2014-15 Season Preview: Marcus Paige, Fred Van Vleet among the best lead guards

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Marcus Paige (Getty Images)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

 The importance of elite lead guards was stressed last March when senior point guard Shabazz Napier helped lead UConn to the national championship to cap off a magnificent senior season. Napier’s play on both ends of the floor made a huge impact for the Huskies, especially in tournament play, and it proved once again that an elite guard with the ball in his hands can lead a good supporting cast to glory.

POSITION RANKINGS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wing Forwards | Big Men

Here are this year’s best lead guards:

THE TOP TEN

1. Marcus Paige, North Carolina: The 6-foot-1 junior had one of the most impressive seasons in the country last season, especially when you consider many ACC defenses were geared to stop him. Paige averaged 17.5 points, 4.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds and was also the Tar Heels’ only consistent perimeter threat and late-game free-throw shooter. Now that Paige has more perimeter help, he could be slotted at either guard spot, but he’s one of the unique guards in college basketball this season who can set other guys up or hunt his own offense.

2. Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: Had Fred Van Vleet made the potential game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament last season, we might be singing his praises even more. As it is, the calm and collected junior point guard is incredibly efficient and tough despite standing only 5-foot-11 and not owning jaw-dropping athleticism. Van Vleet averaged 11.6 points, 5.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore while shooting 48 percent from the field, 83 percent from the free-throw line and 41 percent from three-point range. After helping Wichita State reach a Final Four coming off the bench as a freshman and having a hand in 35 consecutive wins last season, we already know that Van Vleet is a winner.

3. Juwan Staten, West Virginia: The 6-foot-1 senior quietly put up monster numbers last season and is a favorite for Big 12 Player of the Year honors. Although West Virginia missed the NCAA Tournament in 2014, it was certainly no fault of Staten’s. As a junior, he led the Big 12 in scoring (18.1 points per game), minutes (37.3 mpg) and was second in assists (5.8 apg) and assist-to-turnover ratio. Staten was also third in field-goal percentage at 48 percent from the floor and also shot 40 percent from the three-point line. If Staten can spearhead a better defensive effort from the Mountaineers, than he could be a dark horse All-American candidate.

RELATED: The nation’s Top 20 Frontcourts | And Top 20 Perimeters

4. Chasson Randle, Stanford: More of a natural scorer, the 6-foot-2 senior had to bring the ball up by default for the Cardinal last season once Aaron Bright transferred out of the program. That was fine for Stanford, as Randle helped lead the team to a Sweet 16 appearance while averaging 18.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Randle had 16 games of 20-plus points and did that while shooting 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from distance.

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Yogi Ferrell (AP Photo)

5. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: One of the fastest players in the country, the 6-foot Ferrell is lethal in the open floor and can score in bunches from the perimeter. Last season, Ferrell put up 17.3 points a contest and shot 40 percent from three-point range while also setting up teammates for 3.9 assists per game. Limiting turnovers will be the big focus for Ferrell in his junior season. A 1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio simply isn’t going to cut it.

6. Tyus Jones, Duke: When the CBT crew voted on the rankings for this list, I had Jones much lower than my colleagues because he was a defensive liability at times in high school. But if Jones can stay in front of anyone on the defensive end, it’ll be icing on the cake for his fantastic offensive skill set. The 6-foot-1 freshman and McDonald’s All-American can hit perimeter jumpers, set up teammates on the fast break, or feed the post. A natural leader, Jones could step in and give Coach K a steady, reliable presence with the ball in his hands that Duke has lacked at times the last few seasons.

7. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky: Credit is due to the 6-foot-6 Harrison because perhaps no player in the country took more of a beating from fans and media during the regular season last year. Despite some erratic play during his freshman season, Harrison turned it up another level during the Wildcats run to the national championship game and expectations will be high for him in his sophomore season. Harrison averaged a solid 10.9 points, 4.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game last season but must improve his 36 percent field-goal percentage.

