By Monty Phan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
They are the quarterbacks of the basketball court. Or Ä if you will Ä the courterbacks.
They are the leaders, by default, really, because the position usually demands it. They are the ones who call the shots and the ones who are expected to make them, too. Unselfishness is an asset, good hands a necessity, a clear head a must.
They are the point guards, and they're invading the Pacific 10 Conference.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the emergence of Pac-10 basketball this season has been its Houdinis of the hardwood, those backcourt brains who have found more than one way to get the ball to the frontcourt brawn. This year's crop includes All-America candidate Damon Stoudamire and UCLA's Tyus Edney, as well as a host of talent along the entire west coast.
If there's a point guard in the country Ä scratch that Ä if there's a player in the country that's generated the most hype among basketball observers, it's Stoudamire. He lost his backcourt buddy from a year ago, Khalid Reeves, to the NBA's Miami Heat, but Arizona hasn't missed a beat, probably because its drummer has the Wildcats marching to one of the top-ranked cadences in the nation. The Wildcats' version of "The Little Drummer Boy" has put up big numbers so far this season, but that's no surprise Ä he's the current conference leader in scoring (21.7 points per game), assists per game (7.2), second in free throw percentage (.848), and fourth in three-point field goal percentage (.486).
"I think he has played extremely well for us," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "He likes having the pressure on him. A year ago he shared that with Khalid, and certainly enjoyed playing with Khalid, but I don't think he's been uncomfortable with him being the guy by himself now. He's
shooting the ball better than he's ever shot it for us. I can't imagine a guard in the country that's playing as well as he's playing right now."
And speaking of top-ranked, while Arizona is marching, UCLA is galloping, with Edney leading them out the gate. The senior has led the Bruins to as high as No. 2 this season while directing his team to a scoring clip of 90.5 per game, tops in the conference. In addition, Edney is currently leading the league in steals at 3.3 and is second in three-point field goal percentage at .520.
"Certainly I think (the Pac-10 is) ten strong in point guards," UCLA coach Jim Harrick said. "No one would question Stoudamire and Edney. There's some really unbelievable point guards in our conference."
"It is definitely a point guard conference," Olson said. "When you look at Stoudamire and Edney, if you're going to talk about the top, say, four or five point guards in the country, then certainly those two are there, and maybe even higher than that. But if you said the top five point guards in the country, then I don't think there's any question that at least two of them from our league would be included."
Even though Stoudamire and Edney will exit center stage next season, they give way to more than a few impressive understudies. At Stanford, sophomore Brevin Knight is helping to slay the Cardinal's often fiery opposition; his efforts include a career-high 31 points against Colgate, a game-high 16 points at Washington, and 12 points and three steals in an overtime loss to Arizona last week.
"Brevin is a great player," Stoudamire said of his Cardinal counterpart. "He's going to be a good one, and he's the type of guard that can bring out the best in somebody else, just like playing against me can bring out the best in him."
"I guess it's pretty obvious when you talk about Stanford you have to make special mention of Brevin Knight," Oregon State coach Jim Anderson said. "Last year Ä and I think even this year Ä our league has been recognized as having great point guards. Brevin Knight is as good as anybody on a national scale, and I think he's proving it."
Just across the bay in Berkeley, Calif., the Golden Bears have what might be considered an arsenal in some circles, even without the top signal caller in their history, Jason Kidd. Now a member of the Dallas Mavericks, the Kidd from Cal left school as a sophomore, making way for junior K.J. Roberts, who has evoked a few memories of a different KJ and former Bear, the Phoenix Suns' Kevin Johnson.
Perhaps a more significant parallel than the K.J.-KJ connection, however, has been the comparison between Kidd's arrival two years ago and the arrival of high school standout Jelani Gardner this season. Gardner, a first-team selection to last year's all-high school team by USA Today, has done more than merely back up Roberts, he's started two games, too. The freshman leads the team in assists and steals, and his 5.6 assists-per-game average is seventh in the conference.
"He's given us the same thing Jason gave us in terms of a big point guard and a guy that can cause matchup problems at times," Cal coach Todd Bozeman said. "He's added to us more leadership stability off the bench in terms of the point guard position, another outside shooter Ä overall, just a leader and another excellent player who's making an impact as a freshman."
Down the coast at Southern Cal, freshman Cameron Murray has the Trojan faithful talking. It's no small wonder, either, because if his bloodline is any indication, Murray will have his fans more than just talking, they'll be yakking up a storm. The brother of former UCLA forward and Portland Trailblazer Tracy Murray and cousin to Los Angeles Clipper rookie and ex-Cal forward Lamond Murray, the USC newcomer has already begun writing his own chapter in the Pac-10 books, leading the Trojans in assists at 4.7 per game (eighth in the conference) and steals at 2.5 per game (fourth in the conference).
"He's playing as well as any freshman in the conference," Southern Cal coach Charlie Parker said. "He is very mature on the court and he's getting the other guys to play better. His passing has been excellent."
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