The 20 Biggest Game Changers in College Basketball

Ron Pasceri@@RonPasceriCorrespondent IIFebruary 21, 2012

The 20 Biggest Game Changers in College Basketball

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    College basketball produces some of the most exciting competition in the world of sports.  That excitement is provided by a number of factors like big-time coaches, selfless team play and passionate crowds.  Perhaps the most excitement comes from game-changing players.

    The college game has been poached quite a bit by the NBA, an top-level talent rarely stays for more than a year or two, but there are still a vast number of players that are must-see-TV.

    That is exactly what this list is.  It is a group of players who can single-handedly change any game with just their presence on the court.  Some do it with defense, some with offense.  Some do it with one specific elite skill, others do it with an ability to impact a game in multiple ways.

    It is important to note that this isn't a generic list or ranking of the consensus best 20 players in college basketball.  It is a recognition of players who have a unique impact on individual games and their team's performance.

    Anyone who's read my lists before knows I cast a wide net, and try to represent the lesser recognized schools and conferences as well.  Also, my general rule is not to include multiple players from the same team.

    As always, if you feel that anyone was unfairly excluded, unfairly included, overrated or underrated, I'm always interested in the readers' choices. 

20. D'Aundray Brown: Cleveland State

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    Starting off the list is the first surprise.  D'Aundray Brown isn't well known as he is just the third-leading scorer on his team at 10.8 points per game.  He also shoots a rather pedestrian 36.2 percent from three-point range.

    Those numbers aside, Brown truly is a game-changer for Cleveland State.  He changes games with his perimeter defense.  Brown is ninth in the country with 2.6 steals per game and he can shut down an opponent's top perimeter scorer.

    He led Cleveland State to an opening game upset of then seventh-ranked Vanderbilt with 18 points, eight rebounds and seven steals. 

    When Brown suffered a groin injury last week, the Vikings stood atop the Horizon League at 19-4.  Since, they have dropped 3-of-4 including their last three games.  They have fallen to second in the conference standings.

    Cleveland State desperately needs their best defender back, who can also block shots, set up teammates and add some scoring punch.  Their NCAA Tournament hopes depend on it.

19. Kyle O'Quinn: Norfolk State

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    Kyle O'Quinn is another small-conference, small-school player who makes a huge impact.

    O'Quinn is an absolute beast in the MEAC, leading the conference in field goal percentage, rebounding and blocks.

    He averages a double-double with 16.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.  He also blocks 2.6 shots per contest.

    O'Quinn has led his team to the top of the conference standings and he is also the reigning conference Defensive Player of the Year.

    He is a game-changer due to his size and strength.  He is able to use his body to dominate on the block on offense, and alter and erase shots on defense.

18. Andre Roberson: Colorado

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    Andre Roberson is another player whose offensive production keeps him in relative anonymity.  His defense and rebounding, however, should change that.

    As a shooting guard, Roberson is averaging 11.1 rebounds per game, good for fifth in the nation and first in the Pac-12.  His 1.9 blocks also lead the conference.

    Roberson does provide some offense with 11.2 points per game and he averages 1.1 steals as well. 

    Colorado just missed the big tournament last year on the high scoring shoulders of Alec Burks, but they may change their fortunes this year with the suffocating defense and tenacious rebounding of his replacement, Andre Roberson.

    The Buffaloes are 17-8 on the season and sit just one game out of first place in the Pac-12 standings.  Roberson's unique game-changing abilities should carry them to March Madness this year.

17. Reggie Hamilton: Oakland

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    Reggie Hamilton would be significantly higher on this list if the Golden Grizzlies were a better team.  Without Hamilton, this team would be nowhere near .500, let alone a game above that mark.

    Hamilton also has some carryover from last year to add to his status as a game-changer.  To close the season, he averaged 23.5 points over the last four games of the season, including 25 in a near-upset of Texas in the NCAA Tournament.

    Making that even more impressive, those points were scored in an average of 28.5 minutes per game.

    This year, Hamilton picked up where he left off, averaging 24.6 points per game, good for second in the nation.  He also impacts the game by averaging 5.0 assists and 2.1 steals per game.

    Basically, Hamilton carries his team on a nightly basis, and even though they are just 8-7 in conference play, he could lead them to a win in the conference tournament and give someone a scare in the big one.

16. Austin Rivers: Duke

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    Austin Rivers doesn't have eye-popping statistics.  He has been accused of not quite fitting into Coach K's system at Duke.  But he also proved last week that he can take any single game and make it his own.

    Anyone who was down on Rivers had to tip their cap after his performance at North Carolina, the biggest game of his life.  He scored 29 points, including 16 in the second half, keeping the Blue Devils in the game before hitting the game-winner at the buzzer.

