NCAA Tournament Preview: Backcourts to Watch

March 13th, 2012

It's stated all the time this season. Guard play makes all the difference in the NCAA tournament, and to be honest it's hard to argue with that statement. So who are some of the top guard groups in this year's field? Here are 12 below along with a few superlatives. Not all of the usual suspects make the list, but try not to automatically dismiss the less heralded names either. 

South Region 

1. Duke
While this group does struggle at times on the defensive end of the floor there's no doubt that the Blue Devils' guards can fill it up. Austin Rivers is their best playmaker, and as long as the ACC Rookie of the Year can properly balance scoring with creating for his teammates he's very tough to stop. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are both dead-eye shooters, and Tyler Thornton is the best defender. But as noted above, if the defense isn't there Duke could find themselves in trouble. 

2. Xavier
The Musketeers have to get past a tough Notre Dame team before a possible matchup with Duke (don't sleep on Lehigh's C.J. McCollum), but despite their struggles throughout the season Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons aren't to be ignored. Holloway runs the show and Lyons mans the two, and they can also call on Brad Redford for perimeter shooting.  

Most are likely going to wonder why the Runnin' Rebels are on this list and not, say, UConn but the fact of the matter is that Dave Rice's group has been more consistent throughout the season. Anthony Marshall is one of the best athletes in the country and Oscar Bellfield's impact tends to be overlooked by many. Add in a very good defender in Justin Hawkins and shooter Kendall Wallace and Dave Rice has a corps of guards capable of winning multiple games in the tournament. 

Guards you'll love: C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) and Nate Wolters (South Dakota State)
Both are among the nation's best scorers, and Wolters leads the Jackrabbits in points, rebounds and assists. Each one has a matchup in which they could become household names, with McCollum taking on Duke and Wolters matching up with Baylor. 

Best defender: Victor Oladipo (Indiana)
Good luck getting past the athletic Oladipo, whose offensive game has gotten closer to his defensive skills as the season's progressed. At the least the sophomore could be a first team All-Big Ten player next year. 

The difference-maker: Marquis Teague (Kentucky)
If Kentucky's to reach their full potential (win a national title) the play of Teague will be key. He had an inconsistent SEC tournament but played his best basketball as the regular season came to a close.

The enigmatic group: Connecticut
Talent-wise there may not be a better group in the region. But despite the talent of Ryan Boatright, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier there are questions, most importantly will they be "there" for the entire 40 minutes. Drifting in and out of a game will get you beat this time of the year. 

East Region 

1. Syracuse
The Orange at the least can go three deep with starters Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche with one of the nation's best reserves in Dion Waiters coming off the bench. The key to a national title will be Jardine, because while the Orange can easily plug someone into his role skill-wise if the fifth-year senior's struggling they can't replace the experience. And with Fab Melo out the guards become even more important.  

2. Ohio State
This region has two elite defenders with the Buckeyes' Aaron Craft being one (more on the other later), and William Buford could become the program's all-time leading scorer with a deep run in the tournament. The Buckeyes aren't particularly deep on the perimeter (Jordan Sibert backs up Craft) but they are talented. 

3. Florida State
If Luke Loucks takes care of the basketball this group has the ability to be even better than third best in the region. Michael Snaer has beenvery good all season long and the midseason addition of Ian Miller definitely helped on the offensive end. Deividas Dulkys can get hot from deep, as he did in their regular season win over North Carolina, and all can defend. 

Guards you'll love: Will Cherry (Montana) and Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga)  
Cherry's the other defensive star in this region, as he was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Sky and is among the best in the country in steals. Pangos is just a freshman, and his first introduction to college basketball came in the form of his impressive shooting performance in Gonzaga's tip-off marathon appearance. 

Best defender: Craft

The difference-maker: Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin)
Wisconsin's been a team some have pegged as a possible upset victim, and if the Badgers are to not only avoid that but win multiple games their senior point guard will have to be at his best. 

The enigmatic group: Cincinnati
The Bearcats were able to make a shift to a smaller lineup comfortably with the emergence (and return to health) of Jaquon Parker, and they've been a better team as a result. But given the number of threes that Dion Dixon, Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright get to take, the Bearcats need them to be on if they're to make a run.

Midwest Region

1. Temple
North Carolina has Kendall Marshall and Kansas can point to Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson. But the three-headed attack that Fran Dunphy has could be the best backcourt in the region. Juan Fernandez, Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt can all do a variety of things, making them interchangable in a sense. If they're on the Owls have the ability to not only reach the Sweet 16 but possibly go even further. 

