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)

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.

Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.

IN THE HOUSE

Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

No. 8 Kansas avenges earlier loss to No. 7 Kansas State, 90-78

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Wilson had 20 points, Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 8 Kansas avenged a loss to Kansas State just a couple of weeks ago with a 90-78 victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 18 for the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who built a 12-point halftime lead before coasting to their 17th straight home win over the Wildcats in the 10th matchup of top-10 teams in series history.

Kansas has rebounded nicely from a rare three-game skid that included the overtime loss to Kansas State, and made sure to avoid taking back-to-back losses in its storied home for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

Markquis Nowell scored 23 points and Keyontae Johnson had 22 to lead the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3), who were trying for their first regular-season sweep of their biggest rival in four decades. Nae’Qwan Tomlin added 11 points and David N’Guessan had 10.

In their first meeting on Jan. 17, the Wildcats raced to a big early lead and controlled the game until late in the second half, when the Jayhawks forced overtime — only for Kansas State to win on Johnson’s alley-oop dunk.

It was the Jayhawks who controlled the rematch.

They used a 16-7 run in the first half that included a technical foul on Kansas State coach Jerome Tang to build a 32-19 lead. And when Johnson answered with eight straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was eventually trimmed to four, the reigning national champs pulled away again down the stretch.

It was 37-32 when Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Zach Clemence added one of his own. And by the time Wilson made two foul shots with about 10 seconds left, Kansas had built a 49-37 lead that it took to the break.

The Wildcats briefly got within six in the second half before the Jayhawks stretched their lead to as many as 16.

OFFICIATING OOPS

Johnson had to sit with two fouls just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Only problem? The crew of John Higgins, Kip Kissinger and Marques Pettigrew gave one to the wrong player. By the time they corrected their mistake, the Wildcats’ leading scorer had unnecessarily ridden the bench for several minutes.

SELLOUT … AND THEN SOME

For the first time in more than 15 years, more Kansas students redeemed tickets than there was space available inside Allen Fieldhouse. The overflow had to watch the game on screens in the adjacent Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the Jayhawks play volleyball games. Those students also got refunds and concessions vouchers.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State’s three losses in league play have been to ranked teams on the road: TCU, Iowa State and Kansas. And with a more forgiving second half to the Big 12 schedule, the Wildcats remain firmly in the conference title hunt.

Kansas got its mojo back with its win over Kentucky last weekend. This victory over another bunch of Wildcats was crucial because the road doesn’t get any easier for the Jayhawks, who are in the midst of three straight games against teams ranked 13th or better.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns home for another top-10 showdown Saturday against No. 10 Texas.

Kansas hits the road for the third time in four games against No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday.