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.

Tumble continues for Oklahoma as No. 8 Kansas cruises to win

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Oklahoma desperately needed a win. Not even necessarily in the classic sense of the term of outscoring your opponent. The Sooners just needed something, anything, positive to build on in a season that’s suddenly crumbling around them.

Unfortunately for Long Kruger and his team, Allen Fieldhouse is not the place to go when you’re in need of a pick-me-up. It’s a place more suited for realizing your worst nightmares.

Eighth-ranked Kansas eviscerated the Sooners in a 104-74 beatdown that not only exposed Oklahoma’s problems but exacerbated them to the point where the NCAA tournament no longer looks to be assured.

Oh, and it set up a potential Big 12 title game in Lubbock later this week with a 13-year streak on the line, but more on that later.

The headline here is that Oklahoma and the man who set college basketball ablaze, Trae Young, look broken. And maybe beyond repair.

Oklahoma has now lost six in a row, tumbling from burgeoning Final Four contender to potential First Four hopeful. Things are spinning out of control fast.

The person who will draw the bulk of the blame, fair or not, is Young. The freshman from Norman North looked like the college basketball’s answer to Steph Curry while carrying his hometown university to a 12-1 start to the year, leading the country in scoring, assists and jaw-dropping plays and performances. The substance of his game matched the style, which was no small feat for a guy who routinely would splash shots from 35 feet out.

He’s been a bit of a disaster during this six-game slide, however. Young is just 11 of 56 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range and 27 of 57 (47.3 percent) from inside the arc during the losing streak. He’s also turned it over 25 times. He’s still distributing at a high-rate, but that’s not enough to offset his shooting numbers. His teammates don’t score it well enough to pick up the slack. They also can’t create for Young. He’s got to do all of it himself – get looks and dole them out.

Young and Oklahoma’s issue runs deeper than just the makes and misses of their offense, though. The Sooners’ defense has become a massive liability. Kansas took a sledgehammer to it and blasted it to smithereens in front of 16,300 witnesses in Allen Fieldhouse and millions more in their living rooms.

The Jayhawks shot 60.9 percent for the game. They made 16 of 29 of their 3-point attempts. That’s 55.2 percent from deep. Nineteen of their buckets came from layups or dunks and averaged 1.444 points per possession.

It was as if the Sooners weren’t there at all, which actually might have been of some consolation to Kruger because that would at least mean no one could see their baffling lack of effort, cohesiveness and pride on the defensive end. It was really a sight to behold for the rest of us, though.

Young is as big of culprit here as anyone. Yes, he carries an incredible offensive burden with a 39.6 usage rate. No one is expecting him to be Jevon Carter, but he has to offer some resistance some of the time. Against the Jayhawks, he died on screens again and again or simply didn’t even put up a fight too often when guarding the ball.

He’s not alone, however, as the Sooners looked disconnected as a unit. They were simply incapable of even slowing Kansas. The Jayhawks got hot, sure, but Oklahoma can’t write this off as just catching a team on a night they couldn’t miss. The Sooners had as much to do with it as anything.

That’s the area that’s got to get fixed. Young may not be able to put up the absurd numbers he did for long stretches earlier this season, but his talent is so immense that it would be foolish to expect this slump to stay this bad for too much longer. Without a superhuman Young, however, they’ve got to get some stops. Without them, Young may join the ignominious list of Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz as pheoms who failed to make the NCAA tournament.

Now, back to that Big 12 title game in West Texas.

Assuming Texas Tech can get in and out of Stillwater with a win over Oklahoma State – potentially without Keenan Evans – the Red Raiders and Jayhawks will be tied atop the Big 12 with matching 11-4 league records with Kansas making the trip to Lubbock.

The Jayhawks, you may have heard, have won 13 consecutive Big 12 regular season championships. It very well could be decided Saturday if there will be a 14th.

After a two-game hiccup of losses at Texas and Iowa State, Chris Beard’s team won seven-straight before falling to a resurgent Baylor on Saturday. They’re undefeated at home and possess one of the country’s best defenses. They’ve been the biggest threat to Kansas’ streak since they knocked off the Jayhawks in Lawrence in January.

The Jayhawks will go into the game with their best offensive performance of the season. Devonte Graham finally looked like he may be the Big 12’s best player – he certainly bested Young – and Svi Mykhailiuk, LeGerald VIck and Malik Newman looked like the more-than-capable secondary options this Jayhawks team desperately needs. Silvio De Sousa even looked serviceable for the first time, putting up 10 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes. Which is also to say nothing of Udoka Azubuike being one of the Big 12’s toughest matchups.

