INDIANAPOLIS — Chuck Harris jump-started Butler’s offense early. Jair Bolden delivered the finishing touch.
Together, the Bulldogs’ backcourt was unbeatable.
Harris scored 15 of his 20 points in the first half on Sunday and Bolden finished with 12 of his 15 in the second half to help Butler pull away for a 73-61 win over No. 8 Villanova.
“Their guards just dominated the game,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. “Specifically Bolden and Harris, we just couldn’t control them.”
Harris and Bolden combined for four of Butler’s 10 3-pointers, including two in the waning moments to seal the victory.
It was a rough day for the Wildcats (15-4, 10-3 Big East), who entered the game as a 10 1/2-point favorite but made just 2 of 27 3s. Villanova was one of seven top-15 team to stumble this weekend, following losses on Saturday by No. 2 Baylor, No. 7 Oklahoma, No. 11 Florida State, No. 13 Creighton and No. 14 Texas. Later Sunday, No. 4 Ohio State lost to No. 9 Iowa.
Villanova’s defeat wasn’t terribly close, either.
Butler (9-13, 8-11) swung the game with a suffocating defense that limited the Wildcats to one basket during the final seven minutes of the first half and an offensive charge fueled by Harris. That combination resulted in a 16-3 run that gave the Bulldogs a 31-20 lead. They never trailed again, winning their second straight while beating Villanova for the fourth time in the last five meetings at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
“I felt like our guys deserved it,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “From start to finish, they executed the game plan, played through mistakes and played all the way through.”
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Collin Gillespie tried to rally Villanova in the second half. The Wildcats cut a 42-28 deficit in half with a 7-0 flurry and scored again after Butler called timeout to make it a five-point game with 14:14 to go.
But Bolden’s 3 stopped the run, Bryce Golden made three straight baskets for the Bulldogs and Bo Hodges made another 3 to give Butler a 54-39 lead with 10:40 left. And just when the Wildcats thought they had a chance after getting within 57-50 with 6:13 left, Harris and Bolden answered again.
Robinson-Earl finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds. Gillespie had 14 points.
Villanova: The loss won’t end the Wildcats’ streak of 30 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25. It could, however, impact their conference title hopes and perhaps their chances of earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Clearly, Villanova wasn’t itself during the first half – shooting 28% from the field and grabbing just one offensive rebound.
Butler: This has been largely a lost season for the Bulldogs. They struggled to find consistency between a rash of injuries and six postponed games. But the Bulldogs produced two solid performances this week by beating Seton Hall and now Villanova. If they keep it up, they could make a run in the Big East tournament.
Villanova: Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels each scored 10 points. … Villanova had six assists and two steals. … The Wildcats have lost 19 conference road games since joining the reconfigured Big East. Four have come at Butler.
Butler: Harris made five of his first eight shots and finished 7 of 14. … Bryce Nze posted his fifth double-double this season with 12 points and 11 rebounds. He also had five assists. … Golden had 13 points and six rebounds. … Butler has scored 70 points four times this season. … The Bulldogs’ last four opponents are 15 of 81 on 3s.
TWO MEN OUT
The Bulldogs have been playing short-handed for much of the season and Sunday was no exception. Starting guard Aaron Thompson missed the game with shoulder and thumb injures and forward Christian David sat out with a knee injury. Thompson and David were two of the seniors honored with highlight packages that played on the scoreboard during timeouts in what could be their final home game.
Villanova: Hosts No. 13 Creighton on Wednesday, a game that could determine the league’s regular-season champ.
Butler: Takes another extended break before closing the regular season Saturday at Creighton.
Butler erases 13-point deficit, upsets No. 8 Creighton in OT
INDIANAPOLIS — Butler coach LaVall Jordan challenged Aaron Thompson on Saturday. The senior guard responded just as Jordan envisioned.
Thompson scored 17 points, found Bryce Nze for the go-ahead layup with 68 seconds left in overtime, and played shutdown defense late to help the Bulldogs overcome a 13-point deficit and upset No. 8 Creighton 70-66.
“It’s the one we won today, so it’s the most satisfying (win) we’ve gotten,” Thompson said. “It was just about our energy. Coach got on us about changing our attitude, and then we kind of flipped the script on them.”
Thompson played nearly 41 minutes in his third game back from a sprained knee. The Bulldogs (4-7, 3-5 Big East) needed every ounce of energy he had – especially after falling into a 58-45 deficit with 7:38 left in regulation.
But Thompson steadied the defense and his teammates took the cue.
After missing 14 consecutive shots, the Bulldogs answered with a 17-2 run to take a 62-60 lead on Thompson’s slicing layup with 57.4 seconds left in regulation. Denzel Mahoney, who scored 23 of his season-high 29 points in the second half, made two free throws for Creighton to tie the score with 36.6 seconds to go.
Butler had three chances on the final possession of regulation to win it but missed all three shots.
“Aaron Thompson was phenomenal,” Jordan said. “He did a great job of battling in the first half and we put him on Mahoney (in the second half) because he was in a good rhythm and Aaron did a good job on him. Guys just gave an effort, the proper effort.”
Creighton (10-3, 6-2) scored the first two baskets of overtime and looked like it might pull away for its seventh consecutive win.
