Outstanding guard play is a must-have for any team hoping to win a national championship this season, and there is no question the No. 1 Michigan Wolverines have one of the most formidable backcourts in all of college basketball.
Sophomore point guard Trey Burke has been the biggest beneficiary of Michigan's talented freshman class and is looking more and more like six-time NBA All-Star Chris Paul with each game the Wolverines play.
Meanwhile, junior shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is knocking down shots from just about every spot on the floor and is playing with more confidence than ever before.
Newcomers Nik Stauskas and Spike Albrecht have also made significant contributions in their first year with the Wolverines, which has allowed Michigan to keep its top scorers fresh without any fear of a drop off in production on the floor.
Where do the Maize and Blue's talented guards rank among the nation's best backcourts though?
In order to come up with a final verdict, let's take a look at Michigan's case to be named the best backcourt in the country and break down some other notable combinations of point guards and shooting guards in college basketball.
Michigan's Case for No. 1
The focal point of Michigan's offense is none other than Wooden Award candidate Trey Burke, who is on pace to be the first Big Ten Conference player since Ervin "Magic" Johnson to average at least 17 points and seven assists per game.
After essentially putting the Wolverines on his back at the end of last season, which consequently wore Burke down by the time Michigan reached the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, the Columbus, Ohio native has been able to change his role frequently throughout the 2012-13 campaign.
In victories over the N.C. State Wolfpack and West Virginia Mountaineers, Burke turned in two of his best performances this season, despite taking completely different approaches to those contests.
Against N.C. State, Burke missed his two field goal attempts in the first half, but dished out eight assists to help the Wolverines race out to a 37-29 lead.
Burke came out firing in the second half though, and knocked down five-of-seven shots from the field en route to a double-double with 18 points and 11 assists.
Less than a month later, the 6'0", 190-pounder dropped 17 points on West Virginia in the opening 20 minutes of action. Burke wound up knocking down 12-of-16 attempts to finish with 27 points and eight assists.
Oh, and did I mention Burke takes care of the rock better than just about anyone at the Division I level? Only Larry Drew II of the UCLA Bruins has a better assist-turnover ratio than Burke's 3.74 mark.
Burke has no trouble getting separation from defenders and creating open looks, but he always makes sure to get the rest of the Wolverines involved once opposing teams begin to key on him.
One of Burke's most reliable teammates this season has been fellow backcourt member Tim Hardaway Jr.
The Miami, Fla. native is on pace to finish with career highs in scoring (15.9 points per game), field-goal percentage (49.1), rebounds (5.2) and assists (2.5). Additionally, Hardaway has made significant improvements to his long-range jump shot and is currently shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Hardaway got into a bit of a funk earlier this season and only shot above 40 percent from the field twice during a stretch of eight games from Nov. 27 through Dec. 20.
Since then, Hardaway has been lights out for the Wolverines. The 6'6", 205-pounder has converted more than 53 percent of his attempts in five of Michigan's seven Big Ten games thus far, and he hasn't been held under 12 points in league play.
Hardaway's most impressive performance of the season came in a pivotal road tilt with the then-No. 9 Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Despite coming off of poor outings against the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Ohio State Buckeyes, Hardaway came out firing against Minnesota and scored 15 of Michigan's first 21 points.
The only other buckets during that 10-minute span were assisted by Hardaway, who finished with 21 points on seven-of-eight shooting.
The savvy veteran is nearly impossible to stop once he gets going, because Hardaway can elevate over just about anyone guarding him. If his jumpers are not falling, he will take his opponent to the basket with relative ease.
Nik Stauskas earned a spot in the starting five after hanging 20 points on N.C. State, and the sharp-shooting Canadian has only failed to reach double digits in scoring once this season.
Although teams are not giving Stauskas too many good looks at three-pointers, the Mississauga, Ont. product is still shooting 49 percent from distance, and more than half of his shots in Michigan's last two games have been from inside the arc rather than beyond it.
