Ranking the Top 10 Backcourt Duos in College Basketball in 2017-18
Arizona State did not receive a single vote in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, but the outstanding backcourt duo of Tra Holder and Shannon Evans has the Sun Devils looking like a legitimate Final Four threat.
Dominant big men are nice, but a dynamic duo of guards has practically become a prerequisite for competing for a national championship in men's basketball. Last year's title game was North Carolina's Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson against Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews. The year before that, it was Berry and Marcus Paige against Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson. That list goes on for a while.
And though this wasn't considered a great freshman class for guards, there are a ton of one-two backcourt punches who already look like pairs capable of leading their teams to a bunch of consecutive wins in March.
As we'll briefly discuss later in the section on Villanova's guards, there's some subjectivity in terms of what actually counts as a guard/backcourt player in this era of versatility and positionless basketball. Generally speaking, though, we're looking for a duo of a point guard and shooting guard—or a pair of combo guards—and are not considering wing-forwards like Mikal Bridges and Miles Bridges.
Duos are theoretically ranked in ascending order of how many games they would win if paired with an average frontcourt.
Kyle Guy and Devon Hall, Virginia: Tough call on the last duo to get cut from the top 10, as Guy and Hall are scoring at an impressive rate for a snail-paced team. But every duo in our top 10 is averaging at least 7.0 combined assists per game while these two are sitting at just 4.5. That works just fine for Virginia, but we'd like at least one piece of our dynamic duos to do a significant amount of passing.
Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett, St. John's: Another really difficult omission, as this pair is averaging better than 35 points and four steals per game. However, it is taking them more than 30 shots per game to get those 35 points, and they have yet to face a team that is likely to reach the NCAA tournament. That said, it's going to be a lot of fun to watch them go up against top-10 duos from Arizona State, Duke, Villanova and Marquette in the next few months.
Jalen Hudson and Chris Chiozza, Florida: Two weeks ago, these Gators might have ranked in the top three. However, Florida has fallen apart in its last two-plus games, and it's largely because these guards have come back to earth. After shooting 29-of-56 (51.7 percent) from three-point range in their first six games, Chiozza and Hudson are a combined 3-of-15 (20.0 percent) in the last two.
Jaylen Fisher and Desmond Bane, TCU: Kenrich Williams is actually the MVP of this team, but Fisher is running the show admirably, averaging 6.1 assists per game. And Bane is shooting the heck out of the ball, leading the nation in effective field-goal percentage. TCU is for real.
Collin Sexton and John Petty, Alabama: Love this pair of freshmen, but their combined stats aren't quite on par with those in the top 10. Both Sexton and Petty struggled Wednesday night against Rhode Island, which was enough to keep them just outside the top 10.
Bruce Brown and Dejan Vasilijevic, Miami: Were this simply a ranking of the top backcourts rather than the top backcourt duos, Miami would be a lock for the top five. The combined force of Brown, Vasilijevic, Ja'Quan Newton and Lonnie Walker makes the Hurricanes a legitimate title contender. But there's no two-man pairing from that quartet that stacks up with the rest of these twosomes.
Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure: Adams missed the first six games of the season due to an ankle injury, but he's back now and looking good. This duo combined for 39.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game last season and is the reason everyone was buying the Bonnies as a tournament team in the preseason.
Martez Walker and Kendrick Nunn, Oakland: The respective transfers from Texas and Illinois are lighting up the scoreboard, each averaging better than 21 points per game while taking (and making) a ton of three-pointers. However, we're still waiting for the Golden Grizzlies to play some defense this season, as they've given up 82.6 points per game to start out 5-4. But consider this your heads-up to watch Walker and Nunn take on Michigan State on Dec. 16. Should be a fun one.
Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks, Marshall: These two are crushing it, combining for 43.8 points and 10.4 assists per game. However, neither one is shooting well (combined 28.1 percent from distance). And in their one chance to show something against a major-conference foe, Elmore and Burks went for 26 points, five assists and 11 turnovers in a blowout loss to Illinois.
Matt Scott and Kahlil Dukes, Niagara: Niagara is 4-5 thanks to one of the worst defenses ever assembled. But this is the highest scoring duo in the nation by a considerable margin. Scott (25.8 PPG) and Dukes (22.1) are putting up 47.9 points per night. Dukes is a 50 percent three-point shooter. Scott is averaging better than 10 free-throw attempts per game.
10. Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp, Wichita State
Landry Shamet: 14.6 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.3 RPG, 52.8% 3PT
Conner Frankamp: 11.5 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.3 RPG, 37.3% 3PT
For a guy who was questionable to start the season due to his recovery from foot surgery, Landry Shamet has been sensational. The sophomore combo guard drained four three-pointers in his first game and hasn't looked back.
