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October 25, 2011

Fox: Preseason Backcourt Unit Rankings

Losing players early to the NBA can cause headaches for coaches. But that's not the case with some of the top backcourts for 2011-12.

Duke's Kyrie Irving played only 11 games before leaving to become the No. 1 pick in the draft. Kemba Walker led Connecticut to the national title before becoming a lottery pick. And Kentucky lost yet another guard to the lottery when Brandon Knight left.

But despite those losses, Duke, Connecticut and Kentucky should continue to feature some of the best guard play in the country because of incoming freshmen or returning players poised to take a starring role.

[ Related: Rivals.com Countdown to Tipoff ]

The school with the top returning backcourt, though, is one that lost no one to the draft. Florida returns the starting tandem of Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, who helped the Gators to the Elite Eight. Bolstering that group is a five-star freshman (Brad Beal) and a standout transfer (Mike Rosario from Rutgers).

Here's our look at the top backcourts for 2011-12, which were judged on star power, potential and overall depth.

BACKCOURT UNIT RANKINGS

1. FLORIDA
Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton will be starting alongside each other for the third season. The 5-foot-8 Walker is a fearless shooter who has been the Gators' go-to player in the late minutes. He averaged 14.6 points last season and had converted 38.4 percent of his career 3-point attempts. Less of the offensive load should be on his shoulders, which should be a plus; he looked worn down at times last season because of his workload. Boynton is a streaky shooter, but he averaged 14.2 points last season while playing solid defense. He, too, should benefit from having to play fewer minutes. Florida's backcourt gets stronger with the addition of five-star freshman Brad Beal, the No. 4 player in the 2011 class. Beal is an elite shooter with a vast array of offensive skills. Mike Rosario is eligible after his transfer from Rutgers. He's another with a scorer's mentality who should benefit from a shared offensive load. Rosario, Walker and Boynton all have 1,000 career points. Sophomore Scottie Wilbekin won't be asked to contribute much offensively, but he is a solid defender and an able distributor.

2. DUKE
The nation's top freshman, Austin Rivers, already has tantalized Duke fans. The son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Rivers scored 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting in his first game for the Blue Devils against the under-23 Chinese national team in August. He has excellent range, and when you add in a high basketball IQ, a solid mid-range game and the ability to finish at the rim, Duke could have the freshman of the year. The presence of Rivers - at one time a Florida commitment - should free up 3-point threats Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, who both made at least 42 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. If there is a question mark, it's the lack of a proven point guard. Quinn Cook, a four-star recruit, could fill that void.

3. KENTUCKY
The tradition of one-and-done point guards to play for John Calipari likely will continue with Marquis Teague. He takes the torch carried by Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Brandon Knight. Teague should fit right in. An explosive scorer and a great distributor, he's the top freshman point guard in the country. At 12.3 points per game, Doron Lamb was UK's third-leading scorer last season. He would be the best player on a vast majority of teams nationally. Lamb and Darius Miller combined to make 126 3-pointers, converting them at a 46.5 percent clip.

4. XAVIER
Tu Holloway emerged as one of the nation's most dynamic talents and prolific stat-sheet stuffers last season. He averaged 19.4 points, an Atlantic-10-leading 5.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game. Xavier likes him to score off screens, but he's not afraid of contact. His 280 free-throw attempts were tied for eighth-most nationally, and he shot 87 percent from the line. Mark Lyons is a worthy second option who averaged 13.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists. The Musketeers hope Brad Redford is back at full strength; he missed last season with a torn ACL. He has deep range and should get a lot of open looks on the perimeter when Holloway makes forays into the lane. Xavier also adds Rivals150 point guard Darwin Davis.

5. MISSOURI
Frank Haith left one top backcourt at Miami for another at Missouri. More pressure will be on this group of guards now that Laurence Bowers, the Tigers' top forward, is out for the season. Marcus Denmon averaged 16.9 points last season and was one of the most efficient guards in the Big 12. He's also a lockdown defender. Kim English slumped last season and the Tigers would like to see him return to his 2009-10 form when he averaged 14 points per game. Michael Dixon Jr. and Phil Pressey split time at point guard last season, combining for 230 assists.

