This week when I ranked the upcoming season's top 10 frontcourts, my selections were heavily influenced by the high number of elite big men who've chosen to forego the NBA draft. But when it comes to the nation's top guards, you can make a case that this year looks a lot more "normal." Pretty much everyone who was expected to "go early" did go early. Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker...they're all long gone.
Meaning it's time to meet the new breed. To be sure, there are some familiar names here. For example last year Jordan Taylor and Tu Holloway were named second- and third-team All-Americans, respectively. Still, many if not most of the players you see below will soon be praised for "stepping up," "maturing," and every other euphemism for "we just started paying attention to you." Here are your top 10 backcourts for 2011-12:
Jordan Taylor may see his kenpom efficiency ranking dip this season, now that Jon Leuer's no longer around to draw the attention of opposing defenses. Then again a pure shooter who carries the responsibilities of a point guard, sprays assists, and gets to the line is a rare quantity, to say the very least. Not to mention Taylor's biggest play of the season (his block on Jacob Pullen's would-be game-tying shot in the closing moments of the Badgers' win over Kansas State in the NCAA tournament) may have come on defense. Bo Ryan, give this man some help.
Pitt's backcourt has bid farewell to Brad Wanamaker, but it still has Ashton Gibbs for one more season. The 6-2 senior is a career 44 percent three-point shooter. Considering a lot of those makes have come against Big East defenses while Gibbs has functioned as his team's star player, that is a remarkable figure. Jamie Dixon, give this man some help.
I trust freshman point guard Dee Davis will be every bit as good as advertised for the Musketeers this season, but Chris Mack's backcourt is on this list because of Tu Holloway, period. At first glance Holloway may not be what you'd call drop-dead accurate from the field -- last year he made less than half his twos and 35 percent of his threes -- but keep in mind he was a scoring point guard who played almost 95 percent of his team's minutes. Besides, who says the only place you can score is from the field? Holloway excels at getting to the line, where he's a career 85 percent shooter. He was the driving force behind a Xavier offense that scored an outstanding 1.17 points per possession against the A-10 last year. In other words Holloway deserved that third-team All-American nod, if not more.
Even with Isaiah Thomas choosing to put his name in for the NBA draft, the Huskies will still have a full contingent of wings returning to Seattle this fall. Of course, whether a wing is a "true" backcourt player is open to discussion, but since both Scott Suggs and 2011 Pac-10 All-Freshman selection C.J. Wilcox attempted many more threes than twos, I'll put them here. (If you also count the somewhat less three-centric Terrence Ross as a member of the UW "backcourt," then bump the Huskies up a place or two on this list.) Throw in Abdul Gaddy, who missed all but 13 games as a sophomore last year, and freshman point guard Tony Wroten (a Seattle prospect so good that when he didn't make the McDonald's All-American team it was termed a snub), and Romar should have more than enough backcourt weapons to face the post-Isaiah era with confidence.
In the wake of coach Mike Anderson's move from Missouri to Arkansas, there were a few observers on hand in Columbia who said "good riddance," on the grounds that the Tigers' offense had allegedly appeared "sloppy" and/or "disorganized" anyway. Those observers must have been watching a different Marcus Denmon than the one I saw last year. To put it as succinctly as I can, the man's shots almost always went in (he made 45 percent of his threes and 54 percent of his twos) and he almost never committed turnovers (he gave the ball away just 32 times all season even though he was, easily, Mizzou's leading scorer). I call that clean and organized. I suspect new coach Frank Haith is delighted to have Denmon and 6-1 junior point guard Michael Dixon in his backcourt, not to mention 6-6 senior Kim English on the wing.
5. North Carolina
I have called Kendall Marshall "the proverbial player who simply makes his teammates better," and what took place last season bears repeating. Before Marshall was inserted into the Tar Heels' starting lineup on January 18, Carolina's offense was struggling. Conversely with Marshall on the floor for the opening tip Roy Williams' team scored 1.09 points per trip for the rest of the ACC regular season. Not all of that was due to Marshall, of course -- Harrison Barnes was steadily improving throughout the year -- but it does seem to have been something more than a coincidence. This year assist-monster Marshall will be joined by Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland, and McDonald's All-American shooting guard P.J. Hairston.
4. Ohio State
On a team where Jon Diebler was shooting 50 percent on his threes, it was tough to stand out in terms of perimeter excellence. Yet we shouldn't overlook William Buford, who shot 44 percent from outside the arc last year and did so while carrying a much larger load on offense than Diebler's. As for Aaron Craft, as a freshman he was nominally the sixth man for the Buckeyes but he actually played many more minutes than starter Dallas Lauderdale. In truth Thad Matta won 34 games with Buford, Craft, Diebler, Jared Sullinger, and David Lighty on the floor for much of the time. Craft was the only Big Ten player whose selection to the league's all-defensive team was unanimous. True, the last time you saw Craft Kentucky's Brandon Knight was hitting the game-winner over him in the Sweet 16. I'm guessing Craft remembers that too. Also in Columbus this fall will be McDonald's All-American Shannon Scott, a 6-2 point guard who will try to crack Matta's notoriously tight rotation.
I thought Doron Lamb was a bit overlooked in Lexington last year. He's obviously an outstanding pure shooter, and you probably know he made 49 percent of his threes as a freshman. (Question: if you're an elite three-point shooter in high school and you're fortunate enough to receive an offer from Kentucky, why in the world would you go anywhere else? You know that year after year Calipari is going to surround you with more than enough talent to give you open looks all season long.) But did you know Lamb actually shot more twos than threes -- and made more than half of those attempts inside the arc? Don't let it be said that Lamb is "just" a three-point shooter. (Ha. Like Calipari wouldn't have given anything for one of those in the 2010 Elite Eight.) Speaking of being surrounded with talent, this season Lamb will welcome point guard Marquis Teague and wing Michael Gilchrist to UK. Both are McDonald's All-Americans.
Depending on who's doing the rating, 6-5 freshman combo guard Austin Rivers is either the top recruit in the nation or a close second behind Kentucky freshman big man Anthony Davis (both of whom, by the way, are currently projected as lottery picks in the 2012 NBA draft). In either case Duke is happy to have Rivers, not to mention his classmates: 6-6 wing Michael Gbinije and 6-0 point guard Quinn Cook. Add in veteran shooters Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins (the duo shot a combined 43 percent on their threes last year), and you can see why Mike Krzyzewski says his team will have "very good talent" and "good depth," even with the departures of Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, and Kyrie Irving.
Last year Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton were the leading scorers on an underrated Gator team that scored 1.12 points per possession against the SEC and came within an overtime period of making the Final Four. Both players are back in Gainesville this season. Walker almost single-handedly willed Billy Donovan's team to their win over UCLA in the NCAA tournament's round of 32. Boynton's three-point shooting (33 percent last year) still isn't where it "should" be for an 82 percent FT shooter, but perhaps the junior can draw inspiration from former Ohio State perimeter ace Jon Diebler. After all, both Boynton and Diebler started their college careers making just 29 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc as freshmen. This season Boynton and Walker will be joined by 6-3 shooting guard Brad Beal, who stands a fair chance of someday being the first freshman on this list to hear his name called out by David Stern. (Beal's competition for this honor may well come from Austin Rivers and Michael Gilchrist.)
In case you're wondering the teams that appeared on both my lists, top frontcourts and top backcourts, are: Kentucky, Ohio State, and North Carolina. I'll go out on an analytic limb and say those teams should be pretty good this year. You heard it here first.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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