Point guards are the quarterbacks of their respective teams. This comparison is often said because of the similarities and responsibilities that lie within each position in their respective sports. Besides a solid quarterback, the five best backcourts in the country also have depth, experience, and athleticism. Watch for these five teams to make deep runs this year because of their great backcourt play:
Duke Blue Devils:
Despite their recent tournament struggles, the Duke backcourt is full of all the major elements that lead to March success. They have a dynamic mix of leadership and talent. Senior Greg Paulus was recruited heavily to play quarterback in college by powerhouse football programs such as Miami, Michigan, and Ohio State. He has all the intangibles from being a leader on the court and the field that a point guard should possess. Paulus exhibits extreme toughness and has improved his long distance shooting over the last two seasons (42% from 3 last year). Jon Scheyer has all the physical skills to be a top player in the conference. Scheyer has unlimited range on his jumper and should have the green light from Coach K to shoot at will. However, the young Duke guards provide the athleticism that could propel this backcourt into elite status. Sophomore Nolan Smith should see increased playing time, displaying great speed and ability to finish last season. Smith shot 47% from the field and 39% from 3 point range last year. He will also play the role of being Duke’s shut-down defender. Not to mention Smith has the genes to be a gamer. Nolan’s father, Derek Smith, played at Louisville before playing in the NBA for 10 seasons. Highly touted freshman Elliot Williams, is a slashing 6"4 lefty, that could provide a spark off the bench.
Marquette Golden Eagles:
Marquette may have arguably the most experienced backcourt in the nation. New coach Buzz Williams is hoping his team will go farther in March after a disappointing overtime loss in last year's 2nd Round. Two seniors, Dominic James and Jerel McNeal, lead the Golden Eagles this year. Dominic James is almost a lock to make first team All-Big East. James has averaged 30 minutes a game since his freshman year and I’d be surprised if he even comes off the court this year. He is also currently 4th in Marquette history with 488 career assists. Jerel McNeal is the best on-ball defender in the Big East, maybe the country, and will be assigned the task of shutting down the best players on opposing teams. McNeal also led the Golden Eagles in scoring last year at 14.9 points a game. If you are in a fantasy Big East league, like me, look to take McNeal early this year because he fills the stat sheet every night. Wesley Matthews may be Marquette’s best kept secret. Matthews, like James and McNeal, is a senior that provides leadership on and off the court. He was fourth on the team in scoring last season and was one of two players to start all 35 games for the Golden Eagles.
North Carolina Tarheels:
Who would win in a race from baseline to baseline between Usain Bolt and Ty Lawson? Ty Lawson changes the game of basketball. If a team does not sprint back on defense on every possession, Lawson will hurt you. He withdrew his name from the NBA draft and returns to make UNC one of the most dangerous and diverse backcourts in the nation. To compliment Lawson’s speed and quickness is Wayne Ellington’s knack of getting to the rim and finishing. He also possesses one of the smoothest shots in the land. Ellington was second on the team in scoring last season (16.6) behind a man that will have his jersey retired in Chapel Hill, Mr. Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough opens things up for Ellington and the rest of the perimeter players because he will constantly get double teamed in the post. This will leave Ellington, Danny Green, and Marcus Ginyard (when he joins the team after recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot), wide open to knock down open jumpers. The combination of Lawson and Ellington is eerily similar to the 2005 backcourt of Felton and McCants. Don’t forget that Felton, McCants, and company cut down the nets in 2005. Lawson and Ellington have that same plan in mind.
UCLA’s backcourt brings a great deal of depth into the 2008-09 season. After flirting with the idea of a professional career both Josh Shipp and Darren Collison return to go along with two true freshmen Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee. Shipp and Collison bring experience from the 2008 Final Four team and a sense of leadership on the court. Shipp was fourth on the team in scoring last season and will be remembered for making a circus shot over the backboard against California in the final seconds of a game last year. Collison was second on the team in scoring behind NBA lottery pick Kevin Love. Collison also loves to mix it up on the defensive end of the floor where he led the Bruins last year with just under two steals per game. There are always question marks for incoming freshman because they need to prove that they can play at the collegiate level. Jrue Holiday is even being mentioned in the same breath as Dwyane Wade. I think Ben Howland and company can figure out a way to use a clone of D. Wade in their system. True freshman Malcolm Lee brings depth to the Bruin backcourt. Lee is a combo guard of sorts but can score at will. The freshman will gain experience at the beginning of the season with a potential early matchup with Duke at Madison Square Garden. Expect them to parlay this early season test into great Pac-10 play and a deep run in March.
Many eyes this season are focused on Hasheem Thabeet and the big men of Connecticut. However, the Huskies success starts with their backcourt. What happens if A.J. Price doesn’t go down with an injury in the opening round of the tournament? I give all the credit in the world to San Diego, who showed that they were the better team on that particular day. However, the injury to Price shows how valuable he is to this team. His ability to get his teammates involved and to create for himself (14.5 ppg) makes Price one of the most feared point guards in the Big East. Fellow senior Craig Austrie and junior Jerome Dyson play a significant role as well. Austrie and Dyson must do a better job of knocking down open jumpers when Price drives and kicks. Freshman Kemba Walker will contribute right away. Walker made a name for himself playing with USA’s U18 national team this summer. “He just gets better and better and makes everyone around him better,” said national team head coach Bob McKillop of Walker. Look for hall of fame coach Jim Calhoun to experiment to find the right combination of guards to have them ready come tournament time.
Just Missed the Cut:
Gonzaga Bulldogs: The top two leading scorers for Gonzaga return this season. Senior Jeremy Pargo withdrew his name from the draft and should be a force to reckon with this year. Pargo’s only weakness is that he struggles to shoot the deep ball. He is extremely quick and is a game changer. Junior Matt Bouldin complements Pargo with his long range jumper. Look for Austin Daye to handle the rock more this season as well.
Purdue Boilermakers: Purdue surprised a few teams last year. They return Big Ten Defensive POY Chris Kramer. He may defend the passing lane better then anyone in the country. Junior Keaton Grant shot 44% from three point land last season. Grant will need another solid showing from behind the arc to build upon Purdue’s success last year. The Boilermakers also return their leading scorer E’Twaun Moore. Moore, a sophomore, became the first freshman to lead Purdue in scoring in their program’s history.
Louisville Cardinals: The Cardinals have great depth in their backcourt coming into the 2008-09 season. With the upperclassmen trio of Jerry Smith, Andre McGee, and Edgar Sosa returning this year, they have the most experience in the Big East outside of Marquette. Terrence Williams, who mostly plays the 3, will also have ball handling responsibilities and brings a great deal of energy to the floor.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo’s club always possesses a diverse backcourt. They return four significant players from last year’s team. Although the departure of Drew Nietzel will hurt the Spartans, look for the rest of the gang to pick up where he left off. The Spartans also will rotate three sophomores, along with senior Travis Walton. Kalin Lucas, 10.3 ppg in 25 mpg, will need to put up points in order for this team to be successful. Durrell Summers and Chris Allen are highly athletic wings that will bring a spark to this club.
Providence Friars: The Providence Friars will look to improve this year under first year coach Keno Davis. Davis will try to implement his new game plan that earned him coach of the year honors at Drake a season ago. The Friars get true point guard Sharraud Curry back from injury last season. Seniors Weyinmi Efejuku is the most athletic player on the squad and fellow senior Jeff Xavier led them in scoring last year. Brian McKenzie is also extremely dangerous from deep. Look for this Friar team to live and die by the 3-ball. I think with Keno at the helm, they will surprise many teams and analysts this year.