College Basketball's Most Indispensable Players
As Derrick Rose so memorably demonstrated to NBA fans in April, even the best basketball teams can sometimes be crippled by the loss of a single player.
If anything, the situation is magnified at the college level, where one elite player can often carry a collection of so-so teammates to extraordinary heights.
Kansas center Jeff Withey, a key factor for last year's national runners-up, will have a particularly big spotlight on him next season. With the KU offense depending so heavily on Elijah Johnson and other erstwhile role players, Withey’s game-changing defense will be vital to the Jayhawks’ chances of living up to their elevated expectations.
Herein, more on Withey and 11 more players around the country whose teams absolutely can’t compete without them.
12. Phil Pressey, Missouri
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Freshmen and transfers will make up the majority of Missouri’s roster in 2012-13.
With so much turnover, the Tiger offense will have a nearly impossible task gelling into a cohesive unit...unless point guard Phil Pressey has a monster year to help smooth out the rough edges.
Pressey, the only returning starter from last year’s 30-win squad, averaged 6.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting .365 from long range.
Even as a rising junior, he’s already established himself as a leader on both ends of the floor, and leadership—more than anything else—is what Missouri’s crazy-quilt roster will need next year.
11. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Coming off the greatest accomplishment in program history, Lehigh is poised for even bigger things.
Four starters return from the 15th-seeded team that upset No. 2 Duke last March, but the Mountain Hawks’ hopes of making an impact outside the Patriot League will depend on just one of those: point guard C.J. McCollum.
McCollum, a 6’3” rising senior, is one of the most dangerous all-around shooting guards in the country.
If it weren’t for his offense (21.9 points per game) and magnificent defense (the fifth-most steals in the country at 2.6 per game), Lehigh would be just as far off the national radar right now as it usually is in the preseason.
10. Pierre Jackson, Baylor
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The 2011-12 edition of the Bears had more size and experience at the forward spots—and just as much talent—as next season’s freshman-loaded frontcourt will boast.
For all that, Baylor would never have approached last year’s 30-win total or Elite Eight finish if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary clutch performance of Pierre Jackson.
Jackson, a juco transfer, finished as the team’s second-leading scorer (13.3 points a game) and leading distributor (5.8 assists a night) while repeatedly knocking down game-winning shots to stave off upsets in Big 12 play.
With a callow frontcourt and a one-dimensional backcourt mate (catch-and-shoot specialist Brady Heslip), Jackson will need to be even better as a senior to keep the Bears at the top of the Big 12 standings.
9. Matthew Dellavedova, St. Mary’s
Eric Francis/Getty Images
The loss of PF Rob Jones will make it awfully tough for St. Mary’s to defend its WCC title or revisit the Top 25 in 2012-13.
Of course, the fact that the Gaels are still in the conversation at all says a lot about how much Matthew Dellavedova brings to the table.
Dellavedova, a 6’4” point guard who’s not shy about creating his own shots, led the team with 15.5 points per game and ranked 11th in the nation with 6.4 assists a night.
The departures in the frontcourt notwithstanding, St. Mary’s returns enough weapons that Dellavedova should be right back among the national leaders in that category in his final college season.
8. Kenny Boynton, Florida
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Even if Kenny Boynton had jumped to the NBA with backcourt mate Bradley Beal, he would have finished his career as Florida's seventh-leading scorer.
Now that he’s back for his senior year, he’s a virtual lock to break 2,000 points, as well as the key to the Gator offense for 2012-13.
Forwards Patric Young and Erik Murphy are hard-nosed types who will get a basket here and a basket there, but Florida won’t be able to keep pace with SEC offenses unless Boynton continues his torrid shooting.
With Erving Walker and Beal both gone, Boynton is likely to top even last year’s career-high pace of 15.9 points per game.
7. D.J. Cooper, Ohio
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
The Ohio Bobcats are one of just two teams from the 2012 Sweet 16 that returns all five starters for next season.
