Grading Every Top 25 College Basketball Team's Backcourt in 2013-14

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2014

Grading Every Top 25 College Basketball Team's Backcourt in 2013-14

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    Peter Aiken/Getty Images

    It's frequently said every March: Guard play wins championships.

    If that's the case, then there are a lot of teams equipped to make a run at the big trophy in Dallas. Great work from the backcourt is one characteristic that many of the Associated Press Top 25 teams share.

    After all, February is the month where a clear picture of a team's worth begins to crystallize. It's hard to reach this level at this time of the year without getting great plays from your shooters and ball-handlers.

    It's time to break out the red pen and post some grades for each of the Top 25 teams' guard groups. Don't expect too many hatchet jobs, because many of these schools have great guards driving the bus.

     

    Stats and rankings accurate through games of Feb. 19. All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.

25. Gonzaga

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    While Kevin Pangos (pictured) has continued his expected All-West Coast Conference standard of play, the rest of Gonzaga's backcourt has endured some flux. Shooting guard Gary Bell Jr.'s four-week hiatus due to a broken hand forced the reserves to stand up and produce.

    Backups Kyle Dranginis, Drew Barham and Gerard Coleman combined for 27.5 points per game in Bell's six-game absence, an increase of nearly eight points per game over their season average. Dranginis' versatile all-around game has been invaluable, as he stands third on the team in rebounds, assists and steals.

    The three each bring an essential skill to the court—Dranginis' defensive skills, Barham's top-flight shooting touch and Coleman's ability to attack the basket. A fully healthy Bell combines all three attributes in one body, although his scoring touch hasn't been tremendously consistent since his return.

    Coleman's minutes wax and wane depending on whether coach Mark Few needs an extra offensive spark, but the Providence transfer is averaging 6.7 points in 12.2 minutes per game on the season. That computes to 22 points per 40 minutes. Coleman put in 12 points in the Zags' loss to Memphis, while Bell, Barham and Dranginis combined for only three.

    Point guard David Stockton has been a steady hand on the rudder all season, freeing Pangos to move without the ball and look for his shot. That's not to say he's afraid to go get his own baskets, though. Stockton's 18 points were key to keeping Pepperdine at bay on Feb. 13.

    Gonzaga's backcourt was expected to be the engine that drove the bus this season. There's plenty of talent, but the Bulldogs don't always get the production they need from all hands.

    Grade: B

24. Ohio State

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    ROBIN SCHOLZ/Associated Press

    Ohio State has struggled to score all over the court, and its guards are no exception.

    The most effective scoring guard on the roster has been senior Lenzelle Smith Jr., and even he took a while to really get on track. Smith averaged only 8.4 points per game in his first five Big Ten games, making only two of his 19 three-point attempts (10.5 percent) in that span.

    In the nine games since, his averages have risen to 11.3 points per game and 38.3 percent from the arc. That form will be essential to OSU's success in March.

    Where the Buckeyes have truly excelled is on defense, and twin terrors Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott are the head of that spear. The two are both among the national top 15 in steal percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy. Even more impressive is that they force so many turnovers while committing only six fouls per 40 minutes.

    Craft has been dangerous when he's attacked the rim and drawn fouls. He's attempted six free throws for every 10 field goals, and his 74 percent accuracy is essential on a team filled with struggling foul shooters. He understands his shooting limitations but has sometimes tried to do too much as a ball-handler. Craft averaged 4.8 turnovers per game during OSU's four-game January losing streak.

    Scott has struggled to finish at the rim recently, as I discussed here, but he's learning not to exacerbate the problem by chucking up silly three-pointers. Like Craft, he was a major disappointment during the four-game skid, committing a whopping 17 fouls and 12 turnovers in that span.

    Reserve shooter Amedeo Della Valle has knocked down 40 percent from the arc and 4 percent of his two-point shots in Big Ten play. He's been an occasional threat when he gets the minutes, scoring 15 points against Nebraska and 11 against Wisconsin.

    Coach Thad Matta has recently shown himself willing to take points wherever he can find them, so look for Della Valle to have at least one more double-digit scoring game in him.

    Grade: B-

23. UCLA

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    Associated Press

    Five of UCLA's top six players by percentage of minutes played are guards. Needless to say, as the backcourt goes, so go the Bruins.

    Four of the five stand at least 6'4", giving UCLA one of the biggest rosters in the country. Sophomore Kyle Anderson (pictured) has proven especially difficult for opponents, mixing a 6'9" frame with superb passing skills. Anderson is the only major-conference player in his league's top five in rebounds, assists and steals.

    Anderson's offensive versatility helps make the Bruins attack one of the most efficient in America, helping to offset his defensive inadequacies. B/R NBA draft expert Jonathan Wasserman examined Anderson's future professional prospects here.

    Getting on the other end of those Anderson passes allows sophomore Jordan Adams and freshman Zach LaVine to find plenty of good shots. Oregon State is the only Pac-12 opponent who's held Adams to single-digit scoring. He ranks seventh in the conference at 17.5 points per game while recording a solid 59.8 true shooting percentage, per Pomeroy.

