NCAA: Steve Nash loves underdogs, dishes out tips on NBA success

    Former NBA point guard Steve Nash was the focal point of the Phoenix Suns "Seven Seconds or Less" offense. The two-time NBA MVP was also a standout college player at Santa Clara, despite emerging as an unheralded player from Canada.

    Story highlights

    • Nash is two-time NBA MVP
    • Played four years at Santa Clara
    • Appeared in three NCAA Tournaments
    • Earned first round upsets of Arizona, Maryland

    (CNN)It's a tournament where basketball minnows can compete with the big boys and cement their chances for NBA success. Just ask basketball great Steve Nash.

    The two-time NBA MVP is one of the greatest point guards in basketball history, but before his career took off with the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns, the former Santa Clara standout made his mark in the NCAA Tournament.
      He led the Broncos to two giant first-round upsets over Arizona and Maryland during his four-year collegiate career, earning him a No. 15 pick in the 1996 NBA Draft.
      In advance of the Final Four -- where South Carolina meets Gonzaga and Oregon faces the University of North Carolina on Saturday, ahead of the final on Monday -- Nash offered his thoughts on what makes a great pro, the evolution of the point guard, and his prediction for the tournament winner (hint, it's a upset).
      CNN: What stands out about this tournament so far?
      "There have been a lot of exciting games, as always, but a couple of teams that you wouldn't expect to be in the Final Four are in it. I think that always makes it more enjoyable for the common fan."
      Coming from a smaller school like Santa Clara, it must be nice to see first-timers Gonzaga and South Carolina in the Final Four.
      "Yeah of course. In Oregon, the Ducks have a growing profile too (this is Oregon's first trip to the Final Four since winning the tournament in 1939).
      "To lose a big piece of their team [senior Chris Boucher, who averaged 11.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks] before the tournament and still make the Final Four is fantastic. It kind of validates all the growth and success that they have. And obviously South Carolina came out of nowhere. It's exciting."
      Now more than ever, the point guard is the most important player on the team, and players are assigned point guard duties regardless of their size. What do you make of that?
      "It's a fascinating time, because, while the point guard position has never been stronger, it's changed and evolved. It's less of a past-first position on a lot of teams, and more the focal point of the attack.
      "You look at a team like Oregon that has now has a small center (due to Boucher's injury) and they have four guys who can make a play, who can put the ball on the floor and pass or score.
      "That's valuable to have that versatility and play making from all positions. I think that's a little bit of a window into how the game has evolved."
      Steve Nash's love of two games: Hoops and football
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      Do you enjoy watching Gonzaga's 7-foot 1-inch, 300-pounder Przemek Karnowski dish no-look passes and shoot threes?
      "I think it's great. What's interesting is that the big man is kind of becoming a little bit -- I don't know if I want to say obsolete -- but it's more difficult to play bigger, because they get into trouble in pick and roll defense.
      "Teams just make it very difficult for post players. But he's able to pass and distribute, and if he can make a shot from the outside it's fantastic as well."
      Speaking of which, the NBA has put a lot of emphasis on threes and this appears to have spilled over into college. Shot selection has been iffy at the end of games at times, with some players forcing threes rather than setting up good shots with time remaining. Does this frustrate you?
      "I think that decision making -- especially at the collegiate level -- is what makes the game so exciting. Because they are still kids, so they have to make mistakes. But also can be maddening this time of year.
      "I think the basketball community in general has come to accept that the three-point shot is almost mandatory to take and create (chances for).
      "You're almost taught not to shoot those midrange shots. So I think there's a subconscious and conscious decision not to take them and maybe try and draw a foul ... and in some ways that makes the decision-making questionable at times."
      What skills show you that college players can make it in the NBA?
      "That's something that in some ways never changes. In general, you look for people who have the physical abilities to play at that level, (who display) skill at their position offensively, and who can guard their position.
      "But what I look for is somebody that is mentally tough, (and can) compete under adversity.. You can tell if they have a hard-nosed mentally.
      "A guy who has tons of ability but maybe isn't mentally tough, or doesn't make great decisions, isn't as exciting as a guy who's really underwhelming in terms of skills but relishes the competition."
      It's hard to judge if the top players are mentally tough if they are often playing just one season, though, correct?
      "That's true, but there is enough time there to take a guess -- especially if you watch a guy during the course of the year.
      "Part of that is how much they love the game too. What kind of personality do they have? Are they hard workers? Do they prioritize their game and their career? Or have they just been riding the coattails of their prodigious talent? That is always a recipe for underperforming (at the next level)."
      Who stands out for you in that respect?
      "I have a pretty close relationship with (Oregon 6-foot 7-inch small forward) Dillon Brooks, so I really like him a lot. He's one of our Canadian kids; he's physically an NBA player but he's also very tough minded.
      "I think he's one of those guys that isn't talked about as a high pick but he could play a long time in the NBA."
      What about (UCLA point guard) Lonzo Ball? He reminds me of a bigger version of Jason Kidd with a better shot at the college level. Is there anything missing from his game?
      "No he's good; I think his weakness now is just learning to be more aggressive. At times, he can maybe be too subdued on the court. He has so much ability that he should constantly be putting pressure on the defense. But that will come; he's only a kid still (at age 19).
      "I think it's always hard to make comparisons, but the Jason Kidd one has some value. Jason could be a tremendous competitor and was physically very strong at a young age."
      All of your former teams, Dallas, Phoenix and the Lakers are lottery teams. If you could be an NBA general manager with the No.1 pick, whose your guy?
      "If you can get a playmaker in today's game it's really important. You need someone to handle the ball the majority of the game. I know Ball and (Washington point guard) Markelle Fultz are up there. Given the times we're in, a point guard will be valued again."
      Finally, what's your Final Four prediction for this weekend?
      "I think North Carolina has the most athletic team, but there's something great about the other three. There is a reason why Gonzaga (36-1) has risen to the challenge all season.
      "And then you look at the other two teams -- South Carolina and Oregon -- and they are like these underdogs that won't quit. They are all gritty teams that you don't want to bet against.
      "North Carolina is the favorite but I'm going to go with Oregon."