By Kevin Sweeney
Last year around this time, I began to see poorly-crafted top 50 and top 100 players in college basketball lists. While the premise of ranking players is fun and creates conversation, it is nearly impossible to get right, given the differences in position, level of play, and role. To solve some of those flaws, I decided to rank my top ten mid-major players at each position, and it was a huge success.
THE RANKINGS ARE BACK!
We begin today with the point guards, and they were by far the most difficult position to rank. There is so much depth throughout mid-major basketball at that spot, and players I would have thought to be shoe-ins for a top 10 spot didn’t wind up making the cut. As always, shoot me a comment or tweet to tell me why your favorite player should have been higher!
The Top Ten:
- Jon Elmore (Marshall)
- Vitals: 6-3, 185 pounds, redshirt senior
- Stats: 22.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 6.8 apg, .439/.356/.826
Elmore has a fairly strong case for being the best mid-major player in the country. While numbers in Dan D’Antoni’s shoot-happy offensive system tend to be inflated, the fact that Elmore is the only player in the last 25 years to post averages of at least 22 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists in a season speaks for itself. He even has an NCAA Tournament win under his belt, thanks to a memorable 27-point performance to lead the Thundering Herd past Wichita State this past March. Despite not having much more to prove at the collegiate level, Elmore is back for one more year, and he’s the primary reason Marshall should be seen as a legit bracket-busting candidate once again.
2. D’Marcus Simonds (Georgia State)
- Vitals: 6-3, 195 pounds, junior
- Stats: 21.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, .461/.292/.702
Simonds is a prototype modern lead guard. A former 4-star recruit who spurned high-major offers and interest to play for Ron Hunter at Georgia State, Simonds hasn’t disappointed one bit. He excels in the open floor, is an elite finisher at the rim, and creates shots for others. The scariest part of the defending Sun Belt Player of the Year’s game is that he still has room for improvement, especially as a shooter. If he can up his 3-point shooting into the 35-38% range, Simonds will be on plenty of draft boards in 2019.
3. Luwane Pipkins (UMass)
- Vitals: 5-11, 185 pounds, Redshirt junior
- Stats: 21.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.0 apg, .430/.426/.788
Perhaps no player in the country benefitted more from a coaching change last offseason than Pipkins, who blossomed into a superstar under Matt McCall after an up-and-down freshman season in Amherst. The diminutive playmaker deserves a ton of respect for how he played last season, especially given that the Minutemen spent portions of the season with just 5 scholarship players available. He competed from horn to horn, making big shot after big shot to carry UMass through the grind that is the Atlantic 10. Now, Pipkins will be surrounded with much more talent, as 4 high-level transfers enter the mix to compliment returning all-freshman selection Carl Pierre. With an elite point guard leading the way, don’t be surprised if UMass competes for an A10 title in year 2 of the McCall era.
4. Ja Morant (Murray State)
- Vitals: 6-3, 170 pounds, sophomore
- Stats: 12.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 6.3 apg, .459/.307/.806
There’s no player in mid-major basketball with as much potential as Morant, the high-flying point guard with elite floor vision who wowed in his freshman season at Murray State. Now, the keys to the Murray State program lay entirely in the hands of the South Carolina native after spending a year next to Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller, and I can’t wait to watch him do things like this:
and maybe a little bit of this:
Developing a consistent knock-down 3-point jumper is the only thing standing in the way of Morant potentially being a lottery pick down the road. For more on his draft prospects, check out this story from Jackson Hoy over at The Stepien.
5. Clayton Custer (Loyola-Chicago)
- Vitals: 6-1, 185 pounds, redshirt senior
- Stats: 13.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 4.1 apg, .528/.451/.770
Missouri Valley Player of the Year. NCAA All-Region. A Final Four.
The toughest thing on Clayton Custer’s plate for this season is attempting to replicate what he did last season. Truth be told, it’s hard to be much better. Custer was everything you could want as a point guard, protecting the ball and running the team when necessary, but changing the game with his deadly outside shot and polished floater package when the opportunity presented itself. His runner that hit every bit of rim imaginable to beat Tennessee in the Sweet 16 will be remembered most, but those who followed the Ramblers all season know Custer made plays like that all season long when it mattered most. So while he may not play with the same flair as some of the other players on this list, he’s clearly one of the nation’s elite floor generals.
