College Basketball’s Best 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 Miles Bridges, for example. Last season, he played the four for Michigan State, typically lining up alongside Nick Ward on the Michigan State 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 walking mismatch that took bigger defenders out to the perimeter. 

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

So we worked through a lot of these. Bridges is listed as a member of the front court. Louisville’s Deng Adel is in our back court rankings because, like Arizona’s Rawle Alkins, he’s a natural wing. Kevin Knox is a forward even if he’s going to end up playing some on the wing this season.

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

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke
Allonzo Trier (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

1. ARIZONA: Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Brandon Randolph, Dylan Smith

Let’s start with the good, because there is plenty of it.

Allonzo Trier is going to be in the mix for National Player of the Year. He could end up averaging 20 points for a team that could end up being the best in the country. I’m not sure there is a better pure scorer in college basketball this season. He’s joined on the perimeter by Rawle Alkins, a former five-star recruit and a potential first round pick that should be in line for an uptick in shots once he returns from a foot injury.

Brandon Randolph is an impressive freshman that will give some good minutes early in his career, and UNC-Asheville transfer Dylan Smith is, at worst, a serviceable backup at the point.

And that is going to be where the big question with this group lies. The one constant with Arizona over the course of the last four years as been terrific leadership and a defensive menace at the point guard spot. First, it was T.J. McConnell. Then it was Kadeem Allen. Now, it looks like that job is going to be Parker Jackson-Cartwright’s to lose. And he’s not bad. In fact, when you consider the number of people that are going to be needing shots in that offense, it’s not a bad thing to have a point guard on the floor that wants to be a facilitator.

But the question I have is whether or not he can be the defender they need at that point guard spot, and if he is built to be the leader that can get a guy like Trier or Alkins to give up shots when it behooves the team.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

2. MIAMI: Bruce Brown, Lonnie Walker, Ja’Quan Newton, Dejan Vasilijevic, Chris Lykes

Miami might have my favorite back court in college basketball this season.

Jim Larrañaga’s best teams have come when he has talented and aggressive guards that thrive in ball-screens, and that’s what he has at his disposal this season. Most ACC fans probably know the name Ja’Quan Newton by now. He’s a senior and a former top 50 prospect that has had a couple really good years for the Canes.

But he’s not the guys here to get excited about. Lonnie Walker, a top 15 prospect in the Class of 2017 and a potential lottery pick, is. He’s arguably the best off-guard in this class, and so long as his knee is healthy, he should have a big year. He’s also the second-best prospect on this team. Bruce Brown is the star. A former football player and a dynamic athlete at the combo-guard spot, Brown is projected by many to develop into an all-american player this season.

And if he does, he’ll be the anchor that Larrañaga can build an ACC title contender around.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
Bruce Brown (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

3. VILLANOVA: Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo, Collin Gillispie

The Josh Hart era is now over, and it may have ended midway through last season, when Jalen Brunson went from being his sidekick to the best player on Villanova’s roster.

There is nothing flashy about Brunson’s game. He’s not going to break ankles and he’s not going to dunk on anyone. What makes him so good is that he understands the game on a level that very few people do, and that he is hyper-efficient with the possessions that he does use. At the end of a day, the most important stat when it comes to a point guard is wins, and there are very few guards that have won more over the course of the last two years than Brunson.

The rest of Villanova’s back court rotation is impressive as well. Phil Booth is healthy again after missing most of last season through injury, and Collin Gillispie is likely going to be the next star Villanova point guard. The name to know here, however, is Donte DiVincenzo, a redshirt sophomore that was very impressive in limited minutes last season. He may not be Hart, but he has a real shot to be an all-Big East player this season.

This group isn’t going to awe you or make NBA scouts swoon, but don’t be surprised when they once again win more than 30 games and a Big East regular season title.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

4. KANSAS: Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Svi Mykhailiuk, LaGerald Vick, Sam Cunliffe, Marcus Garrett

At this point, we know what this back court is, or at least what they’re going to be this year, right?

Malik Newman is a former five-star recruit that will probably lead the team in scoring. Devonte’ Graham is the point guard that is finally going to be able to play full-time point guard and looks to be in line for an all-american season. Svi Mykhailiuk is a 20-year old senior that may, finally, live up to his hype this season while LaGerald Vick and Sam Cunliffe are the athletic wings that will space the floor and make plays defensively. The only real unknown is probably Marcus Garrett, and there has been some talk that the 6-foot-5 freshman could end up being better than most realize.