    LaVine has hit the skids after averaging 13.0 points per game in his first six Pac-12 games. He's averaged 5.0 since then on 22.5 percent shooting. He needs to find his rhythm again as insurance for those nights when Adams is off of his.

    Wing Norman Powell is a terror at the rim, flushing 69.9 percent of his close-range shots, per Hoop-Math. He's also become one of the Bruins' more dangerous finishers in another sense, posting 14 second-half points to help UCLA win at Oregon and carding 10 in three-plus minutes to pull away from USC.

    Reserve point guard Bryce Alford has had a decent freshman campaign, including three straight double-figure-scoring games against USC, Arizona and Arizona State. Thanks to his last name, however, he catches a lot of grief from UCLA fans concerned that recruiting suffers thanks to the coach's kid being a major rotation player.

    The Bruins have a talented bunch of guards who score enough to make up for their defensive issues. UCLA can force turnovers with the best defenses in America, but sure-handed guards surrounded by complementary scorers can give them fits. Lots of brackets will be wrecked by the Bruins, who could either contend for the Elite Eight or crash out in their first game.

    Grade: B+

22. Memphis

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    Associated Press

    Memphis came into the season expected to boast one of the nation's dominant backcourts. While its quartet hasn't exactly crushed all opposition, it has kept the Tigers on the low end of the Top 25 all season.

    There's a little bit of everything in this group of seniors. Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson are dangerous at attacking the paint, combining for 122 baskets at the rim, per Hoop-Math. Michael Dixon (36.8 percent from three) and Chris Crawford (40.3) provide the outside threat.

    Jackson and Dixon both convert better than 80 percent of their free throws, making them ideal late-game ball-handlers.

    Finally, all four rank in Pomeroy's top 375 nationally in steal percentage. Out of nearly 5,000 players, that's more than respectable.

    All four do have their glaring flaws, though. Dixon frequently struggles with foul trouble thanks to his defensive aggression. Shot selection can get Jackson in trouble, but he's greatly improved from his first couple of years. Johnson leads the team in turnovers, and Crawford's been shaky at the foul line this season, especially for such a solid three-point shooter.

    Five of the Tigers' six losses have come to tournament-quality opposition, and the sixth was to a full-strength Oklahoma State team that could still slide safely into the bracket. The Memphis guards have both talent and experience in spades, and they're dying to reverse the school's trend of brief NCAA tournament cameos.

    Grade: A-

21. UConn

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    Associated Press

    As distinguished as Shabazz Napier's career has been, there's still room for him to do things he's never done before—like scoring 34 points in a game, for example.

    Napier keeps upping the ante on his heroics as the games get bigger and bigger, with his latest masterstroke taking the form of a 34-point game in an overtime win against Memphis. The senior guard ranks third or better in the American Athletic Conference in scoring, assists and steals while also leading his team in rebounding. No National Player of the Year conversation is complete without his name.

    Sidekick Ryan Boatright didn't hang point for point with Napier against Memphis, but his 21 points, six assists and 11-of-12 shooting at the line were just as key to the victory.

    Boatright attacks the rim a bit more frequently than Napier but isn't quite his teammate's equal in getting to the line or converting when he's there. Still, he's a potent enough threat that UConn should be in good hands when he's running the offense next season.

    Grad transfer Lasan Kromah is the best of the bunch at attacking the tin, as should be expected from a 6'6" swingman as compared to a pair of barely 6'0" guards. Kromah's provided strong support against tough opposition, with the likely highlight being his 13-point effort in a loss to Cincinnati.

    The Bearcats harassed Napier all night, allowing him only 5-of-19 shooting, but Kromah produced a respectable 6-of-11 effort against the rugged UC defense.

    This unit's major demerit is one that's partially beyond the team's control, as sophomore Omar Calhoun has struggled with injuries and poor form after a hot start to the year. Outside of these four, there's precious little depth.

    Grade: A-

20. Michigan

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    Associated Press

    Most backcourts struggle in the year after two NBA first-round draft picks depart, unless they're a Kentucky or Kansas that can order up multiple McDonald's All-Americans like so many McNuggets. Michigan doesn't fall into that category, but the Wolverines are still in good shape without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.

    Most of the time, anyway.

    Sophomore Nik Stauskas is playing at an All-Big Ten level, averaging 16.7 points per game with a superb 65.2 percent true shooting percentage, good for 25th nationally, according to Pomeroy. In his first eight Big Ten games, he was polishing his case for conference player of the year, averaging 18.6 per game.

    Stauskas has struggled over the last five (10.2 PPG), but even when he's not scoring, he can find other ways to impact the game, such as eight assists against Nebraska.

    When Stauskas isn't feeling it, classmate Caris LeVert can take over. He's averaging 16.8 points per game during Stauskas' recent slump. The problem is that he can be too deferential, posting five single-digit Big Ten games. His three biggest scoring games came in Michigan losses, illustrating a reluctance to assert himself when the normal flow of the offense is rolling.

    Freshmen Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin have each had superb games in recent weeks, with the two being primary catalysts for last week's win over Ohio State. Both have also had ugly games, such as their very next outing against Wisconsin. The two combined for one basket on 13 shots against the tough Badgers defense. So, essentially, they're freshmen.

