LAS VEGAS — Two things will determine the winners of the four college basketball conference tournaments that take place in this town over the next week.
No. 1: Who has the best point guard play?
No. 2: What team is the most consistent at making killer 3-point shots?
In my opinion, those are the two keys that it all may boil down to during these postseason affairs in this town. The WCC began its show on Thursday. The WAC, MWC and Pac-12 hold their respective tournaments here next week.
Sure, post play is critical. So is having mobile small forwards and the power front-liner. And you can’t win without having team chemistry and established roles. But a point guard can take over a game and a long 3-point archer can seal things and destroy leads quickly.
Two of the league’s best point guards square off Saturday when LMU’s Anthony Ireland goes against BYU's Matt Carlino. Gonzaga has Canadian star Kevin Pangos, and the 5.9 assists that San Diego's Chris Anderson averages ranks 20th in the country, helping teammate Johnny Dee launch his deadly bombs.
Ireland, a deftly talented ballhandler, and Pangos made early watch lists for the Bob Cousy Award, given annually to college basketball's top point guard. Ireland is the league’s fourth-leading career scorer.
San Francisco, which tied with BYU for second place during the regular season, did so without Cody Doolin, an outstanding point guard who will surface at UNLV. Doolin quit the team after a fight with a teammate after the fourth game this season. Because USF did so well despite missing Doolin, his coach, Rex Walters, was named the WCC Coach of the Year.
But what about Carlino, a guy who has accepted a role off the bench for the Cougars? He may not have made the league’s 10-man All-WCC first team, but he leads the league in steals with 58. He is a capable bomber and proven assist man.
Carlino is an X-factor, not only for the Cougars, but perhaps for the tournament as things unfold. Pangos plays for a great Zag team; Ireland’s Lion squad is down to seven players; Anderson has everyone’s respect, but Carlino has proven ability to change about any game he plays — for better or worse.
ESPN college basketball analyst Sean Farnham put it this way: “One of the things that has stood out to me is when Carlino started coming off the bench was the calmness he began to play with.”
And the Cougars got better.
BYU coach Dave Rose asked Carlino to come off the bench after the Cougars lost four straight games, including the two road openers at LMU and Pepperdine, in December.
“He stopped turning the ball over and being erratic and that helped his team a lot,” said Farnham. He has proven to be and can be, over the course of his career, an elite scorer. He plays with good toughness, he can rebound the ball from his guard position, and he can set the table for his teammates.
“He can also be erratic with his decision-making in terms of when to pass, but with Kyle Collinsworth finding his game and others developing, I’ve seen this in other players over the course of their careers where they’ve had to adjust and excel and I’ve seen Carlino do that.”
During conference play, Carlino cut his turnovers in half. While scoring leader Tyler Haws is easily the main point of attack for the Cougars, having Carlino to get deflections, trigger breaks, set up teammates, and hit big 3s has made BYU a greater threat in February and March.
“In conference play, Carlino has just 24 turnovers. So a three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio for a point guard is outstanding and that’s been a big difference overall for BYU,” said Farnham.
So, mark it down.
Point guards and bombers will prove be huge keys in who wins postseason games this month.
Gentlemen, start your dribbles.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.