Instead, Thompson righted the Bulldogs and when he found Nze open in the post with 50.9 seconds to play, the Bulldogs had the lead – and a critical win.
“I thought we understood what we had to take away from Butler, but obviously Thompson got us and Nze had a couple of back-breakers,” Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said. “Give Butler credit, they played a heck of a game.”
Creighton: The Bluejays looked like they would pull away in this one when they extended the margin to 13. But instead of putting it away, they gave it away. Mahoney’s flagrant foul late in regulation opened the door for Butler, and the Bluejays never really recovered. Starting point guard Marcus Zegarowski missed his second straight game with a hamstring injury.
Butler: It’s been a rough year. First, a COVID-19 outbreak shut down the program for more than two weeks following a season-opening win. Then the Bulldogs lost Thompson, their catalyst, for three weeks with the knee injury. No, they’re still not full strength, but this victory should give them some momentum.
Creighton will probably slide a little bit. While the Blujays are unlikely to match – or exceed – their highest ranking in the Associated Press poll in school history this week, they will remain one of nine schools that have been ranked in each of the past 15 AP polls.
IN AND OUT
Butler guard Chuck Harris scored 10 points Saturday after missing the previous game with a bruised knee. But the Bulldogs announced before the game forward Markeese Hastings, a redshirt sophomore, is taking an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons. Jordan provided no additional details. Hastings was averaging 0.5 points in 9.6 minutes.
Creighton: Damien Jefferson scored 12 points and Christian Bishop had 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks. … The Bluejays shot 56.0% from the field in the second. … Creighton has lost four straight at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Butler: Thompson also had six assists. … Nze had 15 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Myles Tate had 15 points, 10 rebounds and a key 3-pointer in overtime. … The Bulldogs had seven turnovers after having a season-high 20 in Tuesday’s loss to St. John’s.
Creighton: Welcomes Providence to Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday for the first of two straight home games.
Butler: Visits DePaul on Tuesday in the first meeting between the teams this season. The December contest was postponed.
The 2020 NBA Draft is currently scheduled to take place on June 25th, 2020, but that date is up in the air due to the spread of COVID-19. At the very least, the league is preparing as if the pre-draft process is going to be drastically different than it has been in past seasons.
WHEN IS THE DEADLINE FOR AN EARLY ENTRY TO DECLARE FOR THE 2020 NBA DRAFT?
Underclassmen have under April 26th to declare for the draft. Those that don’t sign with an agent have until June 15th to pull their name out of the draft and return to school.
Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax came off the bench to combine for 19 points, 12 boards and three assists, providing a major spark as No. 13 Memphis overcame a dreadful start to land a come-from-behind, 51-47 win over No. 19 Tennessee.
Memphis scored five points in the first 11 minutes. They were down by as many as 12 points in the first half after missing 13 of their first 14 shots. To be quite frank, they opened this game playing like a team that was starting five freshmen in a rivalry game.
Tennessee finished the afternoon shooting just 25 percent from the floor and 4-for-26 (16 percent) from three. They scored just 0.723 points-per-possession, the worst performance since an 82-55 drubbing Tennessee took at South Carolina in February of 2017.
Here are the three things we can take away from this game:
1. THIS WAS VERY, VERY IMPRESSIVE FROM MEMPHIS
I don’t think that I can say that enough.
There was so much that did not go the Tigers’ way in this game, and so many built in excuses for the loss.
It was played in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, the first time a Memphis team starting four freshmen was playing a true road game against a top 25 team. It was the first time those freshmen were playing in a rivalry game, and they spent the first 12 minutes or so looking like a team that was overwhelmed by the moment.
And they were doing it while their best player and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft missed his seventh game due to a suspension. Should I mention that their best shooter, Lester Quinones, was also out as he continues to recover from a broken hand?
Oh, and the game was played at Tennessee’s pace. The Tigers want games to be frenetic. They want to be able to get out and run in transition. They want to force turnovers, get more possessions and have a chance to let their athletes avoid having to attack set defenses by playing on the break. None of that happened. This game had 65 possessions, which will go down as the fewest possessions in a game for this team this season.
And they still won.
I can fully admit that I did not think that Memphis had a win like this in them.
2. ALEX LOMAX AND TYLER HARRIS WERE THE DIFFERENCE-MAKERS
The Memphis freshmen are the guys that get all the hype and attention, but the two guys that changed this game on Saturday were Harris and Lomax. Harris provided the offensive spark in the first half, hitting a pair of threes and scoring eight of his 11 points in the final nine minutes to wake up a team that looked like they were still working their way through the itis.
Lomax was involved, too. He forced a couple of first half turnovers and he settled the team in the second half, making a couple plays in the halfcourt when it looked like Tennessee was on the verge of getting a critical stop.
Credit does have to be given elsewhere. Precious Achiuewa had 13 rebounds and two blocks and played with four fouls for the final five minutes of the game. D.J. Jeffries had a couple important drives down the stretch, including one where he found Damian Baugh for a three to give Memphis the lead back. Boogie Ellis was trapped in the corner in the backcourt with the Tigers up by two, less than 15 seconds on the clock and no timeouts left and found a way to get the ball out without committing a turnover.
This was very much a team effort, and an impressive one at that, but the catalysts were the two little guards that were relegated to Penny’s bench when he brought in a vaunted recruiting class.