MORE: Breakout StarsCoaches on the Hot Seat | Mid-Major Power RankingsAll-Americans

8. Terry Rozier, Louisville: Rozier had to come off the bench last season behind senior Russ Smith but the 6-foot-1 sophomore guard is poised for a breakout season after a strong summer on the camp circuit. NBA scouts and writers raved about Rozier at the LeBron James Skills Academy and adidas Nations and his pull-up jumper and ability to get to the basket are both strengths.

9. Keifer Sykes, Green Bay: Sykes put up ridiculous numbers last season for a Green Bay team that fell short of the NCAA Tournament by falling in the Horizon League conference tournament. The 5-foot-11 senior averaged 20.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game for the Phoenix last season and his athleticism has led to numerous CBT posts this summer thanks to some electric dunks. Scoff all you want at Sykes putting up those numbers in a mid-major league, but the Chicago-native played better against good competition, averaging 25.6 points a game in eight games against 2014 NCAA Tournament teams last season.

10. Ryan Boatright, UConn: Boatright lived in Shabazz Napier’s shadow for much of last season, but the 6-foot senior had a tremendous postseason of his own and he’s active on both ends of the floor. Besides being a pesky perimeter defender, Boatright can also score and distribute and will have more of a chance to have the ball primarily in his hands as the senior leader. If Boatright can improve his 39 percent field goal percentage, he could be among the nation’s elite this season.

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T.J McConnell

THE NEXT TEN

  • 11. T.J. McConnell, Arizona: The numbers aren’t gaudy for the 6-foot-1 senior, but his 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and selfless nature helped lead the Wildcats to a No. 1 ranking and an Elite Eight appearance last season.
  • 12. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: One of college basketball’s toughest players, the 6-foot-2 senior gutted out his junior year despite toe and ankle injuries and averaged 14.5 points, 3.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. A healthy Pangos could help vault Gonzaga into a deep March run.
  • 13. Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris didn’t put up huge numbers last season, but his efficiency was off the charts. Don’t be surprised if he ends up being an all-Big 12 player this season.
  • 14. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: To dismiss Ulis because of his 5-foot-9 frame would be silly because the freshman is an exceptional passer who thrives on creating for others. Ulis might not start games at the point for Kentucky this season, but don’t be surprised if he’s on the floor at the end of games along with the Harrison twins this season.
  • 15. Kasey Hill, Florida: Hill has some of the biggest shoes in the country to fill by replacing Scottie Wilbekin, but the 6-foot-1 sophomore is a former McDonald’s All-American who showed some positive flashes his freshman season.
  • 16. Siyani Chambers, Harvard: The 6-foot junior is the engine that makes Harvard go and he averaged 11.1 points and 4.6 assists per game last season. Chambers has helped the Crimson win a NCAA Tournament game in each of the last two seasons.
  • 17. Olivier Hanlan, Boston College: New head coach Jim Christian has to be pleased the 6-foot-4 junior guard decided to return. Hanlan averaged 18.5 points per game last season.
  • 18. Quinn Cook, Duke: Consistency is the big question for the 6-foot-2 senior. Will we see the Cook who finished in double-figures in the scoring column in 13 of the first 15 games last season, or the one who came off-the-bench for the final 10 games?
  • 19. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: The 6-foot-5 senior missed much of last season due to an academic issue, but Grant averaged 19 points and 6.2 assists per game on 51 percent shooting and 40 percent three-point shooting during 12 games last season.
  • 20. Angel Rodriguez, Miami: Jim Larranaga has to be pleased the 5-foot-11 All-Big 12 selection is eligible this season.

ALSO CONSIDERED: Ryan Harrow (Georgia State), Isaiah Taylor (Texas), Nic Moore (SMU), Derrick Walton (Michigan), London Perrantes (Virginia), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Woodard (Oklahoma), Romelo Trimble (Maryland)

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.