Grading Every Top 25 College Basketball Team's Backcourt in 2013-14
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.
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.
24. Ohio State
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.
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.
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.
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.
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