In the Maui Invitational opener against California, Shamet only played 24 minutes due to foul trouble, but he finished with 23 points on just 10 shots and played a huge part in Wichita State's frantic second-half comeback from an 18-point deficit. In the five games since then, he has tallied 30 assists against just nine turnovers and has made more of an impact on the defensive end with six steals.
Meanwhile, Conner Frankamp has 23 assists with just four turnovers on the season, and he is finally starting to find his three-point stroke.
Frankamp has made at least one three-pointer in 30 consecutive games dating back to January 1, but he only shot 29.7 percent from distance in six November games. He is 8-of-14 (57.1 percent) in two December games, though, and he was the MVP of WSU's road win over Baylor last weekend. He sank five triples in the game, including the tiebreaking three-pointer in the final three minutes from which the Bears never recovered.
Of all the things these Shockers do well, the most impressive might be their free-throw shooting. Shamet and Frankamp are a combined 23-of-24 from the charity stripe this season. Combine that with their ability to handle the ball without committing turnovers and Wichita State should be one of the best teams in the country when it comes to protecting a late lead.
9. Carsen Edwards and Dakota Mathias, Purdue
Carsen Edwards: 16.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.8 SPG, 32.8% 3PT
Dakota Mathias: 14.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 51.7% 3PT
One year removed from having one of the best double-double machines in college basketball history, Purdue is still winning games against the likes of Arizona, Louisville, Maryland and Northwestern without Caleb Swanigan.
The biggest reason for that continued excellence has been the drastically improved play of both Carsen Edwards and Dakota Mathias.
Edwards struggled last season as a freshman on a team that didn't seem to have any defined roles—aside from Isaac Haas at the 5 for about 20 minutes per game. Four different Boilermakers averaged at least 2.9 assists per game while six attempted at least 2.4 threes per game. It was a tough transition for a guy who was a ball-dominant lead guard in high school.
He's still a bit inconsistent, but now that he's acclimated to the system, his peaks are higher and his valleys aren't as low. Edwards' scoring, rebounding and assist rates are each at least 25 percent better than last year, he's shooting much better inside the arc and he's getting to the free-throw line nearly twice as often. Per Sports Reference, his win shares per 40 minutes mark has jumped from a pedestrian 0.092 to a strong 0.215.
Mathias' numbers are also way up from last year (0.154 vs. 0.284 in WS/40). The three-point percentage is incredible, and it isn't entirely unsustainable, considering he was a 45.3 percent shooter last year.
Mathias has improved in every metric imaginable, save for an ever-so-slight dip from 82.1 percent to 81.5 percent on free throws. But given his upticks in scoring, field-goal percentage, rebounding, assists and steals and his decrease in turnovers, we're inclined to let that 0.6 percent decrease slide.
These two Boilermakers combined for 20.5 points and 5.6 assists per game last year. Despite virtually no changes to the backcourt portion of the roster, those numbers have soared to 30.9 and 7.2, respectively. It's because they both struggled against Tennessee and Western Kentucky that Purdue was on the wrong end of those upsets. And it's because they shined against Arizona that Purdue bounced back with that quality win.
8. Matt Farrell and T.J. Gibbs, Notre Dame
Matt Farrell: 15.7 PPG, 5.0 APG, 2.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 37.3% 3PT
T.J. Gibbs: 13.6 PPG, 3.0 APG, 2.2 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 52.5% 3PT
Bonzie Colson gets most of the love any time Notre Dame does something good, but this backcourt duo is also largely to thank.
Matt Farrell was one of the top breakout players last season, suddenly exploding into an All-ACC-caliber combo guard after two years of doing next to nothing. And thus far, his senior year has been just as good as his junior year, aside from a slight dip in three-point percentage. But he has become an even more assertive piece of this offense now that Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem are out of the picture.
Speaking of Vasturia, his replacement in the starting lineup has made a Farrell-like leap to keep the Fighting Irish faithful from missing last year's senior combo guard. Temple "T.J." Gibbs is shooting lights-out from three-point range and has recorded multiple assists in every game of his sophomore season.
Notre Dame needs to figure out how to keep him from disappearing, though. Gibbs scored at least 21 points in three of his first five games, but he has yet to string together two consecutive quality performances. And it's no coincidence that two of his three worst games came in Notre Dame's two losses. Gibbs is a critical piece of a puzzle that feels incomplete when he is struggling.