    Sophomore Spike Albrecht has lost minutes as Walton improves at point guard, but he's still the guy who struck hard in last season's national title game and put up a 10-point, four-assist game against top-ranked Arizona. He can't be ignored on the scouting report.

    The Wolverines need greater assertiveness from LeVert rather than waiting until the team needs to be rescued. Overall, the players do a great job of running coach John Beilein's intricate offense, but if they have an off shooting day, they're not all strong enough defenders to stifle their opponents the way Ohio State or Michigan State can.

    Grade: B

19. Texas

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    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    Myck who?

    If there's any team that embodies the term "addition by subtraction," it's Texas. Free from the NCAA eligibility drama surrounding former point guard Myck Kabongo and forging ahead with 3-star freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor, per 247Sports, the Longhorns have turned countless gloomy prognostications on their ears with a charge toward the top of the Big 12.

    Taylor has played solid basketball throughout his freshman season, but he truly announced himself to the world with 50 points in back-to-back wins at Baylor and against Kansas in Austin. He missed only one of 16 free throws in the two games, starting a recent string of 94 percent foul shooting (47-of-50) over his last seven games.

    Sophomore Demarcus Holland has impressed with his defensive ability and a willingness to attack the glass. He's produced two double-doubles this season, one against Oklahoma State, and also pulled down 11 rebounds in UT's win over Kansas. His shooting has often been shaky, but he did make nine of 13 from the floor against the always-tough defense of Stephen F. Austin back in November.

    Sophomore Javan Felix, along with a trio of freshmen, has tried to provide an outside shooting threat, with varying results. Felix nailed 10 of 14 from deep in wins over Oklahoma State and West Virginia but struggled through a 4-of-15 night at Iowa State. He is a trustworthy ball-handler, turning the ball over on only 12 percent of his possessions, according to KenPom.

    Taylor has announced himself as a potential Longhorns star in the mold of T.J. Ford, but he could use some more consistent shooting support.

    Grade: B

18. Kentucky

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    Associated Press

    Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison spelled it out after last week's home loss to Florida. The vast collection of talented Wildcats freshmen are facing the dual task of growing into a championship-caliber team and "trying to get a job," as he said to the The Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker.

    Reviews may be mixed on either front.

    At one time, Harrison, his twin brother Aaron and classmate James Young were all considered potential lottery picks. Now, Young clings to the final lottery spot (14th overall) in DraftExpress' Feb. 18 mock draft, while multiple mocks, including DX's and NBADraft.net's, no longer list the Harrisons in the 2014 draft at all.

    Andrew is struggling with his shot (39.2 percent from the field), has issues with his ball-handling (eight games of four or more turnovers) and has been overly aggressive on defense, committing four or more fouls in 10 games, including three disqualifications.

    He has been effective at drawing contact and converting his free throws but has a hard time finishing through contact (50.8 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math).

    Aaron Harrison has been occasionally brilliant but wildly inconsistent. He dropped 20 points in UK's loss to North Carolina but has 14 combined in two wins over Mississippi State. Only seven of his 30 shots fell in a string of February games against Mississippi State, Auburn and Florida, so he's not exactly peaking at the right time.

    Young carries a sniper's reputation, but he too has consistency problems. He followed up a combined 9-of-19 from three against LSU and Missouri with a 2-of-14 run in his next three outings. For the season, he's made only 33.7 percent from the arc.

    All the young Wildcats (Wildkittens?) have struggled with occasional growing pains, but the guards have had it worse than most. Their sheer size and physical abilities make them dangerous, but they could also lose the plot in their first NCAA tournament game and suffer a mind-blowing upset.

    Grade: B-

17. Iowa State

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    Associated Press

    Iowa State may as well have stitched its backcourt together from thin air. Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane has joined a pair of freshmen and a sophomore who was very rarely used last season to form a solid unit that nicely complements the Cyclones' talented frontcourt.

    Kane is playing at an All-American level. His shooting and rebounding percentages are better than they ever were at Marshall, and he's also posting a career-low turnover average. Overall, Kane sits in the Big 12's top 12 in scoring, rebounding, assists, field-goal percentage and steals, among a multitude of other categories.

    Baylor and Oklahoma State both bore witness to explosive all-around performances from Kane. The two teams surrendered a combined 56 points, 17 rebounds and 18 assists to Kane in their first meetings with ISU. Neither game was a double-double, but Kane has five of those on the season as well.

    Freshman Monte Morris has stepped in comfortably next to Kane. Morris ranks sixth in the Big 12 in steals and 10th in assists but perhaps most impressively has turned the ball over a mere 15 times in more than 26 minutes per game.

    Sophomore Naz Long is the team's top three-point threat at 37.4 percent. He's struggled in Big 12 play, however, making only 25 percent in ISU's 13 games. Long did drill a three-pointer that sent ISU's win over Oklahoma State into a third overtime, where Morris would clinch the win with a triple of his own. Freshman Matt Thomas is another supplemental shooter, knocking down nearly 35 percent from the arc.

