Top Pac-12 Returning Guards: #1 – McKinley Wright. Jr., Colorado

Today, we are finishing up our Pac-12 returning guards countdown with our #1 ranking – our final player feature to be published until after NBA Draft decisions that are made. This #1 slot belongs to a player who will undoubtedly be the favorite to win the Pac-12 Player of the Year if he returns for the 2020-2021 season in McKinley Wright of Colorado. Wright is not a projected draft pick right now, but he has not withdrawn from the draft process after hiring an NCAA-approved agent in May. One Pac-12 coach said of Wright: “If he returns, he could be next year’s Payton Pritchard”. Pritchard was the conference Player of the Year this past season and saw his draft skyrocket from on the outside looking in to a potential early 2nd-round pick. 

The hype is real and warranted for Wright, who proved to be one of the most versatile guards in the country during his junior season for the Buffalo. An effective three-year starter in Colorado, the Minnesota native averaged 14.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.0 assists on 45% shooting over the course of the year, putting Colorado in position for an NCAA Tournament berth, had the season made it that far. It would have been Colorado’s first tournament appearance since 2016. 

Wright kicked off his season with an impressive effort in a conference game versus Arizona State, posting 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. The turn of the calendar was good to Wright, who was on fire in late December and early January, torching opposing defenses for three double-doubles in four contests. He started this streak with a 29-point, 10 rebound effort against #13 Dayton in an overtime victory and notched double-doubles against Oregon State and Iona as well. 

Sandwiched between those two games was a 21-point showing against #4 Oregon. His successful streak also kicked off an absurd end-of-year run that saw him notch at least 10 points in 21 of his final 22 games. Consistency was the name of the game, as despite playing alongside projected first round pick Tyler Bey, Wright took advantage of his opportunities and consistently turned in impressive efforts for the Buffalo. He notched three more double-doubles, against Washington State, Oregon State, and Stanford and ended the year averaging 18 points and 8 rebounds over his last five games. If that hot streak and his overall consistency rolls over into a potential senior campaign, Wright should be the odds-on favorite for the Player of the Year award in the Pac-12, and become a very intriguing draft prospect in 2021.

Top Returning Pac-12 Guards: #2 – Ethan Thompson, Oregon State

The Pac-12 is full of question marks regarding the 2020 season right now. And these question marks don’t only relate to if and when and how the season will be played, but the vast uncertainty regarding which of the conference’s top players will be making a re-appearance at the collegiate level. With the delayed draft came an extended deadline for players to make this announcement, and while it has created question marks in most conferences, we’re seeing it affect the Pac-12 in a particularly tough way. Yesterday we featured in our countdown of the top returning guards Chris Smith of UCLA, slotting in at #3 in our rankings. Smith is yet to make a decision regarding the NBA Draft, and the same goes for our top two returning guards in the countdown. Today’s feature belongs to Oregon State star Ethan Thompson, who, if he returns, will be one of the top returning scorers in the conference. Thompson declared for the 2019 NBA Draft and withdrew, and he declared for the 2020 draft as well, and his status is still in limbo as of this moment. With Oregon State’s top scorer and rebounder graduated, Thompson, who led the Beavers in assists in 2019, will also be the team’s top returner in points and rebounds. Oregon State will be desperately hoping their three-year starter comes back for one more run with the bulls in the Pac-12. The Beavers haven’t cracked the AP Top 25 since 1990, and only one NCAA Tournament appearance in that time. If they hope to end such a run, they absolutely need Thompson on the court in 2020-21.

Thompson finished a strong junior campaign with career bests in points (14.8 ppg), assists (4.5) and steals (1.3) while also posting 4.2 rebounds per contest on excellent 46% shooting from the field. He features a great scoring touch from the start of the year, with his efforts in non-conference play highlighted by a 25-point performance against North Dakota and a 17-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist showing against Oklahoma. He heated up as conference season commenced, posting 89 points and 19 assists in his four three Pac-12 clashes, which included two road contests and a battle versus a ranked Arizona team. A mid-season slump from three-point range (5-25 in a seven-game stretch) dented Thompson’s averages, but he would rally in impressive fashion. Thompson notched 15 points against the #14 Oregon Ducks in early Feburary, giving the Beavers their signature win of the year. He followed up that game with his lone double-double of the year, collecting 13 points and 11 rebounds against Utah. Those two contests sparked a nine-game streak of double-digit scoring efforts to end the Oregon State season. He knocked down critical free throws in an opening-round victory in the Pac-12 Tournament, but the season was cancelled before the Beavers got a chance to stun the world against Oregon in the quarterfinals.
Ultimately Oregon State’s season was doomed by two untimely four-game skids, without which they were 18-5. Both they and Thompson finished on hot streaks and looked very impressive outside their mid-season slump. It could be a bright season for the Beavers if Thompson decides to give the collegiate game one last spin.