2. Kansas
Tyshawn Taylor shouldn't be questioned at this point, as the senior's matured and made better decisions with the basketball at this point in the season. The guy the Jayhawks need to be a factor over the next couple of weeks is Elijah Johnson, as he can relieve some of the pressure on the shoulders of Taylor and Thomas Robinson. Travis Releford has also been a key cog this season, and that will need to continue if Kansas is to reach New Orleans.

3. San Diego State
The Aztecs go four deep on the perimeter and all four can hurt you in different ways. Xavier Thames runs the show at the point and Chase Tapley is a solid scorer at the two, and all Jamaal Franklin did was win Mountain West Player of the Year. Last but not least is James Rahon, a key reserve in their Elite 8 run last season who can not only knock down perimeter shots but also do the little things. 

Guys you'll love: D.J. Cooper (Ohio) and Kerron Johnson (Belmont)
Cooper was a key figure in the Bobcats' whipping of Georgetown in the 2010 tournament, and he's improved as a scorer while remaining a very good distributor. Johnson leads the way for Belmont, a team that's been a popular selection when it comes to teams that can pull off an upset (or two). 

Best defender: Jorge Gutierrez (California)
Gutierrez won Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts and with good reason. The senior is one guard few will be looking forward to seeing on the other side of the floor, beginning with USF on Wednesday night. 

The difference-maker: Kendall Marshall (North Carolina)
The best passer in the region will be the guy who determines the winner of the Midwest. Marshall has also been more willing to punish sagging defenders by way of the jump shot, an aspect of his game that's improved over the course of the season. 

Emerging star: Lorenzo Brown (NC State)
For a short time some asked if Brown was in fact the best point guard in the ACC. He's that talented, and with his size the sophomore has the potential to be a matchup problem for teams this week. And he's only going to get better with more experience. 

West Region

1. Missouri
The Tigers navigated Laurence Bowers' torn ACL quite well thanks to their guards, going 30-4 and winning the Big 12 tournament title. Phil Pressey runs the show while Marcus Denmon and Kim English are the leading scorers. There's also Phil's older brother Matt and off the bench Michael Dixon Jr. is one of the best sixth men in the country. English's ability to produce at the four is tough to match, and unless a team has Jamar Samuels-like presence (Kansas State beat the Tigers twice for this reason) Mizzou could be headed to New Orleans. 

2. Florida
The Gators are also deep on the perimeter but the key for them will be the decision making of Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. If those two are unselfish and get the ball to Bradley Beal and Patric Young then Florida has the look of a team that can get to a Final Four. When they don't things tend to go wrong. Virginia's pack line defense will force Florida to make perimeter jumpers, but that's one of the things they do best. 

3. Murray State
We all know about Isaiah Canaan by this point and rightfully so as the OVC Player of the Year is also an All-American. But Donte Poole can play as well, averaging 14.2 points per game. Add in senior Jewuan Long and you've got a nice group of guard capable of leading the Racers to the second weekend of the tournament. 

Guys you'll love: Jason Brickman (LIU Brooklyn) and Casper Ware (Long Beach State)
Tried to go a bit off the radar with one of these selections, and with the high tempo that the Blackbirds prefer the sophomore from Texas will be fun to watch against Michigan State. Ware's been outstanding for four years and finally gets his shot at the game's biggest stage after two straight losses in the Big West tournament final. 

Best defender: Darius Johnson-Odom (Marquette)
If Long Beach State's Larry Anderson were 100% he could qualify as would teammate James Ennis. But DJO, who is also one of the best scorers in the field, is also a good defender who can get out in passing lanes. With the Golden Eagles lacking a defensive presence in the paint the defensive effort of Johnson-Odom on the perimeter becomes even more important. 

The difference-maker: Joe Jackson (Memphis)
One of the reasons why Josh Pastner's team has played so well down the stretch is that they've allowed Chris Crawford to take on more of the distribution duties. That in turn has relieved some of the pressure on Jackson, but he's still going to have to play well if the Tigers are to go out and prove that they were underseeded. 

Another difference-maker: Peyton Siva (Louisville)
The question of which Siva will we see in Portland is similar to which Louisville team will we see: the one that was inconsistent during Big East play and struggled to score, or the one that won four games in New York City last week. If Siva's on and making good decisions the Cardinals are capable of beating anyone. If not then they're also capable of losing to anyone.