2012-13 Preview: Top 15 Backcourts

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

In the latest installment in our college basketball preview series it’s time to take a look at some of the best backcourts in America. Guard play is a focus of analysts every March, and with the disappearance of the true center over the years it should come as no surprise that many of the teams that make waves have superior guards. Below are the top 15 backcourts in the country heading into the 2012-13 season, with some honorable mentions as well.

1. Missouri
Players: Phil Pressey, Michael Dixon Jr., Keion Bell, Earnest Ross, Negus Webster-Chan, Dominique Bull, Jabari Brown*

Two starters, Michael Dixon Jr. and preseason SEC Player of the Year Phil Pressey, are back in Columbia and they’ll be joined by a talented cast of newcomers. Earnest Ross (Auburn), Keion Bell (Pepperdine) and Jabari Brown (Oregon; eligible at the end of the fall semester) all have college experience and will be called upon to contribute. Missouri may not have been the pick to win the SEC, but this group makes the Tigers more than capable of doing so.

2. Michigan
Players: Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Caris LeVert, Spike Albrecht

Burke was an honorable mention All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season, leading the team in both points and assists. Hardaway was Michigan’s second-leading scorer in 2011-12, and if he can raise his three-point percentage (28.7%) the junior will be even more productive offensively. If the freshmen are ready to contribute this becomes an even tougher group to deal with.

3. San Diego State
Players: Xavier Thames, Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley, James Rahon

Franklin, who was Mountain West Player of the Year, led the way with averages of 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game with Tapley not too far behind at 15.8 ppg. Thames runs the show for SDSU, as his 4.1 assists per game led the team and he finished in the top 10 in the Mountain West in both assists and assist-turnover ratio. Add in Rahon and you’ve got a group that can lead Steve Fisher’s program a long way in 2012-13.

4. Baylor
Players: Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, A.J. Walton, Deuce Bello, Gary Franklin, L.J. Rose

Leading the way is Jackson (13.8 ppg, 5.9 apg), who was a Cousy Award finalist and All-Big 12 selection in 2011-12. Baylor also welcomes back sharpshooter Brady Heslip, whose marksmanship played an important role in the Bears’ March run. Walton’s the glue guy of the group while in Bello the Bears have an outstanding athlete who will certainly help them out defensively (if and when his offensive skill set becomes more refined, look out).

5. Louisville
Players: Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Kevin Ware, Wayne Blackshear

Siva’s improved play in March was a big reason why the Cardinals won the Big East tournament, and Smith can have some “Russdiculous” moments his ability to score is something the Cardinals can’t do without. Blackshear and Ware are two skilled players who will figure prominently in the Louisville attack after having limited roles last season due to injury.

6. Notre Dame
Players: Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Scott Martin

While it’s Atkins who initiates the offense for the Fighting Irish it was Grant who led the team in assists last season. Grant posted averages of 12.3 points and 5.0 assists per game with Atkins not far behind at 12.1 and 4.1. Add in an experienced veteran who can both knock down perimeter shots and hit the boards in Scott Martin (9.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and a good shooter in sophomore Pat Connaughton and you’ve got a quartet fit to challenge just about anyone in the country much less the Big East.

7. Memphis
Players: Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton, Geron Johnson, Damien Wilson

Jackson averaged 11.0 points and 3.8 assists per game last season, and both are numbers that can increase in 2012-13 provided he’s matured as a floor general. The experience of seniors Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford will help matter for Memphis, with the latter coming off of a season in which he led the Tigers in assists. The wild card: that would be junior college transfer Geron Johnson, who hasn’t always made the right decisions off the court.

8. NC State
Players: Lorenzo Brown, Scott Wood, Rodney Purvis, Tyler Lewis

While Wood is listed on the official roster as a forward his role is often that of a perimeter player so that’s why he’s on here. The senior was one of the ACC’s best shooters last season, as he knocked down 41% of his shots from beyond the arc. The other returnee is Lorenzo Brown, who is arguably the best point guard in the ACC. Add in a pair of McDonald’s All Americans in Lewis and Purvis and you’ve got a very talented quartet.

