College basketball’s major conferences no longer have a monopoly on top teams, but when it comes to individual star power, it’s tough to beat the big-name programs. That situation makes for some awfully competitive battles for the distinction of the best player, or even the best at a given position, in any of those conferences.
In the Pac-12, for example, California’s Justin Cobbs is coming off a brilliant season for an NCAA tournament team, but even he has to take a back seat in the conference’s point guard hierarchy. Arizona State’s Jahii Carson is on the short list of the nation’s best rising sophomores, as well as a likely finalist for the Bob Cousy Award.
Read on for more on Carson and the rest of the top talents at all five positions for each of the nation’s major conferences. For purposes of these rankings, the six BCS football conferences, plus the new AAC, get the nod as “majors.”
Few would’ve blamed Shabazz Napier if he’d joined Alex Oriakhi and others in jumping ship from postseason-banned UConn prior to last year.
Now that the rising senior has paid his dues in a lost season, he’ll have a chance to go out with a bang—that being a serious run at the inaugural AAC title.
The still-undersized Huskies will be depending on their PG for a lot of scoring, and Napier (17.1 points a night, his biggest edge on South Florida’s Anthony Collins) is definitely up to the task.
The 6'1" guard is one of five returning Huskies starters, so don’t be surprised if his assist numbers look more like the ones he posted two seasons ago (5.8, vs. last year’s 4.6 per game).
With his .328 long-range accuracy and 6’1” frame, Russ Smith isn’t exactly a prototypical shooting guard. Of course, with one national title in hand and a real chance to win a second in 2014, Smith gets the kind of results that are tough to argue with.
The rising senior's specialty is beating opponents down the floor on the fast break, which produced a healthy fraction of his 18.7 points per game last season.
He starts many of those breaks himself (2.1 steals a night) by being one of the country’s most aggressive and productive defenders—a category where he has a major advantage on his closest competition here, Cincinnati scoring machine Sean Kilpatrick.
The Golden Knights are going to be in for a long season in their major-conference debut, but one piece of good news is the return of Isaiah Sykes. The 6’5” swingman flirted with the NBA Draft before returning to Orlando for his senior year.
Sykes led Central Florida with 16 points and 4.5 assists per game last season, and he also pulled in an eye-opening 7.5 rebounds a night.
Add in 2.3 steals per contest, and he’ll be the most dangerous all-around player in the AAC (even if many of his numbers come in losing causes).
Chane Behanan doesn’t quite have the raw stats of new conference rival TaShawn Thomas of Houston, but Behanan has gotten the job done against much scarier competition.
In last year’s Big East, a conference loaded with bruising big men, Behanan muscled his way to 9.8 points and 6.5 rebounds a night.
With center Gorgui Dieng off to the NBA, Behanan’s role on the interior for the defending national champs will get even bigger.
Look for him to make an especially big impact on defense, where his quickness (1.4 steals per game last season) and instincts will give him a huge advantage over the forwards arriving from the less-physical Conference USA.
All the attention at SMU will be focused on the program’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American, SG Keith Frazier. The freshman’s job will be a lot easier, though, thanks to the presence of rising junior Cannen Cunningham locking down the middle of the floor.
In his first year as a starter, the 6’10” Cunningham wasn’t a world-beating scorer (9.3 points per game) but made his mark as a rebounder (6.2 boards a night) and defender (1.8 blocks per contest).
He’ll need all those skills to help keep the Mustangs afloat in their tough new conference, a job for which he’d do well to add even more muscle to his 225-lb frame.
The senior leaders who carried Duke to last March’s Elite Eight are gone, but the Blue Devils’ outstanding floor leader is back for another year in Durham. Quinn Cook isn’t flashy, but he’s got all the assets you look for in a top-level point guard.
The rising junior is an outstanding passer (5.3 assists per game) who can also stretch the defense as a scorer (11.7 points a night, .393 long-range shooting).
He’s a playmaker on defense (1.4 steals per contest), and he was even one of the few Blue Devils not named Mason Plumlee who occasionally grabbed a rebound last year (3.8 a game).
Virginia isn’t normally a team that scares you with its offense, but Joe Harris is the decided exception. The 6’6” rising senior is one of the most lethal shooters in the country, having nailed 77 three-pointers at a .425 clip last year.
All those long-range bombs added up to 16.3 points per game for the Cavaliers star, who also did his share to help his team’s vaunted D challenge opposing shooters.
He’s not a wonderful rebounder for his size, but 4.0 boards a night from a guard is nothing to sneeze at, either.
