How teams execute in the last four minutes of a game usually determines the final outcome. And having the right players in the right places for these situations is what coaching is all about. This includes making situational substitutions for both offense and defense, knowing who your best inbounders and lockdown defenders are, and identifying the guy you want to get open in a dead-ball situation and the players you want taking your last-second shot.
So who are the best players in the nation at closing out games? I've listed my 10 here, giving you a five-man team for both offense and defense. (Yes, I know this isn't football, but in an ideal world, these are the 10 players I'd have at my disposal to close out a game.)
Here they are -- the top 10 closers in college hoops.
Trey Burke, G, Michigan Wolverines -- In the closing moments of a game you need a point guard who is hard to press, can get open when denied, can break down the defense and make a play out of a play. Simply put, that's Burke. He is impossible to defend off the middle ball screen, and his ability to change speed and direction while playing on balance makes him the ideal guard in the last four minutes. Burke is also an excellent decision-maker, can shoot the 3 as well as score from midrange, and he is an excellent free throw shooter -- an essential skill to have down the stretch of games.
You can check out Burke when the Wolverines take on the Ohio State Buckeyes Tuesday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Ben McLemore, G, Kansas Jayhawks -- In late-game situations, your shooting guard has to be a solid secondary ball handler to take pressure off the point guard. He needs to be able to get open versus pressure and to go get his own shot off the bounce. McLemore can do both. He is a gifted offensive player who has been at his best with the game on the line this season. McLemore reads screens well and is a threat every time he comes off one. He is most dangerous off flares because he can always curl to the rim. McLemore is a talented athlete who runs the floor and gets to the offensive glass -- another important quality at the end of games.
Deshaun Thomas, F, Ohio State Buckeyes -- Offensive versatility is a bonus in late-game situations. The ability to attack a matchup both in a wing isolation or post-up puts a great deal of pressure on the defense. Thomas is the most versatile offensive player in college basketball. He comes off of screens shot-ready, shoots the ball with range, has an excellent shot fake that sets up his middle game and can score with his back to the basket both on and off the block.
Doug McDermott, F, Creighton Bluejays -- Having a player who can stretch the defense opens up the floor for guards to penetrate and gives post players more room to operate. But McDermott is more than just a shooter; he is a player. He is a big target as a cutter off curls, and is hard to game plan for in ball-screen situations as well as in the trail spot on the break. The son of his coach, Greg McDermott, Doug has a high basketball IQ and the poise needed in late-game situations. He's also a good inbounder (an essential late-game skill), and out of this set of five players, I'd have him take the ball out. And oh yeah, he's an elite shooter too, shooting 51 percent from 3-point range and 87 percent from the free throw line. (Of course, it's fair to note that McDermott has no chance of making the defense portion of this list any time soon.)
Cody Zeller, C, Indiana Hoosiers -- Late in games you need a post player who has a high motor, is hard to keep off the glass and can play in ball screens. Most short-clock plays end up in some kind of ball screen, and the best screen-and-roll frontcourt player in college basketball is Cody Zeller. He sprints to the screen, reads slips and has great hands. He is hard to keep off the glass and has the versatility to play in the high post as well as on the baseline.
Aaron Craft, G, Ohio State Buckeyes -- In the last four minutes of a game you need to get stops, and defense begins with the ability to both pressure and contain the basketball. There is no better on-ball defender at the point of attack than Craft. He has great feet and hands, his lower-body strength allows him to get over ball screens, and his upper-body strength helps eliminate screens off the ball. Craft also has an infectious toughness that helps raise the performance level of his teammates.
Michael Snaer, G, Florida State Seminoles -- "Early help and early recover" is a mantra in late-game situations. Not over-helping and giving up an open 3 is the difference between winning and losing. Being in the right place to discourage penetration and seeing plays early helps a team prevent the opponent from scoring. Snaer is a great position defender with the size to contest shots and the toughness to get through screens. He understands angles and doesn't give up the blow-bys that put defenses in rotation.
Victor Oladipo, G/F, Indiana Hoosiers -- Having a lockdown off-ball defender who can defend multiple positions is valuable in late-game situations. Oladipo's ability to defend any perimeter position allows you to switch in late-game short-clock situations. He has the quickness to guard point guards and the strength and athleticism to fight around a forward and get to a front if caught in a mismatch. Oladipo has great anticipation and is hard to screen. He also does a great job of rebounding his position.
Nerlens Noel, F/C, Kentucky Wildcats -- Protecting the front of the rim and defending ball screens is essential in the final four minutes of a game. Noel has the quickness to get out and either "blitz" or hard-hedge ball screens and recover back to the play. His ability to protect the front of the rim and both challenge and change shots takes away penetration at the end of games and forces opponents to become perimeter-oriented. Noel is an excellent rebounder who has the instinct to rebound out of his area.
Jeff Withey, F/C, Kansas Jayhawks -- Late in games you need to make it hard for your opponent to score an easy basket. Your perimeter players need to apply great ball pressure with the confidence that the next defender will be alert and in position to help. Withey is an alert off-ball defender who blocks shots without fouling and keeps them in play. A 7-footer who can step out on ball screens and recover as well as defend one-on-one in the post is an extremely important asset, because in late-game situations you do not want to be in rotation and give up an uncontested 3-point shot.