The top three players in college basketball last season had two things in common. Jimmer Fredette, Nolan Smith and Kemba Walker were all guards – and they were all upperclassmen. It’s no secret that experience can play a huge role in players’ success, especially on the perimeter.
But that’s not to say the young guys can’t excel, too.
Nine of the top 12 projected guards for the 2011-12 season are either freshmen or sophomores.
Here’s a look at the best backcourt players for 2011-12.
1. Harrison Barnes, North Carolina, sophomore – Barnes got off to a slow start after becoming the first freshman in history to earn preseason All-American honors. Still, overall, he was hardly a disappointment with a team-high 15.7 scoring average. Don’t be shocked if he improves more than any player in the country this season and goes as high as No. 1 in the 2012 NBA draft.
2. Austin Rivers, Duke, freshman – Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving are gone, but the Blue Devils don’t think they’ll experience much slippage thanks to the arrival of Rivers, the No. 1-ranked prospect in the Class of 2011 by Rivals.com. Rivers operates with more of a scorer’s mentality than Irving, who could do just about everything at a high level.
3. Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin, senior – Taylor averaged 18.1 points last season. He reached double figures in all but two games and was easily one of the top three or four guards in the country. Taylor averaged just one turnover in 36 minutes per game. With standout forward Jon Leuer gone, Wisconsin will need to find someone to help Taylor on the offensive end.
3. Marquis Teague, Kentucky, freshman – Even if Brandon Knight had opted to return for his sophomore season, Teague still likely would’ve been the Wildcats’ primary ballhandler. Much like his older brother, Jeff, Marquis is a speedster who can change directions and is equally effective with both hands. Considering the talent that will surround him, Teague won’t have to score much to have an impact.
4. John Jenkins, Vanderbilt, junior – There may not be a better 3-point shooter in the country than Jenkins, who led Vanderbilt with a 19.5-point scoring average last season. The 6-foot-4 Jenkins had 14 games in which he made four or more shots from beyond the arc. With Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor also returning, the Commodores could open the season in the top 10.
5. Doron Lamb, Kentucky, sophomore – Often overshadowed by Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, Lamb was one of the biggest keys to the Wildcats’ Final Four run last season. He averaged 12.3 points as a freshman off the bench and connected on 48.3 percent of his 3-point attempts. His production should improve immensely in 2011-12.
6. Tu Holloway, Xavier, senior – The Musketeers won the Atlantic 10 thanks mainly to Holloway, who averaged 5.4 assists along with his team-high 19.7 points. Holloway, though, needs to cut down on his turnovers. He committed 3.4 a game last season. He also shot just 34.5 percent from beyond the arc.
7. Will Barton, Memphis, sophomore – The Tigers were thrilled when Barton announced he was returning for his sophomore season. After declaring prior to his freshman year that Memphis would win the NCAA title, Barton experienced the typical up and downs of a college freshman. Still, he was the only Memphis player to average double figures in scoring. His ceiling is incredibly high.
8. LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State, freshman – The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Nash is regarded as one of the top wing prospects in the nation. Although he has the ability to score from the outside, he does most of his damage by using his size and strength to get to the basket. The Cowboys need offensive help with the graduation of Marshall Moses. Nash will provide it immediately.
9. Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut, sophomore – Kemba Walker may have commanded the spotlight, but Lamb was just as big for the Huskies during an 11-game win streak that ended with an NCAA title. Lamb averaged 15.3 points during the march and should be even better in 2011-12 now that Walker is gone.
10. Brad Beal, Florida, freshman – The Gators’ backcourt is already loaded with Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Mike Rosario. The 6-foot-4 Beal, though, is expected to be better than all of them as a freshman. A shooting guard, Beal has the ability to connect from deep. But his midrange game is equally impressive.
11. Josiah Turner, Arizona, freshman – Without Derrick Williams, the Wildcats probably won’t be as good as they were last season. Turner, though, is a point guard who will take over Williams’ role as the top player on the team. At 6-foot-3, Turner will be a matchup problem for most of his opponents. If he adjusts to the college game quickly, Arizona could contend for the league title.
12. William Buford, Ohio State, senior – Buford averaged 14.4 points for a Buckeyes team that finished 34-3 last season, yet he didn’t seem to receive nearly as much recognition as Jared Sullinger, David Lighty and Jon Diebler. Buford – who shot 46 percent from 3-point range and 86 percent from the foul line – will be hard to ignore next season, when the Buckeyes will be an NCAA title favorite.
13. Khris Middleton, Texas A&M, junior – Not many players in the country improved as much last season as Middleton, who drew interest from pro scouts while blossoming into one of the top players in the Big 12. The lanky, 6-foot-7 Middleton has an NBA body and skill set, but he tends to be passive at times. If Middleton develops a little more fire and confidence … watch out.
14. Marcus Denmon, Missouri, senior – Denmon was one of the top guards in America during the first half of last season, when it seemed like he couldn’t miss from 3-point range. Much like his team, Denmon fizzled a bit down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how adjusts to new coach Frank Haith.
15. Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette, senior – Johnson-Odom averaged a team-high 15.8 points for a Golden Eagles squad that reached the Sweet 16. He’ll be counted on even more in 2011-12 following the loss of Jimmy Butler. If Johnson-Odom comes through, it could be a special season for Marquette, which adds a standout recruiting class – and Oregon transfer Jamil Wilson – to a solid roster of returnees.
16. Mike Rosario, Florida, junior – Once considered an NBA prospect at Rutgers, Rosario transferred to Florida in hopes of improving his game. If he keeps his head on straight and adjusts to Billy Donovan’s discipline, he could end up being a huge difference maker for the Gators, who may end up with one of the top backcourts in the country.
17. Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas, senior – Taylor will be a fourth-year starter for the Jayhawks. He’s incredibly fast with the ball, which often leads to easy baskets in transition. More than anything, though, Kansas needs Taylor to assume more of a leadership role following the loss of the Morris twins and Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed. That may not be easy for a player who has had his share of off-court issues.