Guards matter in March, even more in April.
That’s just how the NCAA tournament works. Connecticut’s national title last year, on the efforts of guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, was just the latest example.
The Huskies won it three years before that behind Kemba Walker. There was Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington for North Carolina in 2009; Juan Dixon and Steve Blake for Maryland in 2002; the trio of Miles Simon, Jason Terry and Mike Bibby for Arizona in 1997. N.C. State, back in 1983, was a trendsetter with the senior duo of Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe.
Find the best guards, and you’ll usually find the teams that last the longest in the tournament.
“I’m not sure you can win without great guards,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “I think you can still win without great big guys, but I don’t know that you can win without great guards.”
Just how good is N.C. State’s current group of guards, which has the benefit of having an extra option?
“I think they have the best trio of guards in the tournament,” former N.C. State star Julius Hodge said of the Wolfpack’s Trevor Lacey, Cat Barber and Ralston Turner.
Hodge, a spindly 6-foot-7 scoring guard, was the ACC’s player of the year in 2004 and led the Wolfpack to the Sweet 16 in 2005.
He had some good backcourt mates, Scooter Sherrill and Engin Atsür, but Hodge said even he would have to admit the current backcourt is the best N.C. State has had since the legendary “Fire and Ice” combo of Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe left school in 1991 with just about every record between them.
“You can say that,” Hodge said. “That makes sense.”
Lacey has been the Wolfpack’s leading scorer (15.7 points per game) and, more important, its leader.
Gottfried had impossibly high expectations for the 6-foot-3 junior combo guard, pegging him to replace T.J. Warren, the 2014 ACC player of the year, as the team’s primary scorer. But Lacey, who has added 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, has challenged even Gottfried’s lofty standards.
“My ceiling was high, but I do think at times, at times, he has exceeded it,” Gottfried said. “I think he has had a phenomenal year, I really do.”
Lacey had a tough game (4 of 15 shooting, nine points) against LSU in the Round of 64 but Gottfried still drew up a play for him on the final possession of the game with the Wolfpack down 65-64.
“He has become phenomenal one-on-one isolation player, maybe the best in the country,” Gottfried said.
Lacey had delivered earlier in the season in similar end-game situations, but in what might have been the gutsiest decision of the season, Lacey didn’t force the final shot.
Instead, after Lacey was cut off from the basket by the LSU defender, he dropped the ball off to forward BeeJay Anya, who made an 8-foot hook shot with 0.1 seconds left to cap a 16-point N.C. State comeback.
In the 71-68 win over Villanova, Lacey was back on his game with 17 points and six rebounds. His 3-pointer before the halftime buzzer, off a set isolation play, gave the Wolfpack momentum and set the tone for the second half.
‘Cat Daddy’ in control
While Lacey has been consistently productive all season, Barber has elevated his game in the last eight weeks.
Since the now famous pep talk from Gottfried to Barber before the Jan. 31 game at Georgia Tech:
“Coach keeps telling me, ‘Be you, be Cat, do what Cat do best,’” Barber said.
Barber scored 23 points in the 81-80 overtime win against the Yellow Jackets and has averaged 15.8 points the past 13 games, compared to 10.1 over the first 21 games.
Barber, a sophomore, has always been a blur with the basketball. He has learned how to use his speed to get to the rim and not only score but involved his teammates.
His decision-making and confidence have gone up with seemingly each game.
Gottfried refers to this version of Barber, the best one, as “Cat Daddy.”
Barber had one of the best games of his career in the 74-65 win at Louisville on Feb. 14. He broke the Cardinals’ press and was smart with the ball while still being aggressive.
In 60 percent of the season, and much of last season, Barber struggled with how to harness his talent.
There were times when “Cat Crazy” would take over.
“He’s so fast, it’s like, he can’t control himself,” Lacey said.
Gottfried said there was an adjustment period for Barber, who at times was too passive, playing like a typical pass-first point guard, instead of cutting it loose and being aggressive.
“I think he was trying so hard to be the cerebral quarterback that he was not also being ‘Cat Daddy,’” Gottfried said.
Barber, who scored 17 points against LSU and 13 against Villanova, has found the right balance between setting up his teammates and being aggressive with his shot.
The result: “We have more ‘Cat Daddy’ than ‘Cat Crazy,’” Lacey said.
Between Lacey, Barber and Turner, the team’s 3-point specialist (he has 90 in 35 games this season), the three guards account for 40.8 points per game and 58 percent of the team’s offense.
Of the 16 teams left in the tournament, only UCLA’s trio of Norman Powell, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton (42.6) average more.
Maybe this is N.C. State’s best group of guards since Corchiani and Monroe. Maybe N.C. State does have the best guards in the tournament. There’s only one way to find out for sure, Lacey said.
“It’s all about winning,” Lacey said. “When you win, a lot of that speaks for itself.”