Point guard play the key for both Tide and Trojans

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Sports Columnist

When you glance through the record books at the greatest scorers of all time, you will find some of the more famous big men in the history of the game.

Names such as Wilt, Kareem, and more recently, Shaq.

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These are the prototypical skyscrapers that every coach drools about having on his roster; the high school phenoms that tower over their helpless opponents and have recruiters scrambling for their services.

Yet when you take a glance at a list of championship teams you will quickly notice something else.

Although these teams quite often have featured one of these big men -or others like them – very rarely do you see them win the ultimate prize without more than a little help ­ usually in the form of a comparatively little guy.

Think about it: sure the big fella can score when he has the ball, but how is he going to get the ball? Other than rebounding, he usually doesn’t come up with the ball on his own.

That’s where the "one" position ­

or the point guard – comes in.

As great as Kareem was, he doesn’t win a single ring without first, Oscar Robertson with the Bucks, and later, Magic Johnson with the Lakers. Taking nothing away from the greatness of Bill Russell, in his storied career with the Boston Celtics, but he doesn’t manage to add many banners to the Boston Garden rafters without Bob Cousy. Same for the Pistons and Isaiah Thomas.

The Chicago Bulls even proved that you could build a dynasty without a decent big man as long as you have a good man handling the ball. Let’s see now, what was his name?

Since coach Mark Gottfried returned to Alabama, to take the reins of his alma mater, he has had quite a bit of talent to work with. However, they always seemed to be the proverbial "one player away" from being a top 10 team. So who, or what, was the one player that was needed to take them to the next level?

The popular sentiment has been, "if they could ever get a seven-footer in Tuscaloosa", but the Tide has had a few productive big men over the years. What has been largely missing, at least in my opinion, since the days of Ennis Whatley, is a point guard with the capability to take over a game if need be.

Big things were expected from the Tide this year after their impressive showing in the NIT to end last season. They expected to rely heavily on returning high-scoring guard Rod Grizzard and the inside presence of center Erwin Dudley. Yet it looks as though the signing of Mo Williams, one of the most sought-after prep point guards in the country a year ago, is the final piece of the puzzle.

Words such as "potential" and "future" were plentiful in discussions about Williams, but no one could have imagined the immediate impact he has had in only his first season removed from the high school ranks. He seems to have maturity far beyond his years, as he appears to be oblivious to the pressure of SEC road games.

In last Saturday’s game in the most hostile of environments, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, his six-for-nine shooting performance and ability to calmly run the offense helped to offset the poor shooting of Grizzard and Kenny Walker and gave the Tide its first victory there since 1989.

It also put Alabama in the top 10 for the first time in years. In their last two road games, the other against Georgia, Williams also came up with key steals toward the end of both games to help seal the victory.

My vote for MVP of the Kentucky game, however, would have to be backup point guard Antoine Pettway. He, like Williams, pitched in 13 points with an even more impressive five-for-six showing. The 5-10 former walk-on had two crucial three-pointers in the first half, along with a high-arching jumper as the shot clock expired. Pettway later charged down the lane among the Wildcats’ big boys for a layup late in the second half when Kentucky was trying to make a run on the Tide.

Closer to home, Troy State point guard Robert Rushing has been a similar catalyst for the Trojans.

Earlier in his career, with transfer point guard Detric Golden grabbing most of the headlines, Rushing was the consummate shooting guard. He was the guy that drove a stake through opposing coaches’ hearts if he was left alone behind the three-point line.

Since that time Rushing has been asked to assume a different role by Coach Don Maestri, that of bringing the ball upcourt, of scanning the opposing defense, and making the proper decisions to effectively run the offense. He was now the point man and it has been an assignment I feel sure Maestri has never regretted.

In the Trojans double-overtime thriller against Florida Atlantic, Rushing’s driving layup and resulting free-throw in the final seconds of regulation sent Troy State into overtime, allowing them to pull off the miraculous victory.

And on Monday then-league leader Jacksonville apparently chose to concentrate on stopping leading scorer Lemayn Wilson and all but ignored Rushing.

Big mistake. Rushing torched them for a few threes before they realized their mistake. Then when they made the adjustment on defense, he consistently found the open man, and Wilson still got his twenty points.

The thing that has really been impressive lately about Robert Rushing’s game is the way he has stepped it up on defense. Passing lanes are nearly non-existent as Rushing is constantly darting in front of a pass to start a fast-break the other direction.

At one point late in the game against Jacksonville, when the Trojans were smelling blood in the water and trying to put the game away, Rushing went for broke. Upon seeing an opponent’s careless handling of the ball near midcourt, he made an all-or-nothing dive at the feet of the Jacksonville player, hugging the ball to his chest and quickly calling a timeout while flat of his back to prevent Jacksonville from regaining possession. Trojan Arena erupted in appreciation of the hustle play, and any remaining energy from the opposing team melted away as Rushing and the Trojans cruised to the victory, giving Troy State sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Now that’s the kind of guy you want to go to war with.

Of course, a seven-footer would be nice, too. Right, Coach Maestri…Coach Gottfried?