    In their last four games, Duke is 3-1.  In the three wins, Rivers has drained 13 of his 22 threes.  In the one loss, he missed all but one of his seven attempts.  That can't be a coincidence.

    Austin Rivers' shooting can overall scoring ability can change any game for Duke, and over the last week, it has.

15. Tray Woodall: Pittsburgh

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    Pittsburgh is just barely hanging on to the tournament bubble, and their one hope is Tray Woodall.

    The Panthers started the season 6-1, with Woodall averaging 14.1 point and 8.3 assists while shooting 45.7 percent on threes.  After he was injured, Pittsburgh struggled mightily, dropping seven of their next 12 games.

    Insert Woodall and Pitt promptly won 4-of-5.  After dropping their last two road games, Pitt is 10-4 with him, 5-7 without him.

    When Woodall dishes out five assists or more, Pitt is 9-1.  He is crucial to their ability to score, and he is not just a game-changer for the Panthers, he is a season-changer.

14. Damian Lillard: Weber State

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    Yet another small school player, Damian Lillard is the top scorer in college basketball.  That alone makes him a game-changer.

    Lillard can change a game with the most recognizable skill in the sport which is scoring.  High scorers are sometimes viewed as maybe not being the best overall players, because they often take a lot of shots to get their points.  Lillard is not that guy.

    For a high-volume shooter, Lillard is like a surgeon from the field.  He shoots 48 percent on field goals, 45 percent on threes and 89 percent on free-throws.

    Lillard also grabs 5.3 rebounds and dishes out 3.9 assists per game.  He is the top scorer in the country, but he does it in a team concept.

    He has led Weber State to 14 wins in their last 15 games and has gone for more than 20 points in 11 of those games.  The Wildcats are tied with Montana for first-place in the Big Sky and Lillard's outrageous scoring is the biggest reason.

13. Matthew Dellavedova: Saint Mary's

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    Matthew Dellavedova isn't flashy and doesn't make a lot of highlights, but he is in control of every game.

    From the offensive tempo to where his teammates get the ball, Dellavedova's fingerprints are all over it.

    He is a little bit on the slow side and doesn't show a lot of explosiveness or quickness, but he gets it done with basketball smarts and leadership.  He also can shoot with almost limitless range.

    The West Coast Conference was expected to come down to who won a six-game round robin between Saint Mary's, Gonzaga and BYU.  The Gaels went 3-1 in those games and Dellavedova turned in his best performances.  He averaged 18.5 points and 6.5 assists in the four games.

    The Australian point guard has Saint Mary's at 23-3 and leading the WCC by a game and a half over Gonzaga.  When tournament time comes, point guards play a huge role, and Dellavedova can make a big difference for Saint Mary's.

12. Isaiah Canaan: Murray State

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    Isaiah Canaan is exactly what his last name proclaims: a massive weapon.

    Murray State has been one of the surprises of the season and despite a recent loss, they remain a great story.  Canaan has been the biggest reason for it.

    He averages 19.6 points per game and he shoots the lights out.  From the field he shoots 49 percent and on threes he is hitting an astronomical 48 percent.

    When it comes down to it, the team that wins a basketball game makes the most shots.  There aren't many better shot-makers than Canaan.

    Even in the 72-68 loss to Tennessee State, Canaan's shooting kept them in it.  He poured in 31 points, hitting 7-of-10 from long range.

    Murray State can make a deep run in March on Canaan's shooting alone.  Don't be surprised if Canaan and the Racers do just that.

11. Casper Ware: Long Beach State

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    If you've read my other college basketball articles, you probably know my feelings on Casper Ware.  He is simply one of the best point guards and leaders in college basketball.

    Long Beach State played the toughest non-conference schedule in the country and they knocked off Pitt, Auburn and Xavier.  They also dropped close road games to North Carolina, Kansas, San Diego State, Louisville and Kansas State. 

    In that eight game stretch, Ware scored 19.3 points and dished out 4.4 assists per game.

    He is the catalyst for everything Long Beach State does, spearheading their defense and running their offense.  He has the 49ers on a 12-game winning streak and his presence on the floor could sneak then into the NCAA Tournament's second weekend. 

10. Harrison Barnes: North Carolina

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    Harrison Barnes hasn't exactly lived up to lofty expectations in his career to this point and it wasn't easy to figure out how to rank him.

    On one hand he hasn't been the dominating player and scorer he was supposed to be.  On the other hand, he has still been really good, and he is having a better sophomore season than he did as a freshman.

    The only way to really look at it is his track record when the games become more important.  He showed last year that he is capable of raising his game and being arguable the biggest game-changer of all.

    In the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, Barnes averaged 22.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, hitting 40 percent of his threes.

    Barnes is now a year older, playing better defense and he knows what it takes to win in the postseason.  If history is any indicator, Harrison Barnes could vault to the top of this list next month.