    Kane is playing the kind of excellent all-around basketball that is drawing national-award buzz for Shabazz Napier, but he's doing it without a Ryan Boatright-caliber sidekick. That may make Kane's season more impressive, but overall, ISU's backcourt is very dependent on its veteran leader.

    Grade: B+

16. Wisconsin

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    Associated Press

    Wisconsin's backcourt is one of the least sexy in the Top 25, but it's also one of the smartest. Coach Bo Ryan frequently rolls with a pair of junior point guards, a major reason why the Badgers turn the ball over on less than 13 percent of their possessions, according to Pomeroy.

    Those two playmakers, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, haven't worried too much about scoring in Big Ten play. The pair averages 19.4 points per game in conference.

    Gasser is shooting only 33 percent inside the arc after shooting just over 50 percent on two-pointers in the nonconference slate. Part of that is his penchant for drawing fouls, and he is as automatic as the sunrise once he's at the line. He has also drained 44 percent of his threes on the season.

    Jackson's best scoring game (21 points) came in a loss to Indiana. The Badgers may be better when the junior can focus on being a distributor and save the baskets for crunch time, such as when he buried a cold-blooded pull-up with two seconds left to beat Michigan State.

    By shooting guard Ben Brust's lofty standards, he's struggled from the arc in Big Ten games, making only 33 percent. That hasn't stopped him from leading the team in scoring during conference play, thanks to 60 percent shooting on two-pointers and 89 percent from the foul line. It helps that Brust is tireless, averaging more than 35 minutes per game in the league.

    This is a very small bunch, which hinders the Badgers as a whole defensively. They can still get it done on that end, however. Just ask Michigan State star Gary Harris, who was badgered—pardon the pun—into a brutal 3-of-20 shooting night.

    Grade: B

15. Iowa

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    Associated Press

    Iowa's backcourt is not too different from in-state rival Iowa State's. Both feature a versatile all-around star augmented by a few solid supporting pieces, albeit more experienced ones in the Hawkeyes' case.

    Shooting guard Roy Devyn Marble is on the short list for Big Ten Player of the Year, averaging 16.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.9 steals per game. He currently stands seventh in the conference in scoring and fifth in steals.

    What holds Marble back is a tendency toward volume shooting. If the first few don't fall, the Hawkeyes offense is designed to keep feeding him until something works. Marble made 36 of 87 shots (41.3 percent) in his four biggest scoring games of the year.

    Point guard Mike Gesell is finding a groove late in his sophomore year. He's carded 39 points and 18 assists in his last three games, making seven of 11 from long range in that span. Gesell's assist-to-turnover ratio stands at a sparkling 3.3, and he's given the ball away multiple times in only seven games all season.

    Backup point guard Anthony Clemmons has seen his playing time dwindle in recent weeks. He can be an underrated scorer, but he's much more turnover-prone than Gesell. Clemmons has only five fewer turnovers than Gesell in 249 fewer minutes.

    Junior Josh Oglesby got back from injury just in time for the Big Ten schedule, and he's contributed 43 percent shooting from the arc. He's only attempted six free throws all season, but he made two key ones in the waning minutes against Penn State.

    The Hawkeyes rely a great deal on Marble, and they don't have another guard on the roster capable of taking over a game. Gesell's gaining confidence in his shot almost by the game, but he's smart enough to keep his focus on running the offense first.

    Grade: B

14. Virginia

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    Associated Press

    So, a team that scored only 38 points against Wisconsin and lost by 35 to Tennessee has surged into the Top 15. Yes, college basketball can be a weird game sometimes.

    Virginia senior Joe Harris was garnering All-ACC buzz in the preseason, if not All-American acclaim, but he's been a complementary piece for most of the year. Harris averages 12.1 points per game in ACC play, draining 45 percent from three-point land.

    The man who's taken over the primary load is redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon's production was up-and-down during the nonconference slate, but he's taken over in ACC games. He's pouring in 14.9 points per game, and no conference opponent has held him to single digits. In addition, Brogdon's pulling nearly six rebounds per game in league action.

    The Cavaliers backcourt is one of the biggest in the Top 25, with the 6'6" Harris and 6'5" Brogdon joined by 6'6" sophomore Justin Anderson. Anderson's recent scoring has tailed off after a strong start to conference play, but he's a key piece of Virginia's famed pack-line defense. Anderson made the highlight reels with a vicious block on Maryland's Roddy Peters that preserved a lead and led to a UVa victory.

    The smallest man in the backcourt plays a huge role. Freshman point guard London Perrantes (6'2", 189 lbs) has started every conference game. Even going against solid ACC defenses, the rookie has dished nearly five assists for every turnover. In a late January game against Notre Dame, Perrantes was the subject of effusive praise from no less an authority than Hall of Fame coach/ESPN analyst Bob Knight.

    Perhaps the greatest strength of the Virginia backcourt is that all four players are fully committed to coach Tony Bennett's system, which isn't exactly conducive to individual stat-crunching. Everyone has a role and plays it well, although it's still uncertain if any of the guards can take over a tournament game if needed.

    Grade: B+

13. Michigan State

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    Associated Press

    Michigan State's guards have more than enough skill to lead a Final Four trip, but their bodies are betraying them. Injuries have hampered nearly every key Spartans contributor at some point this season.

    Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Travis Trice have missed a combined eight games so far, with Appling in particular playing through pain in several others. Only sophomore Denzel Valentine has appeared all 26 times Sparty has taken the court.

    When Harris and Appling are on and healthy, they're one of the top guard duos in the nation. The two average a combined 31.8 points per game on the season, making them the second-highest scoring duo in the Big Ten behind Penn State's Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill.

    Appling is shooting less than he did last season and making more, a very welcome change for fans and analysts who watched him shoot the Spartans out of multiple games last year.

    Harris is a future pro not just for his scoring ability, but for his skills on the defensive end too. He's averaging 2.5 steals per game in Big Ten action, allowing him to impact a game even when the shots aren't falling. And recently, they haven't been, as Harris is only shooting 32.6 percent over his last six games.

    Valentine embodies the term "combo guard," stuffing all the columns of the stat sheet even when he's not scoring. Even that has improved recently, as Valentine has six double-figure-scoring games—and a pair of double-doubles—in his last nine. He's in the Big Ten's top 10 in both rebounds and assists.

    Trice has knocked in 45 percent of his three-pointers in his last eight games, shooting form that will be essential in March if Harris and Appling can't find theirs.

    Spartan haters are tired of the constant caveats about "when they get healthy." These are, however, proven talents being neutralized by circumstances beyond their control. If this season doesn't end in the Final Four, the sighs of "what might have been" from East Lansing will be audible nationwide.

    Grade: A-

T11. Creighton

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    Associated Press

    Creighton's guards don't score in bunches, but when sharing a court with Doug McDermott, they don't need to. The diminutive Bluejays backcourt has a couple of solid shooters, but the players largely focus on CU's substantially improved defense.

    The Jays rank 72nd in Pomeroy's defensive efficiency rankings, a great jump from 190th two seasons ago. Shooting guard Jahenns Manigat told the Omaha World-Herald's Steve Pivovar, "I think you can see the individual and the collective improvement. We're never going to be the best one-on-one stoppers, but individually we've gotten better every single year."

    Manigat, for his part, is the only man on the team pulling more than one steal per game. Offensively, he's among the top 15 nationwide in effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage—not bad for a guy who only gets about five shots per game.

    Point guard Austin Chatman stands third in the Big East at 4.3 assists per game. When he goes for his own points, he's most dangerous from the foul line. Chatman draws nearly one foul shot for every two field-goal tries, and he makes about 77 percent of those freebies.

    The biggest spark off the Bluejays bench comes from junior Devin Brooks. He uses more possessions than any Bluejay not named McDermott, and he's not nearly as efficient—but who is? Brooks is still a solid support option who ranks third on the team at 7.8 points per game.

    More surprising is Brooks' rebounding ability. He's second on the team at four boards a game and is one of only two players shorter than 6'6" in the Big East's top 15 in offensive rebounding percentage, according to StatSheet.

    The rest of the Jays may be the backup band to McDermott's James Brown-esque virtuoso performances, but the Godfather of Soul didn't light up the Apollo Theater by himself now, did he? In a similar vein, Dougie McBuckets isn't taking Creighton from Omaha to Dallas as a solo act.

    Grade: B

T11. Louisville

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    Associated Press

    The wild man of Louisville has been (sort of) tamed, and the Cardinals have performed well because of it, not in spite.

    Russ Smith—the artist formerly known as "Russdiculous"—is still playing a full-tilt brand of basketball, but he's adapted to much more of a point guard role, one that he'll have to prove he can fill if he wants to carve out a pro career. Smith has focused more on his scoring in American play, but he's still averaging 4.1 assists per game against conference opponents.

    This is not to say that Smith won't hoist shots until his arm falls off anymore. He had three nonconference games of 20 or more shot attempts, but two were losses to North Carolina and Kentucky. Conference games have been slower-paced, but Smith has compensated with greater efficiency. He's averaging 18.6 points per game in league games, up from 16.9 in the nonconference.

    Junior Chris Jones has struggled badly after a great nonconference start, slumping to only six points per game in conference.

    Fellow junior Wayne Blackshear and freshman Terry Rozier have picked up some of Jones' slack, though both have done most of their damage against the American's pillow-soft underbelly. The two combined for only 11 points per game in meetings with presumed tournament teams Memphis, SMU, UConn and Cincinnati.

    To his team's benefit, Rozier has a ludicrous 9.1 turnover percentage, according to Pomeroy. He hasn't committed two giveaways in one game since Jan. 9 against Memphis.

    All four Cardinals guards are dangerous defensively, averaging a combined 6.3 steals per game against American opponents.

    Smith has stepped reasonably well into departed point guard Peyton Siva's leadership role, but he'll need to guard against a tendency to force shots in March. The others, in turn, will need to stay in the flow of the offense and not try to make a name for themselves in a tournament setting, because their first bad game in March could be their last of the season.

    Grade: B

10. Saint Louis

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    Associated Press

    No all-time all-name team will ever be complete without the inclusion of St. Louis star Jordair Jett. While the Billikens' senior playmaker is becoming a big name, he's not a big player, and neither are his supporting cast members.

