Looking at the top lead guards in the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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Solid play from the point guard position is a crucial component of an NCAA Tournament run and if you’re a fan of the lead guard position, then you’ll be really happy watching this year’s tournament. There are a number of talented point guards all across the field, including rock-solid seniors like Scottie Wilbekin from Florida and Bryce Cotton from Providence, or newcomers on the scene like Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis.

Here’s a look at 12 lead guards to watch in the 2014 NCAA Tournament:

MORE: Off Guards | Wing Forwards | Big Men

Keith Appling, Michigan State – Other players for No. 4 seed Michigan State may be more talented or have better pro futures, but Appling is the engine that makes the Spartans go. Now that he appears to be fully healthy, Appling’s athleticism makes him a completely different player and he averaged 12.3 points, 4.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game this season. He also nabbed 1.3 steals a game and shot 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from the three-point line. If Appling has a weakness, it’s consistency and his shaky 65 percent free-throw shooting.

Bryce Cotton, Providence – A favorite among college basketball fans and analysts, Cotton played an unbelievable amount of minutes for Providence this season while also putting up tremendous numbers. Cotton played at least 40 minutes in an astounding 21 games this year as he averaged 39.9 minutes a game. The senior played played 50 minutes four times,  45 minutes twice and had an additional 15 games of 40 minutes. Those prolonged minutes helped Cotton average 21.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.5 rebounds for No. 11 seed Providence.

Aaron Craft, Ohio State – Hate him or love him, Craft is one of the best floor leaders and two-way guards in this tournament. Although he struggles to shoot from the perimeter at 30 percent on the season, Craft is still a dynamic on-the-ball defender who can harass an opposing point guard the length of the floor. Craft averaged 9.6 points, 4.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 steals on the year. The senior is also effective in bonus situations because of his ability to draw fouls and knock in free throws at a 73 percent clip. But if No. 6 seed Ohio State is going to make a run, they need Craft to be more consistent on the offensive end and limit turnovers.

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse – One of the best freshman in the country, Ennis was a key member of No. 3 seed Syracuse’s team for the entire season as the Canadian import averaged 12.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals a game. Although his defense is a bit of an unknown thanks to Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, Ennis has been one of the biggest weapons in the country on the offensive end thanks to his ability to get in the paint and find open teammates or score for himself.

DeAndre Kane, Iowa State – In his first year in Ames after transferring from Marshall, Kane had an All-American season for the Cyclones as the senior averaged 17 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists a game this season. Kane also shot 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range and he’s the kind of player that wants the ball in his hands during big moments in a game. Kane will be a big reason why No. 3 seed Iowa State has big dreams this March.

MORE: 8 teams that can win it all | TV times | Bracket contest

Shabazz Napier, UConn – Another senior All-American, Napier is perhaps the best clutch performer in the country thanks to his heroic shooting prowess and his knack for stepping up in big games. Who can forget the buzzer-beater to lead UConn past Florida — which is also the last time the Gators lost this season? Napier also led No. 7 seed UConn in points, rebounds and assists as he averaged 17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. The senior is also a rock-solid shooter at 39 percent from the three-point line and 85 percent from the free-throw line on the season.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina – No. 6 seed North Carolina would not be where it is today without the improved play of sophomore Marcus Paige. Paige averaged 17.4 points, 4.3 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game this season while also saving the Tar Heels from the free throw line with his 88 percent shooting from there. Paige’s first-round matchup with Providence point guard Bryce Cotton might be the best individual match-up that we see in the Round of 64.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State – Although he’s been mired in controversy this season for fan shoving incident at Texas Tech and his penchant for flopping, Smart is still one of the most talented players in the country and Oklahoma State has played well since he returned from suspension. Smart averaged 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.8 steals per game, but his 30 percent three-point shooting and penchant for bad shots can sometimes hurt him. Oklahoma State is one of the more dangerous No. 9 seeds in recent memory if Smart plays like he’s capable of playing on both ends of the floor.

