You often hear the NCAA basketball tournament called a guard’s tournament. Well, basketball at all levels is a guard’s game.
(OK, Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim is a forward. But ISU’s starting guards totaled 17 assists to help him get his 48 points against TCU Saturday.)
If you have good guards, you can compete with anybody. If you have great guards, you’re going places. Saturday in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa had superb guard play in squashing (former) Big Ten co-leader Michigan, 85-67.
Hawkeye senior guard Devyn Marble had three of his six 3-pointers before the first TV timeout. Sophomore point guard Mike Gesell set up each of those three early treys, as well as an Adam Woodbury basket in transition in the first five minutes. He was well on the way to a career-best eight assists.
That burst spread energy all over the arena, and it stayed there for two hours. But the thing that kept the Hawkeyes’ hands on Wolverine throats was choking team defense, captained by Marble.
A few weeks earlier at Michigan, Wolverine soph Nik Stauskas dumped 26 points on Iowa in his team’s 75-67 win. This game, Marble did exactly the same to Michigan, and held fellow conference Player of the Year candidate Stauskas to 10.
“I think what got me going is defensively how we were playing,” Marble said.
“You’ve got to play both ends of the court in order to be a great player. I take pride in my defense, trying to shut or contain whoever the best perimeter player on the other team is.”
“To do what Dev did — and he was knocking down shots, the defense he played — a lot of guys when they’re getting hot like that are really not playing too much defense because they’re preserving their legs for the offensive end,” said Gesell. “But he really got after it all night.”
After scoring a total of 18 points in the first-halves of Iowa’s last six games, Marble had 22 at the half Saturday behind six threes. It’s amazing what a difference just hitting the first jumper or two can do for a team, to the opponent, and to the crowd.
“When you get a shooter hot like that,” Gesell said “it’s a point guard’s dream. Keep finding him the ball, keep feeding him
“Every time it left his hand, I felt it was going in.”
Once, Gesell raised his arms in the air to signal a Marble three was good before it went through the net. Via points and assists, the two guards were directly responsible for 30 points apiece.
Iowa forward Aaron White said a mouthful after the game when he uttered this about Gesell: “He made the right play basically every time he touched the ball.”
Gesell defended, too. He was credited with three steals, but Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said what others thought when he said “He had five or six steals, he could have had a lot more. He was really, really competitive.”
He’s youthful-looking as it is, but Gesell’s face resembled that of an 8-year-old on Christmas morning after a defensive play he didn’t even make. Josh Oglesby won a scrum for a loose ball near the sideline and got a timeout called, and Gesell was beaming as he bounced to the Iowa bench.
Marble has become a polished product. Gesell is still in the developmental stage, but that development is coming faster and fuller all the time.
“I think this was more of just a mindset than it was me being on fire or whatever,” Marble said. “You guys have seen this before. It’s not like it’s the first time.
“It’s not like I just had a lucky game. I work on my shot. They gave me certain opportunities and I just took advantage of them.”
Marble said it was Gesell’s best game of “facilitating.”
“He’s trying to become a true point guard with a little aggressiveness to him. He’s trying to find a balance in when to be aggressive and when to get guys going. His ceiling is still high.”
“He played a great game and I love him,” said White, “but I think he has a higher ceiling than what he’s showed. If he continues to work the way he works and continues to study the game, he’s just going to continue to get better, better, better because of all the things he can do.
“He can pass the ball, he can drive, he can load guys up, he’s a good defender. I just think he’s a special player.”
Marble and Gesell were special on offense, exceptional on defense Saturday. As they go, so will their team.