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Western Conference Finals: From humble beginnings to best guard duo?

When the Western Conference Finals tip-off on Tuesday night, everybody will eye the guard matchups. Currently, the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers are vying for the best starting backcourt in the league. However, there is also one thing to notice about these units. Not one of the players went to a powerhouse college basketball school.

Klay Thompson is the only guard to play at a Power 5 school. He joined the Washington State Cougars in 2008. However, nobody confused the Cougars with a juggernaut in the famed PAC-12. Although they made a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances two years before Thompson arrived on campus, they were not known as a basketball powerhouse. Since 1980, the Cougars have made five NCAA Tournament appearances. National championship coach Tony Bennett earned 2 top 4 seeds with Cougars. However, he departed after Thompson’s freshman season to head to Virginia.

As a result, Thompson never made a trip to the NCAA Tournament despite having a fair amount of success in three college seasons. Thompson averaged double figures all three years and scored over 21 points per game during his junior season. Unfortunately, 22 wins was not enough for the Cougars to earn a bid. Consequently, Thompson played under the radar during his entire college career.

Meanwhile, Damian Lillard joined the Weber State Wildcats at the same time Thompson joined the Cougars. As great as Lillard was, he never played in the NCAA Tournament either. Once again, it wasn’t the player’s fault. Lillard started all four seasons. However, an injury-riddled junior season was the only year Lillard’s team didn’t win 20 games. The Wildcats went 21-10 during his freshman season, 20-11 during his sophomore season and 25-7 in Lillard’s senior year. Yet, they failed to win the Big Sky conference tournament. As a result, we never saw Lillard in the NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, the Wildcats couldn’t even make the NIT tournament with 25 wins.

Meaning, we were robbed of watching one of the elite players on the biggest stage. Lillard averaged 24.5 points per game during his senior year. He also shot over 40 percent from 3-point range during his senior year. He would have been a magician in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the lack of college notoriety has kept a lid on Lillard’s stardom throughout his early years in the NBA.

C.J. McCollum was so good in four seasons with the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, it seemed like they may have been destined for an Elite 8 or Final Four run during his senior year. However, McCollum only played in 12 games during his final season. As a result, his lasting moment was ousting the Duke Blue Devils during the 2012 NCAA Tournament. McCollum also let a winnable game against the Xavier Musketeers slip away in the round of 32 as a junior.

He averaged 21 points per game during his college career. McCollum also shot 37 percent from 3-point range in college. However, he was shooting 51 percent from beyond the arc in 12 games during his senior season. The growth of his game was apparent. McCollum always had the ability you see on the court now. He just does it even better.

Clearly, Stephen Curry is the most famous of all the guards in the series. He led the Davidson Wildcats to the Elite 8. Moreover, Davidson is the most accomplished of these four college programs. The year prior to Curry’s arrival on campus, the Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament. They also made the NCAA Tournament during his freshman season. A first-round loss to Maryland ended the season prematurely. However, the Wildcats flourished during Curry’s sophomore season in college. He averaged 25.9 points per game. He attempted 10 3-pointers per game. Furthermore, the Wildcats were one good three away from defeating the Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite 8. It was the last time we saw Curry in the NCAA Tournament.

No, Curry didn’t leave college to enter the NBA Draft. He played his junior season and averaged 28.6 points per game. Curry also had the opportunity to play point guard on a full time basis. However, a 26-7 record was not good enough for Curry and the Wildcats to earn an at-large bid. Instead, they had to travel across country to face the Saint Mary’s Gaels in the second round of the NIT. Since then, Curry has won three NBA titles and two NBA MVP awards.

In similar fashion, Curry and McCollum played in two NCAA Tournaments. They both blossomed as freshman with big games. However, they had the opportunity to grow as players and shined during their final runs in the NCAA Tournament with upset victories. They also had to win their respective conference tournaments just to have these memorable performances.

Meanwhile, Thompson and Lillard never had the opportunity to experience the NCAA Tournament. They both won at least 22 games during their final college seasons. Yet, their respective programs had to win the conference tournament as well. We never saw them in the one-and-done setting. We will finally get to see them square up in a Western Conference Finals setting.

Interestingly enough, the matchups should start off regular. I see no problem with Lillard and Curry matching up early-on. Furthermore, it would be amazing to see McCollum and Thompson try to contain each other. Remember, C.J. might be the most difficult cover in this series. His ability to get into the lane and shot the mid-range will likely be a better matchup for Klay.

It will also be interesting to see what the Blazers do with Seth Curry. The Trail Blazers are known for going small in the fourth quarter with Curry as the third guard. He started his college career with the Liberty Flames before transferring to Duke. The younger Curry also found a niche role on the surging Blazers.

The X-factors will be Andre Iguodala for the Warriors and Evan Turner for the Trail Blazers. They each have the ability to guard outside of their normal position. They also have the ability to score at the rim. Therefore, if Iguodala is guarding Lillard or McCollum, we may see Curry on one of the combo forwards-guards. Will the Blazers try to take advantage of Turner in the post on Curry?

If the first two rounds are any indication, the Blazers have the offensive advantage. Lillard is scoring 28.4 points per game in the postseason. McCollum is scoring 25.6 points per game in the postseason. They are combining to score 54 points per game.

Meanwhile, the combination of Curry and Thompson are scoring 42.6 points per game. Curry is scoring 24.3 points per game, while Thompson is chipping in with 18.3 points per game. Yet, things should change as long as Kevin Durant is out of the lineup. Durant was leading all scorers with 34.2 points per game.

McCollum (40.7 percent) and Thompson (41.2 percent) are both shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range. Curry and Lillard are both shooting around 37 percent from the 3-point range. Keep in mind, they routinely take deeper 3-point shots and have had some off nights from long range. That’s one of the reasons why the two point guards should cover each other.

The Warriors are favored by 7.5 points in Game 1. The over is set at 219. Game is set to tip-off at 9 p.m. on ESPN.

About William Lyle Harrison

William is a sportswriter and football coach from New York. When he is not indulging in some type of sporting event, he is baking tasty treats in the kitchen. He grew up loving the Nebraska Cornhuskers in football and Syracuse Orange in basketball. The favorite time of year is when the ball is tipped for the NCAA Tournament. You will also come to enjoy William’s expertise in the NBA and NFL.

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