Ranking the 10 Best Senior PGs in College Basketball as March Madness Nears
Seniors have made a major impact this season, and that is particularly evident at the point guard position as March Madness nears.
In recent seasons, college basketball has been dominated by freshmen and sophomores during their brief stays before heading to the NBA. However, experience has symbolized the playmaking position for many of the top teams this season.
The pool of talented senior point guards is so deep that quality players such as Joe Jackson of Memphis, Justin Cobbs of California, Jordair Jett of Saint Louis and Jason Brickman of Long Island-Brooklyn failed to make our list of the top 10 senior point guards.
One name conspicuously absent from our list is Louisville's Russ Smith. Although he will have to play point guard in the pros, he is used more as a shooting guard in Rick Pitino's system, which is why he is not included.
We hedged a bit by having a tie for the final spot on our list, partly because of the injury situation involving Keith Appling of Michigan State. Therefore, our top-10 list includes 11 senior point guards.
10. (tie) Keith Appling, Michigan State
Statistics: 13.2 ppg, 4.8 apg, 3.4 rpg
A right wrist injury Keith Appling suffered in December has plagued his senior season. He missed three games in February as the pain increased, and his production has dropped significantly. Appling has not scored more than seven points in any of the five games he's played since Feb. 1, and it's no coincidence Michigan State is 3-5 since then. Appling went zero of six on three-pointers in those five games and three of 10 from the foul line. His shooting obviously is affected.
Appling is suffering, and his importance to the team is showing, because the Spartans are suffering along with him.
Appling is not one of the top 10 senior point guards at the moment. Nonetheless, his work over the first 21 games, when he averaged 15.4 points and led the Spartans to a No. 7 ranking, earns his a spot on our list.
As the Detroit Free Press noted, Appling "was playing the best basketball of his career this season before aggravating a wrist injury that has severely limited him offensively."
Because of his uneven season, it was difficult to rank Appling, which is why he shares the final spot on our list.
10. (tie) Deonte Burton, Nevada
Statistics: 19.9 ppg, 4.3 apg, 4.2 rpg
Deonte Burton has two public-relations problems:
1. He's plays for Nevada, which never gets much attention.
2. The Wolf Pack are just 14-16 overall and 9-8 in the Mountain West Conference. Since a point guard's worth is tied closely to his team's success, it's difficult to rank him higher on our list than tied for 10th.
But the pros know how good Burton is. He might be the first senior point guard taken in this year's NBA draft. DraftExpresss.com projects that he will be a late first-round selection, and NBADraft.net pegs him to be the second player taken in the second round. Here's what DraftExpress.com wrote of him last month:
Burton ranks among the top point guards in this draft class in a variety of categories, but is completely off the national media’s radar and looks to be struggling to move the needle on his draft stock playing for a dysfunctional team that sports a mediocre 12-14 record in the Mountain West Conference. Nevertheless, he shows intriguing potential in a number of areas and might end up being a better pro than many thought coming out of college.
Burton has scored in double digits in all but one game this season, and in Nevada's past five games, he has 30 assists against eight turnovers.
9. Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Statistics: 9.4 ppg, 4.5 apg, 2.5 spg
Numbers will never tell the story regarding Ohio State senior Aaron Craft. He is the consummate leader, directing the course of Buckeyes games with his hustle and on-court presence.
His greatest asset is his defense. Craft was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, and Ohio State coach Thad Matta was surprised Craft did not get that award last season, when Indiana's Victor Oladipo won it. Here's Matta on last year's award, per the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The only (postseason award) that I'm amazed is … I think Victor Oladipo is a tremendous, outstanding, awesome defender. One of the best I've ever seen. But Aaron Craft is in a whole 'nother world when it comes to defense. And this basketball team would not be anywhere (near) where it is without the impact he makes on the defensive end. I'm not taking anything away from Oladipo. I think the guy is awesome. But Aaron doesn't fly through the air and pin shots off the glass. He takes 'em from the guy's hands when he's on the floor.
Craft spearheads this season's Ohio State squad, which ranks seventh in the nation in scoring defense, yielding 58.8 points per game.
The only drawbacks to Craft's game are that he is limited offensively and has not progressed a great deal during his college career. His statistics his freshman year are similar to his numbers this season.
