There's been a changing of the guard, pun intended, over the past decade or so in college basketball. Mid-major squads are suddenly able to hang with the big boys in the NCAA Tournament due to outstanding guard play. The three-point shot has become the ultimate equalizer to the size and athleticism of the bigger, more traditional schools. While the major programs still bring in the majority of the McDonald's All-Americans, this list is littered with guards from smaller conferences and smaller schools, showing that even the smallest players can make a huge splash on the college hoops scene.
With that in mind, let's look at the nation's best guards for the upcoming college basketball campaign.
1. Nate Wolters, South Dakota State - Wolters' basketball IQ and passing skills are off the charts. He is constantly compared in size and strengths to Jimmer Fredette, with Fredette being a superior shooter and Wolters excelling as a passer and rebounder. Wolters' 2011-2012 line was ultra-impressive: 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Wolters saw a curious drop in three-point shooting prowess last year, as his three-point percentage dipped to an uncharacteristic 24.1 after shooting 40.8 percent from beyond the arc as a sophomore. If his long-distance stroke returns, there's no reason to believe Wolters can't meet and/or exceed last year's stat line.
2. Vincent Council, Providence - All Council did in the absence of Marshon Brooks last season was elevate his game even higher. The 6-foot-2 point guard from Brooklyn averaged 15.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists per contest, playing an astounding 38.7 minutes per game for the Friars. A volume scorer, Brooks shot just 39.1 percent from the floor but took 15.2 shots per game. Passing is his true talent, though, as he finished fourth in the nation in assists. Expect more of the same from Council during his senior campaign.
3. Ray McCallum, Detroit - McCallum plays for his father at Detroit and shows all the instincts that one would expect from a coach's son. He shot 45.8 percent from the field en route to 15.4 points per game with 4.5 boards, 4.0 dimes and 1.6 steals. McCallum is more of a mid-range and paint scorer, hitting just 24 percent from beyond the arc. Still, he has an NBA skill set with terrific quickness, speed and explosiveness. If he were a few inches taller (6-1), he'd be talked about as a top-5 draft pick.
4. Brandon Triche, Syracuse - There's a huge void to fill in Syracuse with the departures of Dion Waiters, Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Fab Melo. Enter Triche, the leading returning scorer and assist man for the Orange. Despite the various graduations and early entries into the NBA, this 'Cuse squad is still full of talent with star recruits like Rakeem Christmas, Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland and C.J. Fair, among others. Triche will be asked to take on more of a leadership role after being largely a supplemental piece in 2011 when he managed 9.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.6 dimes per tilt.
5. Trey Burke, Michigan - The Ann Arbor faithful are certainly glad Burke decided to return for another season with the Wolverines. As a freshman, the speedster accumulated 14.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. Although his defense is a bit lackluster, he is a beast in transition and shot 43.3 percent from the field, including 34.8 percent from downtown. If he can draw contact a bit more and get to the rim instead of settling for jumpers in the half-court, he could be a dangerous all-around scoring threat.
6. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut - Many considered last season as a down year for Napier, but he still piled up 13.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the Huskies. Perhaps he was no Kemba Walker, but Napier still had Jeremy Lamb by his side. With both players now in the NBA, Napier will be the catalyst for the Huskies squad and first-year coach Kevin Ollie. Napier's shot selection needs to get better, as does his carelessness with the ball. Make no mistake about it, though; if Napier gets his head straight and is fully recovered from offseason foot surgery, he could be one of the best point guards in the land.
7. D.J. Cooper, Ohio - The diminutive point guard for the Bobcats has certainly flexed his muscle over his collegiate career, averaging at least 13 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists in each of the last three seasons. He actually had career lows in rebounds and assists as a junior, though managed 2.3 steals per game. A high-turnover player, Cooper can stuff the stat sheet in a variety of ways due to his sheer domination of the basketball. If you can stomach the turnovers, Cooper is a standout option at point guard.
8. Aaron Craft, Ohio State - Craft has some serious spunk as a former high school football player and valedictorian. He had 2.5 steals per game last season en route to being named the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year. Many might be surprised to learn that he shot 50 percent from the floor, though he was not asked to carry the offensive load with Jared Sullinger and William Buford on the floor with him. That should change this season with both players no longer with the Buckeyes. With 3.2 rebounds and 4.6 dimes per contest in 2011 as well, Craft will help any squad in a variety of categories.
9. Kenny Boynton, Florida - Erving Walker and Bradley Beal are gone, leaving much of the backcourt load to Boynton. Unlike the above-referenced Siva, Boynton's shooting has improved in each of his three seasons in Gainesville, culminating in a 40.7-percent clip from three-point land as a junior. In sum, Boynton averaged 15.9 points, 2.6 boards and 2.7 assists per game for the Gators. More of a score-first point guard, Boynton will be asked to facilitate a bit more and become a complete point guard this season.
10. Peyton Siva, Louisville - Siva is the unquestioned leader of a squad that went to the Final Four last season under coach Rick Pitino. From a statistical standpoint, though, his last two years were extremely similar. As a junior, he averaged 9.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. His shooting stroke continues to be a work in progress, as he shot a career-low 40.2 percent from the field, including an abysmal 24.6 percent from beyond the arc. A slasher and feisty defender who managed 1.7 steals per game, Siva's shot selection and ball control needs to improve if he is to make that leap into superstardom.
11. Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary's - 15.6 ppg, 6.4 apg
12. Pierre Jackson, Baylor - 13.8 ppg, 5.9 apg
13. Lorenzo Brown, NC State - 12.7 ppg, 6.3 apg
14. Frantz Massenat, Drexel - 13.7 ppg, 4.8 apg
15. Myck Kabongo, Texas - 9.8 ppg, 5.3 apg
1. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh - McCollum has dominated the Patriot League for a few years now, but burst into the national consciousness last season, leading a stunning 75-70 victory over No. 2 seed Duke in the NCAA tournament. In that contest, McCollum poured in 30 points with six rebounds and six assists. He went to the free-throw line 16 times, hitting 10. Overall, McCollum averaged 21.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 dimes and 2.6 steals per game as a junior. His scoring knack, along with his above-average rebounding skills at 6-3 as well as improved defending and passing, makes him arguably the top two-guard in college basketball.
2. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State - Another small-school phenom, Canaan collected 19.0 points, 3.5 boards and 3.6 assists per game as the Racers raced out to an impressive undefeated stretch of 23-0 last season. Canaan had four games of 30-plus points for Murray State, shooting a blistering 45.6 percent from three-point territory. Hitting 83.7 percent of his free-throws and 46.8 percent from the field made him an excellent crunch-time player as well. The Racers won't surprise anyone this season, but Canaan still has the tools to light up the scoreboard.
3. Jamaal Franklin, SDSU - The reigning Mountain West Player of the Year, Franklin averaged 17.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per game for the Aztecs as a sophomore. He's extremely athletic, confident and fits in seamlessly in the high-octane SDSU offense. He has shown an uncanny ability to get to the free-throw line, averaging more than six attempts per contest from the charity stripe. A superior rebounder at 6-5, Franklin can get the job done in a plethora of ways, making him a dangerous weapon for the Aztecs and fantasy owners alike.
4. B.J. Young Arkansas - Young tested NBA waters after a sensational freshman campaign before deciding to come back for another go-round with the Hogs. He averaged 15.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 dimes as a freshman, shooting an impressive 50.4 percent from the floor and 41.3 percent from three-point land. The speedy combo guard is quick in transition but will be asked to facilitate a bit more this season for the Razorbacks. Still, he's explosive, athletic and likely headed to the League following his sophomore campaign.
5. Rodney MacGruder, Kansas State - MacGruder stepped up his game as a junior, becoming the focal point of the K-State squad. He was the leading scorer at 15.8 points per tilt, and second-leading rebounder at 5.2 rebounds per game. Jamar Samuels is gone, leaving a further void both in the scoring column as well as on the glass. He cut down on his three-point shots and became much more efficient in his mid-range game, while also posting a career-high 80.2-percent clip from the charity stripe. A tireless worker who has become a quiet leader for the Wildcats, MacGruder should continue to have his way in the Big 12 this season.
6. Brandon Paul, Illinois - Paul has shaken off some difficult times at Illinois to become an all-round stud. He accumulated 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game as a junior, all career-highs. The major knock on Paul has been consistency; he has been known to get careless with the ball, averaging 3.4 turnovers per contest, and relies a bit too much on longer distance shots, where he shot 33.3 percent en route to just 39.2 percent from the field. He also needs to become better in the lane, off the dribble and around the rim. He should be helped by new coach John Groce, who will push the tempo and give Paul the space to succeed.
7. Reggie Bullock, UNC - The Heels lost Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes and John Henson to the NBA, leaving Bullock as the leading returning scorer and rebounder. He averaged 8.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, while hitting 38.2 percent of his treys. At 6-7, Bullock can get off his shot from the outside at will and definitely has the size and muscle to clean the glass. He will be asked to do much more than just shoot from the outside in 2012, though, making him an intriguing phenom to watch if his game improves off the dribble and below the three-point line.
8. Allen Crabbe, California - Crabbe has a sweet shooting stroke and does his damage mostly on jumpers. He averaged 15.2 points per game on 43.1-percent shooting, including 39.9 percent from beyond the arc. He's got great size at 6-6, 205, and can mix it up down low with the big boys as shown by his 5.7 rebounds per game. Crabbe is not the most athletic or explosive wing, and his defense could use some work. However, his shooting prowess combined with his excellent frame at the two-guard slot make him a superb option.
9. Michael Snaer, FSU - A deadly outside shooter, Snaer hit plenty of clutch shots for the Seminoles last year en route to a 40.4-percent clip from downtown. He managed 14.0 points per game in all, while cutting down his turnovers and also averaging 3.8 rebounds and 1.9 dimes per game. With Snaer as the only returning starter for FSU, the burden falls on him to lead a squad that won the ACC tournament last season.
10. Archie Goodwin, Kentucky - Scouts who have watched Goodwin play believe he could lead the Wildcats in scoring this season, as the team attempts to once again reload after several early entrants into the NBA. A slasher first and foremost, Goodwin is a long, aggressive scorer who can create his own shot and get to the rim with ease, grace and authority. His jumpshot is raw, as he's a streaky shooter with mediocre mechanics. The incoming freshman is obviously young, though, with the physical pedigree to develop into a complete offensive player.
11. Shane Gibson, Sacred Heart - 22.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg
12. Ben McLemore, Kansas - freshman
13. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati -14.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg
14. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia - 13.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg
15. Mike Rosario, Florida - 6.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg
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