As basketball season comes to an end, I am reminded once again the importance of the point guard position. In fact, you can often predict which team is going to win or lose by the quality of player filling this role for their team. As Kara Lawson of ESPN says, “They are the start to everything in hoops!”
This year I was able to attend both the State AA and State B Boys and Girls championship basketball tournaments. I watched 24 teams play 22 games over three days and almost in every case the team with the best point guard play determined how far each team advanced in the tournament. Here is the evidence: Skyview’s Acheson (state champs), Bigfork’s Epperly (2nd place), Choteau’s Achenbach (state champs), Malta’s Stiles (state champs), Missoula Sentinel’s Worster (3rd place), Great Falls’ Collins (2nd place), Hellgate’s Vandam (3rd place).
These were some of the best point guards in the state and their teams all made it to the top four in their respective divisions.
Now, a lack of a point guard was a real problem for many teams that had very good talent through the rest of their roster. The Bozeman boys and Fairfield girls were all loaded but lacked a point guard advantage to push them to the state title. Often, games at the end of the season are determined by guard play; this season was no different.
Why is the value of the point guard so high for the success of basketball teams?
One simple answer: they have the ball in their hands the most. Basketball is all about the rock and who has it. Teams that get more possessions usually win the game and within that, the point guard is the one player that handles the ball for a team. Point guards control tempo, handle defensive pressure, make timely free throws, get the ball to the right guy at the right time, and essentially are an extension of the coach on the floor.
Let’s make a comparison. The point guard of football is the quarterback. The ball is snapped to the QB guaranteeing he will handle the ball on almost every offensive play. The QB cannot turn the ball over. It dooms his team when he does. But if he can make good decisions and even thrive by calling the right plays and getting the ball to the right players at the right time, then his team will inevitably be successful.
Put it this way: Brock Osweiler is a 6-foot-8 football point guard for the Houston Texans.
Recently, I talked to legendary high school basketball coach Cary Finberg of Columbia Falls and he says, “Without the great point guards on every one of our state title teams, we would not have won five titles in 10 years and placed in the top four almost every year we did not win it.” Those great point guards were Jeremy Grilley, Eric Backes, JD Fields, Guy Smith, Nick Emerson, and Alex Presnell.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Epperly (my father) and his Flathead Braves racked up a couple titles in the 1980’s and a handful of top-four finishes during a 10-year period. They, too, were driven by outstanding point guards. In 1982, it was Mel Coffin, and in 1989, it was Eric Hilleboe, both state champions. Other top place finishers during that decade included Scott Zanon, Mark Gilman, Jason Bridwell, Greg Cooper, and Kurt Tonjum.
Point guards are the “start of everything” and as most coaches would say they are, in the end, the key to putting together winning teams and placing trophies in the trophy case.
Jeff Epperly is a Kalispell native who grew up playing sports. Now he enjoys watching his kids doing the same.
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