Beware the guards of March: twenty deadly backcourt heroes

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Basketball may be a big man’s game, but college basketball is dominated by the teams who land the best ball-handlers, slashers and long-range shooters. Want to get to the Final Four? You have to have one or two elite guards. There are so many who will take the stage before the weekend comes, and I want you to know them all.

Numbers 1-8. Tom Petty Rob Dauster and the Heartbreakers: Eight of the most dangerous guards in the game were profiled by my colleague yesterday. Trey Burke, Seth Curry, Matthew Dellavedova, Kerron Johnson, Shane Larkin, Marcus Smart, Chase Tapley and Khalif Wyatt are known quantities, and I can’t give them any stronger daps than Mr. Dauster already has. If you watched Tuesday night’s games in Dayton, you got a preview of Dellavedova’s shooting stroke, as the Aussie with the distinctive mouthpiece went off for 22 points to earn his team a date with Memphis in the real first round.

9. Ben McLemore, Kansas: The redshirt freshman from St. Louis has been a crucial piece for the Jayhawks, nailing a buzzer-beater to keep his team alive against Iowa State in the regular season, and showing an ability to throw down monster dunks during game action. It’s his shooting stroke that promises to stand out in March – he sends television announcers into raptures every time he goes up for a jumper. Some are still holding out hope for injured Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel to be the NBA’s top pick this summer, but others lean toward smooth-as-silk McLemore.

10. Russ Smith, Louisville: It’s tough not to get giddy when a Louisville game is on the slate, because you know you’re about to watch a veritable force of nature. Smith is speedy, so he’s had a race horse named after him by his coach. Smith is an excellent scorer who also occasionally takes mental vacations (sometimes both on the same play), which has earned him the sobriquet Russdiculous. He’s one of the main reasons the Cards are the No. 1 overall seed, and favorites to cut down the nets in Atlanta.

11. Aaron Craft, Ohio State: Craft is so crucial to the Buckeyes, but he doesn’t always do it with scoring. Yes, he put 20 points on Michigan State in the Big Ten semifinals, and it’s nice to know he has that gear when it’s needed, but that’s not really his game. Craft is a facilitator who averages 4.6 assists per game, but more than that, he’s the best on-ball defender in the game right now. Woe to any opponent who hopes to dazzle pro scouts on a night when he lines up across from Aaron Craft. Which brings me to…

12. Lamont ‘Momo’ Jones, Iona: The nation’s third-leading scorer behind Erick Green and Creighton big man Doug McDermott, Momo may be best remembered for his two years at Arizona, which ended in an Elite Eight run two years ago. Momo transferred to be closer to his family in Harlem, which was Iona’s gain. Momo’s deft passing is overshadowed by his gunnery, but he’s good at dropping dimes as well. Momo vs. Craft is one of my must-see opening round matchups.

13. Victor Oladipo, Indiana: I could almost feel Hoosier fans getting edgier and edgier as they read the names of other guards at the top of this page. No, I haven’t forgotten Mr. Oladipo. How could I? The 6’5″ junior was a revelation for the top-seeded Hoosiers this season, and if he hadn’t played in the same league as Michigan’s Burke, he would have garnered even more plaudits. The numbers say it all: Oladipo averaged 13.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game this season. His deep shooting improved dramatically, going from 20 percent last season to 44 percent this year. When opponents double-team Cody Zeller in the post, Victor Oladipo is the man who makes them pay.

14. Rotnei Clarke, Butler: Clarke is an Arkansas transfer who will only play this one season at Butler, but what a season it has been. Clarke hit a crazy one-handed shot in Hawaii in November, and he’s been Butler’s leading scorer all season long, averaging 16.7 points per game. Clarke has been somewhat mis-cast as a distributor for the Bulldogs – imagine what he could do if he had an elite point guard getting him the ball?

15. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA: You may have wondered what the Free Shabazz Muhammad movement was all about when the freshman’s debut was delayed by the NCAA. It’s about this. UCLA is relevant in March again, and Muhammad is the biggest reason. Kudos also go to his backcourt mate Larry Drew II, but Muhammad is the face of the program right now, and likely to go high in the NBA draft in a few months.

16: Phil Pressey, Missouri: “Flip” led the SEC in passing this season, averaging 7.1 points per game. His nickname gets a little too on-the-nose when it comes time for him to shoot the ball, but he’s perfectly capable of hitting some daggers as well. He’ll have his hands full with Colorado State’s rugged defense in the Tigers’ first game, but his ability to involve his teammates will be the key to winning.