3. TENNESSEE HAD SOME SERIOUS ISSUES ON THE OFFENSIVE END
The Vols shot 25 percent from the floor on Saturday. They were 4-for-26 from three. Josiah-Jordan James got off to a hot start to the game, but beyond that, their best offense ended up being post touches for Yves Pons and John Fulkerson.
The question that needs to be asked is whether this is just an off-night or if this is a sign of a larger issue for a program that is still working through how to replace Grant Williams, Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield.
Lamonte Turner was 1-for-11 from the floor on Saturday and did not make his first shot until there were four minutes left. Jordan Bowden was 2-for-10 from the floor. That is not normal, and they missed a number of good, open looks. They are Rick Barnes’ two-leading scorers, so I tend to think that this is the kind of thing where you just chalk it up as one of those nights shots didn’t go down.
The larger concern might be that the last time Tennessee played a tough, athletic and defensive-minded team, Turner and Bowden combined to shooting 7-for-24 from the floor and 3-for-11 in a loss. If anything, I think the answer is that the Vols need to find a way to score on the nights where two are off.
Michigan State has all the pieces to go out and win a national championship this year. They have shooting. They have size. They have talented veterans in starting roles with promising younger pieces ready to push them for minutes. They have a Hall Of Famer running the show in Tom Izzo. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that they have this kid who just so happens to be the best player in college basketball this season. Cassius Winston, ever heard of him?
If there are concerns here, it’s that the Spartans are a little bit thin up front. Xavier Tillman is ready to take over the five-spot in a full-time role with Nick Ward gone, but the bigs behind him are young. Will Marcus Bingham be ready to play 20 minutes a night? What will be more interesting to see is if Izzo goes full small-ball. With Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Malik Hall on the roster, he has the bodies to do it, especially if Marquette transfer Joey Hauser finds a way to get a waiver from the NCAA.
Surprise, surprise: Kentucky is loaded again, especially in the backcourt. Ashton Hagans returns for his sophomore season where he will be joined by Tyrese Maxey in what may end up being the toughest, most competitive and best defensive backcourt in college basketball. Immanuel Quickly, Kahlil Whitney, Johnny Juzang and Keion Brooks will give John Calipari more than enough weapons to keep defenses guessing on the perimeter; those practice battles to earn playing time are going to be fun to watch.
The big question mark is going to be in Kentucky’s frontcourt, where E.J. Montgomery will look to take a P.J. Washington-esque step forward and Nick Richards will, hopefully, live up to his five-star potential. The addition of grad transfer Nate Sestina from Bucknell will provide some depth and experience where the Wildcats really need it. It will be interesting to see if Coach Cal makes the decision to play small this year, because he certainly has the roster to do it.
WHO’S GONE: Lagerald Vick, Dedric Lawson, Quintin Grimes, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore
WHO’S BACK: Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett, Silvio De Sousa, Mitch Lightfoot, David McCormack
The NCAA investigation into Kansas and the possible ramifications of the Notice of Allegations that the university received last week will hang over the Jayhawks’ head all season long. That’s a given.
And with the understanding that this off-the-court stuff is something that Kansas is going to have to deal with all season long, let’s talk about what is actually happening on the court, because Kansas is going to be fascinating next season. The Jayhawks may have the best center in the country in Udoka Azubuike. At the very least, he’s the best low-post scorer in college hoops. They have one of the best point guards in Devon Dotson. They have one of college basketball’s breakout stars in Ochai Agbaji headlining a plethora of quality wing pieces – Marcus Garrett, Isaiah Moss, Tristan Enaruna, Jalen Wilson. They have more frontcourt depth than just about anyone else, with Silvio De Sousa, David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot all fighting for minutes up front.
The big question is going to be what the Jayhawks do at the four. Dedric Lawson is the perfect player to slot in there, but he’s gone. In his stead, they have … well, I’m not really sure. They can play two bigs, but that will obliterate their spacing. The same can be said if Garrett slots in at the four. Agbaji would make some sense, but I’m not sure he’s capable of guarding college fours the way that someone like Josh Jackson was. There is no easy answer, which means that Self will have his work cut out for him.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Fresh Kimble, Samuell Williamson, Dwayne Sutton, Jordan Nwora, Steve Enoch
The big news for Louisville is that they bring back Jordan Nwora, who looks to be the favorite to win the ACC Player of the Year award heading into the season. They also get back Dwayne Sutton, and Malik Williams, and Steve Enoch, and add a recruiting class that is exactly what you would expect someone like Chris Mack to bring into a program like Louisville. They have everything that you would expect out of a top five team …
… except clarity at the point guard spot.
There are options there. Darius Perry returns from last year’s team. Fresh Kimble, a grad transfer from St. Joseph’s, joins the program, as does four-star freshman David Johnson, who is dealing with a shoulder injury that could keep him out at the start of the season. Someone is going to have to win the starting job. Will they be good enough to carry the Cardinals to the top of the ACC?
WHO’S GONE: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Jahvon Quinerly
Maybe I’m overvaluing Villanova again because they’re Villanova, but I am quite bullish on them once again. I think the Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels are both in line for big seasons, and when combined with Bryan Antoine – who will hopefully be healthy by December – give Jay Wright three wings that fit perfectly with the way that he wants to play. Collin Gillispie isn’t Jalen Brunson, but not very many people are Jalen Brunson, so that’s a concern, but I think that he’ll be serviceable in the Big East this season.