Top Returning Pac-12 Guards: #3 – Chris Smith, UCLA

We’ve hit the #3 slot in our top returning Pac-12 guards countdown, and after two straight Oregon guards to kick off our rankings, we head away from Eugene and down to sunny Los Angeles for our third feature. Coming in at #3 in this Pac-12 countdown is Chris Smith of UCLA, who averaged 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on 46% shooting from the field. For Smith, a change in coaching proved crucial in sparking his breakout collegiate campaign, as he was hardly on the Pac-12 radar, let alone in a national spotlight after two relatively nondescript seasons.. However, as the Bruins rapidly improved under first-year head Mick Cronin, so did Smith, who led the Pac-12 runner-ups in scoring, while earning a first-team all conference selection and the Pac-12 Most Improved Player award. Smith declared for the NBA draft this past spring, but he did not hire an agent and maintains his eligibility if he decides to return. This ranking at #3 is working under the assumption that Smith comes back for his senior season. Currently ranked the 65th best available prospect in the draft, Smith appears to be a fringe selection if he stays with the draft. Staying for a final season with Cronin could see his stock shoot up towards first-round value. 

After averaging under 20 minutes per game in both his freshman and sophomore years, Smith became the go-to-guy in the UCLA offense this past season. Averaging 28.3 minutes on the court per game, Smith improved his shooting from 40 to 46% and from 28% to 34% from beyond the arc, allowing him to post more consistent performances throughout the season. Smith put up solid numbers out of the gate, but UCLA faced a watered-down non-confernece schedule that featured just one ranked opponent, so his improved efforts were hardly considered a major headline at the time. However, he truly broke out in the Pac-12 opener at Washington, as he dropped 17 points on the Huskies, while ripping down 12 rebounds and dishing out five assists, giving the Bruins a critical road win to start their conference season. He did all his damage inside the arc, shooting 8-12 from 2-point range. He followed that performance up with a 22-point torching of Washington State and another double-double against USC, who finished 3rd in the Pac-12. 

Smith’s early domination of the Pac-12 was certainly a nod to his marked improvement in his junior season, but it wasn’t until January 30, with UCLA sitting at 3-4 in conference play and welcoming #20 Colorado onto their court, that Smith delivered his signature effort of the year. In a critical game for the Bruins, the Chicago product shot 8-11 from two-point range and cooly sank 13 of 15 free throws en route to a 30-point effort, which he complemented with nine rebounds and three steals. UCLA won the game, 72-68, and proceeded to rip off a 9-1 run in their next ten games to rise near the top of the Pac-12 standings. 

Smith continued to torch the Pac-12, racking up another double-double against Washington State and shooting a combined 7-13 from three-point range in key road victories against Arizona and Colorado, helping UCLA earn a #2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. The cancellation of the conference tournament and March Madness deprived basketball fans of the Pac-12’s newest star shine in the postseason, but should Smith come back for his senior season, he should be making headlines as one of the best in the business, both in the Pac-12 and in the country.

Top Returning Pac-12 Guards: #5 – LJ Figueroa, Oregon

When playing in a Power-6 conference in college basketball, winning road games is absolutely critical to building a successful season. With a bevy of hostile environments throughout the country, nearly every team finds it necessary to steal some victories away from home. To win such games, you need players that thrive in the spotlight and can silence opposing crowds. That’s the asset that LJ Figueroa, the senior transfer for Oregon, who averaged 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, brings to the table. On the road, Figueroa notched 16.4 points away from home en route to being the leading scorer for the Red Storm on the year. As Figueroa prepares for his senior campaign on the opposite coast, he slots in as our #5 returning guard in the Pac-12.

As the Red Storm coasted to a 10-2 start to non-conference play against a relatively weak schedule, Figueroa put up solid numbers, highlighted by a 25-point effort against UNH and 23-point showing versus Brown. In their first premier contest of the season, St. Johns battled #16 Arizona in a neutral-court clash, and Figueroa shined, finishing with 21 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals.

