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.

Southland Preview: Can Stephen F. Austin regain the throne?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southland.

The Southland finally saw Stephen F. Austin‘s dominant run end last season as New Orleans claimed the regular season title and NCAA tournament autobid. Although the Lumberjacks finished in second place in head coach Kyle Keller’s first season, expectations are in place for another potential conference title in 2017-18. Stephen F. Austin returns eight of their top nine producers from last season including Player of the Year candidate T.J. Holyfield on the interior. If Stephen F. Austin’s offense can get a boost then they could be in for another dangerous season.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has to replace the scoring punch of forward Rashawn Thomas but do-it-all senior Ehab Amin is back to lead the charge. Amin led the nation in steals last season while filling up the box score in many other ways as he’s flanked by guards Kareem South and Joseph Kilgore. Lamar made a leap last season as they won 19 games and made a CIT appearance. Senior forward Colton Weisbrod is a throwback undersized frontcourt presence while the backcourt of point guard Joey Frenchwood and shooter Nick Garth is among the league’s stronger returning duos.

Returning most of last season’s contributors, Abilene Christian is hoping to make a major leap up the Southland standings. Sophomore big man Jalone Friday is a promising player to build around while junior guards Jaren Lewis and Jaylen Franklin both put up double-figures in the scoring column last season. Incarnate Word is going to put up points but the Cardinals will need to figure things out on the defensive end. Jalin Hart, Simi Socks and Shawn Johnson are all returning upperclassmen who averaged at least 14 points per game each last season.

Southeastern Louisiana has a chance to make noise as junior point guard Marlain Veal and junior forward Moses Greenwood are a solid 1-2 punch. With a deep bench returning, the Lions have a lot of upperclass experience and could be a surprise team. The return of Jalan West for a seventh season is a major story for Northwestern State. The former Player of the Year candidate has to stay healthy but he’s joined by junior big man Ishmael Lane and senior guard Devonte Hall to form a solid nucleus.

Losing four starters will be tough for Sam Houston State but junior point guard John Dewey III is back to lead the team’s offense. Senior big man Chris Galbreath has a chance to be a breakout player. Central Arkansas has the Southland’s returning leading scorer in senior guard Jordan Howard but the Bears have to make major strides on the defensive end and controlling turnovers.

New Orleans has a lot of new pieces after last year’s run to the Big Dance as the Privateers need to replace three starters. Senior forward Travin Thibodeaux and senior big man Makur Puou are back along with a lot of question marks. After a CIT appearance, Houston Baptist loses five seniors and multiple transfers but senior center Josh Ibarra is an all-league threat.  

Nicholls lost seven seniors and needs to rebuild as senior point guard Jahvaughn Powell has a chance to have a big year. McNeese finished in last place a season ago but most of that group is back. Sophomore guard Kalob Ledoux has a chance to be one of the league’s better guards.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON SOUTHLAND PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ehab Amin, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

College basketball’s leader with 124 total steals last season (3.4 per game), this 6-foot-4 senior guard can also put up numbers all over the stat sheet. The Egyptian averaged 16.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last season while shooting 46 percent from the floor. If Amin improves his 28 percent three-point shooting then he could be in for a monster season.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOUTHLAND TEAM

  • Colton Weisbrod, Lamar: Undersized at 6-foot-5 but great in the paint, this senior averaged 15.1 points and 8.1 boards per contest. Weisbrod shot 52 percent from the floor but only 16 percent from three-point range.
  • T.J. Holyfield, Stephen F. Austin: Versatile junior forward averaged 11.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor.
  • Jordan Howard, Central Arkansas: The senior has a chance to reach 2,000 career points after dropping 19.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game last season. Howard could stand to improve his shooting efficiency.
  • Jalone Friday, Abilene Christian: Intriguing sophomore big man had tremendous splits (52% FG, 45% 3PT, 82% FT) and put up 13.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season in only 21.7 minutes per contest.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SouthlandSports

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Stephen F. Austin
  2. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
  3. Lamar
  4. Abliene Christian
  5. Incarnate Word
  6. Southeastern Louisiana
  7. Northwestern State
  8. Sam Houston State
  9. Central Arkansas
  10. New Orleans
  11. Houston Baptist
  12. Nicholls
  13. McNeese

‘Border War’ exhibition to be streamed

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The 19,000 fans who secured tickets to the Sprint Center for the charity-inspired reignition of the Border War won’t be the only ones to be able to watch Kansas and Missouri play Sunday.

The exhibition game, whose proceeds will be used for hurricane relief, will be streamed live for those willing to spend $40, the schools announced Friday.

“Our first objective was to sell out Sprint Center,” the two schools said jointly in a release. “Once we achieved the sellout so quickly, our fans who could not get tickets expressed tremendous interest in having the game televised. We wanted to make sure that the charities we’ve identified would be the only entities to derive revenue from this game.  SIDEARM Sports has provided the platform to allow us to create a second stream of revenue via this telecast.”

The broadcast will feature Leif Lisec doing play-by-play and ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla and Holly Rowe as the analyst and sideline reporter, respectively. The trio are donating their time for the broadcast.

