When it comes NCAA Tournament basketball, it’s best to be on guard.
That’s the opinion of Texas women’s basketball coach Karen Aston, who has seen the sport evolve since she began her coaching career as a Baylor assistant in 1994.
Aston was speaking specifically about the NCAA women’s tournament, which begins Friday. There have been dominant backcourt and frontcourt players over the years, but teams with superior guards generally have an edge during tournament time.
“There’s the old saying that in tournament play, it’s a guard’s game,” Aston said after learning the Longhorns have been installed as a No. 2 seed in the Kansas City, Mo., regional.
“It’s probably true in the sense that when games get tight and you’re looking for playmakers who can make shots with the game on the line, the guards are going to have the ball.”
Texas A&M’s Gary Blair is among a group of women’s coaches who support Aston’s point of view.
“A team’s backcourt is more important, particularly when you have guards like Brooke McCarty along with Lashann Higgs and Ariel Atkins,” Blair said Tuesday. “They are your decision-makers. You can run the perfect play, but the defense can take away the inside at times with double-teams.”
Texas A&M, seeded fourth in the Spokane (Wash.) regional, has “lived in the playoffs” through good guard play, Blair said, and this season should not be any different. Among the players at Blair’s disposal is Chennedy Carter, who recently was named the nation’s freshman of the year by USA Today.
A 5-foot-7 guard from Mansfield Timberview, Carter led the Aggies with a scoring average of 22 points a game, and she topped the team in assists and steals, too. When you combine Carter with 6-foot forward Anriel Howard, who ranks ninth in the country with an average of 12 rebounds a game, the Aggies have a relentless inside-outside tandem.
Big 12 coaches Bill Fennelly of Iowa State, Jim Littell of Oklahoma State and West Virginia’s Mike Carey said they would prefer to have a solid backcourt over a talented frontcourt if they had to choose between the two. Littell, though, said he would prefer to have both.
Said Fennelly: “Most people focus on guard play in the tournament because they need playmakers, especially in late-game situations. I think this becomes an even bigger factor as the tournament continues.”
Said Littell: “From my experience in the tournament it’s beneficial to be solid with your guard play — and your inside game. A lot of times in the early games, some of the smaller schools and mid-majors will feature good guards but have trouble matching up with size you find with the Power Five conference schools.”
No team has been blessed with a better combination of players than 11-time NCAA champion Connecticut. The Huskins have won titles with such All-America guards as Maya Moore, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and with such All-America frontcourt players as 6-3 Tina Charles, 6-7 Kara Wolters and 6-4 Rebecca Lobo.
If coach Geno Auriemma wins his 12th NCAA championship this season, guards Katie Lou Samuelson and Kia Nurse likely will be catalysts for such an outcome. Samuelson, averaging a team-high 17.9 points per game, ranks fourth in the nation in three-point shooting accuracy at 46.2 percent. Nurse contributes 13.8 points per game and is seventh nationally in three-point shooting at 45.5 percent.
While Aston said she would prefer to have backcourt talent, she noted that some forwards and centers have owned the tournament.
Just last season, 6-5 forward A’ja Wilson led South Carolina to the national championship, contributing 23 points and 10 boards in a victory over Mississippi State.
“If you do have a big who’s dominant, it changes the game because not every team has one,” Aston said.
AUSTIN’S FIRST, SECOND ROUNDS
Saturday and Monday, Erwin Center, ESPN2
Saturday’s first round: Arizona State vs. Nebraska, 2:30 p.m.; Texas vs. Maine, 5 (105.3)
Monday’s second round: Saturday’s winners, time/TV TBA