Even with so many veterans on the roster, though, new coach Jim Christian’s fortunes will depend almost entirely on just one of his five rising seniors.
Point guard D.J. Cooper has led the Bobcats in scoring, assists and steals in each of the last two seasons, finishing in the top 20 nationally in assists (once) and steals (twice) during that time.
With so much experience around him, Cooper has a real chance to improve on his brilliant 2011-12 campaign (14.7 points, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals per contest) and lead Ohio to a much better postseason position than last year’s No. 13 seed.
6. Michael Snaer, Florida State
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Seminoles were slammed with heavy graduation losses on both offense (Deividas Dulkys, Luke Loucks) and defense (Bernard James, Xavier Gibson).
Rebuilding the D—coach Leonard Hamilton’s specialty—will be a team effort, but the offense’s fate rests very heavily on Michael Snaer’s shoulders.
Snaer, though still a streaky shooter, poured in a team-high 14 points per game and raised his long-range shooting percentage to a solid .404.
Now a rising senior, Snaer will be as dangerous a scorer as any in the ACC—and if Florida State is going to stay competitive in league play, he'll need to be.
5. Jeff Withey, Kansas
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Only six Jayhawks played more than 20 minutes a night last season, and three of those are gone.
With so little experience on the roster, rising senior Jeff Withey’s leadership would be vital even if he wasn’t also the team's most talented player.
Withey, who contributed nine points and 6.3 rebounds per game to KU’s run to the national title game, is at his best on defense. His 3.6 blocks per game ranked fourth in the nation.
Kansas’ field-goal defense tied for third in the country (.380) a season ago, and it'll need Withey to keep the D close to that level if it wants to stay in national contention in 2012-13.
4. Jack Cooley, Notre Dame
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jack Cooley is the only big man worth noticing in South Bend, and in the Big East, competitive teams without any size are only slightly more common than unicorns.
For the Irish to get any good out of a talented backcourt, Cooley must make good on the promise of his terrific junior season.
Cooley made a huge splash in his first year as a starter, leading the team with 12.4 points and nine rebounds per contest.
He has the game and the frame (6’9”, 248 lbs) to do even better next year, which is the main reason the Irish will be among the conference front-runners again.
3. Rodney Williams, Minnesota
Jason Szenes/Getty Images
Injury-ravaged Minnesota battled its way to the finals of the NIT last season. The Gophers’ impressive finish wouldn’t have been possible if Rodney Williams hadn’t stepped up to lead the young roster.
Williams, a hyper-athletic 6’7” small forward, led the team with career highs of 12.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks a night.
Even with Trevor Mbakwe (who had led the team in several of those categories before blowing out his knee) returning, Minnesota’s chances of competing in a loaded Big Ten would be shot if anything happened to Williams.
2. Peyton Siva, Louisville
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Louisville’s defense carried it to a Final Four berth last season, but the offense had some major holes.
With an abysmal team field-goal percentage of .425, the Cardinals’ half-court attack had just one saving grace: point guard Peyton Siva.
Siva’s penetration and passing (5.5 assists per game) dug the Cardinals out of any number of holes last year.
With two of their top shooters—Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric—gone, they’ll need Siva’s talents even more to keep the offense flowing, or even trickling, in 2012-13.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton
Eric Francis/Getty Images
With unremarkable size and a subpar defense, Creighton wouldn’t even be the front-runner in the Missouri Valley, let alone a Top 25 team, without its overpowering offense.
The engine that makes the high-scoring Blue Jays go is a 6’7” rising junior who happens to be the most dangerous pure scorer in the nation.
Doug McDermott, the only returning first-team All-American in the country, led Creighton with 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game a season ago.
A forward who can shoot .601 from the field and .486 from beyond the arc is a rare commodity indeed, and without McDermott drawing all the attention of opposing defenses, the rest of Creighton’s offense would be a decidedly ordinary bunch.