On the year, the Red Storm star led the conference with 1.9 steals per game. Later in the year, against #18 Seton Hall, Figueroa posted an astounding 7 steals, complementing a 16-point, 5-rebound effort. Figueroa’s season was highlighted by some truly impressive road performances at Depaul (28 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists), Georgetown (23 points, 5 rebounds), and at #16 Seton Hall (19 points, 4 rebound). He punctuated an impressive season that saw him near the top ten in overall scoring in the conference with a huge performance in a Big East Tournament victory against Georgetown, notching 22 points against the Hoyas, who had defeated the Red Storm twice during the season. 

Figueroa, if he gets the waiver for immediate eligibility, should fit quite well into Oregon’s system, and at the surface, he is landing in a much better situation in Eugene. The Ducks are replacing a projected second-round pick and Pac-12 player of the year Payton Pritchard, but with the dynamic returning guard in Chris Duarte and the acquisition of Figuero, Oregon figures to be near the top of the Pac-12 again and mixing into the national title conversation as the season winds on. 

Top Returning Big East Guards: #1 – Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton

We have reached the end of our top returning Big East guard countdown and headline our rankings at #1 is Marcus Zegarowski, who was one of the biggest factors in leading the Creighton Blue Jays to their best season ever. Creighton took a share of the Big East regular season crown with a 13-5 conference mark, and were ranked 7th in the final AP Poll. Had the season not been cancelled, the Blue Jays were slated to potentially be a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would have been a first in program history. Zegarowski was the driving force behind Creighton’s resurgence, putting together one of the best seasons of any guard, regardless of conference. He averaged 16.1 points per game, good for 6th in the conference, while he ranked third in assists (5.0 per game) and 3rd in three-point shooting percentage, firing up the triple at a 42.4% clip. 

A product of Hamilton, Massachusetts, Zegarowski headed out to the westernmost school in the Big East, where he was a Year-1 contributor in Omaha, averaging 10.4 points per game while starting 16 of 32 games as a freshman. Averaging nearly 35 minutes a game as a sophomore, Zegarowski saw his stats take a leap, finishing second on the team in points and leading the squad in assists, while notching a very respectable 3.8 rebounds per contest. Zegarowski put up solid numbers from day 1, but it wasn’t until Creighton clashed with #12 Texas Tech, the defending national runner-ups, that the sophomore squad and his Blue Jays raised some eyebrows. After a 4-2 start, with no major wins and two losses by double-digits, Creighton wasn’t on anybody’s radar. But then Zegarowski and Co. took the Red Raiders to overtime in the Las Vegas Invitational, with the Massachusetts native dropping 32 points and 5 assists, while snaring a pair of steals in a signature performance. One game later, he poured in 30 points against Nebraska, to go with 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Zegarowski’s efforts sparked a 8-game win streak that was punctuated with an opening victory in Big East play, 92-75 vs. Marquette. Zegarowski made his presence felt in that victory as well with 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. 

Creighton briefly debuted in the rankings on January 13 at #25, but a loss to Georgetown saw the Blue Jays drop out once more. However, after that loss, the Blue Jays finished the year on an 11-2 tear that lifted the Blue Jays to the Big East lead and the #7 ranking. Zegarowski’s red-hot shooting was on display on many occasions, but his best performance came on February 23 versus #21 Butler, as he drained all seven of his three-point attempts en route to a 25-point night, leading Creighton to a massive 22-point victory that helped them crack the top 10 in the next morning. Zegarowski ended his shortened season in fitting fashion, combining for 43 points in his final two contests on 9-11 shooting from beyond the arc. His 5-5 effort against #8 Seton Hall gave Creighton the needed win to tie the Pirates and Villanova for the conference lead. 

The cancellation of this year’s season blew the country’s opportunity to see the new and improved Marcus Zegarowski in March Madness. But, if he comes back firing on all cylinders and running the floor for Creighton, there’s no reason to think the Blue Jays won’t be back in Final Four consideration next season. 

Top Returning Big East Guards: #4 – David Duke, Providence

Next up in our Big East top returning guards down is David Duke out of Providence, who slots in at #4 in our countdown. Efficiency and strong defense is the name of the game for Duke, who averaged 12 points per game to go with 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He was fourth in the conference with 42% shooting from three-point range, and he also ranked fourth with 1.6 steals per contest. Duke led the Friars in assists, and he’s the second-best returning rebounder and top returning scorer on the team entering his junior season. 