C.J. Fair is a rising senior combo-forward whose stock in trade is highlight-reel dunks. His long-limbed 6’8” frame makes him tough to defend as a jump shooter, a skill set that added up to 14.5 points a night last season.
Fair also led the Orange with 7.0 rebounds per game, the area where he’s likely to have the biggest edge on Duke’s Jabari Parker for the top spot here.
Like Parker, Fair is a fearsome defender whose length makes him the best asset of Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone.
The fact that 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game were seen as not being impressive enough provides a pretty good estimate of the expectations facing James Michael McAdoo.
The rising junior is a sensational athlete with a terrific shooting touch, so the fact that he “only” made second-team All-ACC last season comes off as a disappointment.
McAdoo surprised plenty of observers by staying in Chapel Hill, where he’ll have the benefit of a much more talented frontcourt this time around.
The arrival of freshmen Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks will keep the incumbent star from having to do everything himself, which (paradoxically) should lead to even more impressive numbers in 2013-14.
Lost in last year’s sea of NBA-bound ACC centers, Daniel Miller is now the cheese standing alone among the conference’s pivot men.
After three years of grinding out rebounds against similarly massive post players, the 6’11”, 257-lb Miller will finally get to enjoy some real size advantages as a senior.
Miller’s specialty has always been shot blocking, and he should make a good run at eclipsing his career high of 2.4 rejections per game.
If rebuilding Georgia Tech can provide a little more help from the backcourt this time around—Miller was second on the roster in assists last year—he’ll also be a safe bet to top last year’s 8.4 points and 6.6 rebounds a night.
The second Marcus Smart turned down the NBA draft, he became one of the favorites for the 2014 Wooden Award. There isn’t a player in the country who can fill up a stat sheet as thoroughly and impressively as the Cowboys’ rising sophomore.
Smart already finished second in the country in steals (3.0 per game) while averaging 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists a night as a true freshman.
All those numbers are likely to improve next season, when there will be fewer experienced PGs in the conference to challenge Smart’s enormous size (6'4", 225 lbs) and athletic advantages.
The race for the top spot here isn’t going to be quite as crowd-pleasing as the duels between Rodney McGruder and Ben McLemore last season, but that’s not to say that Markel Brown isn’t headed for a big year.
The rising senior averaged 15.3 points per game a year ago, and he’s got the country’s best point guard (Marcus Smart) back to feed him for another season.
The 6’3” Brown is a physical finisher who can also knock down the occasional trey (.364 last year). He’s a solid defender, too, picking up the few steals that Smart leaves behind in the Cowboys backcourt.
In theory, Le’Bryan Nash of Oklahoma State could make a run at this spot, but after two unremarkable seasons it’s hard to see why the light would come on now for the formerly hallowed recruit.
That leaves this year's top freshman in the country, Andrew Wiggins, a clear shot to the top of the Big 12 at his position.
Wiggins is a 6’7” scoring machine who can also pass when the defense gives him the opening. He’s a solid rebounder and defender, but it’s his point totals that are going to wow the fans in Lawrence.
A physical 6’9”, 210 lbs, Cory Jefferson gets most of his 13.3 points per game on rim-shaking dunks. Plenty of those chances come on offensive rebounds, a major part of the energetic forward’s 8.0 boards a night.
Jefferson, a rising senior, is also a force as a shot-blocker (1.9 per contest) thanks to his tremendous leaping ability. His combination of experience and muscle will help him hold off Kansas’ agile Perry Ellis for the top spot here.
Although he doesn’t have much in the way of bulk at 7’1”, 220 lbs, Isaiah Austin is a devastating force in the paint. Austin’s length and agility helped him rack up 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as a freshman.
Austin did most of his scoring from down low, too, though he’d love to believe that his 13 points a night were mostly the product of his long-range shooting.
Baylor, meanwhile, would love for the .333 three-point shooter to get back in the paint on offense. Still, wherever he’s shooting from, Austin’s size and agility will make him a daunting matchup again in 2013-14.
Much of the Big East will be breaking in new point guards next season, but not the newly arrived Musketeers. Xavier’s best player in its conference debut will be rising sophomore Semaj Christon, the top NBA prospect in the league.
The 6’3” Christon is an imposing scorer (15.2 points per game) who still dished out 4.6 assists a night.
He’s also a plus as a defender (1.5 steals per contest), though you’d like to see him do more on the glass (2.9 rebounds a game) against smaller opponents.
Although he stands just 6’1”, 165 lbs, Bryce Cotton has been a top-notch scorer in the black-and-blue Big East for two years running.