8. Chaz Williams, Massachusetts
Statistics: 15.7 ppg, 7.1 apg
The 5'9", 175-pound Chaz Williams may be the best example that a little man can make a big impact in college basketball.
His 32-point, 15-assist, one-turnover game in a victory over BYU in December helped Massachusetts get off to a 10-0 start that put the Minutemen in the Top 25. Williams also made an impression in that game when he got into a brief scuffle with BYU’s 6'10", 230-pound center Eric Mika.
"Williams leads. UMass follows. His swagger inspires confidence more than cockiness," Kevin Cullen wrote in the Boston Globe recently.
The Minutemen seem destined for an NCAA tournament berth, mainly because of the presence of Williams, who is third in the nation in assists.
He transferred after his freshman season at Hofstra, and UMass won 25 games in Williams' sophomore season, a 10-win improvement from the previous year. The team and Williams have continued to progress since then.
“He’s just developed tremendously,” Fordham coach Tom Pecora told the Daily Hampshire Gazette in January. “He has the ability to involve everyone and be a surgeon, and the ability to understand time and score and the flow of the game and share the ball and do all the things great college point guards do.”
7. Billy Baron, Canisius
Statistics: 24.4 ppg, 5.4 apg, 5.0 rpg, 43.2 three-point percentage
Tucked away at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., is a point guard gem named Billy Baron.
Baron is third in the nation in scoring, and he also leads his team in assists and three-point shooting while collecting five boards a game as well. He was a unanimous selection to the first-team all-Metro Atlantic Conference squad after leading the Golden Griffins to a 20-11 regular season.
Baron has scored more than 30 points in a game eight times this season, including a 40-point game in a triple-overtime road victory over Siena.
Baron started his career at Virginia and transferred to Rhode Island to play for his father, Jim, who was then the Rhode Island coach. When the elder Baron was fired at Rhode Island and hired by Canisius, his son followed.
He became a star at Canisius as a junior.
"I first saw it one night earlier in the (2012-2013) season when I stumbled across Canisius playing at Notre Dame, a game in which Baron had 33 points and ran his team as if he were on leave from the NBA. He was that good," wrote Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynolds last month.
6. Kendall Williams, New Mexico
Statistics: 16.7 ppg, 5.0 apg, 41.2 three-point shooting
Kendall Williams first gained national attention last season when he scored 46 points and hit 10 three-pointers in a road victory over No. 22-ranked Colorado State. That helped him earn Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors.
His numbers are even better in virtually every category this season, and he is a prime reason the Lobos find themselves ranked in the Top 25 again.
“He’s the most improved player in the league. To say he’s improved after being MVP — that’s pretty good. Williams is surprisingly improved,” Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy told the Coloradoan earlier this season.
After Williams scored 29 points in New Mexico's 12-point road win over UNLV last month, Rebels coach Dave Rice told the Las Vegas Journal-Review, “He’s an impressive player, and when he’s going like that, he’s difficult to stop. He put their team on his back."
5. Xavier Thames, San Diego State
Statistics: 16.7 ppg, 3.0 apg, 3.2 rpg
Xavier Thames leads San Diego State in scoring and assists and is a major reason the Aztecs are 26-3 and ranked No. 10 heading into Saturday's Mountain West Conference showdown with New Mexico.
Thames has increased his scoring average by more than seven points per game over last season, and his importance to the team was demonstrated when he had two uncharacteristic off nights. He was just three of 16 in a road loss to Wyoming on Feb. 11 and went three of 15 in the Feb. 22 loss to New Mexico.
Those off nights are rare, though, and he has been particularly adept at protecting the ball lately. Thames has not had a turnover in six of the past seven games, amassing 26 assists against just three turnovers in that stretch.
Nonetheless, his strength is defense. Thames is the best defender on a San Diego State team that ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense and ninth in field-goal percentage defense.
"For as long as I can remember, I've been defensive-minded," he told Sports Illustrated.
Coach Steve Fisher told SI Thames does the things "that perhaps only a coach can appreciate."
4. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
Statistics: 12.9 ppg, 3.9 apg, 2.6 rpg.
Few players, regardless of position, have improved as much during their college careers as Scottie Wilbekin. He was a virtual non-factor as a freshman and sophomore, averaging 2.4 points and 2.6 points in those two seasons, respectively. He did not become a regular starter until his junior year.