    That's fine with them, though. "I think we're kind of used to being overlooked," senior guard Mike McCall said, as reported by ESPN. "And we don't care."

    Jett's proven he can come up with the heroic moments, such as when he almost single-handedly defeated La Salle with 15 of SLU's final 17 points. He's crushed Rhode Island for 31 points and La Salle and George Mason for 25 each—not bad for a guy who's made only seven three-pointers all season.

    Jett lives up to his name by getting to the rim, but he's more like a tank in his finishing through contact. According to Hoop-Math, he's converted 67.5 percent of his shots at the rim even while he draws more than six free throws for every 10 field-goal tries. The upshot of all those numbers: When Jett decides he wants to score, good luck stopping him.

    McCall's not a feared scorer, but he can't be ignored, either. The senior has scored eight or more points in eight straight games, including 16 in SLU's most recent win over George Mason. Jett and McCall are tied for the team lead in steals, making them a pair that no opposing ball-handler relishes facing.

    Central Michigan transfer Austin McBroom is the designated gunner off the bench, hitting 38 percent of his threes. He doesn't draw a ton of fouls, but he's automatic at the line when he does. McBroom has missed only two free throws since Jan. 4.

    The Billikens backcourt isn't deep and it isn't large, but the trio is effective at working together. That togetherness is a hallmark of the Saint Louis program that the late Rick Majerus built, and the Billikens are set to fulfill some of the potential that Majerus saw in them.

    Grade: B+

9. Villanova

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    Associated Press

    Depth is a tremendous strength of the Villanova backcourt. The Wildcats have five guards who average between 6.6 and 16.1 points per game. All five have knocked in at least 21 three-pointers. Only one has missed any time due to injury. Coach Jay Wright, unlike some of his Top 25 contemporaries, has had all hands on deck as his team charges toward a Big East title.

    Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono has made a tremendous improvement from the occasionally self-destructive swashbuckling of his freshman year. His two-point shooting percentage has improved greatly as he concerns himself less with attacking the basket and drawing fouls. Concurrently, his turnover percentage is light-years better than last season, improving from 23.6 percent to a sparkling 13.7 percent, according to Pomeroy.

    Shooting guards James Bell and Darrun Hilliard both sport true shooting percentages above 60 percent, which officially stamps them as money scorers. Bell is particularly hot recently, averaging 20 points per game in his last 10 games and drilling 39 of 81 threes (48.1 percent) in the process.

    Off the bench, freshman Josh Hart has struggled mightily with his scoring in Big East play, but at a solid 6'5" and 202 pounds, he provides the Cats with a strong rebounding presence from the wing. Sophomore Dylan Ennis, a former starter at Rice, provides strong support behind and occasionally alongside Arcidiacono.

    Three bigger guards and two point guards capable of getting their shots combine to give Wright a ton of flexibility with his rotations. He can spread the floor with shooters or put his two ball-handlers together depending on situations. The Cats aren't a tremendous perimeter defensive team, but they don't surrender much inside the arc.

    Grade: A-

8. Kansas

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    Associated Press

    The Kansas frontcourt is getting all the press, what with everyone's All-American Andrew Wiggins and newly minted NBA darling Joel Embiid joining sophomore Perry Ellis as the team's top three scorers. Comparatively, the backcourt is thin and unheralded, but it may feature the most impressive performance of any Jayhawk this season.

    Junior Naadir Tharpe was an awful shooter and shaky ball-handler during his first two seasons. He started slowly enough this season that he lost starts—in big games against Colorado and Florida, no less—to freshman Frank Mason, who was once slated to attend Towson.

    Tharpe has started every game since then, and Tuesday's win over Texas Tech is the first time since those two missed starts that he did not have either a positive assist-to-turnover ratio or 20-plus points in a game. He's hung 20 on Toledo, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor, all of whom could join the Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament.

    He's among the top 100 in the country in assist percentage, per Pomeroy, shoots 40 percent from three-point range and has seen only a slight uptick in his turnover rate. It's safe to say that Tharpe is one of the nation's most improved players.

    After averaging nearly eight points per game during the nonconference season, Mason has settled into the reserve role behind Tharpe and done reasonably well with his time. His Big 12 highlight came with a nine-point, six-assist effort against Baylor.

    A slightly more touted freshman, Wayne Selden, is the anti-Mason. A powerfully built 6'5" specimen, Selden occasionally scuffled through the nonconference schedule, but he exploded into the Big 12 by hanging a combined 44 points on Oklahoma and Kansas State. He still has issues with turnovers and shaky foul shooting, but there are moments where he can rise up and take over a game.

    KU could use more consistency out of its guards, but they're not the primary focus of the game. Big games out of Selden or Tharpe in March could be the difference between a Final Four or a disappointing finish.

    Grade: B

7. Cincinnati

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    All-American candidate Sean Kilpatrick is the marquee attraction in the Cincinnati backcourt, but he could certainly use more support.

    As discussed in this space a couple of weeks back, Kilpatrick is writing his own page in the Cincinnati record books. He now sits only 10 points shy of 2,000 for his career, a plateau that only one Bearcat in history has reached—some guy named Oscar Robertson.

