MAKING THE POINT
Any basketball coach with his wits about him loves the big man . . . the rebounder, shot-blocker, inside-scorer. With that the case, it's somewhat ironic that in the college game, it's more often than not a little man -- the point guard -- who will lead his team to the loftiest heights. From Indiana's Isiah Thomas to Duke's Bobby Hurley, from Arizona's Mike Bibby to Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, the list of national champions is heavy with teams taken a notch above the rest by the play of their point guard.
Among the lessons learned during an arduous 2004-5 season for the University of Memphis is just how valuable Antonio Burks was to this program. With all the talent freshman Darius Washington has delivered upon his arrival from Orlando, there are intangibles that this year's squad has clearly missed. With due credit to Burks's classmate Modibo Diarra, every last one of those intangibles can now be found on the bench of the Memphis Grizzlies, where Burks now earns a living.
"We don't have that Antonio, who would grab somebody by the throat and have him pinned up against the wall. We don t have that guy. If he said 'Do it,' they did it. Darius isn t ready for that." Tiger coach John Calipari said these words . . . after a win. Having beaten a game Arkansas State team last November, the fifth-year Tiger coach already recognized a difference in this year's team as compared with the 2003-04 edition. It should be remembered that Jeremy Hunt and Sean Banks were Memphis Tigers a year ago, contributing players on a team bound for the NCAA tournament, players we heard nary a peep from, and read about only in the sports section. Can credit be given entirely to their now-departed senior point guard? Hardly. But as any mathematician will tell you, if two equations are similar but different, the first thing you identify is the missing variable.
The numbers Burks put up over his three-year career are impressive enough. He's one of only four players in Tiger history to score 1,000 points, dish out 450 assists, and grab 170 steals. But these figures aren't why he was named 2004 Conference USA Player of the Year, and they won't be what Tiger Nation remember him for. No, it was Burks' competitive fire -- think pit bull -- behind every dribble-drive, behind every defensive assignment, on every night that separated him . . . and made his team so strong and consistent. The Booker T. Washington grad had leadership skills in spades.
In watching the precocious Washington's rookie campaign, we've learned that leadership is almost impossible to measure unless, that is, you're being led. Coaches can't assign it (Calipari took to calling Washington "the general" early on). Fans can t create it, and the media can't define it or draw up a recipe. Leadership happens behind closed doors, as much between individuals as among a group or team. The things we've heard happen behind closed doors for this year's Tiger squad aren't worth repeating.
In purely basketball terms, Darius Washington brings more to the Memphis program than did Antonio Burks. A McDonald's All-American, Washington scored more than 3,000 points in his high school career and was a member of the National Honor Society. A better pure shooter than Burks, Washington has already topped 20 points in five games this season. Burks had eight such games as a senior. The most telling statistic, though, in the comparison between Memphis point guards over the last two years is assists-to-turnovers. This is the closest we can come to quantifying a playmaker's ability to distribute the ball and create scoring chances for his teammates. To date, Washington has played 13 games during which he's accumulated more turnovers than assists. Last year, Burks had three such games (out of 30). Following last week's win over East Carolina, Calipari took a quick glance at the stat sheet and noticed Washington dished out five assists without committing a single turnover. He looked up with a Cheshire grin and said, "Whoa . . . big time." (Alas, Washington had three assists and five turns at Houston Saturday.)
If Washington can ignore the NBA sirens and recognize how much better he'll be when his scoring ability is merely one element of his game, the kid with those sleepy-but-threatening eyes is going to make some special college memories. Sharing the emotive quality that served as his predecessor's engine, Washington will be all smiles by the time his senior campaign arrives. Even better yet, a Memphis program that has noticeably slipped as Washington cut his Division I teeth will be back where it belongs, led there by the little man.