And then there is all the young talent on the roster. Cole Swider should take a significant step forward as a sophomore. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a five-star recruit. Brandon Slater should be ready for a bigger role. The big concern here is that this team is still going to be very, very young for a Villanova team. We might still be a year away with this group.
WHO’S GONE: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Marques Bolden
WHO’S BACK: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker
WHO’S COMING IN: Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley
PROJECTED STARTERS: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Vernon Carey
This Duke roster is weird. Talented, but weird.
I like a lot of the pieces here. Vernon Carey is going to be a very good college basketball player. Same with Matthew Hurt. Wendell Moore should be able to impact the game on the defensive end of the floor from day one. Javin DeLaurier is a very useful role player, while the likes of Alex O’Connell, Jack White, Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire will all be a year older this season.
The problem is that Duke doesn’t have very many lineups that they can play that will be good defensively and be able to create enough space for Carey to operate in the lane. That’s where Tre Jones comes into play. We wrote all about Mr. Jones and why his ability to shoot will be the most influential skill for any player in college basketball next season right here.
WHO’S COMING IN: Kerry Blackshear Jr., Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh
PROJECTED STARTERS: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, Kerry Blackshear Jr.
The outlook for Florida’s season changed dramatically when they landed a commitment from Kerry Blackshear Jr., the Virginia Tech grad transfer that picked the Gators over Tennessee and Kentucky. He is an All-American talent that will anchor the frontcourt for a team that has all the perimeter depth you would want.
It starts with Andrew Nembhard, who is going to have a big sophomore season and will pair with Tre Mann to handle Florida’s point guard duties. Scottie Lewis is going to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the sport next season, while Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are back to round out Florida’s rotation.
WHO’S GONE: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall, Jeremy Jones
WHO’S BACK: Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Corey Kispert
WHO’S COMING IN: Admon Gilder, Drew Timme, Oumar Ballo, Ryan Woolridge, Brock Ravet, Anton Watson, Martynas Arlauskas, Pavel Zahkarov
PROJECTED STARTERS: Ryan Woolridge, Admon Gilder, Corey Kispert, Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev
Mark Few lost quite a bit off of last season’s roster, and there are more than a few questions about just who this team is going to be able to trust this season, but there is more than enough talent here for the Zags to once again make a run at being a top ten team.
Killian Tillie is back and healthy. Corey Kispert is a talent that has been waiting for more opportunity in Spokane. Filip Petrusev will finally be able to anchor the frontcourt on his own, while the likes of Drew Timme and Oumar Ballo are promising freshman that are going to push for minutes immediately. The big question is going to be in the backcourt, where a pair of grad transfers – Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder – are going to take the reins with a freshman – Brock Ravet – providing depth. All three are new to the program, and it’s never ideal to head into a season with such inexperience at the point guard spot.
WHO’S GONE: Bruno Fernando
WHO’S BACK: Anthony Cowan, Jalen Smith, Serrel Smith Jr., Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Darryl Morsell
PROJECTED STARTERS: Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Jalen Smith
There is nothing riskier than going all-in on a team coached by Mark Turgeon, but here we are. Losing Bruno Fernando hurts, but the Terps not only got Jalen Smith back, they also return Anthony Cowan. That could end up being the best 1-2 punch in the Big Ten this side of Michigan State.
What’s more promising is that the Terps have a loaded sophomore class. Smith is the name you know, but Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Ricky Lindo all had promising rookie campaigns, while the likes of Darryl Morsell and the Mitchell twins give Turgeon plenty of depth.
WHO’S GONE: De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Jack Salt
WHO’S BACK: Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark
I am a Tony Bennett stan, and I fully believe that the combination of Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff is the kind of malleable, versatile and talented frontcourt that will allow Bennett to flex his X’s-and-O’s muscles and get creative offensively, but I fully admit that putting Virginia in the top ten is likely beyond the top of their range.
They lost De’Andre Hunter. They lost Ty Jerome. They lost Kyle Guy. That’s a lot to lose, especially when Virginia was not planning on losing the latter two for another year. Will Casey Morsell be ready at the start of the season? Is Kihei Clark going to be able to handle the lead guard role in a ball-screen heavy offense? Just how good is Braxton Key going to be as a senior?
I don’t really have answers. But I’m willing to bet on Bennett figuring those answers out.
11. TEXAS TECH
WHO’S GONE: Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Brandone Francis, Norense Odiase, Khavon Moore
WHO’S BACK: Chris Beard, Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, Andrei Savrasov
WHO’S COMING IN: Jahmius Ramsey, Chris Clarke, T.J. Holyfield, Kevin McCullar, Russel Tchewa, Terrence Shannon
PROJECTED STARTERS: Jahmius Ramsey, Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, T.J. Holyfield, Chris Clarke
The Red Raiders only return two players from last year’s national runner-up: Davide Moretti and Kyler Edwards. But there is no one in college basketball that has proven to be better at finding a way to entirely remake a roster year after year that Chris Beard. Jahmius Ramsey is going to be one of the most productive freshman in all of college basketball this season – he is a perfect fit for Beard’s style of play – and the addition of grad transfers Chris Clarke and T.J. Holyfield will help as well. Like Virginia, I’m not really sure how, exactly, it’s going to happen, but I fully believe that Tech is going to end up being right there in the mix at the top of the Big 12 once again this season.