The far more interesting discussion will be with how this group has to play. Specifically, will they be asked to play small-ball again? Kansas, as we discussed in detail here, has a weird roster this year, one that isn’t really built to play with two big men but that lacks the kind of small-ball four that Josh Jackson was last year.

There are questions with this group, but it certainly isn’t talent.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview

5. DUKE: Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr., Trevon Duval, Alex O’Connell, Jordan Tucker

If we’re talking raw talent, I’m not sure that anyone’s back court truly stacks up to Duke’s. We’ve been over this before: Trevon Duval is the No. 1 point guard and a top five prospect in the Class of 2017. Gary Trent Jr. is a top two shooting guard in the class. Alex O’Connell and Jordan Tucker are four-star freshmen.

And then there is Grayson Allen, a much-maligned senior that struggled through last season as he dealt with the fallout of his inability to control his feet and nagging ankle injury. But he’s healthy now, meaning that, in theory, he is back to being the guy that he was as a sophomore, when he averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 assists while shooting 41 percent from three.

So why is Duke at fifth on this list?

Part of it is their questionable perimeter shooting. Part of it is that there may not be enough shots to go around. But the biggest issue is at the point guard spot, where Trevon Duval is slated to be the guy that finally replaces Tyus Jones. The question is whether or not he is the kind of point guard that can actually do that. Duval has more Derrick Rose in him than Jones. He’s big, he’s athletic and he’s terrific getting downhill, but he’s not a shooter and he has never proven to be the kind of facilitator that Duke will need. Duval may actually be the fifth-best scorer in Duke’s starting lineup. Does he know that?

It’s the same issue that has plagued Duke each of the last two seasons, and I’m just not yet convinced that Duval is the player that is going to solve that equation. If he is, if he lives up to the hype, then I think it is safe to say that this Duke team will be the favorite to win the national title.

And if he is, having then sixth will look almost as silly as having Kentucky’s back court ranked sixth heading into last season.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

6. USC: Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, De’Anthony Melton, Jonah Mathews, Chuck O’Bannon Jr., Shaqquan Aaron, Derryck Thornton Jr.

I love USC this season, and much of it has to do with the depth of talent in their back court.

Jordan McLaughlin is one of the most underrated point guards in the country. Elijah Stewart and De’Anthony Melton are two of the better athletes you’ll find on the wing who skillsets – Stewart is a scorer where Melton is a swiss-army knife – compliment each other. Chuck O’Bannon Jr. is a top 40 recruit that will provide quality depth alongside Shaqquan Aaron and Jonah Mathews, while Derryck Thornton Jr. is the ultimate wildcard: A former five-star recruit and a transfer from Duke that didn’t find the fit that he needed at the point.

The Trojans don’t have the star power of some of these other groups, but they have a number of really good, veteran players that understand and excel in their role. That matters.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami

7. XAVIER: Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs, Elias Harden, Naji Marshall

J.P. Macura is a perennially underrated talent. Quentin Goodin had some promising moments as a freshman at the point. Paul Scruggs, Elias Harden and Naji Marshall are all four-star recruits that will have a varying, but likely significant, impact on the Musketeers.

But the reason that Xavier is ranked this high on this list is the presence of Trevon Bluiett. Bluiett was arguably the best player in the NCAA tournament through the first three rounds last season. Hell, if he didn’t sprain his ankle midway through Big East play last season, he might have been able to play his way into the conversation for the league’s Player of the Year.

Expect more of the same from Bluiett this year.

8. SETON HALL: Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Myles Powell, Myles Cale

Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard has quietly put together one of the best rosters in the country that no one seems to be talking about, and this list doesn’t even include the Hall’s all-american big man Angel Delgado.

As good as this group has a chance to be, it all is really going to come down to the play of Khadeen Carrington. A 6-foot-2 combo-guard, Carrington is going to be tasked with playing the point full-time this season, a change from his role as a go-to scorer over the course of the last two years. Desi Rodriguez has quietly put together a fantastic career, while the Myles’ – Cale and Powell – are promising youngsters that will carry the program when the old guys finally graduate, but none of it will matter if Carrington’s adjustment to a new position doesn’t go well.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Big 12 Preview | Pac 12 Preview
Aaron Holiday (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

9. UCLA: Aaron Holiday, Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes, LiAngelo Ball, Prince Ali, Chris Smith

It’s hard to believe that a team could lose a talent like Lonzo Ball and remain among the best back courts in the country, but that’s exactly what happens when you have a guard as good as Aaron Holiday on the roster.

