 in league games, while Kentucky freshman Ashton Hagans has shown recently he is capable of directing a show as well.
"True point guards are so important from the standpoint of being an extension of the coach and being able to run a team," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said this week. "I love it when you have multiple ball-handlers, because that makes it even more difficult for them to guard, but at some point at the end of a game you've got to put the ball in somebody's hands and know who that guy is who can get you a basket or a foul.
"It's a lot easier when it's your point guard. When it's your off guard, you've got to get the ball to him first, and then he has to make the play. It affects transition defense, too, because your point guard is usually back and has to call out the assignments and get everybody matched up."
Harper played a huge role in Auburn's return to the NCAA tournament last season after a 15-year absence and has averaged 15.1 points per game this season while leading the league in assists (107) and assists per game (6.7). The 5-foot-11 junior from the Atlanta suburb of Mableton has a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"Jared is like a quarterback on a football team," Pearl said. "He's got experience in our league and plays with a chip on his shoulder for a couple of reasons: He's undersized and he was under-recruited. He goes out every night with something to prove."
Bone has an even better assist-to-turnover ratio than Harper at 3.6, with the 6-3 junior from Nashville averaging 13.4 points and 6.3 assists per game. Waters, a 5-11 sophomore from New Haven, Connecticut, has averaged 13.6 points and 6.2 assists per game and leads the SEC in steals with 48.
The 6-3 Hagans doesn't have the season-long numbers to match Bone, Harper or Waters, but he has led Kentucky over the past five games in points (15.8 per game), assists (4.4) and steals (3.8). The former Cartersville High School star, who committed to in-state Georgia before reclassifying and signing with the Wildcats, ranks second in the conference with 36 steals.
"It all starts with Ashton," Wildcats coach John Calipari said of his team's defensive performance after Tuesday night's 69-49 win at Georgia. "Last year it started with Shai Alexander. If you have a guy on the ball who can't guard the ball, you are not going to have a good defensive team."
Hagans had 23 points and three steals against Georgia, which has struggled to a 9-7 overall record and a 1-3 SEC mark under new coach Tom Crean.
"We don't have a pure point guard," Crean said Tuesday night, "and we're trying to work around it."
Vanderbilt had a promising point guard for five games, but five-star freshman Darius Garland sustained a knee injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season. As a direct result, the Commodores are 0-4 in SEC play for the first time in program history.
Florida coach Mike White said there are plenty of combo guards and utility guards on today's recruiting trail but that true point guards are rare finds.
"If I had to guess the reason for that, it's probably because of what these guys look up to and what they watch on TV," White said. "It starts from the top. Every point guard in the NBA can score it as well as pass it. They direct traffic. They're the quarterbacks and make everyone around them better, but they also score.
"Maybe that's led to junior high and high school kids feeling compelled to shoot it probably more than they should. That's my best guess at it."
The gap between those SEC teams with quality point guards and those without likely will continue to expand in the weeks ahead, and those league coaches who possess them are very appreciative of what they have.
Two of the league's top point guards will vie this afternoon when No. 14 Auburn (13-3, 2-1) hosts N0. 12 Kentucky (13-3, 3-1).
"You can win games," Pearl said, "but it's hard to win championships without a good point guard."
This article is written by David Paschall from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.