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.

No. 5 Villanova beats Tennessee 85-76 in Battle 4 Atlantis

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — Jalen Brunson scored 25 points to help fifth-ranked Villanova rally from 15 down and beat Tennessee 85-76 in Thursday’s semifinals at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Wildcats (5-0) trailed 44-29 with 1:39 left before roaring out of a break with a dominating run. Villanova scored the first 11 points as part of that 23-2 burst, with the Wildcats playing far more aggressively and getting out in transition.

Mikal Bridges added 21 points for Villanova, which shot 52 percent after halftime and built a 15-point lead with 4:40 left before having to hold off a late rally by the Volunteers.

Grant Williams scored 20 points for Tennessee (3-1), which clawed to within 79-76 on Admiral Schofield’s 3-pointer with 51.6 seconds left. But that was as close as the Volunteers got, with Villanova hitting four free throws and getting a breakaway dunk from Donte DiVincenzo with 13.2 seconds left to seal it.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers were coming off an overtime win against No. 18 Purdue in the first round and they were poised to add an even bigger upset. But that flat second-half start wiped out a strong half’s worth of work and squandered the momentum that came through their board work and converting turnovers.

Villanova: That’s two straight days the Wildcats put together a second-half spurt to take control in the Bahamas. They did it in Round 1 against Western Kentucky to finally break the game open, but this one — full of active hands, deflected passes and guys diving on the floor — brought them back in a game that was once getting away from them.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the North Carolina State-Northern Iowa loser in Friday’s third-place game.

Villanova: The Wildcats will play the N.C. State-Northern Iowa winner in Friday’s championship game.

VIDEO: Mike Brey celebrates Maui win shirtless

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Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey celebrated his team’s win in the Maui Invitational by going shirtless in the team locker room:

This came after Brey spent the entire tournament coaching in shorts and a t-shirt:

Mike Brey (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

I think it’s safe to say Brey enjoyed himself on the islands.

No. 13 Notre Dame lands come-from-behind win to beat No. 6 Wichita State in Maui

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Notre Dame led twice during Wednesday night’s Maui Invitational title game.

At 4-2, and, after Martinas Geben hit the second of two free throws with 2.3 seconds left, at 67-66.

That score would end up being the final, as the 13th-ranked Irish erased a 14-point second half deficit to knock off No. 6 Wichita State and bring home that Maui trophy.

Bonzie Colson led the way with 25 points and 11 boards while Matt Farrell chipped in with 15 points, four assists, four boards and three steals. Geben chipped in with 12 points, including those two free throws that served as the eventual game-winners.

Beyond the simple fact that they did it against one of the best teams in the country, what makes this comeback so impressive is that the Irish didn’t rely on a flurry of threes to change the course of the game. This comeback came through grit, toughness defensively and, if we’re being honest, a little bit of luck.

With less than 20 seconds left on the clock and the Irish down by three points, Colson airballed a pretty good look at a three from the top of the key. On the ensuing inbounds, Farrell stole the ball and happened to find Colson under the rim for a layup. The lead was cut to one, and Wichita State proceeded to miss the front end of a one-and-one after being fouled.

The ball once again ended up underneath Notre Dame’s basket, but this time it was the Irish ball, and after a gorgeous inbounds play, Geben headed to the line for two shots. The first shots somehow managed to go down after bouncing off the back of the rim, the backboard and the front of the rim twice.

And with that, Notre Dame would get off of the islands with another quality win for their résumé and a title to their name.

No. 8 Kentucky finally has it easy against Fort Wayne, 86-67

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Nick Richards had career highs of 25 points and 15 rebounds, and 70 percent first-half shooting propelled No. 8 Kentucky to an 86-67 rout of Fort Wayne on Wednesday night.

Kentucky’s 19-of-27 shooting before halftime countered the Mastodons’ eight 3-pointers that kept them close for a while. Once Fort Wayne started missing, it couldn’t match the length or speed of the young Wildcats (5-1), who eventually led 78-48 with 6:50 remaining on the way to their most decisive win this season.

Richards thrived in both halves and on both ends, making 9 of 10 from the field and all seven free throws for his first career double-double. The 6-foot-11 freshman’s previous highs were 10 points against Utah Valley and nine rebounds against Kansas last week.

Quade Green, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each added 11 points as Kentucky shot a season-best 33 of 55 (60 percent) and dominated the rebounding 44-21.

Junior guard John Konchar had 19 points and Bryson Scott 18 for Fort Wayne (3-2), who had won three in a row before losing on 40 percent shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Fort Wayne: A year after upsetting Indiana, the Mastodons led Kentucky 37-36 with 3:51 left in the first half behind 8-of-22 shooting from long range. They went cold from outside and elsewhere after that and the Wildcats pounced to lead at the break and stretch the advantage to 30 points in the second half. The Mastodons’ 12 3-pointers were their third-highest total this season.

Kentucky: Something had to give after all those tense performances and the Wildcats thrived because of their size and best shooting effort this season. Richards couldn’t be stopped on either end, and teammates seemed in sync for the first time. Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel came up just short of a double-double with 10 rebounds and nine points.

UP NEXT

Kentucky hosts Illinois-Chicago on Sunday to wrap up the Rupp Classic before getting a few days off.

Fort Wayne visits East Tennessee State on Saturday. ETSU lost 78-31 to Kentucky last Friday.

VIDEO: Providence beats Belmont on Kyron Cartwright’s buzzer-beating three

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We got the first wild buzzer-beater of the college basketball season on Wednesday night, as Kyron Cartwright answered a Belmont bucket with 3.7 seconds left by going 94-feet to hit a leaning three at the buzzer:

Providence won the game 65-63.

Cartwright finished with 17 points in the win.