The Jayhawks and Tigers haven’t played since 2012, when Missouri bolted the Big 12 for the SEC. There certainly has been resentment from the move, which has kept the two from scheduling a non-conference tilt. Now, though, they’re hoping the layoff has built enough anticipation to raise upward of $1 million for the Houston Harvey Relief Fund, the Rebuild Texas Fund, the Florida Disaster Fund, Juntos y Unidos Por Puerto Rico and the Fund for the U.S. Virgin Islands after a devastating hurricane season in the United States.

The game will pit the perennial powerhouse Jayhawks, expected to be a top-five preseason team and strong favorite to win the Big 12, against an ascendant Missouri, which has the potential 2018 No. 1 NBA draft pick Michael Porter, Jr. headlining the roster reboot under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for two schools to do something together for the better of the masses,” Kansas coach Bill Self said last week, “and be able to send a significant amount of money to people that are suffering right now. So that is going to come to fruition, and we’re real happy about it.”

College Hoops Contender Series: Can Michigan State’s sophomore class carry them to a title?

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers and talked about six different Final Four contenders – Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami – that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.

What makes them good enough to win a national title?

But why won’t they win a national title?

After looking at Kentucky, Kansas and Arizona, we’re on to my pick to win the national title: The Michigan State Spartans.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Miles Bridges (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

We should start with Miles Bridges here, shouldn’t we?

Bridges is the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. He averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 38.9 percent from three on more than five threes per game as a freshman. He was a top ten pick in last year’s loaded NBA Draft and he made the decision to return to school. That doesn’t happen all that often, so it should come as no surprise that Bridges will enter the year as a potential top five pick and the star of a team everyone believes will be in the top five. ‘Who has the best player in college basketball?’ is a great starting point for trying to figure out who are the best teams in college basketball, and Bridges, on paper, is a good bet to be the best player in college basketball.

But there is more to this than the simple fact that Tom Izzo more or less lucked his way into not only having the local five-star prospect pick the Spartans over the likes of Kentucky, but then opt to stay with the Spartans over heading to the NBA Draft.

Bridges is so perfect for what the way that Izzo wants to play.

He’s arguably the best athlete is all of college basketball. He can guards threes and fours. He can protect the rim. He attacks the glass, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, and he can get out and run in transition. Defense, rebounding and the transition game are staples of the teams Izzo wants at his disposal, and Bridges can do all three things well.

Then throw in the rest of the Michigan State front court. Nick Ward is a throwback. He’s a 6-foot-8, 260 pound left-handed behemoth that is impossible to stop one-on-one on the block. He averaged 13.9 points in less than 20 minutes as a freshman. Freshmen aren’t supposed to do that. Sophomores aren’t, either. Ward will be paired up front with Jaren Jackson, who couldn’t be a more perfect compliment to Ward and Bridges. He’s a 6-foot-11 power forward with all the skills you expect out of a modern power forward: He protects the rim, he rebounds and he can space the floor offensively with his three-point shot. He may not have the hype of some of the other big men in the 2017 recruiting class, but he projects as a one-and-done lottery pick all the same.

I still haven’t even mentioned Xavier Tillman, another land-warrior freshman in the front court. He may surprise some people this season. Throw in Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins, and there may not be a more talented and deep front line in the country.

The back court is where the issues lie — we’ll get to that in a second — but there are some things to like about this group. For starters, both Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford were top 30 recruits in the Class of 2016. Neither were all that impressive during their first year in East Lansing, but the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Langford shot 41.6 percent from three last year and Winston averaged 5.2 assists in just over 20 minutes. They are talented and they should continue to improve.

Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. is back for his senior season, and his ability to push the ball in transition has made him a favorite of Izzo, while Matt McQuaid is somehow only a junior. Assuming that both Winston and Langford take a fairly significant step forward, Nairn and McQuaid will be rotation players off the bench, and if that is the case, this Spartan roster looks as strong as any roster in the country.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10 PreviewMountain West Preview

Nick Ward (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

There are two real concerns that I have with this Michigan State team heading into next season.

The first, believe it or not, is with Bridges. I don’t see anyway that you can question his ability. He’s a monster. But part of what made him just so effective as a freshman was because he is the prototype for what you look for in a college four in modern — read: small-ball — basketball. He’s big enough to guard power forwards defensively. He rebounds the ball, he protects the rim, he can switch onto anyone defensively and he just so happens to be a perimeter player on the other end of the floor. In other words, he can guard college power forwards but they cannot guard him.

That is an incredibly valuable weapon for a team like Michigan State to have.

And as a sophomore, he won’t be taking advantage of that versatility in the same way. He’ll likely end up playing the majority of his minutes at the three. Jaren Jackson is too good to keep on the floor, particularly when it would mean playing Matt McQuaid of Tum Tum Nairn over him, but Jackson is a full-blown power forward.

It begs the question: Just how effective is Bridges going to be if he is playing at the three? Will it be easier for college small forwards to cover him? Will he be able to take them into the paint if Ward is already occupying space down there? And what about his three-point shot? He made 38.9 percent as a freshman, but how many of those were a result of getting clean looks at the rim because the power forwards guarding him didn’t know how to guard a player like that on the perimeter?

