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Championship moments: Cats clicked when Teague turned it around

Every championship team is defined by championship moments. They happen behind closed doors in practices, during regular-season games, and, of course, in the championship game. The following is the third in a series of articles chronicling the championship moments during the 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season. Today we chronicle the evolution of Marquis Teague from an inexperienced freshman into a championship point guard.

From Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis, to John Wall and Brandon Knight at Kentucky, John Calipari has established a legacy of producing top-notch freshman point guards, who, more often than not, lead his teams to great heights. The impressive string of elite ball handling guards Cal has coached is not only one of the reasons he is able to successfully recruit great guards, it’s also why 2011-12 Wildcat point Marquis Teague must have felt enormous pressure to live up to the high standard set by Cal’s previous game-changing playmakers.

Teague, at 6-foot-2, was a prolific scoring guard at Indianapolis Pike High School (22.7 points per game), but the point guard learning curve associated with playing under Calipari was steep and challenging, but ultimately became one of the primary reasons the Cats brought home the hardware from the Final Four.

Patience required with young point guards

Although the 2011-12 Cats were loaded with All-America talent, any team, regardless of makeup, must have leadership and solid play at the point to fulfill expectations, and oftentimes that leadership and solid play isn’t apparent early in the season, a circumstance Calipari is all too familiar with.

“Early on he’s going to turn the ball over and he’s going to take bad shots,” Coach Cal said about Teague before the start of the season. “But at the end of the year, this offense unleashes you as a point guard.”

Being the ever so sage coach, Cal continued to remind the Big Blue Nation to not panic early, that how a point guard’s season starts does not always portend how it will end. In other words; be patient with the point play, Big Blue Nation.

Marquis Teague faced his fare share of challenges to begin his college career, but he ended his first and only season with 191 assists, fifth most in UK annals. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“And now what happens, last year, we only averaged 10 turnovers per game … for the season. Do you know what we averaged in Hawai’i (early in the year)? I think it was 19 a game,” Calipari said as he tempered early season Teague expectations. “Then by the end of the season it was 10. So I would predict this team will average 11 or 12 turnovers a game, something like that, early on it will be 16 or 17. Later in the season it will be down in the 10, nine range.”

In Kentucky’s Blue/White Scrimmage held in late October, Coach Cal reiterated how hard it is for a freshman to play point guard, but also pointed to Teague’s assets, readily apparent in his early season play.

“Well, like I said, the hardest position for (anyone) to play is point guard” Cal said. “He’s got a ways to go, but you saw him get to the rim, how he can do that. You saw him pick-and-roll, make good decisions. … Then there were a couple he chose not to pass the ball, it was a bad decision; the guys were open, just throw it to the guys.”

With the likes of returners Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, along with fellow freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague was surrounded by players capable of stuffing the stat sheet, but it was Teague who was charged with distributing the basketball to the Wildcat scorers.

“You have to make easy plays when you’re in that point guard position because you’re going to have the ball a lot,” Coach Cal said. “He’s got a team full of guys he’s going to have to keep balanced as far as scoring. We got a lot of guys who can put it down.”

Teague’s early season struggles followed by inspired play

As Teague began the season with Cal molding his game, the freshman found life on the court difficult. Through Kentucky’s first four outings, Teague recorded 11 assists and 18 turnovers, while averaging a respectable 10.8 points per game. He was shooting the ball well, 17-of-32 from the floor, but making poor decisions with the basketball.

“This game he was trying to make hero’s plays to get ‘aahs’ and ‘oohs’ out of the crowd, so he turned it over twice in four minutes, three minutes … cross-court passes with guys wide open in the corners, and he held onto the ball too long,” Calipari said after an early year contest. “He wanted to hold it to the last second before he passed it. That’s what happens when you start getting away from how we’re playing, and reverting a little bit, and I got on him a little bit, and I told him I’m not changing, you’re doing it.”

Affirming that his point guard, like many strong-willed, confident freshmen, seemed to be resisting his urgings early in the year, Calipari responded by laying down the law.

“I told him, ‘Hey, I’ve coached point guards before and the one’s that listen to me do fine, so just listen to what I’m saying and stop arguing with me and just do what I’m asking you to do,’ ” Calipari said.