WHO’S GONE: Paul White, Louis King, Ehab Amin, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol, Victor Bailey
WHO’S BACK: Payton Pritchard, Will Richardson, Francis Okoro
WHO’S COMING IN: N’Faly Dante, C.J. Walker, Anthony Mathis, Shakur Juiston, Addison Patterson, Chris Duarte, Lok Wur, Chandler Lawson
PROJECTED STARTERS: Payton Pritchard, Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis, C.J. Walker, Shakur Juiston
The Ducks are the toughest team for me in these rankings. On the one hand, they lost oh-so-very-much from last season. On the other hand, Payton Pritchard is back, as is Will Richardson, and they will be joined by a rebuilt roster with quite a bit of interesting talent: Freshmen N’Faly Dante, C.J. Walker, Addison Patterson and Chandler Lawson; transfers Shakur Juiston, Anthony Mathis and Chris Duarte. Throw in Francis Okoro, and there are enough pieces here for Dana Altman to have fun figuring things out.
There’s an argument to be made that Seton Hall is going to be the best team in the Big East next season. This is essentially the same roster that Seton Hall had last season, which matters because Myles Powell returns for his senior season. He is one of the most dangerous scorers in all of college hoops. He is going to be an All-American. He’s awesome. He also has a solid supporting cast, with Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight and Sandro Mamukelashvili all back. Their ceiling will likely be determined by how good Jared Rhoden and Ike Obiagu end up being this season.
14. NORTH CAROLINA
WHO’S GONE: Coby White, Nassir Little, Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods
Cole Anthony is going to be the most productive freshman in college basketball this season. He’s a terrific athlete, a high-volume scorer and the kind of uber-competitive lead guard that will make North Carolina fans forget about Coby White fairly quickly. The problem for the Heels is that White isn’t the only guy they lost. Luke Maye, Nassir Little, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams are all gone as well. I think Armando Bacot is going to be very, very good for UNC in the long term, and adding a pair of grad transfers in Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling will certainly help, but there is going to be a learning curve early on for this group.
15. UTAH STATE
WHO’S GONE: Quinn Taylor
WHO’S BACK: Sam Merrill, Neemias Queta, Diogo Brito, Brock Miller, Abel Porter
WHO’S COMING IN: Alphonso Anderson, Liam McChesney, Sean Bairstow
PROJECTED STARTERS: Diogo Brito, Abel Porter, Sam Merrill, Brock Miller, Neemias Queta
Once we got word that the knee injury suffered by star center Neemias Queta in the FIBA U20 Euros was not serious, we knew that Craig Smith and this Utah State team would be the best in the Mountain West and arguably the best outside the power conferences. Queta is one reason why. Sam Merrill, who might play his way onto All-America teams by the time March roles around, is probably a bigger reason why. All told, the Aggies bring back five of their top six from last season. They are going to be dangerous.
WHO’S GONE: Justin Coleman, Ryan Luther, Brandon Randolph
WHO’S BACK: Dylan Smith, Chase Jeter, Brandon Williams, Alex Barcello, Ira Lee
WHO’S COMING IN: Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Max Hazzard, Christian Koloko, Zeke Nnaji, Stone Gettings
PROJECTED STARTERS: Max Hazzard, Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Ira Lee, Chase Jeter
With everything going on around the program, it’s hard to believe that this team will be fighting with Oregon and Washington for Pac-12 supremacy. Nico Mannion and Josh Green, a pair of five-star freshman, are the headliners, and their jobs will be all-the-more important with Brandon Williams out due to a knee injury. UC Irvine transfer Max Hazzard should provide some experience and depth, but the key is going to be how Sean Miller handles his frontcourt. Can Chase Jeter be trusted? Is Zeke Nnaji going to live up to the preseason hype? How good is Ira Lee?
17. SAINT MARY’S
WHO’S GONE: Jordan Hunter
WHO’S BACK: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Dan Fotu, Jock Perry
WHO’S COMING IN: Aaron Menzies, Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen
PROJECTED STARTERS: Jordan Ford, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Malik Fitts, Jock Perry
The Gaels have been to just two of the last six NCAA tournaments, but this looks like a season where they are going to get back. Jordan Ford is going to be this year’s mid-major star to know, while Malik Fitts is the kind of athletic and versatile small-ball four that will allow SMC to matchup with power conference programs. Throw in the return of Tommy Kuhse and Tanner Krebs as well as the addition of 7-foot-3 center Aaron Menzies, Randy Bennett has himself a squad.
WHO’S GONE: Ryan Welage, Zach Hankins, Kyle Castlin, Elias Harden
WHO’S BACK: Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, Tyrique Jones
WHO’S COMING IN: Kyky Tandy, Dahmir Bishop, Zach Freemantle, Jason Carter, Daniel Ramsey, Dieonte Miles
PROJECTED STARTERS: Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, Jason Carter, Tyrique Jones
The Musketeers are better than people realize. After a strong finish to last season, Travis Steele returns four starters, including potential breakout star Naji Marshall. Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs and Tyrique Jones are all back as well, and with the arrival of recruiting class that includes five four-star players and a pair of immediately eligible transfers, Xavier has the look of a team that is going to make a run at the top of the Big East.