Russ Smith, Louisville – “Russdiculous” has fine-tuned his game in his senior season and he’s a big reason why No. 4 seed Louisville is a favorite to make a third consecutive trip to the Final Four. Smith’s scoring went slightly down this season from 18.7 points to 18.3 points per game, but his assists jumped from 2.9 to 4.7 a game and his shooting percentages skyrocketed. Smith is now much better with shot selection as a senior and it showed when he shot 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range this season. Last year as a junior he shot 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State – The Mountain West Player of the Year, Thames averaged 16.8 points, 3.2 assists and 3 rebounds per game this season for No. 4 seed San Diego State. But, like Russ Smith, Thames did a nice job of improving his field goal percentages in his senior season as those numbers jumped to 41 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point line after a junior season of 35 percent from the floor and 35 percent from distance.

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State – Wichita State sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet isn’t the biggest or flashiest name on this list, but he’s the type of point guard that values winning above all else. The No. 1 seed Shockers are so consistent in-part thanks to VanVleet’s consistency as he averaged 12.1 points, 5.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game. He’s also an outstanding shooter that takes smart shots as VanVleet shot 49 percent from the field, 44 percent from three and 82 percent from the free-throw line.

Scottie Wilbekin, Florida – Last but not least comes senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin of the No. 1 overall seed Florida Gators. Wilbekin was a big-time performer in clutch situations for the Gators this season while averaging 13 points, 3.8 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game while running Florida’s offense. Wilbekin also shot 40 percent from three-point range and is a decent free-throw shooter at 72 percent. Although his field goal percentage is only 39 percent from the field, Wilbekin doesn’t take too many bad shots and he’s usually steady with the ball in his hands.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Jahii Carson, Arizona State
  • Semaj Christon, Xavier*
  • Langston Galloway, Saint Joseph’s
  • Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette
  • Chaz Williams, UMass

* Eliminated in First Four

Top 50 SG Tyler Herro de-commits from Wisconsin

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Last September, Wisconsin landed a pledge from a highly regarded 2018 prospect as shooting guard Tyler Herro announced that he would remain in state and play for Greg Gard. Tuesday evening Herro, considered to be a Top 50 prospect by many of the major recruiting services, announced that he has decided to reopen his recruitment.

“After a lot of conversations with my family and prayer I have decided to reopen my recruitment and explore all of my options,” Herro said in a statement released via Twitter. “The past year since I committed I have grown not only as a basketball player, but as a person. My drive to become the best on all levels has been the fuel that drove this decision.”

With Herro’s change of heart, Wisconsin is now without a verbal commitment in the Class of 2018. The 6-foot-4 Milwaukee native picked Wisconsin over Arizona, Florida, Indiana, DePaul and Marquette, and given his talent Herro’s recruitment should not take long to pick up following his decision to open things back up.

The Badgers added three scholarship freshmen to the program this summer, with two being perimeter players in Brad Davison and Kobe King. Wisconsin currently does not have a senior in its perimeter rotation, which helps from a numbers standpoint when it comes to 2018. But to lose a recruit of Herro’s caliber, and an in-state prospect at that, is a major hit for the Wisconsin program to absorb.

Bob Knight requests to not be included in Assembly Hall sculptures

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On Tuesday it was announced by Indiana University that five sculptures will be placed throughout Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall to pay tribute to the teams that have won national championships. With former head coach Bob Knight, who has not been on good terms with the school since his dismissal in 2000, being the head coach of three of those teams it’s fair to wonder if he would be a part of any of those sculptures.

Unfortunately Knight will not be in the sculptures for the 1976, 1981 or 1987 national championship teams, as it was noted in the release that the former coach requested to not be included. According to the Indianapolis Star, Indiana athletics director Fred Glass said that it is school policy to request permission to depict someone on this kind of project. The school reached out to Knight, who declined the request.

The sculpture honoring the 1976 team was the reason for the school reaching out to Knight, as it honors the team that is the most Division I team to go through an entire season without a loss. That teams was led by the likes of Kent Benson, Scott May and Bobby Wilkerson, and won the first of Knight’s three national titles at Indiana.