Kansas is a flawed team, but once again the Jayhawks have put themselves in enviable position and appear to be rounding into tip-top form toward the end of February. It’s their conference, and they’ll have the chance this weekend to keep it that way.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma is just trying to stay out of playing Wednesday in the Big 12 tournament. The Sooners sure could use a win. Of any kind.

Bubble Banter: Oklahoma in danger of missing tournament?

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

MIAMI (RPI: 33, KenPom: 43, NBC seed: 8): Miami added a fourth Quadrant 1 win on Monday night by going into South Bend and picking off Notre Dame. The Hurricanes are in the conversation as a bubble team for a two reasons — they have a Quadrant 3 loss to Georgia Tech, and they had lost three in a row entering Monday night. What’s interesting with Miami’s profile is that they don’t really have any elite wins. They beat Middle Tennessee State on a neutral. They won at Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Notre Dame. That’s it. Those are their four Quadrant 1 wins. Their profile is probably strong enough to get them in, but I do think there is a world where they get a lower seed than you might be expecting.

MARYLAND (RPI: 54, KenPom: 41, NBC seed: Out): The Terps, who won at Northwestern tonight, seem to be in the mix on most of the places that I go to read about the bubble, and frankly, I just don’t get it. They do not have a Quadrant 1 win. They are 0-9 against Quadrant 1 opponents. In a year where the NCAA Selection Committee showed us just how much they value quality wins already, I’m not sure that they can build a profile that is strong enough to get a bid unless they beat Michigan on Saturday and win a couple of games against the top of the Big Ten in the Big Ten tournament. They’re at least three wins away in my mind. Like I said, I just don’t see it, but I figured it was worth mentioning here on a slow night.

LOSERS

OKLAHOMA (RPI: 36, KenPom: 40, NBC seed: 8): Just eight days ago, when the NCAA tournament Selection Committee convened to release an early look at the top 16 seeds for the NCAA tournament, Oklahoma was a No. 4 seed. They were one of the top 16 teams, according to the committee, in an event that will need 36 at-large members to complete it. Going from there to the bubble is a long, long fall, and to be frank, I am not sure that the Sooners are on the bubble yet. Hell, they’re still 16-11 overall even after that embarrassing loss at Kansas. They’re still 6-7 against Quadrant 1 opponents without a hint of a bad loss to their name. They’ve still beaten USC in LA. They still won at Wichita. They beat Texas Tech. They beat TCU. Hell, they beat Kansas.

For comparison’s sake, our current last team in is Syracuse. They are 18-9 overall and 3-5 against Quadrant 1 with losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.

But we can no longer ignore the fact that this team has hit rock bottom. Tonight was their sixth-straight loss. They have lost seven of eight and nine of 11. They’ve lost eight straight on the road. If the tournament was tomorrow, they would be in the field with some room to spare, but the problem is that there is absolutely no reason for us to assume that they are simply going to be able to get the job done against the teams left on their schedule. It is, admittedly, relatively easy by Big 12 standards — Kansas State, at Baylor, Iowa State — but Big 12 standards are absolutely preposterous.

No one would be surprised if Oklahoma lost two of their last three games — hell, I would be fairly shocked if they found a way to win at Baylor at this point — and if they do happen to lose two of their last three, they’ll enter the Big 12 tournament with a 17-14 record and a 7-11 mark in the league while having to play on the first day of the Big 12 tournament in either the 7-10 or 8-9 game.

If that were to be the case, they would probably have to win two Big 12 games to get to the Big Dance.

Put another way, Oklahoma went from being a No. 4 seed in the first bracket projection to needing to win three games in the next three weeks to avoid having to sweat out Selection Sunday.

It’s crazy how far and fast they’ve fallen.

NOTRE DAME (RPI: 68, KenPom: 33, NBC seed: Next four out): The Fighting Irish are in an interesting spot. Their profile is not exactly worthy of an at-large bid. But they’ve also been decimated by injury. Bonzie Colson is still out with a foot injury. So is D.J. Harvey. Matt Farrell and Rex Pflueger have both missed tie with injuries. If Colson can get healthy before the season ends and the Irish can win a couple games at or near full strength, they will have an interesting case to make. I do, however, think that would require winning two of their last three games. One of those three games is at Virginia, so they have their work cut out for them.

Calipari defends Diallo, gives insight into own philosophy

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John Calipari was asked a question about struggling freshman Hamidou Diallo. He ended up giving an answer about his general coaching philosophy.

