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

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan St snaps 2-game skid

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats BC 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.

Miles Kelly leads Georgia Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.