Now, as a senior, Wilbekin is the linchpin of a Florida team that has won 22 games in a row. It's probably no coincidence that one of Florida's two losses this season came against Wisconsin when Wilbekin was not in the lineup.
His early-season absence is the one black mark against Wilbekin. He was suspended for three games last season and five games this season for off-the-court incidents during the summer.
On the court, there have been few complaints about Wilbekin, a strong candidate for Southeastern Conference player of the year. He is not the greatest outside shooter, but he more than makes up for that with his excellent defense.
“For Scottie, he’s always hung his hat on being a great defender,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said last season, according to the Florida Times-Union.
"Wilbekin has shown a toughness and a passion that ranks with the best who have played for Florida. His improvement has been as much mental as physical," Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley wrote.
3. DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
Statistics: 16.7 ppg, 5.8 apg, 6.7 rpg
Perhaps no player helps his team in more ways than Iowa State point guard DeAndre Kane.
After spending three productive seasons at Marshall, Kane transferred to Iowa State for his final college season. He might be the most influential transfer in the country, as the Cyclones won their first 14 games of the season and are currently ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press poll.
Kane is doing his best work late in the season, when it matters most. He has scored at least 17 points and made at least half his shots in each of the past six games, while averaging 7.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists in that span.
"At the very un-collegian age of 24, his basketball career has blossomed from mid-major obscurity into one of the most talked-about surprises in the nation," Reid Forgrave of Fox Sports wrote. "... You could talk about one of the most versatile players in the country."
Although the 6'4" Kane is a point guard, his coach, Fred Hoiberg, does not think of him in terms of his position.
"He's just a basketball player," Hoiberg said, according to Fox Sports.. "He's not a one, not a two, not a three — he's a basketball player. Versatility is his biggest strength. He can really defend. He's got great feet. He does things that translate to that next level."
2. Bryce Cotton, Providence
Statistics: 21.7 ppg, 5.9 apg, 40.2 minutes per game
Bryce Cotton is the major reason Providence has a chance to earn its first NCAA tournament berth in 10 years.
He did not start the season as a point guard but was forced to assume that role when Kris Dunn was lost for the season after four games with a shoulder injury.
Cotton has thrived, particularly lately as the Friars head down the home stretch in their bid for an NCAA berth. He has scored at least 22 points in each of the last six games, hitting 16 of 33 three-point shots in that span.
More impressive is his endurance. He is averaging 40.2 minutes per game, which easily leads the nation, and is averaging 42.2 minutes in Big East games. Four times this season, he has played all 50 minutes in a double-overtime game. He has been off the court for a grand total of three minutes in the Friars' 17 conference games.
In the critical double-overtime victory over Marquette on March 4, Cotton made the big plays in his 50th minute of action. He was able to tie up a Marquette ball-handler, giving Providence the ball back with less than 10 seconds left and the Friars down by a point. A few seconds later, Cotton hit the tying and go-ahead free throws that led to a one-point victory that was pivotal to Providence's NCAA hopes. It finished off a 25-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound game for Cotton.
“In our league and in the country he’s one of the elite players and he’s still not spoken about on the national level enough,” Providence coach Ed Cooley told the Providence Journal. “He’s willed our team into this position and played every single minute leading us in assists and scoring. He’s playing as well as any college basketball player in America.”
1. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Statistics: 18.1 ppg, 5.3 apg, 5.9 rpg, 42.5 three-point percentage
Shabazz Napier has probably done more to make his team an elite squad than any player in the country this season. Connecticut is 24-6 overall, 12-5 in the Big East and ranked No. 19. Without Napier, the Huskies would not have come close to those accomplishments.
"In my opinion, no UConn player has meant any more to his particular team than Shabazz," UConn assistant director of athletic communications Phil Chardis said, according to the Hartford Courant.
The 6'1" Napier leads the team in scoring, assists and rebounds, and he comes up big when it matters most.
"Nobody has had more clutch moments than Shabazz," Joe D'Ambrosio, the radio voice of the Huskies, told the Courant.
He has scored 61 points in 50 minutes of overtime play, hitting 11 of 17 three-pointers and 24 of 28 free throws in those overtimes. UConn has won six of eight overtime games the past two seasons.
He hit the winning shot in the final second against Villanova last season, and he made the game-winner at the buzzer to beat Florida this season.