“Making them be responsible for who they are. In his case, I’m with Hami. He’s trying. He’s working,” Calipari said. “If he’s willing to do that and put in extra work, I’m for him. If you’re playing awful, I may not play you as much, but I’m going to play you and if you’re doing what we’re asking you to do, I’m going to encourage you.

“It would probably be easier when a guy plays poorly to say you’re out and i’m going with these seven I’m just not going to do that.”

Calipari likened the approach to what a well-intentioned parent might say to him about their son who is struggling.

“I would say (a parent) would say, ‘Coach, he’s responsible for himself, but please keep coaching him and let him know you love him and keep being there for him but hold him accountable,’” Calipari said. “‘If he’s not going to listen to you you should not play him. That’s what I think a parent that’s not trying to enable their son (should say).”

On the other hand, Calipari discussed what the opposite of that situation would look like.

“If they’re listening to an enabler, whoever that enabler is, I can’t help you,” he said. “I told you when I walked in the door, this is going to be about the players first and I’m trying to stay that course but they are responsible for themselves.

“If they can’t perform, I’m going to play you but when they’re not performing, you can’t be in there.”

Calipari can oftentimes be full of bluster – it’s an essential part of his Always Be Selling philosophy that’s won the hearts of countless five-star recruits and a national championship. But this looks to be an honest look into the way he views his job and role with his players. Give ultra-talented guys opportunity, but keep them accountable. It’s a simple thought, but one that few execute as well and as consistently as he does.

Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans ‘day-to-day’ with toe injury

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It would appear that sixth-ranked Texas Tech may have avoided its worst-case scenario with star guard Keenan Evans.

The senior is considered day-to-day with a toe injury suffered Saturday in a loss at Baylor, and could play as soon as Wednesday against Oklahoma State, Red Raiders coach Chris Beard said Monday.

“It’s going to come down to just pain tolerance and can he move,” Beard said, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “We all know Keenan is a warrior. He’s going to do everything he possibly can to play. … At the end of the day, just kind of how he reacts to his body.”

Evans is averaging 18.2 points per game for the Red Raiders, and his health is paramount for their attempt to unseat Kansas atop the Big 12. Texas Tech and the Jayhawks are locked in a first-place tie with matching 10-4 league records with four games to play. After the Red Raiders’ trip to Stillwater on Wednesday, they host Kansas on Saturday in a game that very well could decide the fate of the Jayhawks’ 13-year run of conference championships.

While the Big 12 race is certainly front of mind, the fact that Evans is potentially going to be able to play this week is a great sign for Texas Tech. Even if Evans does need to miss a game or two to get his toe fully healthy, the timeline and conditions Beard laid out Monday suggest that he’ll be good to go before the NCAA tournament for a Red Raiders team that certainly is a contender to finish its season in its home state – at the Final Four in San Antonio.

NCAA tourney chair addresses non-conference strength of schedule and quadrant system

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The way the NCAA tournament selection committee picks teams for inclusion into the sport’s crowning event is always under intense scrutiny. It’s a national past time, really.

One of the easiest targets is the RPI, an obviously flawed metric. It was the topic of discussion recently in the Omaha World-Herald, most notably the non-conference strength of schedule component.

That post spurred a lengthy response from Creighton athletic director and selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen, who defended the committee’s work with a metric that it acknowledges to be imperfect.

Here’s Rasmussen:

“Non-conference SOS is not a predominant tool in selections.

In fact, each year that I have been on the committee, we have discussed why you have to look beyond the number to evaluate a team’s non-conference strength of schedule, and even with this qualifier, non-conference schedule ranks well behind other factors such as how you did against other tournament caliber teams, did you win the games you were supposed to win, and how did you do away from home since winning away from home is difficult and the tournament games are all games away from home.

“I have argued each year that I have been on the committee that non-conference SOS should be taken off the team sheet, but until we develop a new metric it is staying. However, understand that the committee understands its fallacies (as we also recognize other weaknesses in the current RPI formula) and it is not a prominent factor in decisions.”

Rasmussen also examined the quadrant system being used:

“Many think that the first and second quadrants are silos and that every win in the first quadrant or every win in the second quadrant is treated equally.  I think it is important that while we refer to first and second quadrant wins, we also better communicate that this is only a sorting mechanism and each game in these quadrants is looked at differently. They don’t have the same value.”

So while it’s fair to question NCAA selection committee’s decisions and the way in which they make them, it’s clear there is an extensive amount of well-intentioned thought put into the process.