After being fired prior to the start of the 2000-01 season, Knight spent a year away from coaching before accepting the head coaching job at Texas Tech. Despite Indiana having honored former players and teams of Knight’s in recent years, the relationship between the former coach and the school he led to three national titles remains strained to this day.

As for the sculptures, fans will be able to see them for the first time at Hoosier Hysteria on October 21.

Rick Pitino files federal lawsuit against adidas

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Former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino’s quest to prove that he had nothing to do with the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball produced another development on Tuesday. As first reported by ESPN’s Jay Bilas, Pitino has filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Louisville with adidas being the lone defendant.

Per media reports, Pitino is suing the company for its “outrageous conduct in conspiring to funnel money to the family of a college basketball recruit.”

Adidas’ connection to the ongoing criminal investigation is that two of its employees within the basketball department, Jim Gatto and Merl Code, were among the ten people arrested. While no one directly tied to Louisville has been charged, FBI documents revealed connections between members of the basketball program and the accused parties.

As a result of the investigation Louisville freshman small forward Brian Bowen is being withheld from all basketball activities by the school. Bowen and his family have since hired an attorney in an attempt to get the freshman reinstated.

Among the instances of wrongdoing documented by the FBI was a transaction in which $100,000 was paid in exchange for a recruit committing to attend Louisville. The timeline of the events were close to Bowen’s commitment timeline, with the five-star prospect announcing that he would attend Louisville in early June.

As a result of the investigation Pitino was placed on unpaid by Louisville, with the school’s Board of Regents voting unanimously to fire the head coach with cause on Monday.

Northeast Conference Preview: Who survived after transfers gutted the league?

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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 NEC.

The NEC was absolutely brutalized by outgoing transfers this offseason. Of the 11 non-seniors that were on one of the three all-NEC teams, just four of them return to school. That includes three first-team all-NEC sophomores, but I’m not sure anyone in all of college basketball got hit quite as hard this offseason as Mount St. Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian did.

Coming off of an NEC regular season title and his second trip to the NCAA tournament in the last five years, Christian saw three key pieces opt to leave. Elijah Long, a sophomore guard that was a first-team all-league player and the Mount’s leading scorer a season ago, transferred to Texas. Miles Wilson, the team’s third-leading scorer and one of the best freshmen in the conference last year, transferred to Miami. Mawdo Sallah transferred to Kansas State.

The Mountaineers do return Junior Robinson, a 5-foot-5 dynamo that will be one of the most entertaining players in the mid-major ranks, as well as Greg Alexander, but Christian is going to have his work cut out for him.

With Mount St. Mary’s – and Robert Morris, another perennial power in the league that is dealing with the loss of a star player (Isaiah Still) transferring – the favorite is probably St. Francis (PA). The Red Flash, despite losing Josh Nebo to Texas A&M, return Isiah Blackmon and reigning Freshman of the Year Keith Braxton. They return the most talent of anyone that finished in the top half of the league.

Fairleigh Dickinson is a team to keep an eye on as well, although it will be tough for them to overcome a pair of their own transfers, as Stephen Jiggetts is now at South Florida and Earl Potts left school. But Darian Anderson returns, as does Mike Holloway and Darnell Edge.

Despite losing their top two scorers from last season, LIU Brooklyn should also be back in the mix. Jashaun Agosto returns for his sophomore season after a promising freshman year while Joel Hernandez, who averaged double-figures as a junior, is back after missing last season through injury. Bryant could find their way into the mix as well, although Nisre Zouzoua’s transfer was a massive blow.

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

 PRESEASON NEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Darian Anderson, Fairleigh Dickinson

Anderson is the leading returning scorer in the NEC this season, and he’ll be playing on a team that will be competing for the league title. With the Knights losing their second- and third-leading scorers from last year, Anderson is going to have more of the offensive load to carry.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-NEC TEAM

  • Junior Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s: Robinson is the second-leading returning scorer in the conference, and with the Mount losing so much, the 5-foot-5 point guard will be asked to do a lot.
  • Keith Braxton, St. Francis (PA): Braxton was the best freshman in the conference a year ago.
  • Isiah Blackmon, St. Francis (PA): Blackmon was a third-team all-NEC performer as a sophomore.
  • Joseph Lopez, Sacred Heart: Lopez is back to anchor a front line for the most veteran team in the league.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. St. Francis (PA)
2. Fairleigh Dickinson
3. LIU Brooklyn
4. Robert Morris
5. Mount St. Mary’s
6. Bryant
7. Sacred Heart
8. Wagner
9. Central Connecticut State
10. St. Francis-Brooklyn

Ohio Valley Conference Preview: A trio of teams lead the way

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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 Ohio Valley Conference.