6. Chris Clemons (Campbell)
- Vitals: 5-9, 180 pounds, Senior
- Stats: 24.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, .452/.371/.861
It’s hard to find a player more exciting to watch in college basketball than Clemons, an absolute dynamo who packs a ton of punch into his generously-listed 5-9 frame. He’s explosive off the bounce and unafraid to go up into the trees and finish at the rim, while shooting proficiently and making sound decisions at the point guard spot. Should he stay healthy, Clemons will become the first (or second, depending on how much Mike Daum scores) to score 3,000 points in a collegiate career since Doug McDermott. He’s clearly the best player in the Big South, and has a very real chance to end his Campbell career by leading the Camels to the NCAA Tournament.
7. JaQuan Lyle (New Mexico)
- Vitals: 6-5, 210 pounds, redshirt junior
- Stats (2016-17 @ Ohio State): 11.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.6 apg, .458/.407/.720
The only newcomer to grace this list, the former top-25 recruit Lyle heads to New Mexico after beginning his career at Ohio State. Lyle’s on-court production has never been a problem, but a flurry of off-the-court woes have consistently stunted his career dating back to his high school days. If reigned in, Lyle is a monster, a big-bodied lead guard who can shoot the ball, distribute, and get to the rim at will. I see him thriving in the pressing system that Paul Weir has implemented in Albuquerque, where he’ll get lots of opportunities to wreak havoc in the open floor.
8. RJ Cole (Howard)
- Vitals: 6-1, 175 pounds, Sophomore
- Stats: 23.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 6.1 apg, .394/.359/.770
Before last season, no freshman since 1992 had averaged at least 23 points and 6 assists per game. Two did last season.
One’s name was heard on ESPN during virtually every college basketball broadcast and was a top 5 pick in this year’s NBA Draft. The other was RJ Cole.
Cole came out of nowhere to post historic numbers for Howard, first opening eyes with tough shot after tough shot in a 27 point, 8 assist outing against Indiana in the season’s first week. He continued his dominance throughout the season, scoring in double figures in every game of his freshman campaign and never playing less than 30 minutes in a game (he played in 40 or more minutes in 10 games).
The next step in Cole’s game is turning his elite production into wins for the Bison, who went just 10-23 last season. With two 20-point-per-game scorers coming back and the addition of a strong recruiting class, Howard has the pieces to turn it around this year.
9. Otis Livingston (George Mason)
- Vitals: 5-11, 175 pounds, Senior
- Stats: 17.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.4 apg, .436/.382/.857
Despite almost never leaving the floor, Livingston put together a big season while helping an undermanned George Mason team to a top-5 A10 finish. Livingston is just solid in every way, a leader on the floor, an excellent playmaker, and a sound 3-point shooter. Almost every team in America would love to have him as their point guard, and I don’t think Dave Paulsen would want anyone else running the show for his club as they enter the 2018-19 season with high expectations.
10. Vasa Pusica (Northeastern)
- Vitals: 6-5. 210 pounds, Redshirt Senior
- Stats: 17.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, .504/.427/.807
After a pair of fairly uneventful seasons at San Diego, Pusica transferred across the country to Northeastern and thrived. A big lead guard, Pusica is deadly from deep, efficiently scores at all 3 levels, and runs a team well. Back for one more season, don’t count out Pusica in a loaded CAA Player of the Year race, especially if he can push his Huskies over the top after finishing second in the conference a season ago. The Serbian won’t wow you athletically, but he’s the perfect player to lead Bill Coen’s scrappy bunch.
Ahmaad Rorie (Montana), Tookie Brown (Georgia Southern), Jeff Dowtin (Rhode Island), Marcus Evans (VCU– health concerns), Bryce Aiken (Harvard), Matt Morgan (Cornell), Jordan Barnes (Indiana State), Keyshawn Evans (Illinois State), Sam Merrill (Utah State), Colbey Ross (Pepperdine)
Check back tomorrow for my top 10 shooting guards!