- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

The pure point guard is basketball's ultimate endangered species.
Take a look at the seven so-called point guards who made the final list for this season's Wooden Award, given annually to college basketball's top player. Not one of the seven ranks among the top 25 in the nation in assists.
"It seems like everybody wants to be Allen Iverson, and there aren't enough guys that want to be Jason Kidd," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who has one of the seven shoot-first Wooden finalists (see chart) on his roster in junior Jason Gardner (21.3 points, 4.9 assists). "That's why you've got to love a player like T.J. Ford. Guys like that are a vanishing breed."
Ford just might be college basketball's new Kidd on the block.
The spindly Texas freshman currently leads the nation in assists (8.4 per game), a feat no freshman has ever managed for a full season. He's a pass-first phenom, a throwback court MacArthur who can wow crowds and win games without ever taking a shot.
"There was a point when I was younger when I scored a lot," said Ford in a telephone interview earlier this week. "But I found the quickest way to earn other players' respect is to show them that you can make them look better and allow them to showcase their skills. Getting everyone involved is also the best way to win. Heck, that's basktball. So, once I figured that out, my role and my goals kind of changed. I guess you could say that's when I discovered my calling on the court."
Some of that mentality was shaped by Ford's relationship with best friend John Lucas III, now a freshman at Baylor. The pair spent the last two summers in their native Houston working out with Lucas' father, a former Maryland and NBA point man and new coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"He rode us pretty good," said Ford. "And we played a lot with guys like Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, Sam Cassell and Nick Van Exel. When you play with polished offensive players like that, you don't make any friends by jacking up jumpers."
Before taking his game to Austin, Ford used his assist-happy arsenal of skills to lead Sugar Land's Willowridge High School to consecutive Texas state championships. In his senior season, Ford averaged 12 points, 9.4 assists and 7.8 steals, driving Willowridge to a 39-0 record and the nation's No. 1 ranking.
High school hoops guru Bob Gibbons dubbed the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Ford the nation's top point guard prospect. And Ford hasn't disappointed, making a near-seamless transition to the rugged Big 12. In his first college game, Ford dropped 14 assists on Arizona in just 30 minutes.
In his defining moment to date, he carried the Longhorns (14-5, 5-1 Big 12) to a 74-71 overtime victory over Texas Tech in Lubbock on Jan. 14. In that game, Ford was strapped with four fouls and was battling a left ankle injury that has bedeviled him all season. To make matters worse, Tech coach Bobby Knight was determined not to let Ford beat the Red Raiders with his patented drive-and-dish.
In the overtime, Knight put 6-7 forward Kasib Powell on Ford and instructed him to play off the freshman guard, daring him to shoot over Powell's long frame. Ford, who averages 9.1 points, showed his versatility and shattered Knight's stratagem by drilling two of his three shots in the extra period to keep the Longhorns close. Then, with the game tied and seconds remaining, he faked Powell into leaving his feet and blew past him to the rim, drawing a foul.
With the Lubbock crowd taunting him unmercifully, Ford made both free throws to lift the Longhorns to a lead they did not relinquish.
"He's amazing," said Texas coach Rick Barnes after the game. "He's the most unselfish player I've ever coached, but when they forced him to shoot, he buried them for it."
According to one NBA scout, Ford's only major weakness at this point involves "durability issues." The 165-pounder has been flattened by screens and on drives in the lane on numerous occasions this season. But it isn't in his nature, nor his best interest, to complain about the daily heat and ultrasound treatments or the anti-inflammatory medication he endures for his gimpy ankle.
"I'm pretty sure I'm not the first player who has had to play hurt. It's no big deal," he said.
What is a big deal is that in a college hoops world defined by Jason Williams sycophants, a few pure point guards like Ford, Maryland's Steve Blake, and Pittsburgh's Brandin Knight still choose to dominate games without worrying about dominating scoring columns or highlight films.
"Point guard is one of the toughest positions to fill, because the mentality is as important as the set of skills," Ford said. "It's a little like finding a quarterback in football. A lot of guys have the skills, but not the mentality. And a lot of guys have the mentality but not the skills. I guess it is pretty rare to find both nowadays."

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