There’s Dominique Sutton flying past everyone for an offensive rebound, kicking out to a shooter on the wing. Now he’s chest-to-chest with the opponents’ best player, playing a game of keep-away without the ball. Charge! He’s doing that, too.
Shooting? Nah, only if he has to. Attention? Doesn’t need it.
The ever-in-motion forward from Kansas State is a glue guy, a player who performs just out of the spotlight’s reach to give his team a chance to shine in it.
“I know what I need to do to help the team win,” Sutton said. “I’m really the spark to the team. The team kind of goes how I go. If I continue to give us a spark on defense or grab rebounds to give us easy baskets in transition, that’s my job, that’s what I do.”
Every team needs stars, someone to take over when things get tight. But it’s the role players who hold good teams together. They do the little things that can make the biggest difference: defending, boxing out, setting picks, maybe spotting up for 3-pointers.
They’re not Robin to the stars’ Batman. They’re more like Alfred, working behind the scenes.
Even the best one-man shows need a supporting cast.
Larry Bird relied on defensive stopper Brad Miley and second scoring threat Carl Nicks to get Indiana State to the 1979 NCAA title game. Danny Manning wouldn’t have taken Kansas to the 1988 national championship without Chris Piper, Kevin Pritchard and the rest of the Miracles setting picks, rebounding and playing defense.
This year’s NCAA tournament is no different. It’s got plenty of stars: Kentucky’s John Wall, Evan Turner at Ohio State, Jacob Pullen at Kansas State, suddenly famous Ali Farokhmanesh of Northern Iowa.
Behind them are the guys who keep the machine moving, give the big names a chance to stay on the marquee.
There’s Sutton at Kansas State and Northern Iowa’s bear of a forward Lucas O’Rear. Ohio State relies on Jon Diebler to hit 3-pointers and little else; DeAndre Liggins is the guy Kentucky coach John Calipari can point to the other team’s best player and say: “Go get ’em.”
Jon Diebler comes off the bench shooting 3s at Ohio State, Lane Thomas rebounds and defends with ferocity at Duke, long-armed Justin Holiday of Washington swallows up anyone who tries to score against him. Tennessee’s J.P. Prince is a defensive stopper one minute, a scorer the next, while Draymond Green does a little of everything for Michigan State.
“Sometimes you look at guys and for whatever reasons, they don’t quite look the part but they’re sneaky athletic,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who relied on Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar to jump-start his team this season.
O’Rear is a dynamic game changer for Northern Iowa.
A lookalike for Wolverine from X-Men — he’s got great chops — the 6-foot-6, 255-pound junior plays with the mentality of a middle linebacker, seeking out contact. He sets picks with vigor, crashes the boards like a falling redwood and defends like a concrete wall, usually walking away with a little smirk when he gets under his opponent’s skin.
O’Rear averages 4.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 takedowns — a rough estimate — per game.
“You’ve just got to do the little things to make the big things happen,” he said.
Some glue guys, such as Ohio State’s Diebler, have more specific roles.
The 6-foot-6 junior doesn’t rebound, get many assists, play great defense, get to the free-throw line.
Diebler shoots 3s. And, boy, is he good at it.
Diebler’s job is to stand at the arc and wait for Turner, David Lighty or William Buford to find him. He averages about two 2-point shots per game and 82 percent of his field-goal attempts come from 3-point range.
This hyper-focused specialty often makes his stat lines look like a misprint: 11 points, no rebounds or assists in 32 minutes against West Virginia in January; 12 points, no rebounds and two assists in 40 minutes against Michigan State; another 11-0-0 game against Michigan in the Big Ten tournament.
Downtown Diebler is a spark from the arc.
“He understands scouting, he understands the game of basketball,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “He’s got a great motor. He’s able to go all day. You like that about him.”
So as you watch the rest of the NCAA tournament, take a look just outside the spotlight’s glare. The players often don’t fill up the stat sheet in the usual ways, but they’re essential, the below-ground pillars who keep the tower from falling.
“It’s not about scoring points, it’s about winning,” Sutton said. “That’s the mindset I’ve always had as a basketball player.”
Just like the rest of the glue guys.