Providence struggled to a 7-6 non-conference record, but Duke posted solid numbers, and he helped the Friars get their season back on course in Big East play. He demonstrated his versatility in the conference opener against Georgetown, notching 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists. He put forth his signature effort of the year at #25 Creighton, the eventual conference winners, torching the Blue Jays for 36 points, four rebounds, two assists, and three steals, shooting 6-8 from beyond the arc. One game later, he posted a double-double against #9 Villanova. He punctuated a solid sophomore season with back-to-back 16-point, 4-steal performances versus Xavier and DePaul. 

Duke posted particularly spectacular numbers when he was Providence’s go-to-guy, notching a touch under 17 points in 12 games in which he got 10+ field goal attempts. To improve on his sophomore year, he’ll have to maintain his efficiency with a higher shot volume and stay consistent, avoiding performances like road contests at Georgetown and Villanova, where he shot a combined 1-13 from the field for a total of 3 points. If he avoids games like those and continues to shoot at a lethal clip from range, Duke should have Providence competing for the Big East Championship and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Top Returning SEC Guards: #1 – John Petty Jr., Alabama

The coronavirus has kept things regarding college basketball up in the air, as many top players have gotten the opportunity to keep their names in the draft pool for longer, as the deadline to withdraw was extended into August. One such player in this pool is Alabama stat John Petty Jr. who, if he decides to return, would be, by our rankings, the top returning guard in the SEC. Teammate Kira Lewis is a projected mid-to-late first round pick right now and seems like an unlikely bet to return, while Petty, ranked the 53rd prospect by ESPN, seems at least a little more plausible. Given his chance to be the go-to-guy for the Tide next season, his draft stock could skyrocket into first-round value if he chooses to return. 

Last season, we were denied a SEC Tournament clash that would have pitted Tennessee, featuring our #2 guard Yves Pons, and Petty and his Bama teammates. Hopefully, both guards choose to return this season, giving up another chance at that star-studded match-up. Petty has been a regular for Alabama for three years now, but after two straight years averaging 10.2 points a contest, he bumped that up to 14.5 in his junior campaign, while also muscling down 6.6 rebounds and dishing out 2.5 assists a game. All three marks were top-three on the team, with his rebounding leading the squad. As a 6’5 guard playing in the highly physical SEC, that’s massively impressive in itself. 

However, although his rebounding gives the indication that Petty is a inside guard, he does much of his offensive damage with his lethal three-point shot, which he offered up with 44% accuracy last season. On the road, playing in some hostile SEC environments, Petty silenced crowds all season to the tune of 17.5 points per game on 49% long-range shooting. Petty featured that deadly shooting in an early season clash with UNC, undefeated and ranked #6 at the time. Despite the eventual loss in the Battle 4 Atlantis battle, Petty had the Tide within striking distance on 23 points obtained largely through his 7-10 effort from beyond the arc. In a following neutral site effort, Petty was electric, putting up 34 points and 12 rebounds in a monster performance against Iowa State, and with that, the underrated Alabama star was off and rolling. 

SEC play got underway, and Petty hardly slowed down. He notched four blocks to complement a 16-point, 7 rebound effort against Kentucky, a 23-point, 10-rebound against Vanderbilt, and a bevy of 20+ point efforts against Georgia (21), #11 Auburn (20), and Ole Miss (21). Shooting 51% from inside the arc and 44% from beyond it, Petty tortured opponents with deadly efficiency. If I’m the SEC – I’m hoping Petty stays in the draft because even if Alabama hasn’t been necessarily a threat in the SEC, the in-state Huntsville, Alabama product keeps the Tide in games they often have no business being in, presenting a massive threat to the traditional powers of the conference. For this reason, Petty is our #1 (potentially) returning guard in the SEC. 

Top Returning SEC Guards: #2 – Yves Pons, Tennessee

Tennessee has an elite recruiting class joining their roster this season, but they also have a huge difference maker in an elite returning guard who can help the Vols challenge for SEC supremacy and a potential deep run in March. Yves Pons made massive strides in his junior year, after two ho-hum seasons spent largely on the Tennessee bench. Pons minutes jumped from 11 minutes a game his sophomore year to nearly 34 in his junior campaign. Now it should be mentioned that Pons’ name is currently in the NBA Draft pool, so whether he returns is still up in the air. Many think he will return to the Vols, but the versatile wing has not announced a decision yet, with still nearly a month to make his decision. 

As a junior, Pons, hailing from France, averaged 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds, but, as he expressed in a recent interview, the Tennessee guard will make his money defensively whenever he turns pro, as he averaged 2.4 blocks per game. Not only did that mark lead the SEC with relative ease, but he was the only guard ranking in the top 50 nationally – a leaderboard dominated by forwards and centers.  This mix goes hard – check out some of Pons’ top highlights.