Two-time OVC player of the year Evan Bradds has graduated, but Belmont remains one of the favorites to claim another conference title.

The first task for the Bruins will be figuring out how to replace or replicate Bradds’ bucket-getting that powered the offense to a 23-win season. Amanze Egekeze and Dylan Winder would both seem to be the natural heirs after posting effective field goal percentages over 60 last year. Like Bradds, both are terrors on the inside, shooting better than 65 percent on 2-pointers, but also have a dimension that Bradds didn’t – 3-point shooting, with Egekeze converting 38.7 percent and Winder 40.2 percent from distance. Without the high-usage Bradds on the roster, both will likely see huge increases in roles, with guard Austin Luke setting them up.

Murray State suffered its first losing season in over 30 years when they went 16-17 last year in Matt McMahon’s second season since succeeding Steve Prohm, but the Racers appear to be on track for an immediate bounce back. Some of the struggle last year can be attributable to plain old bad luck as Murray State went 0-4 in the regular season in overtime games and went 1-8 in games decided by five points or less. The Racers, though, will have to clean things up on the defensive end if they want to challenge for a league title. They were below-average in just about every single facet of the game on that end, and adding five freshmen into the mix may make real strides there difficult. Murray State does have, though, Jonathan Stark, who averaged nearly 22 points per game last season, and he’s a game-changer. They also added junior college standout Anthony Smith, which makes them a threat to capture the conference.

Jacksonville State didn’t look much like a spoiler heading into March last year when they finished with a 9-7 OVC record, but the Gamecocks reeled off three wins, including over league champ Belmont, in the conference tournament to snag an NCAA tournament bid. Second-team all-OVC guard Malcolm Drumwright returns for his senior season and to give coach Ray Harper another dangerous team. Seven-footer Norbertas Giga is also back after putting 30 on Louisville in the NCAA tournament. It will be critical for the Gamecocks to defend the 3-point line better this season. Between Giga and junior Christian Cunningham, Jacksonville State has solid rim protection, but allowed opponents to shoot nearly 38 percent from distance. Some of that is sure to just be variable, but bringing that number down will be a huge determinant of success.

Beyond that, the OVC is tough to project this season, as a number of last season’s contenders lost some key pieces. One group to keep an eye on: Eastern Kentucky. With Asante Gist and Nick Mayo returning, Dan McHale has one of the best 1-2 punches in the league.

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

PRESEASON OVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jonathan Stark, Murray State

The 6-foot guard returns after averaging 21.9 points in his first season with the Racers after transferring from Tulane. He got up nearly eight 3-point attempts per game, converting at a 42.5 percent clip. He’s the rare high-volume shooter that also plays efficiently.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON OVC TEAM

  • Malcolm Drumwright, Jacksonville State: All-conference guard will lead the charge for the Gamecocks to get back to the NCAA tournament.
  • Nick Mayo, Eastern Kentucky: A 39 percent 3-point shooter, Mayo scored 18.5 points per game last year.
  • Denzel Mahoney, Southeast Missouri: Mahoney was a breakout star last year as a freshman, putting up nearly 15 points per game and shooting 37.7 percent from 3.
  • Terrell Miller, Murray State: A double-double threat every night, Miller averaged 16 points and 8 rebounds per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @OVCSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Belmont
2. Murray State
3. Jacksonville State
4. Tennessee State
5. Eastern Illinois
6. Eastern Kentucky
7. SIU-Edwardsville
8. Tennessee Tech
9. Southeast Missouri
10. Morehead State
11. UT Martin
12. Austin Peay