WHO’S GONE: Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, Kavell-Bigby Williams
WHO’S BACK: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams, Marlon Taylor, Darius Days
LSU looked like they could be one of the worst teams in the SEC heading into this year. Then the school decided not to fire Will Wade. Then Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams and Marlon Taylor all decided to return to schol. Then Trendon Watford committed. Wade has done more with less. The x-factor is going to be when the NCAA drops their Notice of Allegations.
WHO’S GONE: King McClure, Makai Mason, Jake Lindsey
WHO’S BACK: Tristan Clark, Jared Butler, Devonte Bandoo, Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie, Matthew Mayer
WHO’S COMING IN: Jordan Turner, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell
PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, Mark Vital, MaCio Teague, Tristan Clark
I’ll be honest: I think I might actually have Baylor too low here. The Bears finished in the top half of the Big 12 last season despite missing Tristan Clark for all of league play. Now he’s back, as is the majority of their key pieces: Mark Vital, Devonte Bandoo. Throw in Davion Mitchell and Macio Teague, a pair of talented transfers, and freshman Jordan Turner, and Scott Drew might have his deepest team in Waco. He finds a way to get it done with guys that don’t really matter. It’s going to be interesting to see what he can do now that he has a roster that’s good enough to give the Bears some level of expectation.
WHO’S GONE: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Mike Parks Jr., Raynere Thornton, Kareem Brewton, Antwann Jones Jr.
WHO’S BACK: Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Isaiah Maurice
Losing Chuma Okeke early to the draft hurts, but that was expect. Losing Jared Harper? That hurt more. The good news is J’Von McCormick showed flashes of being ready to take over for Harper, and it looks like Isaac Okoro is going to be able to do some of the things that made Okeke so good for Auburn. There are going to be some growing pains, but there is enough talent here for the Tigers to be relevant in the SEC.
WHO’S GONE: Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone, Grant Williams, Derrick Walker Jr, D.J. Burns
WHO’S BACK: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson, Jalen Johnson
PROJECTED STARTERS: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Josiah James, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson
Missing out on Kerry Blackshear really hurt, because the Vols have everything other than a big man. Lamonte Turner should be able to make Tennessee fans forget Jordan Bone left early. Josiah James should have an immediate and significant impact as a freshman. There’s a lot to like about Jordan Bowden, too. But not having that rock to anchor the offense, a guy to fill the Grant Williams role, is why Tennessee is at the back end of the top 25.
WHO’S GONE: Michael Gilmore
WHO’S BACK: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva, Vince Williams, Mike’L Simms, P.J. Byrd, Malik Crawford
PROJECTED STARTERS: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Vince Williams, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva
The Rams being essentially everyone back from a 25-win team that went 16-2 in the Atlantic 10 last season, finished the year ranked seventh in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and adds an impressive recruiting class. Perhaps most important – Marcus Evans has had a full offseason to get himself healthy. Look out for the Rams.
25. OHIO STATE
WHO’S GONE: C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods
WHO’S BACK: Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington, Kyle Young, Justin Aherns, Musa Jallow, Jaedon LeDee
WHO’S COMING IN: D.J. Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, EJ Liddel, Ibrahima Diallo, CJ Walker
PROJECTED STARTERS: C.J. Walker, Duane Washington Jr., Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson
I might be too low on the Buckeyes. Kaleb Wesson returns to school, and he will be joined by Luther Muhammad and Andre Wesson in the frontcourt. There is a lot to like about some of the young talent on OSU’s roster – particularly freshman point guard D.J. Carton – and as always, Chris Holtmann is as good as any coach in the country.
FIVE TEAMS THAT JUST MISSED
WHO’S GONE: Nathan Ekwu, Dusan Kovacevic
WHO’S BACK: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luka Brajkovic, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Carter Collins, David Czerapowicz, Bates Jones
WHO’S COMING IN: Hyunjung Lee, David Kristensen
PROJECTED STARTERS: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Luka Brajkovic
WHO’S GONE: Sam Froling, Kaleb Joseph, Connor Cashaw
WHO’S BACK: Davion Mintz, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson, Damien Jefferson, Marcus Zegarowski
WHO’S COMING IN: Shereef Mitchell
PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mintz, Marcus Zegarowski, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson
WHO’S GONE: Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, Dominic Green
WHO’S BACK: Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Sam Timmins, Jamal Bey
That’s why having the best guards in the country makes you such a good basketball team.
And that’s what makes this list of college basketball’s best backcourts so important.
These are the teams that are positioned to make a run in March.
1. KENTUCKY (Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, Kahlil Whitney, Johnny Juzang)
It’s hard to top a perimeter group that boasts four five-star prospects and multiple McDonald’s All-Americans, but it’s become practically the norm at Kentucky.
Ashton Hagans proved himself capable of running an offense and being a lockdown defender last season. The sophomore is hoping to expand his offensive game this season as perimeter shooting will be something to monitor. Tyrese Maxey is one of the most college-ready scorers in the freshman class as he’s also capable of playing with the ball in his hands.