These two primary ball-handlers do a great job of avoiding turnovers, combining to commit just 3.1 per game. Not giving the ball away has been such a huge part of Notre Dame's success under Mike Brey, particularly in the past three-plus seasons. The Fighting Irish rank fifth nationally in offensive turnover percentage, so that hasn't changed one bit with Gibbs becoming more of a leader.
7. Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey, Marquette
Markus Howard: 22.4 PPG, 2.1 APG, 3.7 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 41.4% 3PT
Andrew Rowsey: 21.6 PPG, 4.9 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 39.7% 3PT
Picture the greenest thing that you possibly can. It doesn't matter if it's a meadow in the heart of spring, a heaping pile of $100 bills or one of those grasshopper cocktails that look like nuclear waste in a martini glass. It just has to be super green.
Got it? Great.
Now make it 50 percent greener and that's the color of the light that Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey have in this Marquette offense.
This duo is averaging 18.4 three-point attempts per game. Both guys entered play Thursday ranked in the top 10 nationally in total three-point attempts. And since they're shooting better than 40 percent as a pair, they have already made 67 triples this season. That's more than what 189 entire teams could claim Thursday morning.
This shouldn't come as any huge surprise, though. Rowsey averaged 19.7 points and 8.4 three-point attempts per game in his first two seasons with UNC-Asheville. Howard shot 54.7 percent from distance last year as a freshman. And given the amount of roster turnover this team had to endure this offseason—as well as early this season with Haanif Cheatham unexpectedly leaving the program on Nov. 27 for personal reasons—these two guards were bound to take more shots this year.
Still, it's pretty wild.
In a recent win over Chicago State, Howard and Rowsey combined for 59 points on 17-of-27 (63.0 percent) shooting from three-point range.
If they played any defense, maybe they would rank in our top three. However, Rowsey and Howard have a defensive box plus/minus of negative-3.2 and negative-4.0, respectively, which is by far the worst among Marquette's regulars, per Sports Reference. They produce a ton of points, but it's also largely their fault that the Golden Eagles have given up at least 80 points in six of nine games.
6. Trae Young and Christian James, Oklahoma
Trae Young: 28.7 PPG, 8.7 APG, 3.9 RPG, 2.4 SPG, 37.9% 3PT
Christian James: 11.9 PPG, 2.4 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 31.6% 3PT
This isn't so much a dynamic duo as it is a tandem bicycle that only one guy is pedaling, but there's no possible justification for leaving off a backcourt with Trae Young in it.
What Young is doing as a freshman is just plain ridiculous. His minimum line in each game this season has been 15 points, five assists and two steals, which is something only two players averaged in the entire 2016-17 season. Repeating that in different words: The worst possible version of Young that we have seen this season was still better than just about every player's average last year.
It only seems fitting that he plays for Oklahoma, because this dude is putting up mind-blowing numbers in basketball just like Baker Mayfield did in football.
It's more than just the numbers, though. Young is so much fun to watch. His ability to finish at the rim at full speed is second to none, as is his ability to flip the switch from casually walking the ball up the court to blowing right by his defender. He's going to commit a boneheaded turnover or three per game, but it's a small price to pay for a guy who can both score and create for others in so many ways.
One of those players he helps create for is Christian James, who has scored in double figures in six of seven games this season.
James was put in the impossible position of trying to fill Buddy Hield's shoes last season, and he struggled mightily. By early January, he had lost his starting job, and he didn't even get it back when Jordan Woodard missed the final seven games due to injury. But this year, his two-point percentage (64.5) is drastically better than last year (37.7 percent), he's playing better defense (without fouling) and his turnover rate is improved.
You won't find James in any conversations for All-Big 12 first-team honors, but he's a plenty good enough running mate for Young to get the Sooners near the top of the list of backcourt duos.
5. Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles, West Virginia
Jevon Carter: 19.4 PPG, 5.7 APG, 5.3 RPG, 4.2 SPG, 40.7% 3PT
Daxter Miles: 14.6 PPG, 3.1 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 20.0% 3PT
Similar to Trae Young at Oklahoma, West Virginia has a fairly one-sided duo led by Jevon Carter.
Carter used to be a steal machine and not much else. In his first two seasons with the Mountaineers, he shot a combined 31.0 percent from three-point range and wasn't much of a scorer, averaging 13.7 points per 40 minutes in each of those years.
But now, the pilfering aficionado is an all-around stud.
Even if we temporarily disregard the steals and focus solely on his other averages, there have only been 20 instances in the past 25 years of a player averaging at least 19 points, five assists and five rebounds per game. Add in the three-point shooting and the steals, and Carter is in a class of his own. And just for good measure, Carter is also lethal from the free-throw line, sinking 41 of 45 (91.1 percent).