9. Dion Waiters: Syracuse

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    Dion Waiters changes a game the second he walks on the court.  His leadership and unselfishness allow him to be the best sixth-man in college basketball.

    Despite his limited minute, he makes the most of the time he gets.  In just 23.5 minutes per game he scores 12.2 points and dishes 2.7 assists per game.  He shoots 54.4 percent on two-point shots.

    As much as his scoring off the bench lifts the team, he makes his true difference on the defensive end.

    Waiters averages 2.1 steals per game, 3.5 per 40 minutes.  His defense helps spark the deadly Syracuse transition game and leads to bushels of fast-break points.

    Waiters may be a reserve, but he leaves his mark on virtually every game they play.  His reserve role may also help the team deep in the tournament, where he will be fresh late in games. 

    Some may think this is a little high for a sixth-man, but few can change a game as quickly as Waiters can.

8. Marcus Denmon: Missouri

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    Simply put, Marcus Denmon is the most lethal offensive player on the most lethal offensive team in the country.

    He scores 18.0 points per game shooting 40.1 percent on threes and 90.2 percent on free-throws.  The numbers may not jump off the page, but Denmon struggled through a 9-of-43 slump from three-point range, just 20.9 percent.

    In his last three games, Denmon has found his stroke, hitting 14-of-26 for 53.8 percent.  Denmon is a game-changer for his scoring ability and his precision efficiency when he is at the top of his game.

    It's arguable that no player has changed any game more than Denmon did against Kansas two Saturdays ago.  Trailing 71-63 with 2:04 remaining, Denmon led an 11-0 run to close out a shocking 74-71 victory. 

    He started the run with a three-point play, cutting the deficit to 71-66.  He then hit threes on back-to-back possessions to give them the lead for good at 72-71.  Marcus Denmon is another sharpshooter who can move his way up this list.

7. Thomas Robinson: Kansas

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    What is left to be said about Thomas Robinson?  He is the most tenacious rebounder in the country, he plays tough defense and his offensive game has come a long way as well.

    Robinson is posting averages of 17.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per game.

    His size, strength, athleticism and effort make him near impossible to handle in any aspect of the game.  Robinson also knows how to turn his game up against top competition.  In eight games against top-25 opponents he averaged 18.8 points and 12.3 rebounds.

    Perhaps his most amazing statistic is his defensive rebounding rate.  Robinson pulls down 32.4 percent of opponent's misses.  Only one other player reached 30 percent, and barely, at 30.02 percent.

    Robinson doesn't have the flashiest style but he is one of the most determined players in college basketball and his rebounding and defense stand out among the crowd.

6. Quincy Acy: Baylor

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    It might be hard to justify Quincy Acy being this high on the list, especially above Thomas Robinson.  The reason is, Acy is not the best player on his team, but he often outplays the one who is.

    Acy plays with as much energy as anyone in the Big 12 and he is all out all the time.

    He can score, averaging a very efficient 12.0 points per game on 58 percent shooting.  He averages 7.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.0 steal per game.

    Acy's athleticism, matched with his energy and toughness, make him Baylor's game-changer.  His intensity alone often masks Perry Jones' timid style of play.

    If Baylor is to avoid being a tournament flop, they will need Quincy Acy's shot-blocking and shot-altering defensive ability to shine.  There is no doubt he will to all he can to make sure that happens.

5. Doug McDermott: Creighton

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    Doug McDermott is an offensive force of nature.  He is a coach's son who has a great knowledge and feel for the game.  He is also a dead-eye shooter.

    McDermott is pouring in 22.7 points per game, but that is nothing compared to how he is doing it. 

    He is shooting 61.3 percent from the field which is outrageous, especially when you consider that he is a perimeter shooter.  McDermott is hitting an even 50 percent from three point range, making him a deadly inside-outside threat.

    Despite his lack of athleticism, McDermott still grabs 8.1 rebounds per game.

    McDermott's scoring is what sets him apart though.  For anyone who remembers Wally Szczerbiak, this March may be a repeat of his 43-point outburst in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  McDermott is capable of ripping the nets like that on any given night.

4. Scott Machado: Iona

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    If you don't know who Scott Machado is, you should familiarize yourself immediately.  Machado is arguably the best point guard in the country.

    He is the maestro of one of the most entertaining offenses in the game.  He runs the show and shoots and scores at an impressive rate as well.

    Machado is scoring 13.2 points per game to go along with his 9.9 assists and 5.3 rebounds.  He is shooting 49.2 percent from the field, 40.3 percent from three-point range and hits 80.6 percent of his free.throws.

    Machado can do it all, but he changes the game with his ability to control the tempo and set his teammates up in favorable spots.

