College Basketball’s Top Backcourts

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The most difficult thing to do when putting together a list of the nation’s best back courts if figuring out who, exactly, belongs listed as a member of the back court. 

Take Brandon Ingram, for example. Last season, he played the four for Duke, typically lining up alongside Marshall Plumlee on the Blue Devil front line. But given his skill-set and his physical tools, he natural position is probably as a three. Then if you actually go back and watch the film, the role he played was essentially as a scoring guard, a two. 

Positionless basketball, by definition, makes identifying positions a nightmare. 

So we worked through a lot of these. Duke’s Jayson Tatum is listed as a guard because we expect him to play the way Ingram did last season. Villanova’s Josh Hart is in our back court rankings because, like Kansas’ Josh Jackson, his ability to rebound doesn’t change the fact that he is true wing. Hart’s teammate, Kris Jenkins, is more of a small-ball four and a mismatch in the front court, which is more or less the same way we view Dillon Brooks.

With that in mind, let’s get to our list of the top 15 back courts in the country.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

1. Duke (Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson, Matt Jones)

I have concerns about the point guard situation with the Blue Devils. I’ve written about that numerous times. There is no true point guard on the roster, just a bunch of guards that are at their best with the ball in their hands as they look to get their’s; a group of players that are extremely talented but that can struggle handling the ball if pressured. But at some point, you have to simply look at the talent and realize when picking nits is silly to do. Grayson Allen averaged 3.5 assists last season, spent the summer working on becoming a better playmaker and, with more talent around him, won’t have to look to score quite as often. Luke Kennard had twice as many assists as turnovers as a freshman. Frank Jackson was recruited as a point guard, even if he is still in the process of learning the position.

The point is this: Duke has their flaws, but at some point you have to look at the amount of talent on display. The Blue Devils have two potential first-team all-americans in their back court, one of whom was the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year and the other of whom could be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. No one else can say that.

2. Kansas (Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Jackson, Svi Mykhailiuk, LeGerald Vick)

The Jayhawks slide into the No. 2 spot in these rankings by a fairly significant margin, largely due to the fact that we are considering Josh Jackson as a member of the back court. Jackson is big enough and tough enough that he could see some time at the four in small-ball lineups for Kansas, but considering that his long-term future is as a two-guard and that he is an excellent passer that can operate in pick-and-rolls, we see him as a perimeter weapon.

Jackson is another potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, and when you combine him with the veteran duo of Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, what you’re left with is the best perimeter defensive team in the country. Mason may be the toughest point guard in the country, Graham is a point guard by trade that has taken well to playing off the ball and Jackson is, well, a monster. If Svi Mylhailiuk, a junior who is four months younger than Jackson, reaches his potential, look out.

CONFERENCE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks shoots the ball against Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the second half during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Frank Mason III and Josh Hart (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

3. Villanova (Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, Eric Paschall)

This Villanova perimeter is really exciting because of their versatility. There’s a real possibility that the Wildcats put a lineup on the floor with three 6-foot-7ish wings, Jalen Brunson at the point and Kris Jenkins at the five; the Villanova Death Lineup, if you will. Jay Wright has thrived when he’s had a roster that included a tough, intelligent point guard and a myriad of versatile wings, which includes all-american Josh Hart. Think about it like this: the Wildcats are the most likely team to repeat as champs since Florida did in 2007, and that’s despite the fact their best big man is Darryl Reynolds. That’s how good this back court is.

4. N.C. State (Dennis Smith Jr., Torin Dorn, Terry Henderson, Maverick Rowan, Markell Johnson)

I’ll freely admit that the Wolfpack are here because Dennis Smith Jr. has a chance to be something special this season. He should be better than Cat Barber, who averaged 23.5 points, 4.6 boards and 4.5 assists last year, and he’ll have a better supporting cast. Maverick Rowan, who averaged 12.9 points as a freshman, returns while Terry Henderson is finally healthy and Torin Dorn is eligible after redshirting last season. I have no idea what to make of this Wolfpack team, but if they struggle this season, it will not be because they lacked perimeter weapons.

5. Creighton (Maurice Watson Jr., Marcus Foster, Ronnie Harrell Jr., Davion Mintz, Isaiah Zierdan, Khyri Thomas, Kobe Paras)

I love this Creighton group mainly because I love the duo of Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster. Watson is a redshirt senior and one of the best point guards in college basketball. Foster? He had a monster freshman season at Kansas State before a disappointing sophomore campaign resulted in him transferring out of the program. He’s had a year to stew while sitting out at Creighton, meaning that he should come back in shape and angry this season.

6. Kentucky (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins)

There is no questioning the talent of this group. De’Aaron Fox is probably the best on-ball defender in the country and Malik Monk is one of the most entertaining players you’ll see this year. The issue is going to be perimeter shooting. Monk is inconsistent and something of a gunner. Isaiah Briscoe shot 13 percent from three last season. Dominique Hawkins shot 27 percent. Fox has never been known as a good perimeter shooter.

