I was sitting at the famed Carnegie Deli in NYC over some matzoh ball soup with my dear friend and Jewish godfather (and also a recent basketball Hall of Fame nominee) Howard Garfinkel, who mentioned a quote from a once-famous basketball coach named Elmer Ripley.
The quote dates back more than 50 years and was delivered at a coaching clinic: “The big men are all the same. It’s the guards that make the difference.”
Being that I was once a proud point guard myself, and that Garf was always considered the King of discovering great guards, this quote has always stayed with me and has had a profound impact on my basketball philosophy.
From the time I saw Walt Clyde Frazier help the New York win the NBA championship in 1973 (which is why I always wore No. 10 in my playing days) to seeing the chunky little Italian kid, Ernie DiGregorio, lead the Providence Friars to a Final Four, I have been a guard guy. And that will not change as I await this weekend and the NCAA Final Four.
DiGregario is who I blame for my propensity to recruit left-handed point guards, and as assist goes to NYC great Tiny Archibald, who to this day is the only player in NBA history to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same year.
And then there is my all-time favorite showman guard who I idolized as a kid, the great Pistol Pete Maravich.
I have always believed you build any program, franchise or team with great guards.
Now I know every once in a while with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to guys like Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem the Dream, when massively talented bigs are roaming the earth, this can be the exception to that statement.
But for me, even though I know Julius Randle of Kentucky and Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin and a few other big men could be key factors in this Final Four, I will take my chances that between the great point guards Scotty Wilbekan of Florida, Shabazz Napier of UConn and the play of the Harrison twins from Kentucky will determine the outcome of this year’s NCAA tourney.
I’m predicting Florida will beat UConn in a revenge game from their last loss that preceded this 30-game win streak, and then in the other semifinal, although all coaches including myself are happy for an old school great coach like Bo Ryan (a coach I’ve done some clinics with who I have the utmost respect for, especially having spent time coaching at the Division 3 level), I still have the great coach John Calipari and this year’s version of the Fab 5 getting past Wisconsin to set up a fourth head-to-head game and an all-SEC final with the Gators.
Finally, although I do believe it will be a very difficult challenge for Florida to beat a future Hall of Fame coach and a scary talented team for a fourth time, I am going with the on-a-mission Florida Gators and Coach Billy D to get his third national title to put him in the rarified air with coaching legends who have won three titles.
Do I know what I’m talking about?
By Monday night, we’ll know if I was right or wrong.
Bobby Gonzalez is a former Division I coach at Manhattan and Seton Hall now writing March Madness columns for SheridanHoops.com. You can reach him via e-mail.