6. CONNECTICUT
Even without Kemba Walker, Connecticut should have one of the nation's top backcourts. Jeremy Lamb looks like a candidate for a Kemba-like breakout this season after averaging 11.1 points and 4.5 rebounds as a freshman. He was at his best late in the season, averaging 15.3 points in the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Shabazz Napier was another revelation as a freshman. He'll step into Walker's shoes as the point guard after averaging 7.8 points and 3.0 assists off the bench. The Huskies add a quick freshman guard in Ryan Boatright. Boatright was the 42nd-ranked prospect in the class.

7. SYRACUSE
Syracuse returns both starting guards from a team that won 27 games last season. Scoop Jardine is a skilled playmaker who was second in the Big East at 5.9 assists per game; he also scored 12.5 points per game. Brandon Triche averaged 11.1 points last season. Both saw their efficiency numbers drop last season. Dion Waiters is a talented sophomore who should see his playing time increase this season after averaging 6.6 points per game last season. Freshman Michael Carter-Williams, a top-30 prospect, adds depth and should help Jardine and Triche remain fresh.

8. MIAMI
The Hurricanes have reached the NCAA tournament only once in the past nine seasons, but that might change this season thanks to a prolific backcourt and some uncertainty in the ACC beyond North Carolina and Duke. Malcolm Grant (14.8 points) and Durand Scott (13.6) formed the only guard duo that finished in the top 12 in the ACC in scoring. Grant also led the ACC with 94 3-point shots. Scott had good numbers, but he was better as a freshman than he was as a sophomore. Neither is a point guard, but Garrius Adams took that role late in the season. Rion Brown is a good defender, and UMKC transfer Trey McKinney Jones adds depth.

9. TEMPLE
Xavier and Temple are poised to contend for the Atlantic 10 title thanks to their veteran backcourts. Temple doesn't have a singular force such as Holloway, but the Owls make up for that in depth. Ramone Moore is continuing to develop into a go-to scorer after averaging 15.2 points per game last season. Juan Fernandez has led the Owls in assists in each of the past two seasons. Khalif Wyatt was the A-10's Sixth Man of the Year after coming off the bench to average 10.1 points per game. Aaron Brown, T.J. DiLeo and freshman Will Cummings give the Owls depth.

10. WISCONSIN
Jordan Taylor is coming off a sterling junior season, and even more will be on his shoulders this season as the Badgers lose most of their frontcourt. Taylor proved he was up to the task last season when he averaged 18.1 points per game and led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.83-1). His ability to take over a game was evident when the Badgers handed Ohio State its first loss of the season; Taylor scored 21 points in the second half of that win. He's joined in the backcourt by Josh Gasser, who had the first triple-double in school history as a freshman. Ben Brust is expected to be a 3-point threat.

11. CALIFORNIA
Allen Crabbe (16.4 points per game) and Jorge Gutierrez (16.1 points) are the top returning scorers in conference games in the Pac-12. Crabbe is an excellent perimeter shooter (68 3-pointers), while Gutierrez last season proved there is more to his game than tenacious defense. Brandon Smith took over at point guard after the transfer of Gary Franklin and helped lead the Bears to a 10-8 conference record.

12. WASHINGTON
Even without Isaiah Thomas, Washington will be a guard-laden team. Sophomore Terrence Ross, who averaged 8.0 points per game last season, could take over Thomas' spot as the scoring leading scorer. Five-star freshman Tony Wroten also could be the go-to player with his ability to slash to the basket. Abdul Gaddy was the second-ranked point guard in the 2010 class; he was inconsistent as a freshman but was coming on last season before a knee injury ended his season. C.J. Wilcox averaged 11.6 points over the final 13 games of the season, and Scott Suggs is a 3-point specialist.

ALSO CONSIDERED
Iona, Louisville, Memphis, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, UNLV, Vanderbilt

TOP FIVE LOW-MAJOR BACKCOURTS
Long Beach State, Oakland, Florida Atlantic, UNC Asheville, Weber State

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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