Early-season stats are often meaningless and inflated by blowout wins over inferior opponents. But Carter had 23 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and a pair of steals in a marquee win over Virginia this week. Considering the opponent, that might be the most impressive individual performance that we see all season.
Though Carter is the clear leader of the duo, Daxter Miles has been no slouch.
He'll forever be remembered as the freshman who ran his mouth and guaranteed a win over undefeated Kentucky before the Wildcats smashed the Mountaineers in the 2015 NCAA tournament, but he's also now the second-leading scorer for an 8-1 team that is undefeated in games not played in Germany (an 88-65 loss to Texas A&M).
His three-point stroke is atrocious, but Miles has become a much better passer, rebounder and interior scorer than in any of his previous three years. He is also doing a significantly better job of getting to and converting from the free-throw line. All this while still racking up steals.
In WVU's comeback win over Missouri, this duo combined for 55 points and eight steals and sank 22 of 23 free throws.
4. Devonte' Graham and Lagerald Vick, Kansas
Devonte' Graham: 16.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 4.1 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 38.9% 3PT
Lagerald Vick: 17.9 PPG, 4.6 APG, 6.8 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 44.1% 3PT
I started pulling this list together around 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday night—otherwise known as the time that Washington and Kansas tipped off in what ended up being a colossal 74-65 upset.
At the time, Devonte' Graham and Lagerald Vick were a stone-cold lock for the top three. They might have landed at No. 1 with one more solid performance in a convincing win over the Huskies. Instead, Graham had one of the worst games of his entire career, making it tempting to drop the Jayhawks all the way to No. 7. Considering Vick had 28 points, seven assists and five rebounds and was the only thing keeping Kansas from losing by about 50, this pair ultimately landed at No. 4.
Greatness was expected from Graham long before the season began. With the exception of the two games against Washington and Kentucky, he has delivered. Graham scored 35 points in back-to-back contests against Toledo and Syracuse. He has five assists in all eight games and has multiple steals in all but one.
It was always a dual combo-guard backcourt between him and Frank Mason, but his transition to primary ball-handler as a senior has been seamless. Graham has had turnover problems in a couple of games, but he's still averaging nearly three assists per turnover.
The more impressive assist numbers belong to Vick, who used to be a black hole where ball movement went to die. He averaged 1.5 assists per 40 minutes as a sophomore, but that number has spiked to 5.5 as a junior. In 610 fewer minutes played, Vick already has more assists (37) than he did all of last season (34).
Vick has also been an outstanding rebounder for a 6'5" guard, enabling Kansas to succeed in its four-guard lineup.
Eventually, the Jayhawks will be getting options to play the conventional 4.
Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe is definitely going to be eligible in a few weeks. Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa might be eligible at some point. And the assumption coming into the season was that Vick would be the sixth man behind a starting lineup of Graham, Malik Newman, Svi Mykhailiuk, Preston and Udoka Azubuike. At this point, though, it's clear that Newman would be the odd man out, as Vick has become a legitimate Big 12 POY candidate.
3. Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, Villanova
Jalen Brunson: 17.2 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.3 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 51.7% 3PT
Phil Booth: 12.1 PPG, 2.7 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 39.5% 3PT
For sake of argument, we're calling Mikal Bridges part of Villanova's frontcourt. Same goes for Miles Bridges at Michigan State, Trevon Bluiett at Xavier and Amir Coffey at Minnesota. Even if you're officially listed as a guard on the roster, if you're roughly 6'7" and you're one of the top rebounders on the team, you're a wing-forward who is much more of the latter than the former. And we're searching for one-two punches who play the 1 and the 2.
If Bridges did count, though, Villanova would be the clear pick at No. 1, because he and Jalen Brunson have been arguably two of the five best players in the country.
Brunson's efficiency borders on preposterous. The man had 12 points, five assists and five rebounds in a 16-point win over Gonzaga on Tuesday, and it was clearly one of his worst performances of the season (7-of-15 from the field and the line). Even including that dud (by Brunson's standards), he's shooting 69.4 percent from inside the three-point arc and 51.7 percent from beyond it while averaging nearly 3.5 assists per turnover.
Brunson was my preseason men's pick for the John Wooden Award, and he's even exceeding my expectations.
In Bridges' stead, Phil Booth is one heck of a consolation prize as Brunson's primary backcourt companion.
Booth missed all but three games last season due to a knee injury, but he has picked up right where he left off in the 2016 national championship game. In each of his last three games, he has set a season high in scoring. Booth had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists in a blowout win at Saint Joseph's before matching a career high with 20 points against Gonzaga.