I don’t think this will end up being an issue — hell, we have Bridges as the Preseason National Player of the Year — but it will definitely be something to monitor moving forward.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Cassius Winston (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The bigger question mark, however, will likely end up being Winston, and to a lesser degree Langford.

I love Tum Tum. I wrote a story on him when he was still in high school. His name is awesome. He’s a terrific personality with the kind of back story that makes you want to root for him. But he’s just not good enough to be the starting point guard for a team with national title aspirations. Last season, Nairn started 30 games at the point. Winston started five, and while Izzo had found ways to manufacture minutes for the duo to play to together later in the season, this much was clear: there was something that the Hall of Fame head coach didn’t quite trust about Winston.

Maybe it was his 23 percent turnover rate. Maybe it was Winston’s issues on the defensive end of the floor, or the fact that he didn’t lead the way that Izzo wanted his point guards to. Most likely it was all of the above, and as a sophomore, those are issues that Winston will have to fix.

And I think that he will.

Again, Michigan State is a consensus top three team for a reason. They’re my pick to win the national title this season.

But I can certainly tell myself a story where the Spartans don’t quite come together, and it starts with Winston’s issues at the point.

Langford I am less worried about. He will mostly be fine. Yes, he needs to be more aggressive as a scorer, and we saw some of that late in the season. But mostly he needs to be a guy that can knock down open shots, provide a consistent defensive threat and be a threat in transition, whether he’s spotting up for a three or finishing at the rim. He will be, at best, the third option for these Spartans offensively, and I don’t think it will be that hard for him to fill that role.


Miles Bridges (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Michigan State is my pick to win the national title.

I’m sure I won’t be the only one to say that between now and the start of the season.

And as good as Tom Izzo is, it’s worth noting that when he has had a team projected as a title contender, the season usually ends up being disappointing. Since the Spartans won the title in 1999, there have been four seasons where they were considered to be a favorite to win the title at some point during the season. In 2009-10, they were No. 2 in the preseason top 25 and limped their way to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament; they would eventually get to the Final Four in Detroit that year. In 2010-11, they were again the preseason No. 2 team in the country and finished the year 19-15 with a loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In 2013-14, they were the preseason No. 2 team yet again, living up to the hype for most of the year until a wrist injury suffered by point guard Keith Appling derailed their season; Sparty still found a way to win the Big Ten tournament and get to the Elite 8. Then in 2015-16, the Spartans quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best team before losing to Middle Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed.

Will this be the year that bucks that trend?

Five-star point guard decommits from Arizona

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The scope and ramifications of the investigation by the FBI into corruption in college basketball remains an unknown.Who will be ensnared, what programs will be impacted and how the sport as a whole will cope are all pressing questions that will likely unfold over weeks, months and maybe years.

In the short-term, though, the fallout is already being felt.

Arizona lost the commitment Thursday of five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, he announced via social media.

“After careful consideration, my family and I have determined it is in my best interest to retract my verbal commitment to The University of Arizona,”  Quinerly posted to Twitter. “I’d like to thank my extended family and fans for your continued love and support. Your positivity and kindness never goes unnoticed.”

While Quinerly didn’t address the investigation, it’s easy to draw a line from the arrest and eventual firing of Arizona assistant Book Richardson and Quinerly’s decision. Quinerly is believed to be the player referenced in federal court documents that was on the receiving end of money Richardson took from agents, according to the Arizona Republic.

What’s next for Quinerly will certainly be worth watching. How seriously will other schools pursue him? Will he opt to just go overseas and bypass the NCAA – and any investigations it may launch – all together?

Quinerly is not the first recruit to alter his plans in the wake of the investigation. USC, which also had an assistant coach (Tony Bland) arrested, lost the commitment of J’Raan Brooks last weekend.

The dominos of this investigation are sure to continue to fall. Just how many remains one of the many questions that will only be answered in time.

Illinois adds five-star guard

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The first commit for Illinois in 2018 is a significant in state addition.

Ayo Dosunmu, a top-30 guard from Chicago, announced Thursday that he’s staying in the Land of Lincoln and joining Brad Underwood’s Illini program.

“We know that I could only attend one school. After great thought and consideration,” Dosunmu wrote before posting a picture of him in an Illini jersey.

The 6-foot-4 Dosunmu averaged more than 23 points per game in the EYBL last summer for the Mac Irvin Fire while shooting 47.8 percent from the field. His decision to stay home and attend Illinois is a huge win for Underwood ahead of his first season in Champaign. Chicago is no easy place to recruit, but if Underwood can establish that pipeline, it would go a long way in bringing the Illini back to the top of the Big 10.

“I can come in and play in front of my home state,” Dosunmu told Rivals. “I want to do it for my home state and become the first five-star recruit to play for my state in a long time. I just want to start a new trend.“I know somebody would have to eventually do it.

“A team is never bad for so long. Just look at the Chicago Cubs; they were bad for 100 years but eventually they won the World Series. I just want to help start something new.”