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.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.

Sweet 16 Breakdowns: How the South will be won

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This is where you want to be this weekend.

Beyond the fact that Beale Street is awesome and the ribs in the city are amazing, Memphis will be playing host to the three of the biggest brands in college basketball, three of the four best teams left in the tournament and what is, by a good margin, the best regional left. 

Let’s take a deeper look at it.

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA

How they can get to the Final Four: The most important thing for the Tar Heels is going to be making sure that Joel Berry II is healthy and playing well. It’s not a secret that this team goes as Berry goes, and he’s not been good through the first two games of the NCAA tournament. He was 1-for-8 from the floor against Texas Southern in the opener and went 2-for-13 from the field as the Tar Heels found themselves unexpectedly in a dogfight with Arkansas in the second round of the tournament.

Berry turned an ankle in UNC’s first round game, and that may have hampered him against the Razorbacks, so, in theory, he should be healthy and ready to for the Sweet 16. Whether or not he makes shots in a different story.

The other part of this, for UNC at least, is that they are going to need their front court to be dominant. The Tar Heels are going to have an advantage in the paint in just about every game they play the rest of the season. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley are big, physical and skilled, and all three can score in the post and crash the glass extremely hard. There is a reason that this team leads the nation in offensive rebounding this season, and all three of the teams that join them in the South Region are significantly smaller on the front line. Kentucky plays either Derek Willis or Wenyen Gabriel at the four. UCLA plays T.J. Leaf and, at times, Lonzo Ball at the four. Andrew Chrabacsz is good, but he shouldn’t keep Isaiah Hicks from getting to the glass.

That’s where UNC has their advantage.

The one other note to make about UNC: Theo Pinson is a terrific defender. At 6-foot-6 and as athletic as he is, putting him on Kelan Martin, Lonzo Ball or Malik Monk should help keep those three from getting into the kind of rhythm they can get into.

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

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Why they won’t get to the Final Four: Generally speaking, North Carolina doesn’t really have awful games. They have a floor that is higher than just about anyone’s floor in the country this season. That’s what tends to happen when you’re a team built around post touches and offensive rebounds.

But the ceiling for the Tar Heels isn’t as high as the ceiling for UCLA or the ceiling for Kentucky. To me, there isn’t a team in the country that can beat the Bruins when the Bruins play their best. And based on what happened back in December, it’s pretty clear that Kentucky’s best is better than North Carolina’s best; I’m not sure the Tar Heels could have played better than they did when Malik Monk scored 47 points in a 103-102 win over the Tar Heels.

The addition of Theo Pinson helps. I don’t think Monk gets 47 in that game if Pinson plays, and his presence should help keep the best players on all three potential opponents from going crazy. But the bottom line is this: there is a very realistic scenario in which North Carolina can play well and still find themselves on the wrong end of the scoreline in the Elite 8.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

No. 2 KENTUCKY

How they can get to the Final Four: The obvious answer here is Malik Monk, and yeah. That’s hard to disagree with. He’s proven time and again this season that, when he gets into a rhythm, he can carry Kentucky as far as he’s willing to take them. When he sees a couple shots go through the rim, it’s time for Kentucky to feed him until he burps.

But the ‘Oh, please let Malik Monk have a good game’ strategy is far from ideal because, quite simply, he’s not going to go crazy in four consecutive games against good teams with good defenders and good coaches. That’s a big ask, and that’s why the Wildcats are going to go as far as De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo take them. Adebayo has been awesome over the course of the last five or six weeks, as he’s finally seeming to come into his own as a punishing, overpowering low-post presence. He has five double-doubles in his last nine games, and two more games where he was one rebound short of a double-double.

And Fox?

He’s still turning the ball over a bit more than John Calipari would probably prefer, but his quickness and explosiveness are unquestionably back, and he looks as confident and capable, particularly in crunch time, as he did early in the season.

It’s not a coincidence that, as those two have come back into form, Kentucky now has the nation’s longest active win streak.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: There are a lot of easy answers to give here. Maybe Malik Monk falls back in love with contested jumpers and goes 3-for-20 in a loss. Maybe Kentucky forgets to play through Bam Adebayo, or maybe De’Aaron Fox becomes a turnover machine.

That’s all possible.

But you know what?

It’s also very possible that Kentucky can play really, really well throughout the second weekend of the tournament and still find themselves on the wrong side of a score line. You can play well and lose to UCLA. You can play well and lose to North Carolina. Hell, Butler has two wins over Villanova and a win over Arizona this season. They’re in the toughest region in the Sweet 16, and only one of the four teams in Memphis can make it out.

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

No. 3 UCLA

How they can get to the Final Four: By shooting the grip off the ball.

The bottom line is this: When UCLA’s offense is firing on all cylinders, no one is slowing them down. Ask Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a top 15 defense nationally, and for 15 minutes in the second half on Sunday night, UCLA made them look like a CYO team.

And rest assured, UCLA can do that against anyone. They won a game in Rupp Arena when they gave up 92 points on a night where Lonzo Ball played like he was shaving points in the first ten minutes. They’ve hit 19 threes in a game. Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday can all pop off for 25 minutes on a given night, and Ball is about as good as it gets when it comes to making big shots in big moments.

There really isn’t all that much else to add about the Bruins.

There are no secrets about what they’re going to do. The question is if your team has the ability to stop it.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: The defensive side of the ball. It’s not a secret. We all know the facts here. UCLA is not always a good defensive team. Some of it is effort — it’s not exactly breaking news that they have a habit of not giving effort defensively when they don’t have to — and some of it is the simple fact that their key players are just not all that good defensively. Bryce Alford get’s targeted by opposing coaches. Isaac Hamilton isn’t a great defender, neither is T.J. Leaf.

In the Sweet 16 matchup, I’d expect Ball to spend most of his time on Fox while Holiday and Hamilton chase around Monk; I’m not sure Steve Alford wants to burn out Ball’s legs by having him run around nine screens every possession. But that then leaves Bryce Alford on Isaiah Briscoe, which is a matchup that Briscoe should be able to take full advantage of. In a potential Elite 8 game against North Carolina, the Bruins are going to have to trust Leaf to be able to keep one of Hicks or Meeks off of the offensive glass. That’s a tough ask.

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

No. 4 BUTLER

How they can get to the Final Four: The simple answer is finding a way to get stops. Butler is sitting in a region with three of the nation’s 13-best offenses, according to KenPom, and frankly, I think that the way that Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox are currently playing means that Kentucky’s spot as the nation’s 13th-most efficient offensive attack is probably underrated.

Seriously, think about this.

To get to the Final Four, Butler is going to have to find a way to beat a North Carolina team that leads the nation in offensive rebounding with three front court players bigger and better than their biggest and best, and that’s after they find a way to keep Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson front going off. Then and only then can we talk about what they’re going to do about Lonzo Ball and that high-octane UCLA offense or how they’re going to try and chase Malik Monk off of the three-point line.

There’s a very real argument to make that Butler is in a region with the three best teams left in the tournament. They’ve proven they’re good enough to get something like this done, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: The simple fact of the matter here is that Butler is totally outclassed in terms of talent by the other three teams in this region. Kentucky and UCLA have future NBA first round picks up and down their roster. North Carolina has a couple, and they’re flanked by a half-dozen former four- and five-star prospects playing for a Hall of Fame head coach.

Butler?

They feel like a Cinderella in this league, even through they are a No. 4 seed from the Big East that swept Villanova, beat Arizona and knocked off Xavier twice. I don’t think anyone is really expecting all that much out of Butler this weekend, and if you know anything about the history of that program, that’s usually when they’re at their most dangerous.