17: Ian Clark, Belmont: We talked about Kerron Johnson above, and it’s a measure of how dangerous Belmont can be that we felt the need to mention Clark as well. Clark averages 18.1 points and 3.3 assists per game, and the senior from Memphis is a constant threat to poke away a steal or two from an unwary opponent. With their dual engines in the backcourt, Belmont could easily be a Sweet Sixteen team.

18: Derrick Marks, Boise State: If you’re getting anxious, you can watch Marks tonight, as his Broncos take on Ramon Galloway and the La Salle Explorers in Dayton at 9 pm on tru TV. Marks plays his biggest in big games. He dropped 35 points on Creighton, earning a win that probably tipped the scales when the selection committee put BSU in the Dance. He also hung 27 on New Mexico, 38 on Colorado State and 27 on San Diego State in Mountain West play.

source: AP
Nate Wolters can even play without pants. (AP)

19: Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse: At 6’6″, MCW is so big it’s easy to forget he’s a guard. But his 7.7 assists per game in the rugged Big East render the distinction moot. He can also throw down an eye-opening dunk when the opportunity presents itself, and is a defensive force for the Orange as well, averaging 2.7 steals per contest.

20: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State: No, I haven’t forgotten Wolters. Neither have Michigan’s coaches, who are no doubt wide-eyed and suffering from the caffeine shakes as they try to figure out how to keep the Jackrabbit stud from dousing their title quest on the first day. Wolters can do it all: He’s averaging 22.7 points per game and is capable of scoring 30 on any given night. He rebounds, dishes, defends and hits the three-pointer at a roughly 40 percent clip. And if you put him on the line, he’ll sink you there, too. He’s an 81 percenter on the freebies. If you want to sound smart around the water cooler this week, get to know Wolters.

The killer part of this is that I just gave you twenty guards to keep an eye on, and I still feel reasonably certain that someone not on this list will distinguish himself on the national stage before it’s all said and done. That’s how good this year’s crop of guards is. Think I left someone out? Let me have it in the comments.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

4-star center commits to Purdue

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With Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas entering their senior seasons, adding front court options in the 2018 class was something that Purdue needed to do. Purdue added its second front court commitment in the 2018 class Tuesday evening, as four-star center Emmanuel Dowuona reportedly made his pledge. News of Dowuona’s commitment was first reported by the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

Dowuona, a 6-foot-11 big man who attends Westwood Christian School in Miami, joins fellow four-star prospect Trevion Williams in Purdue’s 2018 class to date.

Dowuona’s commitment comes just days before he was reportedly to visit Tennessee. Among the other programs to have offered Duwuona were Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and UConn.

Dowuona played for the Team Breakdown program on the Under Armour Association circuit during the summer, averaging 7.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 59.3 percent from the field. While still a bit raw offensively, the native of Ghana provides value as a defender and rebounder. Dowuona is joining a program that during Painter’s tenure as head coach has done a good job of developing big men.

Dowuona and the aforementioned Williams will look to compete for playing time in 2018-19 alongside current redshirt junior Jacquil Taylor and 7-foot-3 redshirt freshman center Matt Haarms.

Dayton freshman Toppin ineligible for 2017-18 season

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Dayton announced Tuesday afternoon that one of the program’s incoming freshmen will not be eligible to compete this season. 6-foot-8 forward Obadiah Toppin has been ruled by the NCAA to have not met initial eligibility requirements, and he will have to sit out the 2017-18 season as a result.

Toppin will be allowed to remain a member of the team and participate in practices, and he will have four seasons of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2018-19 season. While the NCAA’s decision leaves the Flyers short a front court option in head coach Anthony Grant’s first season at the helm, it did not come as a surprise.

“We knew this was a possible scenario for Obi early on in the recruiting process,” Grant said in the release. “And if it came to pass, we saw this as a chance for him to utilize this year acclimate as a student and enhance his strength and skill as an academic redshirt. This is a great opportunity for Obi to develop as a player and student over the next 12 months, and prepare himself for a very successful college career.”

Toppin, who averaged 17 points and eight rebounds per game at Mt. Zion Academy last season, is one of five freshmen who have joined the program. Matej Svoboda and Jordan Pierce will look to earn minutes alongside returnees Josh Cunningham and Xeyrius Williams, and the same can be said for redshirt freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Toppin being declared ineligible is the third hit Dayton has taken to its front court this offseason. Ryan Mikesell, who played in 32 games last season, will redshirt after undergoing two hip surgeries. And Sam Miller, who was also part of the team’s front court rotation last season, was suspended from school for the fall semester after he was arrested during the summer.

Four-star forward commits to Ohio State

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Ohio State is on the board with regards to the 2018 recruiting class, as Chris Holtmann’s program received a much-needed verbal commitment from four-star forward Jaedon LeDee. The 6-foot-9 Houston native announced his decision via his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon.

