The Missouri Valley Conference basketball standings confirm and contradict all the cliches about the importance of guard play.
Just check with second-place Wichita State, which plays three point guards and changes its leader from minute to minute. Or third-place Indiana State, which is orchestrated by a redshirt freshman.
Experience? Stability? Those teams won a different way.
"We do it a different way because we have very good point guards," Wichita State forward Ben Smith said, with an emphasis on the plural. "At practice, that's how we do it. We switch point guards, and keep on playing."
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The rest of the MVC played out closer to conventional wisdom, proving the importance of point guards and leading Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery's to theorize that the Valley will get better when guard play improves.
"If you look at our league as a whole, the best players are the bigs," Lowery said earlier this season. "There are no dominant guards, like you saw (from 2003-07) where it wasn't even close — the best players, the top five guys were all guards. And really good guards, not just average guys."
Lowery's Salukis are one of the teams suffering most from troubles at guard in the present. The Valley's top six seeds enjoyed the best point guard play. The bottom four struggled with inexperience and injuries — some of them trying to get by with a guard not suited to that position.
Among the top six, no team endured more changes and consternation at point than the Shockers. When neither newcomer Joe Ragland nor sophomore Demetric Williams grabbed the job in November, junior Toure Murry moved from shooting guard to run the team. Murry started most of the season there, before Ragland emerged to start the season's final five games.
It wasn't easy. It wasn't always pretty. That group had its ups — Murry's drive-and-dish to Garrett Stutz for the game-winning shot against LSU; Ragland's pass to Aaron Ellis for the last-second shot to beat Creighton. It suffered high-profile downs — Murry's indecision at crunch time against Missouri State and Northern Iowa, and Ragland's charging foul late in a loss to Southern Illinois.
As a whole, WSU coach Gregg Marshall got the necessary production from the position. He handled Murry, Ragland and Williams like a pitching staff, going with the hot hand or the reliable ball-handler from moment to moment.
"It's an unusual way to do it," Marshall said. "Most teams have the one point guard. We've had good point guard play — it just hasn't been the same guy. At times, our point-guard play has been outstanding."
At their best, any player in that group can perform. Murry, when he's making smart decisions, runs the break effectively and rebounds better than any MVC guard. Ragland, when he defends and avoid fouls, is the group's best scorer and best threat to chew up a defense with drives into the lane. Williams, when he's not playing out of control, settles into the role of a spark off the bench.
Even with the uncertainty, the Shockers averaged 72.9 points and made 46.9 percent of their shots, both tops in the MVC. They shared the ball, leading the MVC in assists (15.2) and ranking second in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.2). Those performances are truly a team success — eight of WSU's top 10 players have more assists than turnovers.
"It wasn't like we didn't have a point guard on the floor," Marshall said. "We've had guys auditioning and doing their thing. Joe wasn't ready in November. He's still not quite ready yet."
Indiana State's Jake Odum was ready in November, even though coach Greg Lansing didn't recognize it.
"I didn't start him opening weekend," Lansing said. "I probably should have. I turned the reins over to him after that."
With Odum averaging 9.1 points and 4.1 assists, the Sycamores recorded their highest finish since the 2000 team won the MVC. Its 12-6 MVC record is its best since 2001 (10-8).
"He's just tough," Sycamores senior Aaron Carter said. "He's a true point, and that's what we needed."
MVC champion Missouri State improved from 8-10 in conference games in 2010 to 15-3. Point guard Nafis Ricks did his part by learning from past mistakes. He went to school over the summer, watching film and changing his game. He paid particular attention to three losses against WSU in which he played out of control in the final minutes or hurt the team with defensive breakdowns. At times, coach Cuonzo Martin couldn't play him late in games because of turnovers.
"I watched a lot of that over the summer," Ricks said. "It was really concentrating on taking care of the ball, getting extra possessions without turnovers."
Ricks had to make several adjustments. He earned NJCAA Division II Player of the Year honors at Johnson County Community College in 2009. When he came to MSU, he played behind Justin Fuehrmeyer, a senior with modest athletic ability who understood how to run the offense.
"He comes in here, and maybe thinks it's a cakewalk," Martin said. "He had to work at a high level, and he had to trust what we were trying to do."