Offensively, Pons does much of his damage inside the arc, but his three-point shot proved a dangerous enough weapon to keep defenders honest. He poured in deep shots at a 35% clip, allowing him to thrive in two-point range, shooting a blistering 55% on such shots. Pons came out of the gate ready to go, putting up four straight double-digit scoring efforts to start the season. In five of his first six games, he blocked at least three shots. As the season wound towards the SEC portion of the schedule, Pons continued to put up some notable performances, headlined by one of his two double-doubles against Florida State, and a monster 6-block effort against Jacksonville State. In the conference opener, the international star jumped LSU for 18 points and three blocks to set the tone for SEC play. Three weeks later, the Vols drew Kansas in the Big 12/SEC challenge, and, although Tennessee fell just short of the stunner, Pons was virtually the sole reason they kept it close, as he lit up the Jayhawks for 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks while not turning the ball over once. His other best effort of the SEC season was a 14 point, 14 rebound, and 3 block double-double performance, leading the Vols to a thrilling one-point win over Alabama. While maintaining his scoring average, Pons became more aggressive in the paint as well, snaring 6.6 rebounds per game over Tennessee’s final 10 contests. 

If Pons chooses to return to Tennessee, the SEC will be put on notice – a dangerous Vols team with a star senior returner and elite incoming class? Nobody’s going to want to face Pons and Co. next year.

Top Returning SEC Guards: #3 – Dru Smith, Missouri

Checking in at #3 in our top returning SEC Guards countdown is yet another lockdown defender who offers a versatile toolkit on the offensive end of the court. Smith led the Tigers last season with 12.7 points per game and 3.3 assists. His 4.2 rebounds also ranked among the team-leaders. Defensively, Smith led the SEC with a stunning 2.1 steals per contest. Here’s a throwback to one of his best early performances of the year:

An early-season double-double at #21 Xavier (22 points, 10 rebounds) put Smith at least on the SEC’s radar, if not the national one. He punctuated that performance with an 8-8 effort from the free throw line, which became a theme throughout the year. He shot 90% from the charity stripe throughout the year, locking up close victories for Missouri all season long. During Missouri’s SEC slate, Smith put up some very impressive efforts, starting with a 22-point, 6-assist, 5-steal statline versus Florida. Just ten days later, Missouri welcomed Texas A&M to town, and Smith was all over the court, going 11-11 from the free throw line, notching 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists. His season-high in points was 28, and that came against #11 Auburn, Missouri’s highest-ranked opponent in the year. For a Missouri squad that struggled to escape the basement of the SEC standings, seeing their point guard step up in the biggest situations has got to be a sight for sore eyes. 

If Smith can continue to a do-it-all swiss army knife and lead Missouri to a few big wins, he should be in the conversation for being one of the most impactful players in the SEC.

SEC Top Returning Guards: #4 -Devontae Shuler, Ole Miss

With 2019-20 leading scorer Breein Tyree graduated, the Ole Miss Rebels will be centering their offense around their top returning player. For his versatility on both ends on the court and prominent role for his team, Devontae Shuler slots in as our #4 top returning guard to watch in the SEC. 

Shuler has featured impressive minutes since coming to Ole MIss, averaging a steal a game as a substitute in his freshman year, followed by consecutive campaigns of 1.7 steals per game – a top-5 mark in the SEC. He also rebounds beyond his 6’2 height, collecting 4.5 boards per game, while scoring 11.7 ppg and dishing out a team-leading 3.3 assists. He’s the top returning scorer for Ole Miss, so Shuler will be doing it all for the Rebels this year. Enjoy this quick mixtape of Shuler’s highlights (with apparently a unique spelling of his name by its creator)

Shuler’s numbers were relatively ho-hum to start his junior year last season, but the Ole Miss guard began to heat up as conference play started. He recorded his lone double-double of the season against Arkansas on January 11, and at the end of the month, he raised eyebrows with 26 and 28-point outputs against ranked Auburn and LSU squads. He complemented the Auburn performance with 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. On the year, Shuler shot 36% from three-point range and 42% from the field overall, and as the go-to-guy in the Ole Miss offense next year, look for those numbers to improve with increased shot volume. In 12 games last season in which Shuler got 10+ looks from the field, he averaged 16.5 points per game, so his averages should be shooting up as a senior, as the South Carolina looks to improve his draft stock and improve the Rebels’ chances in a highly competitive SEC.