    Conference opponents have occasionally made Kilpatrick work for his points, but no one's been able to stop him from getting them. He's scored at least 16 against every American opponent save SMU in the conference opener.

    For a more advanced perspective on Kilpatrick's greatness this season, consider this: Among players using at least 28 percent of their teams' possessions per Pomeroy, only Billy Baron of Canisius (125.0) and Doug McDermott of Creighton (124.0) have better offensive ratings than Kilpatrick's 123.4. In a nutshell, the man is ballin' out.

    His backcourt mates have had their moments but nothing approaching Kilpatrick's dominance. Junior Ge'Lawn Guyn has struggled with his shot all season but has just enough flashes to be intriguing. His two triples in the final three minutes to bust open a close game against Houston last week are a classic example.

    Freshman Troy Caupain has shown signs that he could be an all-around scoresheet-stuffer when he earns starter's minutes. He has seven games of four or more rebounds and the same number with four-plus assists. Eight points and nine assists against Temple are a highlight.

    Freshman Kevin Johnson had double-figure games against Chicago State and Nebraska but has mostly seen spot duty in American play.

    The Bearcats would love some offensive support for Kilpatrick, but the other guards are doing solid jobs in coach Mick Cronin's rugged defense. Guyn in particular has shown a knack for the clutch shot, but a basket here and there before the game hangs in the balance would make Cincy a potential Final Four threat.

    Grade: B

6. San Diego State

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    Kent Horner/Getty Images

    As a whole, San Diego State succeeds with its defense, getting enough offense to survive. The backcourt boasts the team's only two double-digit scorers, that is if you consider 6'8" sophomore Winston Shepard a guard.

    Shepard's shooting percentages aren't sexy (44.0 percent from the floor, 66.2 percent from the line), but they're improved over last year, when a top-25 recruit, per 247Sports, could only crack the starting lineup twice due to legal, eligibility and attitude issues, discussed here by UT-San Diego.

    This season, he's got 18 double-figure-scoring games and some good performances in big games. That includes uncharacteristically solid foul shooting (10-of-12) in a win over Creighton. If fans could change anything about his game, his 20 percent three-point shooting would head the list, but almost no one in the country can truly match up with a 6'8" 2-guard.

    Senior point guard Xavier Thames has no such issues with his shot. He's draining 40 percent from the arc and 81 percent at the line. Most impressively, Thames tends to step up his game when the situation is most pressing. He averages 18.5 points per game in conference games, and that figure ramps up to 23 per game in the ones that have been decided by single digits.

    Defensively, Thames averages more steals than turnovers, which is always a positive for the Aztecs.

    Freshman Dakarai Allen hasn't seen many minutes in conference games. He's a quick-handed defender who tends to get caught in the cookie jar, being whistled for more than six fouls per 40 minutes, according to Pomeroy.

    Junior Aqeel Quinn knocked down eight points in a start against Colorado State and provides the occasional jumper off the bench.

    The Aztecs can often struggle to get points on the board if Thames is off his rhythm. All it takes is one more point than the other team, however, and the tournament won't care if San Diego State only scores 60 as long as the opponent is held to 55.

    Grade: B

5. Duke

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Duke's backcourt has more bombers than the U.S. Air Force, and they're not shy about flinging threes all night long.

    The trio of sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon, senior Tyler Thornton and grad student Andre Dawkins has drained a combined 46 percent from the arc this season, with Dawkins hoisting as many attempts as players logging twice as many minutes.

    The shooting barrage serves to clear lanes for freshman star Jabari Parker and clear rebounding traffic for sophomore Amile Jefferson. Even when the shots aren't falling, though, the Devils have shown the resourcefulness to pull out wins in the ACC. Duke survived Maryland and blew out Florida State despite logging effective field-goal figures below 40 percent in both games.

    Sulaimon is beginning to transition to the point, posting a solid 21 assists in a four-game stretch starting in late January against Pitt.

    Thornton is the designated defensive pest, ranking in Pomeroy's top 50 in steal percentage while also posting the second-highest offensive efficiency rating in the nation.

    Shaky play has begun to plague junior point guard Quinn Cook. He's come off the bench in four of Duke's last six games after starting the first 20. Cook's ball-handling hasn't been the issue; it's been his 38 percent shooting in conference play and deteriorating defense. At times, he seems to be competing with his teammates to see who can make more shots, and the looks are suboptimal to say the least.

    Like so many groups of guards in the Top 25, the Blue Devils backcourt provides support for a gifted frontcourt player, but there aren't many playing much better after a shaky start to the ACC schedule.

    Grade: A-

4. Arizona

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    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    Arizona coach Sean Miller already ran a tight rotation before forward Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending foot injury, and that condition has gotten even more extreme since. A backcourt garnering national praise early on has struggled to produce since that literally painful loss to Cal.

    Shooting guard Nick Johnson was drawing support for Pac-12 Player of the Year honors over the season's first 21 games, including averaging 17.8 points per game over the first eight league contests. Since Ashley went down, Johnson's scoring average has dropped to 12.2 on 27 percent shooting. Only his 75 percent foul shooting has salvaged his scoring column.

