One-on-One: Discussing the best backcourts in college basketball

Chris Crawford and Memphis are loaded with senior guards. Best backcourt in the nation, perhaps? (USATSI)
Chris Crawford and Memphis are loaded with senior guards. Best backcourt in the nation, perhaps? (USATSI)

This is a new segment we're going to try every now and again, called One-on-One. college basketball writers Matt Norlander and Jeff Borzello will banter back and forth on just about any issue, so why not put it to some elongated use? With the news Wednesday that Memphis would get Michael Dixon for the 2013-14 season, the question of best backcourts in the country came up. So who are the best? Our guys vetted out the top 10 over email. Here's the correspondence.

Matt Norlander: This is what I love about Twitter, Borzello. Our colleague, Gary Parrish, breaks news about Michael Dixon's eligibility at Memphis. That causes some folks to comment on just how strong the Tigers' guard play should be this season. Then the conversation moves to where Memphis' backcourt falls in the greater ranks in all of college basketball.

Before you know it, Gottlieb's chiming in and our @EyeonCBB feed is getting bombarded with nominations for which teams have the best backcourts. So seeing how it's September, we're starving for hoops and the Dixon news has given us a legitimate debate, care to hash this out here and now? Let's rank the top 10 backcourts in college hoops. I'm thinking we'll qualify that by taking in every guard that's likely to get "significant" minutes, meaning they're nearly certain to average more than 10.

Probably best to work from the top on down. So let's go to the No. 1 guard platoon on college hoops. Name 'em and state the case

Jeff Borzello: Honestly, after today's news about Dixon, I give the edge to Memphis. And to be clear, we're not talking about perimeter groups. So no Andrew Wiggins for Kansas, no Rodney Hood or Jabari Parker for Duke. Only guards are eligible. But back to Memphis. The Tigers are deep and experienced with their main quartet of Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson and now Dixon. They have ball-handlers, scorers, defenders, pretty much everything you can ask for in a backcourt. 

I think you can make a case for Louisville or Oklahoma State, but I think Memphis' depth and experience gives the Tigers an edge.
MN: I think I agree, and that's no way to start a list-making debate here. But given Memphis' experience, defense and four extremely capable guards -- how can you go wrong? Like you said, this is not "perimeter groups," a term that muddies up definitions and leans forward in new-age basketball species and sorting.

OK, so we're agreed on Memphis, taking into account both talent and depth at the position. So who's No. 2? I'm going Louisville. Won the title last year, lose Peyton Siva, but I gotta be honest here. Siva was a good talent, tremendous leader and unique player under Rick Pitino. Also true? He had bad decisions at the ready. Maybe not as many as Russ Smith, but Siva was prone to a boneheaded play now and again. Louisville's bringing in Chris Jones, one of my most anticipated players for the upcoming season. Russ Smith was on a per-possession basis the most valuable guard in the game last season. Kevin Ware is a solid backup -- if his leg is fully healed. And then you get Terry Rozier and Anton Gill, two names most fans outside of Kentucky don't know, but that to me rivals Memphis -- if Ware can match or improve on his play from last year.

JB: I don't want to agree with you, because then it gets boring. I love Louisville's backcourt, and I think Terry Rozier is going to be a stud. He blew up during his prep year at Hargrave Military Academy, and the trio of Russ, Chris Jones and Rozier is going to be exceptional.

With that said, I think a really good case could be made for the duo at Oklahoma State. Marcus Smart is one of the best guards in the country, obviously, and I think Markel Brown is underrated nationally as a scorer. Phil Forte can stretch a defense with his shooting ability, and Stevie Clark is an undersized but confident freshman. Louisville has a higher ceiling on the perimeter, but Oklahoma State's known commodities are impressive.

MN: Gimme Louisville at two, Oklahoma State at three. OK, good. I think we're about ready to veer in different directions, though. Fourth overall: Gonzaga. DEBATE ME.

Norlander is very high on the Zags' guards. (USATSI)

JB: Gonzaga? I like Pangos, I like Gary Bell, David Stockton is fine, but I'm not completely sold on Gerard Coleman. And they still don't have anyone in the backcourt that really scares me as a one-on-one player. When the shot clock is winding down, they don't have those go-to-guys who can get their own shot consistently. Definitely wouldn't have them fourth. 

There are a gaggle of teams I would take over them, but let's start with Kentucky. Wildcats bring in the nation's best point guard in Andrew Harrison, the nation's best shooting guard in Aaron Harrison, and then another top-10 recruit in James Young. Talent-wise, that's a loaded trio. Talk to me, goose.

MN: How fitting. You mention "gaggle" and tag it with "goose," which is also the term for a flock of geese. No doubt unintentional on your part, but well-played, Ice ... Man.