Message sent, message heard.

In the ensuing games, Teague’s play improved dramatically. In one five=game stretch (Portland to Chattanooga), Teague had 30 assists to only seven turnovers. And after the Portland contest in late November, a game in which Teague handed out eight assists and had zero turnovers, Calipari gushed with praise for his point guard.

“I thought Marquis Teague played a terrific floor game,” Cal said. “The best play he made, and I told him after the game: break-away layup, he slowed it down and gave it to Terrence Jones. Best play he’s made all year. It just shows he’s playing for his team.”

At the end of Teague’s remarkable five-game run, and after having a week off after UK’s loss to Indiana — a game in which Teague nearly willed the Cats to victory — Calipari was happy with the progression his young point guard was making.

“What I liked was after a week of zeroing in on Marquis Teague, I thought he played well,” Cal said after UK defeated Chattanooga. “I thought he had control of the game. He had eight assists” and “defended pretty well.”

Teague, the difference-maker

Inconsistency was Teague’s only obstacle as the season progressed through midseason and on into SEC play. In back-to-back games against Loyola (Md.) and Lamar, Teague had a combined seven assists and 10 turnovers. But the next three contests (Louisville, Arkansas Little-Rock, South Carolina), Teague posted 14 assists to eight turnovers, an acceptable 1.8 assist/turnover ratio.

Then, after a five-turnover effort in a 65-62 win at Tennessee, Teague turned the corner with a vengeance as the Cats beat an Arkansas team eager to test the Cats’ open-court ability.

“I said in the locker room, ‘Marquis Teague, unbelievable floor game. The best you’ve played this year. Unbelievable floor game,’ ” Calipari said after UK pounded the Razorbacks 86-63. “Nothing was forced. He didn’t make any crazy plays. It was unbelievable.”

Emphasizing the strides his point guard had made, Cal wasn’t shy about drawing a parallel between his team’s future success and the improvement of Teague’s play.

“If we are close to getting him right, all of a sudden this thing (the season) takes on a little different look to it,” Calipari said.

Music to the ears of his coach must have been Teague’s matter-of-fact statement regarding his now clear understanding of his role on the team.

“I am the point guard so I have to get everyone involved and make everyone happy,” Teague said. “I need to get everyone the ball where they can score. I want to take what the defense gives me. If I have a bucket, I will take it, and if I have to pass, I will do that.”

The Cats took their game to another level when Marquis Teague was "unleashed" at the point guard position. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Teague finalizes the turnaround 

The Arkansas game was the beginning of a 22-game stretch where Teague solidified his standing as Cal’s next great point guard, and gave Kentucky fans unabashed hope for a serious title run.

After starting the season with 76 assists (4.2 per game) and 57 turnovers (3.2 per game) through UK’s first 18 contests, over the course of the final 22 games, Teague’s ball distribution decisions were almost always pure, resulting in 115 assists (5.2 per game) and only 52 turnovers (2.4 per game).

“He’s gone from the beginning of the year, basically playing at 100 miles an hour, making 100 hard plays and taking bad shots, to playing with unbelievable pace and making easy plays, and having great shot selection, picking his spot. And that happened over four months,” Calipari said about Teague late in the year.

A byproduct of Teague’s much-improved play was Cal’s willingness to allow the Cats to push the pace, making a team full of finishers all the more dangerous.

“He told us, I can’t really remember when, that we need to pick it up and get the ball down the floor quicker because that’s when I’m most comfortable, getting the ball up and down, and making plays for my teammates,” Teague said at the Final Four. “That’s how I like to play. That’s when I’m at my best: in transition.”

The transition Teague undertook during the course of the 2011-12 season, developing from an inexperienced, mistake-prone college point guard, into a player concerned with getting his teammates involved and making good decisions with the ball, is what catapulted the Cats from a very good squad, to a national title winning team.

“It’s hard playing point guard for us. It’s hard in that position,” Cal said late in the year. “The other guys when they get the ball, they’re trying to put it in the basket. He’s got to run us. He’s got to call the offense, and again, he’s a young freshman. He’s got a toughness to him. He’s got an edge to him.”