That’s not about to change as he heads into his senior season, especially with realignment softening what had been a brutal defensive conference.
Cotton could easily top his 19.7 point-per-game average from last year, even without star PG Vincent Council.
He’s also a good bet to break 100 three-pointers made for the first time in his career, even if his accuracy—.364 last year—is merely good rather than extraordinary.
Two-time All-American Doug McDermott is the best offensive player in college basketball.
Of course, even that may not be enough to make Creighton competitive in its new league, but it will certainly have McDermott in the Wooden Award conversation yet again.
The 6’8” junior finished second in the nation with 23.2 points per game last season, including unbelievable .490 three-point shooting. He’s also a fine rebounder, having pulled in 7.7 boards a night last season.
He’s not quite the rebounder that Providence’s LaDontae Henton is, but Jakarr Sampson earns the top spot here with scoring and athleticism.
As a freshman, the St. John’s forward poured in 14.9 points a game even while sharing the ball with shot-happy D’Angelo Harrison.
A high-flying 6’8”, 204 lbs, Sampson did grab 6.6 rebounds a night last season. His mobility also makes him an aggressive defender who piled up 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest.
Davante Gardner doesn’t have a traditional center’s length at 6’8”, but his enormous power at 290 lbs makes up for it.
The rising senior will be making the transition from one of the country’s most dominant sixth men to the starter and best player on the Golden Eagles’ roster.
Gardner bulled his way to 11.5 points and a team-leading 4.8 rebounds per game last season. He’ll do even more scoring next year, especially because he’s one of the best free-throw shooters at any position in the Big East (.835).
Ohio State’s Aaron Craft is the best defensive player in college basketball, but even with that he can’t outperform the all-around game of Tim Frazier.
Penn State’s floor leader is a terror on defense himself (2.4 steals per game in his last full season), and every other facet of his game has Craft beaten handily.
Frazier, who missed most of last season with a torn Achilles, lit up scoreboards in 2010-11 to the tune of 18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists a night.
He’ll be even more dangerous this time around, because he’s got a much stronger Nittany Lions lineup to set up than he did two years ago.
D.J. Newbill’s closest rival for the top spot here is Michigan State’s similarly built Gary Harris. Both 6’4” guards know how to mix it up inside, and while Harris is the superior defender, Newbill’s consistency and all-around offensive game give him the advantage.
The rising Nittany Lions junior averaged a team-leading 16.3 points per game last season while also dishing out 4.0 assists a night.
He’s likely to see the former figure rise and the latter drop with Tim Frazier running the point.
Meanwhile, the Southern Miss transfer's impressive rebounding (5.0 boards per contest from the perimeter) is only going to get better with a year of Big Ten experience.
The Big Ten’s crop of small forwards features one of the best shooters in the country (Michigan’s Nik Stauskas) and several of its most impressive athletes.
Unlike Ohio State’s Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross, though, Branden Dawson has already shown how well he can translate his physical gifts into on-court production.
The 6’6”, 230-lb Dawson has exceptional speed and quickness, making him a lockdown perimeter defender (1.6 steals per game).
He’s also got the muscle to be a first-class rebounder (5.9 boards a night), and he can chip in as a scorer when called upon (8.9 points per contest).
Standing 6’8” and stronger than his 218 lbs, Aaron White is the model of a college power forward. He’s not much for above-the-rim antics, but he’ll outwork and outmuscle his opponents all night long.
White averaged 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds a game for last year’s NIT runner-ups, and even pitched in 1.1 steals a night for good measure. With Iowa bringing back a veteran lineup around him, look for even bigger things from White in 2013-14.
Another painfully close race for a Big Ten top spot finds Michigan postseason star Mitch McGary beaten by a nose. For all McGary’s heart and muscle, he can’t match the game-plan-wrecking athleticism of Adreian Payne.
Payne has a legitimate center’s body at 6’10”, 240 lbs, but he has the leaping ability and fluidity of a small forward.
With Derrick Nix no longer around to be the go-to option for the Spartans, expect Payne’s averages of 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game to soar in his final college season. He's also a good bet to improve on his 1.3 blocks a night.
Perhaps the most telling stat about Jahii Carson’s freshman year is that he sat, on average, for a mere 2.8 minutes out of every game.
Arizona State will need its star on the floor just as much next season, when his combination of scoring and passing brilliance could make him Pac-12 Player of the Year.
The 5’10” Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists per game, finishing just ahead of Cal’s Justin Cobbs in both stats (as he’ll likely do again).