The duo of Hagans and Maxey could also compliment each other nicely with Hagans as a lockdown guy and Maxey focused on bucket-getting. There might not be a better third guard in the country than former McDonald’s All-American Immanuel Quickley as he can help on both ends of the floor. Freshman Kahlil Whitney could get heavy minutes on the wing as he’s a run-and-jump athlete with more skill than advertised.
Having the Preseason Player of the Year in college basketball certainly helps the Spartans this season as Cassius Winston is the sport’s top returning player this season. With Winston maintaining his responsibilities at point guard, Michigan State is a big favorite to win the Big Ten as they try to capture a national title.
Although injured, Joshua Langford is a potent scorer and solid defender when he’s in the lineup. Langford’s health could ultimately be the key to unlocking the Spartans’ ceiling this season. Aaron Henry has a chance to make major strides as a sophomore as he showed plenty of promise late in the season. The addition of freshman Rocket Watts should give a nice boost to the Michigan State second unit as he could be looked upon to help score while the starters get rest.
3. FLORIDA (Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Tre Mann, Scottie Lewis)
Expectations are high at Florida this season as a young-but-talented perimeter group could ultimately determine the Gators’ ceiling. The return of point guard Andrew Nembhard and shooter Noah Locke was big for Florida as both players produced solid freshman campaigns. Nembhard will be asked to do even more this season as one of the team’s few returning rotation players. Locke needs to be more consistent after a sluggish end to the season but he’s a capable shooter who limits turnovers.
The Gators are very excited by the addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans in athletic wing Scottie Lewis and in-state scoring guard Tre Mann. Lewis fits perfectly with this Florida outfit because he doesn’t have to score a lot to be a major factor. Lewis has outstanding defensive upside and can also help handle the ball in a pinch if needed. Mann’s ability to put up points in bunches will greatly benefit the Gators as his role in this perimeter group will be fascinating to watch.
4. NORTH CAROLINA (Cole Anthony, Brandon Robinson, Leaky Black, Christian Keeling, Andrew Platek, Anthony Harris)
There will be some question marks in the North Carolina backcourt this season with the loss of talented players like Coby White, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson. Having freshman Cole Anthony should alleviate a lot of those Tar Heel perimeter concerns. Anthony has a chance to be the most productive freshman in college hoops this season with his Westbrook-like impact on the game. Capable of the triple-double on any night, Anthony has to push North Carolina’s offense if the Tar Heels want to be great.
Senior Brandon Robinson and grad transfer Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern) should help provide floor spacing for Anthony. North Carolina fans have patiently waited for sophomore Leaky Black to unleash his vast potential. If Black figures out how to play with more aggression then he has the talent to be an impact ACC player. Freshman Anthony Harris could earn rotation minutes if he’s healthy enough following a torn ACL last December.
5. DUKE (Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Wendell Moore, Cassius Stanley, Jordan Goldwire)
The return of Tre Jones at point guard was gigantic for the Blue Devils as the sophomore has a chance to be one of the nation’s top players. A standout running the offense and defending on the perimeter, Jones has to improve an inconsistent perimeter jumper that became a liability at times last season. Even if Jones isn’t knocking down shots, he still makes everyone around him better and he’ll be the unquestioned leader of Duke’s defense.
Junior Alex O’Connell has carved out a role the past two seasons as a shooter off the bench as the Blue Devils hope he can become more well-rounded as an upperclassman. Two stud freshmen enter the mix as well in Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley. Moore is a winning player capable of contributing in multiple ways. The freshman doesn’t need to score to make an impact. Stanley is a big-time athlete who can slash and flourish in the open floor. Perimeter shooting as a whole is going to be the major storyline to follow with this Duke backcourt.
6. KANSAS (Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett, Isaiah Moss)
Plenty of talented perimeter pieces return to Kansas as the Jayhawks should have more stability there than a year ago. Devon Dotson pulling his name out of the NBA Draft and returning for his sophomore season was huge for Kansas. The downhill guard can create offense in an instant and he’s one of the toughest guards to slow down in the country.
After burning his redshirt in the middle of last season, Ochai Agbaji made a major splash as he was starting and contributing by the end of the year. Agbaji has big upside and seeing what he can do during a full season should be fun to watch. Junior Marcus Garrett returns as a lockdown defender and solid rotation piece. Grad transfer Isaiah Moss comes from Iowa ready to produce as an off-ball scorer as he gives the Jayhawks a perimeter threat that they needed for this roster.
Following last season’s Round of 32 run, the Terps return their entire perimeter group after only losing big man Bruno Fernando this offseason. Anthony Cowan would receive far more attention at lead guard if he wasn’t in the same league as Cassius Winston as the senior is the team’s leading scorer and distributor. If Cowan can become a little more consistent then he could push for All-American honors.
It helps Maryland that Cowan has plenty of weapons around him as sophomores Eric Ayala, Darryl Morsell, Aaron Wiggins and Serrel Smith all return. All three produced as freshmen last season. Wiggins, the team’s sixth man last season, could make a major leap with more minutes while Ayala and Morsell are established starters who fit nicely with Cowan. Smith gives Maryland a wealth of perimeter options as he would play more minutes on most teams.