Kentucky was my choice for No. 5. There are overall chemistry questions I have with them. The talent is there. Is there anything beyond those three, though? We know Cal's done great things with certain guards in the past. Talent-wise I think it's a higher ceiling than Gonzaga. As a unit, I like what the Bulldogs bring back and factor in. And speaking of proven work with good backcourts, Mark Few's had his fair share of deft guards.

I can give you UK at four, but we gotta go Gonzaga at five. If you're down with that, let's move on to the second half of this list.

JB: Definitely don't think Gonzaga has a better backcourt than Connecticut. Not even close. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun have to be ahead of the Zags. Come on, kid. Shoot, I would put Notre Dame ahead of Gonzaga too. Irish have a helluva backcourt. Jerian Grant, Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton -- and the addition of stud fresh Demetrius Jackson. Loaded.

MN: You must've forgotten how good Kevin Pangos looked at the World University Games this summer. Factor in Gerard Coleman, Gary Bell, Jr., Mini Stockton and Drew Barham -- who will probably average more than 10 minutes next season -- and the Bulldogs have serious, serious depth. That's where they win over for me. 

Personally, I'd take Notre Dame's group over UConn's at No. 6. And I'm not so sure I even would have UConn at No. 7. What about Oregon?

JB: Just tell me exactly what Gonzaga's backcourt has over UConn. I literally don't see a single thing. Drew Barham averaging over 10 minutes a game doesn't convince me.

And there's no way you watched the World University Games.

MN: Hey, I caught some streams! Napier and Boatright too inconsistent -- Boatright especially way too inconsistent -- for me to think they deserve to be a top-five backcourt entering this season. The two of them, and Calhoun, combined to turn the ball over six and a half times per game last year. And I watched plenty of UConn. It was often not pretty. Also, Huskies pretty much only go three-deep. That has to factor in.

JB: I would take Napier over Pangos, Boatright over Bell, and Calhoun over Coleman. Lasan Kromah averaged double-figures at George Washington last season. Gives them some nice bench pop.

MN: WE NEED RESOLUTION HERE. I like Pangos over Napier AND Bell over Boatright because he's a more reliable player. AND I like Notre Dame's group over UConn as it is. Maybe even Oregon, too. We're not putting UConn fifth. If you like them that much, we can go No. 6, but we're on different sides of the aisle here with the Huskies. What's it going to be?

JB: I just don't see how you can like Pangos over Napier and Bell over Boatright. Just doesn't make sense. 

But I guess we'll just put Gonzaga fifth (gross), UConn sixth, Notre Dame seventh.
Onto eight. You like Oregon, eh? I think a lot depends on whether Joseph Young is cleared to play immediately or not. If he's cleared, that's a tremendous group. If not, it's a really good group -- but maybe not loaded enough for No. 8. What about Duke? Blue Devils bring back Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, plus Matt Jones was one of the best shooters in the class of 2013. And don't forget about the return of Andre Dawkins, who can really shoot. Tyler Thornton is more than serviceable as a backup point guard.
What say you?
MN: We really vaulted ahead to No. 8 there, I see. But a deal's a deal. I do like Notre Dame over Oregon's group (even if I like both over UConn, who'd I'd have at No. 8), so ipso facto, here we are. I'm going based off Young eventually playing this season, effectively projecting this group's impact. Duke's got a very good case. I think we both really love Sulaimon's game. Cook is looking less and less like what many expected him to be entering college. You know a lot more on Matt Jones' game than I. Dawkins can definitely shoot, but we know there's probably some question marks regarding his production and how much he'll see the floor.

If Oregon gets Young, that means they'll have him, Damyean Dotson -- who I think will average 14/game -- Dominic Artis (who can go from 8.5 PPG to 10 this year very easily). Even relative no-namers like Johnathan Loyd, who was in the game 22 minutes per last season, can be effective. Oregon's a chic team to win 25 this year, and again, we're talking depth. I think it's a coin toss between them and Duke.

JB: I agree that it's a coin toss -- but I think the tiebreaker could be that Young isn't cleared yet. By the way, you didn't even mention Detroit transfer Jason Calliste for Oregon, who will bring some perimeter shooting and another wing scorer along with Dotson. I love Dominic Artis, and I think Oregon is going to be a real threat to win the Pac-12 title. 

Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier were flashy but
inconsistent last year.
With that said, I would lean Duke at this point. If Young gets cleared, Oregon could vault ahead. I just don't know we can make that assumption yet.
Are we really suddenly onto our final spot in the rankings? We really made some moves there.
MN: That we are. OK, Duke at No. 8, Oregon at No. 9.
Who are we rounding out this list with? I nominate, in no order: Ohio State, St. John's, Michigan State, Kansas, Cincy, Georgetown. A bottleneck for the final spot.