    Conversely, point guard T.J. McConnell has stepped up his scoring as defenses swarm Johnson. The junior is putting in 11.6 points per game over the past five, making 43 percent from the floor. The other expected duties of a point guard—setting up teammates, avoiding turnovers, harassing opposing ball-handlers—have been strengths since day one for the Duquesne transfer.

    Sophomore Gabe York has provided the shooting that the Wildcats don't usually get from the starting five. McConnell and Johnson, for all their strengths, are merely 33 percent deep shooters on the season. York's 40 percent stroke will be absolutely essential to open the post for Arizona's athletic frontcourt.

    The Wildcats' grade is one of the better in America, but they'll need to find a way to get Johnson back on track. Otherwise, they'll need to rely on their strong defense to win games in the 60s. Three of their last five games have ended in that range, and the Cats only managed 58 against Cal.

    Grade: A

3. Wichita State

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    Associated Press

    The Wichita State Shockers are the nation's last unbeaten team, and there doesn't appear to be an end in sight until after Selection Sunday. While forward Cleanthony Early was the breakout star of last season's Final Four run, the engine this season has been a backcourt that does nothing to beat itself.

    Point guard Fred VanVleet commits less than two turnovers per 40 minutes. Shooting guard Ron Baker has a true shooting percentage near 60 percent. Both of the above have more takeaways than giveaways. Wing Tekele Cotton is good for some posterizing dunks despite standing only 6'2".

    Aside from VanVleet's shot drifting in and out—he's shot less than 50 percent in six of his last nine games—there aren't many ugly nights on the resumes for these three players.

    Shockers coach Gregg Marshall has his players obsessed with the idea of perfection. After VanVleet capped off a perfect shooting night with 22 points, eight boards and six assists against Loyola, he was moved to say, per Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton, "I take responsibility for the first game. I played really uninspired." He had another eight rebounds and nine assists in that 12-point win.

    Skeptics still point to Gonzaga's tournament collapse last season as proof that major programs from mid-major conferences still can't hang in March, gaudy regular-season record or not. Wichita State was the team that ended the Zags' campaign in ignominy, and now it has a group determined not to meet its own shocking end.

    Grade: A

2. Florida

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    Associated Press

    Another thin-looking three-man group, Florida's backcourt is as workmanlike as they come. There's no dynamic personality like a Teddy Dupay or Joakim Noah on this Gators team, just a group of guys seeking coach Billy Donovan's third national title.

    Point guard Scottie Wilbekin's career was in jeopardy after an offseason suspension extended five games into the season. Since then, he's played like a man who survived a near-death experience. Not known earlier in his career as a scorer, Wilbekin is second on the team at 13.6 points per game. He's stepped it up to 18.8 over his last five games, making 41 free throws over that span.

    Shooting guard Michael Frazier lives up to his job description. He shoots—a lot. He's made 37 percent from deep in SEC play, which for him qualifies as a slump. Good for nearly three triples a night, look for him to light up tournament defenses, especially against the overmatched tomato cans the Gators will likely see as a No. 1 seed.

    Freshman Kasey Hill started off well in Wilbekin's absence before an injury forced Donovan's hand to end the senior's suspension. Still a strong distributor and defender—Hill has eight steals against nine turnovers in four SEC starts—his shot will need work next season, when he will likely inherit the keys to the offense.

    The Gators are another of those teams at the top of the rankings that will squeeze the air out of the ball, content to win games in the 60s. The three guards all play strong defense but are also proving that they can run and gun with opponents who are so inclined. An 84-82 win at Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena serves as Exhibit A.

    Grade: A

1. Syracuse

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Another team that proves backcourt depth can be overrated, Syracuse runs with three guards in the rotation much like Florida and Arizona. Also like those teams, the Orange are led by a point guard who oozes calm, the difference being that the Cuse takes its cues from a freshman.

    Tyler Ennis has made a living in the clutch moments, perhaps none more iconic than his ice-cold 35-footer to win at Pitt. Outside of winning time, Ennis can look very mortal, primarily when he shoots (42 percent from the floor on the season). Still, he's had only two games this season with more than two turnovers, compared to nine with more than two steals. That's a net positive on anyone's court.

    Shooting guard Trevor Cooney stands second to Ennis in the ACC in steals by a mere 0.1, but that's not where Cooney makes his name. He's the Frazier to Ennis' Wilbekin, raining leathery orange pain all over hapless defenses. For all the hype about Creighton's Ethan Wragge dropping nine threes on Villanova, Cooney did the exact same thing to Notre Dame, adding four swipes in the process.

    Ennis and Cooney average a combined 73 of 80 possible minutes in ACC play, so backup Michael Gbinije doesn't see the court as much as he'd like. He's ready when he gets in, though. He had seven of Syracuse's first 19 points to keep the Panthers in sight early, helping to set the stage for Ennis' final flourish.

    If either of the starters goes down with an injury, a Cuse team that's already squeaked out its last few wins before suffering its first loss will appear even more vulnerable. The fact that Ennis and Cooney never leave the court, however, is a glaring indication of their value to the Orange.

    Grade: A

     

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