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Can UConn Meet Expectations While Searching for Both a Leader and a Point Guard?

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The 2009 National Championship banner will be unveiled this afternoon, and all but one of the UConn players that played minutes in competitive situations last season will be in uniform again.

That of course includes the 2009 National Player of the Year Maya Moore as well as Tina Charles -- the All-American center and Final Four Most Outstanding Player -- who will be there after a summer leading the World University Games team in scoring and a few weeks playing with the Senior National Team this fall.

Their two All-Americans return along with Kalana Greene, Tiffany Hayes, Kaili McLaren, Caroline Doty, Meghan Gardler, and Lorin Dixon, eight of the nine players that played rotation minutes during an undefeated season. However, the one missing player is of course Renee Montgomery -- a player that led the team, handled the ball, and took the shot when the offense broke down for four years.

While filling in the hole Renee Montgomery leaves behind both as a leader and a point guard is a challenge UConn coach Geno Auriemma would gladly do without, it's also a challenge that will largely define this season.

Will arguably the most talented frontcourt in the nation be derailed by it's backcourt? Who among Lorin Dixon, Caroline Doty, Kelly Faris or Tiffany Hayes, emerge as the point guard? Or will it be a season with players being forced into the position of lead ballhandler without ever really claiming it?

The way the backcourt situation evolves will keep most fans' interest even as the UConn Huskies simply overwhelm most of their opponents this season.

Contradictions

Listen to UConn coach Geno Auriemma for any length of time talk about point guards and you will be met with contradictions. He's spent much of his career talking about great point guard play. The University of Connecticut is essentially Point Guard U in women's basketball after all.

No school has had more outstanding players or collected more accolades at that position. Auriemma will tell you that, "Point is and always will be the most important position on any basketball team." And in the same media session tell you that, "Anybody can handle the ball that's played in high school. It's just a matter of learning what to with it." Ask Geno about the various labels for positions and he will lament the present designations of "point" and "shooting" guards and express nostalgia for a time when there were simply "guards."

While overtly contradictory, we've all seen that contradictory nature of play out at the point guard position. No position has the ability to sink or limit a team the way the point guard position can in basketball. And at the same time there's little evidence that teams need anything much beyond solid point guard play to win championships as long as there are talented creators at other positions.

Take a look at the starting point guards on championship winning teams over the last two decades in the NBA. Only one player has averaged over 7 assists per game on a championship winning team since 1991. Which player did that? Avery Johnson and his 7.4 assists per game. No position. WNBA history isn't much different.

Can point guard be the most important position on the court even if having a great player at that position doesn't matter very much? Perhaps, and Auriemma does indeed have an underlying coherent philosophy when it comes to backcourt play. And that philosophy will have a big impact on whether Geno Auriemma can sort out his backcourt well enough to win a 7th national championship this season.

The role of a point guard

First, the leadership aspects of a point guard and the ball handling responsibilities of a point guard need to be separated.

When talking about the importance of point guards whether it's Jennifer Rizzotti, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, or Renee Montgomery, Auriemma is almost always really talking about leadership. It's hard to win if the player with the ball the most, the player making the majority of the decisions isn't a leader. It's hard to win if that player isn't someone the other players trust and believe in. That's why one of Auriemma's favorite instructions to his point guards is, "Everything is your fault."

Sue Bird was told that after only playing 8 games as a freshman because of an ACL injury. Everything from a bad play in a game to players standing in the wrong order in a layup line would be her fault. Renee Montgomery eventually received a similar level of responsibility. There were two older All-American wings on that team in Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, but the inexperienced point guard was charged with responsibility for the team. Players need to believe in the person with the ball.

And yet there's also truth to Auriemma's distaste for labeling guards even if he can't stop himself from labeling them himself. Teams are usually better off when their point guard is a competent scorer off the ball and ball handling responsibilities can be distributed among two or three players.

It takes a tremendous point guard to really control the ball and still be successful against good defenses. In basketball, asking the shortest player on the court to take on that much ball handling responsibility isn't likely to result in great offensive efficiency.