Holiday and Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham have a lot in common in the sense that they are point guards that are going to be allowed to play the point this season. Holiday will be joined by a pair of five-star prospects in Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes, while Prince Ali, a redshirt sophomore, should be ready to chip in this year, but the key may end up being how LiAngelo Ball fits in with this group. Lonzo’s younger brother, Gelo is not on the level of his older brother. How will LaVar react to that?

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami

10. NORTH CAROLINA: Joel Berry II, Jalek Felton, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, Seventh Woods

This is going to sound weird, but bear with me: It’s not actually a bad thing that Joel Berry II broke his hand. I’m not even calling it a silver lining. I’m flat-out saying North Carolina will be better in the long-term because of it.

Berry is a senior. He was an all-league player the last two years. He was part of the most heart-breaking national title game loss of all-time and followed that up the next season by winning a national title and Final Four MOP. He’s a winner. He can miss a month and he won’t miss a beat.

But the rest of the guys on this list? Jalek Felton is a freshman. Seventh Woods is a sophomore that barely played. Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson are going to be asked to play bigger roles this season than they have in years passed, while Cam Johnson is a transfer from Pitt trying to learn a new system.

Berry will be out a month. He’ll miss two weeks of games. Those two weeks will allow some of these younger guys to get thrown into the fire in games that, frankly, don’t mean all that much.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke
Khyri Thomas (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
  • 11. CREIGHTON: Marcus Foster, Khyri Thomas, Davion Mintz, Kaleb Joseph, Tyler Clement, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock: Marcus Foster will put up all-american numbers this season and Khyri Thomas may actually be the single-most under-appreciated player in college basketball, but until we know the answer at the point, Creighton will have serious question marks
  • 12. ALABAMA: Collin Sexton, John Petty, Avery Johnson Jr., Dazon Ingram, Ar’mond Davis, Riley Norris: Alabama was top ten nationally in defensive efficiency last season but missed the NCAA tournament because they couldn’t score. So what did Avery Johnson do? Oh, he went and signed Collin Sexton, the best scorer in this high school class.
  • 13. KENTUCKY: Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jemarl Baker: Like Alabama, this Kentucky team should end up being one of the nation’s best defensive back courts. Unlike Alabama, they don’t have a scorer of the ilk of Collin Sexton. The other issue: Who is going to make jump shots?
  • 14. LOUISVILLE: Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, Dwayne Sutton, V.J. King, Darius Perry: Deng Adel is going to have a chance to prove he can carry a team and Quentin Snider is back for what feels like his 17th season, but the key to this Louisville group is V.J. King. Can he take the ‘Donovan Mitchell leap’ if Rick Pitino is not coaching?
  • 15. NOTRE DAME: Matt Farrell, Temple Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, D.J. Harvey: Matt Farrell was one of the most improved players in the country last season. I fully expect both Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger to take a similar leap, while D.J. Harvey is talented enough to have an immediate impact.
MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team
Matt Farrell (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
  • 16. MICHIGAN STATE: Cassius Winston, Josh Langford, Matt McQuaid, Tum Tum Nairn, Kyle Aherns: The Spartans team is the toughest to rank on this list. Based on last year, they don’t deserve to be on this list. But the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Right, Cassius Winston and Josh Langford?
  • 17. MINNESOTA: Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Isaiah Washington, Amir Coffey: Nate Mason is a criminally underrated point guard. Dupree McBrayer and Isaiah Washington are both talented, but the x-factor is Amir Coffey. He’s a versatile wing that lets Richard Pitino play with different looks.
  • 18. ST. JOHN’S: Shamorie Ponds, Marcus Lovett Jr., Justin Simon: I was torn on where to rank this group, but the bottom-line is this: Ponds and Lovett are going to be a nightmare for opponents to defend on a nightly basis.
  • 19. NORTHWESTERN: Bryant McIntosh, Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law, Isiah Brown, Jordan Ash, Anthony Gaines: After getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the history of the program, the Wildcats bring back basically everyone, including stars Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey.
  • 20. YALE: Makai Mason, Miye Oni, Trey Phills, Alex Copeland: Laugh if you want, but Makai Mason has already committed to Baylor for his grad transfer season and Miye Oni, just a sophomore, has attracted NBA scouts to New Haven. Should I mention Alex Copeland actually led the team in scoring last season?

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.