9. Cincinnati
Players: Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick, JaQuon Parker, Ge’Lawn Guyn, Jeremiah Davis III

Wright led the team in assists last season (4.6 apg) and finished with an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 2-to-1, and with forward Yancy Gates and guard Dion Dixon gone it’s likely that the senior is asked to do more scoring-wise. Kilpatrick was outstanding throughout for Cincinnati, averaging a team-high 14.3 ppg and shooting 43% from the field. Parker was one reason why Cincinnati was able to adjust to a smaller lineup as he averaged nearly six rebounds per game, and that’s something they’ll likely do again this year.

10. Florida State
Players: Michael Snaer, Ian Miller, Terry Whisnant II, Montay Brandon, Aaron Thomas, Devon Bookert

One big reason why FSU should return to the Big Dance is the return of senior guard Michael Snaer, who led the team in scoring and is also one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He’ll be joined by point guard Ian Miller, who averaged more than ten points per game off the bench in 24 games. The depth will be provided by Terry Whisnant II, who didn’t see much playing time due to the presence of Dulkys and Loucks, and three freshmen led by Montay Brandon.

11. Indiana
Players: Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo, Will Sheehey, Maurice Creek, Remi Abell, Yogi Ferrell

Hulls is the most experienced member of the rotation while Oladipo is a flat-out pest defensively. Oladipo made great strides offensively from his freshman to sophomore season, and a similar jump could land him among the best guards in the Big Ten. Add in Sheehey, who averaged 8.5 points per game last year, and you’ve got a solid trio to begin with. Adding Ferrell and Creek to this group is a plus, provided Creek remains healthy.

12. New Mexico
Players: Kendall Williams, Tony Snell, Jamal Fenton, Hugh Greenwood, Demetrius Walker, Cleveland Thomas

Losing Drew Gordon in the paint definitely hurts, but the return of four guards who played a major role in last year’s championship season is why no one should disregard New Mexico in the Mountain West race. Kendall Williams is UNM’s leading returnee in both scoring and assists while Tony Snell ranked among the Lobos’ most consistent players last season. Jamal Fenton and Hugh Greenwood are back to handle the duties at the point, and by the end of last season it looked as if Demetrius Walker began to figure things out offensively.

13. Gonzaga
Players: Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., David Stockton, Michael Hart, Guy Landri Edi, Drew Barham

Pangos, who was the WCC Freshman of the Year, led Gonzaga in both points and assists last season and finished with an offensive rating of 120 (per statsheet.com). He’ll be joined in the starting lineup by Bell Jr., who was another of Gonzaga’s double figure scorers in 2011-12 (they had four total). David Stockton rarely makes mistakes when running the point, which affords Pangos the opportunity to work off the ball on occasion. And keep an eye on Landri Edi in his second season in the program.

14. Drexel
Players: Frantz Massenat, Damion Lee, Chris Fouch, Aquil Younger

Massenat is the early favorite to win CAA Player of the Year, and he led the Dragons in both points and assists in 2011-12. Lee is only a sophomore and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he won the honor either this season or down the road either, as he’s versatile enough to cause fits anywhere on the floor. And last but not least there is Fouch, who has proven to be one of the best sixth men in the country over the course of his career.

15. VCU
Players: Darius Theus, Rob Brandenburg, Briante Weber, Troy Daniels, Treveon Graham, Teddy Okereafor, Melvin Johnson

Leading scorer Bradford Burgess may be gone but Troy Daniels averaged just over ten points per game last season and Darius Theus led the Rams in assists. Treveon Graham provided an offensive spark off the bench last year as he averaged 7.0 ppg in just under 17 minutes of action, and Briante Weber may have averaged 4.9 ppg but he did lead the team in steals. Brandenburg and Okereafor will add even more depth, and VCU landed a major pickup when Melvin Johnson committed during the summer.

Others (in alphabetical order): Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Duke, Florida, Kentucky, La Salle, Marquette, Miami, Nevada, Ohio State, Saint Louis, Saint Mary’s, Stanford, and Syracuse.

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.