Auriemma's teams have almost always operated out of a two guard front when bringing the ball up and a three guard motion offense in the halfcourt. If the point guard is pressured the ball is swung and the other guard initiates the offense. When teams decided to pick up Renee Montgomery defensively 80 feet away from the basket, Tiffany Hayes simply brought up the ball and initiated the offense instead. When Sue Bird won her first of three Nancy Lieberman awards as the nation's best point guard in 2000, she was 2nd on the team in assists and only 7 assists away from being 3rd. It's a system where point guards that suceed the most have a shooting guard skill set as well as the ability to learn to play the point.

Options

This season Auriemma has four players all with very distinct abilities to fill the point guard position vacated by Montgomery.

Lorin Dixon was given what was essentially one last chance to seize the starting position. After mid-season ACL injuries to the team's starting shooting guards during both her freshman and sophomore, DIxon was given a chance to start and in both seasons was unable to keep it both times. While Dixon can flash her incredible athleticism and speed, she's struggled to find her place in a halfcourt offense.

A continuity offense built on passing, cutting, and shooting is not a natural place for a 5'4" guard with a very suspect jump shot. This summer Dixon was credited with working the hardest on improving her game and attended Point Guard College, earning her one more chance to start. Dixon started both exhibition games but unfortunately she suffered a hamstring inury early in the 2nd exhibition game. The injury will likely sideline her for at least a couple of weeks. Dixon's injury speeds up what was likely an inevitable return to the bench, but it also puts an additional pressure on the other thrre guards to perform.

With Dixon's injury, sophomore Tiffany Hayes takes over the starting point guard role to begin the season. She performed well as freshman, but faces new challenges as most of her great performances came in games where she was basically left unguarded as teams focused on UConn's three All-Americans. As the season progressed Hayes did take on more and more point guard duties allowing Montgomery to move off the ball when teams devoted special attention to Renee. And by the NCAA tournament she was confidently directing her teammates.

Now Hayes must adjust to the greater defensive attention and increased responsibilities, while still finding ways to score herself. Hayes, the youngest player on the World University Games team this summer, has the talent and confidence to play the position, but it won't be easy. The most positive sign so far hasn't come during the run of play, but rather during the team huddles where she's clearly the player doing the talking.

Caroline Doty would likely be the key player for UConn this season, and if not for tearing her ACL for a second time in a little more than a year last January there might not be nearly this much uncertainty when it comes to the point guard position this season. Last season Doty started opposite Montgomery in the backcourt until her injury and specialized in 3-point shooting, making ten in a row at one point. Unlike Hayes, Doty came to UConn with a desire to play the point. And while she lacks the ball handling and penetration abilities of the classic point guard, UConn isn't a place for a classic point guard.

Doty has the best combination of skills and leadership abilities for the position out of the four players, but a summer spent rehabbing instead of playing basketball took her out of the intial competition to soem degree. She's still the player I expect to be in possession of the "point guard" designation at the end of the season. If that comes to pass, I expect the UConn backcourt will be in pretty good shape at the end of the year.

The fourth player, Kelly Faris, is the only true freshman on the team and the emergency candidate at point guard. She'll be a key player even if she never plays a minute with the "point guard" label, especially with Dixon out of the lineup to begin the season. Faris is a player without a natural position, but with strong basketball intelligence and a well rounded game. She'll play in the backcourt in much the same way that Jillian Harmon played for Stanford last season. The team might be able to survive if Faris is indeed forced into the point guard role, and she'll now likely get plenty of opportunities to play the position late in blowouts. But, she's more likely to help as the off guard in combination with Hayes or Doty at the point. She needs to be effective handling the ball and initiating the offense.

I suspect that having both Hayes and Doty in the starting lineup will work well. Both have versatile and well rounded skills and these two roommates should be able to share the load of running the team. Faris is the type of player that's usually succesful at places like Connecticut. Auriemma has already said that he doesn't expect her to play a truly bad game in an UConn uniform.

I don't think anyone could accurately predict how everything will play out, and that's what makes a team unanimously picked as the best team in the country interesting. Today after one last celebration of the 2009 National Championship, a talented team begins a search both for leadership and a succesful backcourt dynamic under the weight of incredible expectations.