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
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.
WITH AUTHORITY! We’d say this Malik Monk dunk is worthy of being an #SCTop10 nomination…#BBN pic.twitter.com/SMCN2LzDQv
— KSTV (@KSTV_Sports) October 22, 2016
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.
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.
- 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)