John Clay: Time for Teague to embrace delivery-man role

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 14, 2012 

LOUISVILLE — It starts at the one.

On the road to the coveted six wins, it starts with game number one, the first game of your NCAA Tournament run. You can't get to game two if you don't win game one.

And conventional hoops wisdom says you can't win the national title if you aren't good at the one.

The one is the point guard, and in this case it means more than numerical order.

After all, Connecticut had Kemba Walker in 2011. Duke had Nolan Smith in 2010. North Carolina had Ty Lawson in 2009. Kansas had Mario Chalmers in 2008. Star point guards all, national champions all.

And this year, the one for the No. 1 overall seed is Marquis Teague.

"We're excited," said the Kentucky freshman inside the locker room just before he and his teammates walked out onto the floor of the KFC Yum Center, its lower bowl full of Big Blue-clad fans on Wednesday afternoon. "I feel like I'm prepared for it, coming in playing pretty confident."

He has been through the thick, the thin, the ups, the downs, the swishes and the misses, the assists and the turnovers. He has waited through everything that comes with your first year of college basketball.

That's the characteristic that makes Teague a bit different. Walker was a junior. Smith was a senior. Lawson was a junior. Chalmers was a junior.

You must time travel back to 2003 and Syracuse's Gerry McNamara to find a freshman point guard who won a national title. Even then, McNamara was known more for his shooting. He drained six three-pointers in the Orange's conquering of Kansas in the title game.

If McNamara doesn't fit the job description, then you must lick your thumb and flip the record book all the way back to — spoiler alert: sore subject — 1997 and Arizona's Mike Bibby to find a true freshman point guard who put the scissor to the nylon on the night of the national championship.

But then few guards have played with the star power of Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller.

"You can't play to score," UK Coach John Calipari told his freshman point guard at the SEC Tournament, "because that hurts our team."

That has been the most difficult part of Teague's debut season. He was a scorer in high school. He was a scorer in the AAU ranks, if not as a perimeter shooter then as a hard driver who could quickly cover space to the rim.

For this team, however, his role has been delivery man. Teague stumbled at the start. Through his first four games, his assists numbered 11, his turnovers 18.

Slowly, lessons were learned. He had eight assists and no turnovers against Portland, eight/one against Chattanooga, nine/three against Arkansas. He dished 10 assists in a convincing win over Florida, then came back four days later with eight assists and just one turnover in a victory at Vanderbilt.

Last weekend, however, in his first foray into collegiate post-season play, Teague struggled, making just six of 21 shots. He played so poorly — 0-for-5 shooting, four turnovers — in the first-round win against LSU, he was brought into Calipari's hotel room for a heart-to-heart, then got a visit in his own room from Davis.

Teague bounced back to score 16 points in the semifinal win over Florida, but regressed to going 0-for-7 from the field in the title-game loss to the Commodores.

"I had good shots," he said. "They just didn't go down."

But then shooting is not what the Indianapolis native is here to do.

"I'm trying to find guys that I know are going to score the ball," said Teague on Wednesday. "Just make things happen. Make the easy play."

The Cats are confident their freshman can do that.

"I don't think he had a turnover in the last game," said Davis, the freshman center. "He's really listening to Coach Cal, making the defense play him, knocking down open shots, finding guys at the right time. If he continues to do that, we should be fine."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Blog: @johnclayiv.

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