7. Louisville (Donovan Mitchell, Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, Tony Hicks)

This ranking, and Louisville’s spot in our preseason top 25, is a direct result of what we thing two of these kids will turn into. Donovan Mitchell is going to be on everyone’s list of this season’s breakout stars while Deng Adel may actually be the most talented player on the roster.

8. Xavier (Edmond Sumner, Trevon Bluiett, Myles Davis, Quentin Goodin, J.P. Macura)

Edmond Sumner burst onto the scene last season with a tremendous redshirt freshman year. His knee troubles were behind him and he had grown to an explosive, 6-foot-6 lead guard. If he, and J.P. Macura, can both take a step forward, Chris Mack will have all the pieces he needs to make a run at Villanova assuming Trevon Bluiett keeps playing at an all-Big East level.

9. UCLA (Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton, Prince Ali)

The Bruins fall somewhere in between talent and performance. On paper, their back court belongs in the top three. Lonzo Ball might end up being the second-coming of Jason Kidd while Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton combined for 35 points and nine assists last season, and that’s before you consider Aaron Holiday. On the floor, they struggled to defend and churned out a losing season last year.

Lonzo Ball (UCLA Athletics)
Lonzo Ball (UCLA Athletics)

10. Gonzaga (Nigel Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins, Jordan Mathews, Silas Melson, Zach Norvell Jr.)

Josh Perkins and Silas Melson were the starting back court for the Zags in last year’s run to the Sweet 16. They’ll likely be coming off the bench this season as Nigel Williams-Goss, a former first-team all-Pac 12 point guard, and Jordan Mathews, who averaged 13 points and shot 41 percent from three for Cal the last two years, join the fray.

11. Rhode Island (E.C. Matthews, Jarvis Garrett, Stanford Robinson, Jared Terrell)

This all depends on how well E.C. Matthews recovers from his torn ACL. If he’s back to 100 percent, he’s a potential Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and URI is probably too low on this list. If he goes through the Jamaal Charles recovery process, the Rams are probably not going to be as good as some may expect them to be. The truth, like this ranking, is probably somewhere in the middle.

12. Arizona (Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Kadeem Allen)

The Wildcats have quite a bit of talent in the back court even with Terrence Ferguson’s departure for Australia. Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are all big time talents. The question is going to be how they fit together on the floor at the same time. Are there enough shots to go around?

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13. North Carolina (Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Nate Britt, Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson, Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson)

Maybe I’m just down on this group because they’re all mostly know commodities. Maybe I’m just not seeing the upside. I don’t know. Unless Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson take major steps forward as juniors, I just don’t see what there is here to get excited about.

14. Iowa State (Monte’ Morris, Naz Long, Matt Thomas, Donovan Jackson, Nick Weiler-Babb)

For my money, Monte’ Morris is one of the two or three best lead guards in all of college basketball. That’s why the Cyclones made this list despite Morris sharing the floor with a bunch of guys that don’t really move the needle. He makes them good enough to be relevant.

15. Maryland (Melo Trimble, Dion Wiley, Kevin Huerter, Jared Nickens, Anthony Cowan)

Like Morris, I am very high on Melo Trimble. He’s not quite as good as getting other people involved, but he will be on a mission after a disappointing sophomore season. He also has a better supporting cast that some may realize. That includes Anthony Cowan, who will allow Trimble to spend some time playing off the ball.

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)

ALSO CONSIDERED

  • Florida State (Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Dwayne Bacon, Terance Mann, C.J. Walker, Trent Forrest, Patrick Savoy Jr.)
  • Miami (Ja’Quan Newton, Davon Reed, Rashad Muhammad, Bruce Brown, Anthony Lawrence, Dejan Vasiljevic)
  • Oklahoma State (Jawun Evans, Phil Forte III, Davon Dillard, Leyton Hammonds, Tavarius Shine)
  • Oregon (Dylan Ennis, Tyler Dorsey, Payton Pritchard, Casey Benson, Keith Smith)
  • Saint Mary’s (Emmett Naar, Joe Rahon)
  • SDSU (Trey Kell, Montaque Gill-Cesear, Jeremy Helmsley, Max Hoetzel, Matt Shrigley)
  • South Carolina (P.J. Dozier, Sindarius Thornwell, TeMarcus Blanton, Duane Notice, Justin McKie)
  • Syracuse (John Gillon, Andrew White, Franklin Howard, Tyus Battle)
  • UConn (Jalen Adams, Rodney Purvis, Alterique Gilbert, Terry Larrier, Vance Jackson, Christian Vital)
  • USC (Jordan McLaughlin, Shaqquan Aaron, Elijah Stewart, Deanthony Melton, Jonah Mathews)
  • Virginia (London Perrantes, Devon Hall, Darius Thompson, Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, Marial Shayok)
  • Washington (Markelle Fultz, David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle, Dominic Green, Bitumba Baruti)

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

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.