    He dishes out 14 assists on a night where his teammate Lamont Jones scored a career-high 43 points.

    In their three toughest games of the season, against Purdue, St. Joe's and Maryland, Machado led Iona to two wins and averaged 20.7 points, 12.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game.

    The point guard can control any game, and none more so than Scott Machado.

3. Mike Moser: UNLV

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    Mike Moser has been an absolute revelation this year.  He transferred from UCLA after playing just 70 minutes.  He's played a lot more than that for UNLV and has made the most of the opportunity.

    The nation's third-leading rebounder, Moser does a lot more than clean the glass.  He is averaging 15.0 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.0 block per game.

    Moser is a game-changer on both ends of the floor with his length, explosiveness and high-energy.

    Similar to Marcus Denmon, Moser saved his most game-changing performance for his team's most important game.

    Hostin San Diego State, Moser scored 19 points and added nine rebounds, six blocked shots and four steals in a 65-63 win.

    Moser has 13 double-doubles this season and has topped 20 rebounds twice.  As Moser goes, so go the Runnin' Rebels.

2. Draymond Green: Michigan State

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    Draymond Green does not change the game with athleticism, length or any one particular elite skill.  He changes every game with his ability to do everything. 

    Green has put up impressive numbers, but his most important contributions to the Spartans are his leadership and toughness.  He is truly an extension of Tom Izzo on the floor.

    He is averaging 15.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 block per game.  Green is even hitting 36 percent of his threes.

    Not big enough to be a power forward and not athletic enough to be a small forward, Green finds a way to squeeze the most out of what he has to work with.  He has also been invaluable to the young Michigan State roster.

    Green has led the Spartans to a 6-3 record over top-25 teams and in those games he has averaged a double-double.  Without him, things get ugly, as evidence by their 42-41 loss to Illinois after he left the game with an injury.

1. Anthony Davis: Kentucky

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    I took a lot of heat for making Anthony Davis a first-team All-America last month, but there is just no way to avoid being enamored with the guy.

    He is tall, athletic, explosive and freakishly long.  For his age, he even knows how to use all of these tools on the basketball court.

    Davis isn't a big-time scorer at 14.0 points per game, but he is almost impossible to stop, ranking ninth in the nation with a 65.1 field-goal percentage.  He can dunk on anyone and finish at the rim no matter who is there.

    But enough about his offense.  Where Davis truly shines and where he becomes the biggest force in college basketball is on defense.

    Davis is averaging a ridiculous 4.9 blocks per game and is also adding 1.5 steals as well.  Defense is one of the hardest things to get a freshman to do and Davis is doing it better than anyone.  Oh, by the way, as an afterthought he is pulling down 9.9 rebounds per game.

    The scary thing is, he is getting even better.  In 13 games since New Year's Eve, Davis is averaging 16.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.3 blocks and 1.5 steals per game.  He is shooting 67.2 percent from the field.

    Like it or not, there is no player in college basketball who changes a game like Anthony Davis.  He is unbelievable.

    Although Davis is in the top spot, there is one more slide to go.

Apologies To...

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    This last slide is a new addition that I plan on using from now on.  I generally get a significant amount of comments bringing up players that have been omitted, which I encourage, but I figured it would be a good idea to add a group of players who are worthy of mention but didn't land on the top-20 for a variety of reasons. 

    Here are the "honorable mentions" and again, please take the time to share your thoughts and choices as well.

    Will BartonMemphis18.2 PTS8.2 REB1.4 STL
    Ryan BroekhoffValparaiso15.0 PTS8.5 REB39.4% 3PT
    Rhamel BrownManhattan18.9 MIN5.0 REB 2.5 BLK 
    Kevin JonesWest Virginia20.6 PTS11.2 REB 52.8% FG 
    Michael Kidd-GilchristKentucky12.3 PTS 7.7 REB 1.2 STL 
    Greg ManganoYale18.4 PTS 9.6 REB 2.4 BLK 
    Zeke MarshallAkron10.6 PTS 5.2 REB 3.2 BLK 
    Fab MeloSyracuse7.8 PTS 5.5 REB 3.0 BLK 
    Mike MuscalaBucknell16.5 PTS 8.9 REB 1.5 BLK 
    Ryan PearsonGeorge Mason17.9 PTS 8.6 REB 1.4 STL 
    Joe RaglandWichita State13.2 PTS 3.5 AST 47.3% 3PT 
    Jared SullingerOhio State17.6 PTS 9.2 REB 1.5 STL 
    Chase TapleySan Diego State16.2 PTS 2.0 STL 44.1% 3PT 
    Jeff WitheyKansas9.5 PTS 6.5 REB 3.4 BLK 
    Nate WoltersSouth Dakota State21.5 PTS 6.0 AST 1.6 STL