It became clear early last season that Tyus Jones could be another special point guard at Duke.
The 6-foot freshman combined for 39 points, eight assists and one turnover in nonconference wins over perennial powers Michigan State and Wisconsin. He led his team back from seven points down in the final 1:27 of regulation against rival North Carolina, and the Blue Devils won in overtime. And of course, he buried clutch jumpers and scored 19 second-half points as the Blue Devils rallied to beat Wisconsin in the national championship game.
Jones became the third point guard in five years to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, joining Connecticut floor generals Kemba Walker (2011) and Shabazz Napier (2014). All were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft two months after trimming the nets. Jones is a rookie for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
In recent seasons, talented ball-handlers have absorbed a greater role in college basketball. Coaches have shifted toward perimeter-heavy lineups and ball screen-oriented half-court sets, trusting their point guard to make decisions and create scoring chances for himself and teammates. A point guard who can drive, shoot 3-pointers, draw fouls and pass - or any combination of the above - improves a team's odds of playing deep into April, which is the ultimate goal for these seven national championship contenders.
(Listed by team, in alphabetical order)
Parker Jackson-Cartwright / Justin Simon / Kadeem Allen, Arizona
How they replace savvy point guard T.J. McConnell, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, could be the key to the season at the program that produced Steve Kerr, Jason Terry, Damon Stoudamire and earned the name “Point Guard U.”
Parker Jackson-Cartwright is a calm sophomore ready to take on a more significant role. He played 9.6 minutes per game as a backup, shot 45 percent with a 2.6 assist-turnover ratio. Justin Simon, 6-5 freshman with a 6-11 wingspan, is another option. He’s the No. 7 point guard in class of 2015, per ESPN.com and the No. 34 overall player per 247Sports' composite ranking. He thrives in the open floor and is a good passer but has a questionable jump shot. Arizona coach Sean Miller could also turn to Kadeem Allen, a 6-3, 200 pound combo guard from Wilmington, NC. He was the NJCAA Player of the Year in 2013-14 at Hutchinson (Kan.) CC, sat out last season as a redshirt, but was allowed to practice with the Wildcats.
Derryck Thornton, Duke
As the Blue Devils advanced deeper into the NCAA tournament, the coaching staff felt like Jones would join classmates Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow and declare for the NBA Draft. They accelerated their recruiting efforts, Thornton committed and reclassified to the 2015 class where he was ranked as the No. 3 point guard and the 14th best overall.
Thornton, 6-2, 175, is bigger and more athletic than his predecessor. If he can penetrate (and finish) it will create open 3-pointers for Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Brandon Ingram or any other Blue Devil scattered around the arc. Duke finished top three in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com last season in part because it avoided turnovers (16.3 percent of possessions, 35th in the nation). The Blue Devils will need similar ball control from Thornton and aggressive pressure at the head of the defense.
Tyler Ulis / Isaiah Briscoe / Jamal Murray, Kentucky
Kentucky coach John Calipari has options, again.
Ulis played 56.6 percent of the minutes a year ago and recorded an impressive 121.3 offensive rating because he shot 42.9 percent on 3-pointers, assisted on 28 percent of the Wildcats baskets when in the game and committed fewer turnovers as the season progressed. He is also a natural leader who is respected by his teammates. Just 5-9, finishing inside can be tricky for Ulis (38.8 percent on 2-pointers). Briscoe, a 6-3 freshman, was the No. 12 ranked player in the Class of 2015, per the 247Sports' Composite ranking. Strong and athletic, he’s a dynamic creator who can drive to the basket and score, but can be turnover prone. There are also questions about his jump shot. Murray is 6-4, 200 and was No. 10 in the 2015 class. He flourished with the ball in pick-and-roll situations while playing for Canada in the Pan Am games last summer. Calipari played point guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe together in 2010; he’ll find a way to use all three talented guards effectively.
Melo Trimble, Maryland
This is Mark Turgeon’s best team in College Park and Maryland’s best shot at a national title since the Steve Blake / Juan Dixon group won it all in 2002.
Terrapins fans are eager to welcome five-star recruit Diamond Stone, a 7-foot center, who should protect the rim and provide an inside scoring presence. He’ll catch passes from the talented Trimble, who averaged 16.2 points and led Maryland to a 28-7 record last season. The 6-3 sophomore is excellent from deep (41.2 percent) and skilled at driving - he averaged nearly seven free throw attempts a game and hit 86.2 percent.
Maryland was 163rd in turnover rate last season. If Trimble can improve his assist-turnover ratio (106 assists / 86 turnovers), and have more games like this one, where he scored 31 against Arizona State, the Terps might make it past the Round of 32 in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Paige hopes to follow the path of former Tar Heel point guards Raymond Felton (2005) and Ty Lawson (2009), who ended their career in Chapel Hill by winning a national title. The 6-1, 175-pound senior battled a foot injury early last season, which could explain a 2-point field goal percentage that slipped from 49 percent as a sophomore to 44 percent last season.
Still, he’s dangerous behind the arc (39.5 percent), and averaged 14.1 points for the Tar Heels, who lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual runner-up Wisconsin. Paige may play on the wing earlier in games and let Nate Britt or Joel Berry run the Tar Heels. But later on, coach Roy Williams will want the ball in his senior’s hands, which could be trouble for everyone else.
Jalen Brunson and Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
Villanova wasted a high seed and exited the NCAA tournament early the last two years, but welcomes Chicago-area native Brunson who was named Most Valuable Player at the FIBA U19 World Championship this summer.
Brunson, ranked the No. 4 point guard and No. 22 overall in class of 2015, possesses a smooth pull-up jumper and enough speed to get to the basket. He’ll have plenty of help too, between Arcidiacono, who led the Wildcats with 3.6 assists per game last season, and strong junior guard Josh Hart, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year.
London Perrantes, Virginia
The 6-2, 192-pound junior from Los Angeles started 32 games and was a valuable piece of coach Tony Bennett’s Pack Line defense, applying the on-ball pressure that enabled the Cavaliers to finish first in the adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
Still, despite finishing with a 30-4 record, the Cavs season felt like a disappointment due to early exits from the ACC and NCAA tournaments. To guide Virginia back to the Final Four for the first time since 1984, Perrantes must improve his shooting - he hit 35.4 percent of field goals and 31.2 percent of 3-pointers. Otherwise, he can be a liability on offense.