He may be the third wheel in this offense—at times, he'll be sixth behind Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman, too—but Booth is the piece Villanova was missing last year. Now that he's back, the Wildcats are ready for another championship run.
2. Trevon Duval and Grayson Allen, Duke
Trevon Duval: 12.5 PPG, 7.0 APG, 2.1 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 16.7% 3PT
Grayson Allen: 17.5 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 47.1% 3PT
Seeing this duo at No. 2 is probably going to strike a nerve with some people, as often happens when anything nice is written about Duke and/or Grayson Allen. However, in this case, that outrage will likely be connected to Trevon Duval's inability to shoot his way out of a paper bag.
Here's the thing, though: These two dudes are running the show for the most efficient offense in the country. Much of that dominance can be attributed to Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. in the post, but Duke isn't averaging 94.2 points just because of a couple of big men.
Let's start with Duval, since he is where Duke's offense starts.
He isn't shooting well, and he didn't shoot well in high school. The sooner that he fully embraces driving and dishing and eliminates the perimeter shot from his list of options, the better Duke will be. But in spite of that terrible jumper, he has been a once-in-a-generation asset for the Blue Devils.
No, really. You have to go back to Bobby Hurley in the early 1990s to find the last time Duke had a point guard who could create this well for others. Duval has at least six assists in eight of 11 games, including each of the last five. And in Duke's last three games, he has 25 assists against six turnovers. He also has multiple steals in seven games—though he is the furthest thing from a lockdown defender.
That is exactly what Duke needs him to be. There are way too many gifted scorers on this roster for Duval to be wasting possessions trying to find his mid-range or three-point stroke. The Blue Devils should be unbeatable when he has more assists than field-goal attempts.
Then there's Allen, who has regained his sophomore-year form and then some. He isn't shooting quite as often as he did two years ago, but he's shooting considerably better and has a higher assist rate.
In the last 10 years, only one major-conference player has a) made at least three triples per game, b) shot at least 40 percent from three-point range and c) averaged at least four assists per game. That player was Denzel Valentine when he arguably should have won the Wooden Award in 2016 instead of Buddy Hield. But Allen meets each of those criteria through 11 games and might be headed for a weird scenario where he wins the Wooden and then isn't one of the first three players drafted from his team.
1. Tra Holder and Shannon Evans, Arizona State
Tra Holder: 22.6 PPG, 5.1 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 50.0% 3PT
Shannon Evans: 18.7 PPG, 5.1 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 42.0% 3PT
We mentioned Bobby Hurley in the justification for the No. 2 duo, and here he is again at No. 1 as the coach of this remarkable pair.
Try this nugget on for size: In the previous 15 seasons, there was only one player who averaged at least 18.0 points, 5.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game while shooting at least 42 percent from three-point range. That was Northwestern State's Jalan West, who played on an uptempo, no-defense team and always seems to pop up in research about collegiate guards putting up absurd numbers.
Yet, Arizona State has two players with numbers at least that impressive.
It's only seven games, so enjoy that grain of salt. But Tra Holder and Shannon Evans have a combined line of 41.3 points, 10.2 assists, 9.6 rebounds and 3.8 steals with a 45.7 percent conversion rate from distance. There isn't a suitable college comparison for what these Sun Devils have been doing, and it'd be a stretch to even come up with one from the NBA.
Evans—who played his first two seasons with Hurley in Buffalo before following him to this slightly warmer climate—has accounted for at least 14 points, four assists and two steals in each of his last six games. He has made at least four three-pointers in four games and is shooting 87.8 percent from the free-throw line. Were it not for Holder, Evans would probably be on the early fringe of the National Player of the Year conversation.
Holder's numbers have been a bit more sporadic, but he had at least 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists in each of his first three games. In the fourth game, he scored a career-high 35 points against UC Irvine. Less than a week later, he exploded for 40 points (on 22 shots) in Arizona State's statement win over Xavier.
And because these two guys have been so unstoppable, the rest of this offense is thriving, too. JUCO transfer De'Quon Lake is shooting 78.9 percent from the field with strong rebounding and block totals. Redshirt freshman Romello White isn't far behind him and has been getting to the free-throw line at a ridiculous rate. And Kodi Justice is the fourth player on this team averaging at least 15 points per game.
Don't expect much defense when you tune in to watch the Sun Devils face St. John's on Friday and Kansas on Sunday, but do expect to be entertained. With Holder and Evans running the show, this offense has been about as good as UCLA's was last year.
Kerry Miller covers men's basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.