JB: I think we can knock Cincy out immediately. Sean Kilpatrick is great, but who's the point guard? Troy Caupain? 

-- I like Georgetown's duo of Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, and Jabril Trawick is strong on the wing, but depth could be an issue with them. 
-- Kansas is so unproven in the backcourt, even though I think Wayne Selden is going to be an absolute stud. Naadir Tharpe will have to be more consistent.
-- Obviously love Aaron Craft for Ohio State, but Lenzelle Smith and Shannon Scott are going to be counted on to score more this season. Kameron Williams will put up points as a freshman.
Alright, so I'm down to St. John's and Michigan State. The Johnnies probably have more pure talent and depth, especially with the return of D'Angelo Harrison from suspension and the addition of freshman Rysheed Jordan. Phil Greene and Jamal Branch are two more guys who can handle and score.
I'll go with Michigan State, though, even though it has questions. Keith Appling is the big key, as he needs to be effective on a consistent basis. Gary Harris should be healthy for the start of the season, and he could be poised for an All-American season. Travis Trice provides good depth.
Going off your list, though, I think Florida has a really good case -- if Scottie Wilbekin comes back from suspension and Eli Carter gets cleared to play immediately. Kasey Hill is an immediate impact player, and Michael Frazier is ready for a bigger offensive role. 
And here's two sleeper backcourts: Colorado and Boise State. Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the best point guards in the country, and Askia Booker is a good scorer. And Boise State has a terrific duo in Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, plus the shooting of Jeff Elorriaga. 
Screw it, I'm going with Boise State at No. 10.

MN: Great call on Colorado and Boise State. I gotta see it from St. John's. The ceiling is high -- definitely high enough to qualify making this list -- but, I don't know, I can't bite on them yet. There's plenty of gotta-prove-it for Michigan State, yet Sparty's squad is still viable, absolutely. As a unit, and how I think that group complements MSU's big men, I think it's only right to put that at No. 10 entering the season. We cool with that?

And by the way, this debate shows just how terrific college basketball's guards should be entering next season. We could build out a top 25 if we really wanted to without straining ourselves too much. That bodes well for the sport. It's been a long time since so many teams had so many options and threats going three or four deep.

JB: So wait, we're putting Michigan State's backcourt at No. 10 because of the way they complement the big men? Doesn't seem like a sensible thing to do. Let's hear your case for them over Boise State (and Colorado). I'm open to it, just need a legitimate case.

MN: Shouldn't complementing the team as a whole count for something? How they make the frontcourt better factors in, surely. Gary Harris could be Big Ten Player of the Year, so I think that automatically qualifies them for discussion. Appling is key, yes. There's been a lot said and written this offseason for how critical his play will be. As is, those two were the biggest statistical contributors for MSU last season. Any reason to believe that won't be the case again?

Plus, Denzel Valentine was in games more often than Trice, and I think that's a very good foursome in a better league than Colorado and Boise State. I love BSU's guys, but don't think they match up athletically as well or do as much overall as MSU's. And Colorado is top-heavy. So that's my case.

JB: Denzel Valentine is like a point-forward -- I don't think we should count him as part of the backcourt. If Colorado is top-heavy, so is Michigan State.

I love Michigan State's duo, I just think they have some unanswered questions: Appling's consistency, Harris' health.

Boise State has a little bit of everything. Two big-time scorers in Marks and Drmic, a gunner in Elloriaga, and really good depth with Mikey Thompson and Igor Hadziomerovic. Plus it's always cool to think outside the box. As you witnessed in Atlanta at the Waffle House, I'm pushing the Boise State bandwagon as far as I can.

MN: Igor Hadziomerovic? I can make up names too, y'know. That 4 a.m post-Final Four Waffle House run was so clutch. As for the list, it's getting litigious, which means we're really rounding into form for when we have to do our annual Top 100 Players in College Basketball. At least we won't have Goodman to bully us around this year.

I'm a compromising man. You gave me Gonzaga at 5, so we can do Boise State at 10. I have a feeling it's going to look like we swung and missed on MSU come February, is all. So here's the list, once and for all.

1. Memphis
2. Louisville
3. Oklahoma State
4. Kentucky
5. Gonzaga
6. UConn
7. Notre Dame
8. Duke
9. Oregon
10. Boise State

Any last words?

JB: We probably will miss on Michigan State, and we're going to look ridiculous for having Gonzaga at No. 5. So I guess we're even now.

Man, this got me excited for our preseason coverage -- and eventually, the season. I'm goosed.
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