Stauskas is the Wolverines' third-leading scorer (12.7 points per game) and will battle his teammate and fellow true freshman Glenn Robinson III for Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors for the remainder of the season.
Reserve point guard Spike Albrecht and shooting guard Caris LeVert have also been reliable options off of the bench for head coach John Beilein. The two have combined to average 4.8 points per contest in 19.3 minutes.
Assessing the Competition
One of the requirements to even be included in the conversation as one of the best backcourts in the country is depth, which will eliminate some of the most talented individual guards right off of the bat.
For example, Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson are one of the most formidable guard duos in the Pac-12 Conference, but most of the Arizona Wildcats' offense flows through their frontcourt personnel.
Another group of guards similar to Arizona's are Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams from the Syracuse Orange. The former leads the Orange in scoring with 14.9 points per game, while the latter is No. 1 in the country in assists per contest (8.9).
Both are dynamic guards, but there is not a whole lot of depth in the backcourt since Syracuse likes to attack the interior with forwards like James Southerland and C.J. Fair.
Other teams with talented backcourts that are on the fringe of being in the mix with the Wolverines are the Florida Gators, Indiana Hoosiers and Miami Hurricanes.
There are three groups of guards standing out with Michigan through the first three months of the 2012-13 season.
Firstly, the Oklahoma State Cowboys boast two of the nation's top freshmen in point guard Marcus Smart and shooting guard Phil Forte. The duo is joined by junior Markel Brown, who leads the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game.
Smart is a physical guard that can also shift over and play the two rather than playing an entire game at the point. The 6'4", 225-pounder has not been anywhere near as consistent as Burke, but Smart notched 20-plus points in Oklahoma State's three games against ranked opponents.
Brown's 14.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game are comparable to Hardaway's production, while Forte has been far less consistent than Stauskas.
Next in line are the Kansas Jayhawks. Freshman shooting guard Ben McLemore is one of the top players in the nation right now. He is making 45 percent of his three-point attempts and is shooting 51 percent overall.
McLemore has only been held under 10 points twice, and, like Hardaway, he makes his presence known on the glass by snagging 5.5 rebounds per contest.
Senior point guard Elijah Johnson is a decent distributor and a sporadic scorer, and senior shooting guard Travis Releford has been as consistent as Hardaway and Stauskas.
The Jayhawks, however, do have an advantage when it comes to reserves. Sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe has outscored Michigan's reserves on his own (5.3 points per game) and is averaging 2.5 assists in nearly 18 minutes of action.
Finally, the Louisville Cardinals may be going through a rough patch in the season right now, but their guards are still just as good as any you will find in college basketball.
Junior shooting guard Russ Smith is among the nation's leading scorers (18.4 points per game) and has recorded nine games of 20 or more points this season, including a 31-point effort on Dec. 8.
Senior point guard Peyton Siva has dished out 10 or more assists four times already. When he's knocking down shots, the Cardinals are tough to beat. Fortunately, opponents have not had to worry much about Siva during Louisville's current three-game skid.
Rounding out Louisville's trio of dynamic guards is sophomore Wayne Blackshear, who is scoring 9.2 points and snagging 3.9 rebounds per contest.
Who has the best backcourt in college basketball?
Since winning is what ultimately defines teams come March, Oklahoma State's struggles against ranked opponents in Big 12 Conference play and Louisville's last three losses, which were a result of poor guard play, eliminate them from this conversation.
This leaves Kansas and Michigan jostling for the title of college basketball's best backcourt. It is no coincidence these two teams are also the top two teams in this week's Associated Press poll.
Burke holds an advantage over Johnson, McLemore holds a slight edge over Hardaway, Stauskas and Releford are practically even and Kansas has the better reserve.
This one is really too close to call, but the Wolverines get the nod as the top backcourt in the country since Burke has nearly doubled Johnson's production at the point.
Note: Only point guards and shooting guards are being compared against one another. Small forwards are not included.
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