8. OREGON (Payton Pritchard, Will Richardson, Anthony Mathis, Chris Duarte)
Not many backcourts in college hoops have a Final Four participant as the Ducks are led by veteran floor general Payton Pritchard. Helping Oregon reach multiple Sweet 16s the past three years, Pritchard is tough as nails and makes plays all over the floor. Pritchard will have weapons around him this season. Transferring in from New Mexico, senior shooter Anthony Mathis is reunited with Pritchard, his former high school teammate. Sophomore Will Richardson will both be asked to score more this season after being role player a year ago. The wild card in the group could be highly-touted JUCO guard Chris Duarte who some considered the best JUCO prospect in the country. As long as Pritchard gets scoring help from one of his four perimeter options, the Ducks should be fine.
9. SETON HALL (Myles Powell, Quincy McKnight, Myles Cale, Anthony Nelson, Shavar Reynolds Jr.)
A veteran backcourt with a potential All-American in Myles Powell, Seton Hall has a lot to look forward to from its perimeter. Powell is one of America’s premier players as he’ll have a chance to earn All-American honors if he plays like he did last season. Although Powell is a rugged scorer and solid two-way player, if he limits turnovers then he’ll be even tougher to stop. McKnight isn’t reliable as a perimeter shooter but the senior fills in a lot of gaps for the group as he can attack the basket, handle the ball and really defend. Junior Myles Cale adds an additional scoring punch that prevents defenses from overloading too much on Powell. Depth is a question mark for this group, although reserves like Anthony Nelson and Shavar Reynolds Jr. have been solid in limited minutes.
The Wildcats are hoping for a return to the national spotlight this season thanks to the addition of two McDonald’s All-American guards in Nico Mannion and Josh Green. Both freshmen should receive big minutes right away. Mannion is a competitor on both ends who should be able to run Arizona’s offense while also providing some scoring pop on his own. Green is a smooth wing athlete who can slash and attack the basket. If Green can improve his shaky perimeter jumper than he’ll be tough to defend. Veterans Dylan Smith and Devonaire Doutrive both return and will be counted on to help Arizona’s perimeter defense. The addition of UC Irvine grad transfer Max Hazzard should help as the senior was a big reason why the Anteaters made a splash in the NCAA tournament.
This group’s ranking gets a boost thanks to the return of Markus Howard for his senior season. One of the most dynamic scorers in the country, Howard is one of the only players in college hoops capable of going for 50-plus points on any night. Howard should have help this season in the form of senior Sacar Anim and Utah State transfer Koby McEwen. Anim has earned steady minutes in the Marquette rotation while McEwen is a former all-conference selection in the Mountain West who should alleviate some of the scoring burden placed on Howard. Sophomore Greg Elliott is a bit of a forgotten man in this group after redshirting last season with a thumb injury but he could give a nice addition to the unit — particularly on defense.
12. DAVIDSON (Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Kellan Grady, Luke Frampton, Carter Collins)
Not many backcourt units boast two all-league players returning in the same unit. With Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson and first-team all-conference selection Kellan Grady back in the fold, Davidson has one of the most dangerous backcourts in the country. Gudmundsson is one of America’s most underrated floor leaders. The senior is a do-it-all guard capable of pushing for a triple-double any game. Grady (17.3 ppg) is the lethal scorer and former highly-touted prospect among the group as the junior can get rolling. And Luke Frampton made the most three-pointers in the A-10 last season as he rounds out a very tough trio of starters.
The Big East has more perimeter star power on teams like Seton Hall and Marquette but you could make a solid argument that Providence has the deepest unit in the league. Diallo’s return to school gave the Friars a ton of hope this season as the second-team All-Big East selection is the productive leader of this group. From there, the Friars could get a leap from sophomores A.J. Reeves and David Duke as both former top-100 prospects nearly averaged double-figures last season. Point guard play will be the group’s biggest question but Providence was wise to add UMass grad transfer Luwane Pipkins and his scoring prowess to the lineup this offseason. If Pipkins struggles to consistently run the offense then senior Mallek White is one of the Big East’s better reserve guards.
Losing Tremont Waters will certainly hurt. The good news for LSU is that Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays and Marlon Taylor all pulled their name out of the NBA Draft and returned to school. Playing more off the ball last season with Waters at point, Smart will get a chance to be the primary playmaker as a sophomore. While Smart’s perimeter shooting remains a question mark, he is undoubtedly strong when it comes to attacking the rim and making plays. Mays didn’t shoot particularly well from the perimeter last season but still produced a great season. The senior is an All-SEC caliber player who isn’t afraid to step up in big moments. Taylor didn’t get heavy minutes last season but he’s a mega athlete capable of playing above the rim and helping defensively. LSU’s perimeter doesn’t have a lot of depth but Southeastern Louisiana transfer Parker Edwards could carve out a useful role as a perimeter shooter.
15. CREIGHTON (Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Marcus Zegarowski, Davion Mintz)
The Bluejays have plenty of perimeter pieces to rely on this season thanks to the return of numerous veterans. Davion Mintz is a three-year starter capable of playing multiple guard spots but he’s at his best setting up the numerous weapons he has around him. Ty-Shon Alexander and Mitchell Ballock are two junior bombers who can really knock down perimeter shots. Alexander is the more well-rounded scorer while Ballock might be more capable of a one-night explosion as evidenced by his NCAA-record 11 threes against DePaul last season. Marcus Zegarowski is the intriguing sophomore of the group as he joined the starting lineup midway through last season and made a major impact scoring and distributing.