In receiving a verbal commitment from LeDee, Ohio State beat out California, Houston, Iowa State, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and UCLA. The Buckeyes hosted LeDee for his official visit the weekend of September 9, which coincided with the football team’s matchup with Oklahoma. Originally scheduled to visit Cal this past weekend, LeDee instead visited Texas A&M.

With LeDee’s commitment to Ohio State, visits to LSU (September 30) and UCLA (October 6) are likely off the board.

Currently attending the Kincaid School, LeDee played for the Texas PRO grassroots program on the adidas Uprising circuit this summer. The four-star prospect will likely be a combo forward for Ohio State, playing either the three or the four depending on the matchup.

With Jae’Sean Tate beginning his senior season and Keita Bates-Diop being a redshirt junior, Ohio State had a need to address in the front court. In landing a verbal pledge from Jaedon LeDee, the Buckeyes have done just that.

Among the front court players who will have eligibility remaining beyond the 2017-18 season are Bates-Diop, current sophomores Micah Potter and Andre Wesson, and freshmen Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young.

The Pac-12 is foolish for scheduling Arizona-UCLA once during the regular season

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Last month, I wrote about one of the more troubling trends in college basketball: Teams steering away from playing the games that fans are going to care about the most.

It was the result of Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing stating publicly that he was “not thinking about Maryland” after the rivalry between the DMV’s two most well-known programs went by the wayside.

Ewing isn’t the only coach that is culpable here. Kansas and Missouri don’t play. Kansas and Wichita State don’t play, either. Duke and Maryland don’t play. Ohio State doesn’t play Cincinnati, Xavier or Dayton. It goes on and on.

But the blame can no longer only be given to the coaches that schedule to protect themselves and/or their program.

The conferences deserve some criticism as well. Take, for instance, the Pac-12, who released their schedule recently after deciding that Arizona, a contender for the preseason No. 1 team in the country, should only play UCLA and USC, the only two teams that have a realistic chance of upending the Wildcats for the Pac-12 crown, once apiece.

Not only that, but the games will be played in Tucson, an incredible advantage for Sean Miller’s club as they pursue the league’s regular season title.

Look, I get it. There are 12 teams in the league and there is an 18-game schedule. Each team in the league is going to play four of their 11 league foes just once. It’s simple math. But the answer should never, ever be to schedule the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once.

The reasoning is simple: Arizona and UCLA are the two biggest brands in the league. When they play it will draw more interest than when any other two teams in the conference play, and that’s something the conference should be trying to capitalize on. It takes a lot to convince anyone on the east coast to stay up to watch a Pac-12 basketball game. I cover this sport for a living and I have a hard time making it all the way through a 10 p.m. ET tip. When a two-year old is going to be screaming at me to make breakfast at 6:30 a.m., do I really want to stay up to watch Arizona blow out Washington or UCLA to beat up on Cal?

The Pac-12 should do everything they can to ensure that Arizona and UCLA play twice every season.

That is even more true this year. Arizona might be the best team in the country and they might have the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on their roster in Deandre Ayton. UCLA is a top 15 team that just so happens to have Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and potentially the last one to matriculate through the college ranks. The seemingly inevitable LaVar Ball blow-up is something we all will be watching patiently to see.

Should I mention the simmering hatred between Sean Miller and Steve Alford as they continually compete for the best prospects on the west coast?

And that’s before you factor in that USC is the second-best team in the league, and anyone that UCLA plays twice, USC will also play twice.

I’ll be sure to watch a number of Oregon games this season, and I think that Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado all have the pieces to sneak up on some people this year. I’ll be sure to check in on them a couple times as well.

But the games that I’ll have circled on my calendar, the games I’ll be excited about watching, are between Arizona, UCLA and USC.

By scheduling the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once during the regular season, the Pac-12 cost themselves a third of that inventory.

That doesn’t seems like the smartest way to run a business conference.

But hey, if conference realignment and the development of conference-only networks taught us anything, it’s that major college athletics are all about competitive balance over those advertising dollars.

Vanderbilt lands commitment from Aaron Nesmith

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Vanderbilt landed their first commitment in the Class of 2018 with four-star wing Aaron Nesmith.

Nesmith is a native of South Carolina, and the Commodores beat out South Carolina for his services. At 6-foot-6, Nesmith is the kind of defensive presence and athlete that Vandy will need to replace Jeff Roberson, who will be graduating this season.

This is a critical class for Bryce Drew, who is squarely in the mix for five-star guards Darius Garland and Romeo Langford. Nesmith isn’t on that level, but he will be a nice piece for Vandy for four years.