Also like Cobbs, Carson isn’t much of a three-point shooter, but if he develops that aspect of his game there won’t be a player in the conference who can guard him.
With defensive star Andre Roberson off to the NBA, Colorado will need even more productivity from its high-scoring backcourt. Luckily for the Buffaloes, Spencer Dinwiddie and his 15.3 points per game will be up to the challenge.
Dinwiddie is at his best as a slasher, using his 6’6”, 200-lb frame to get to the rim, not to mention the free throw line (where he shoots .825).
He’s also one of the Pac-12’s toughest perimeter defenders—appreciably better than his 1.3 steals per game would suggest—and that skill will keep him ahead of Arizona’s Nick Johnson and UCLA's Jordan Adams.
Although he was a massive disappointment during the Bruins’ early-season slump, Kyle Anderson actually turned in a very solid freshman year. The multitalented 6’9” swingman wound up as UCLA’s top rebounder at 8.6 boards per game.
Anderson’s vaunted passing touch took a back seat to Larry Drew II last year, but he still dished out 3.5 assists to go with his 9.7 points a night.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Anderson’s skill set was the defensive instincts that helped him rack up 1.8 steals per contest.
Dwight Powell was a revelation in his first year as a starter for the Cardinal. The 6’10” Toronto native leapfrogged Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright to lead Stanford with 14.9 points per game.
Powell also made a major impact on the glass, pulling down 8.4 rebounds a night.
He doesn’t have the explosive athleticism of Arizona’s Brandon Ashley, but his toughness and experience will keep Ashley from overtaking him even if the Wildcat makes a substantial leap as a sophomore.
Rising Arizona sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski is a likely pick for a breakout season, but even he will have a tough time catching up to Eric Moreland.
The Beavers big man will be shifting to the pivot thanks to Joe Burton’s graduation, and his 6’10” frame will continue to serve him well against an even bigger set of opponents.
Moreland ranked ninth nationally with 10.6 rebounds per game and blocked an enviable 2.5 shots a night in the bargain. He doesn’t take many shots (just 9.4 points per contest), but he makes them count with an impressive .574 field-goal percentage.
The consensus pick as the best point guard in the 2013 recruiting class, Andrew Harrison will be the SEC’s most complete floor leader.
He won’t score as much as Alabama’s Trevor Releford or get as many steals as Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin, but his all-around game leaves both of those veterans behind.
Harrison’s 6’5”, 210-lb frame makes him tougher than many college forwards, let alone point guards. He’s a first-rate passer (with tons of weapons on the deep Wildcats), a dangerous scorer when he needs to be and a physical defender and rebounder.
Say what you like about Marshall Henderson’s over-the-top celebrations, but the man can shoot. Henderson’s unlimited range helped him knock down an astonishing 138 three-pointers (one shy of the national lead) at a respectable .350 clip.
Henderson ran away with the SEC scoring lead at 20.1 points per game, a feat he should repeat as a senior. He’s not a negligible defender, either, having grabbed 1.3 steals a night last season.
How John Calipari will deploy his embarrassment of frontcourt riches is an open question at this point, but Alex Poythress seems the likeliest bet to land the starting SF job.
Assuming that he does, his immense talent will carry him to the top of the conference charts, especially now that he’s seen what it takes to succeed in the SEC.
Poythress wasn’t as aggressive as Calipari and the Wildcats would’ve liked last season, but he still managed to place second on the balanced UK roster with 11.2 points per game.
He’s a promising force on the glass, too (6.0 boards a night), though there won’t be enough rebounding opportunities to go around on this roster.
There’s plenty of competition for the top position here, from Tennessee rebounding ace Jarnell Stokes to high-flying Florida freshman Chris Walker. None of them, however, will put up point totals to match what Julius Randle can do in a Wildcat uniform.
Randle will immediately become one of the most polished and productive low-post scorers in the conference, and he has the body (6’9”, 225 lbs) to hold his position on the block.
He’s an energetic rebounder, too, though he likely won’t put up numbers in that category at quite the level of some of the league’s top veterans.
Overshadowed for most of his freshman year by sensational classmate Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein gets his chance at the spotlight as a sophomore.
Even with Noel dominating the middle until his season-ending knee injury, Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and a remarkable 2.1 blocks per game.
Cauley-Stein’s most impressive numbers, though, are 7’0”, 244 lbs, and he can run like a deer even at that size.
That NBA-level athletic ability is what raises him above proven vets such as LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant and Florida’s Patric Young for the No. 1 spot here.