The One Player Each College Basketball Contender Needs to Step Up in 2014
Every season, college basketball's marquee names change. It's part of the game's beauty and inscrutability, the beholder's feelings on the NBA's one-and-done rule notwithstanding.
Every year, players who are expected to shine either struggle to adapt or suffer through injuries, sometimes becoming bit players. We're looking at you, Ryan Harrow.
Conversely, there are always guys who come through at unexpected levels and win their way into their fans' hearts forever. See: Oladipo, Victor.
The teams forecasted to contend for Final Four berths all have dominant stars that, barring the unforeseen, are capable of carrying said squads a long way. There are also, however, players who lack a lengthy resume of proven college production who appear central to their school's hopes of a championship.
The 12 players listed here may not be stars—yet—and their teams may not necessarily need them to become so this season. But all 12 must be productive in their roles this season, or their seasons are that much more likely to end in disappointment.
Oklahoma State: Michael Cobbins
Michael Cobbins is one of those players who isn't likely to be a star. Oklahoma State is a team built from the outside in, boasting an impressive array of perimeter talent like Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Phil Forte and Le'Bryan Nash.
Any top squad needs bodies who can handle the fights down low, however, and the Cowboys' most likely candidate for low post battle is the 6'8", 220-pound Cobbins.
Cobbins' 6.1 rebounds per game last season ranked him 10th in the Big 12, and he also finished fifth with 1.5 blocks per game. It's not hyperbole to say that Cobbins should have a chance to push that rebounding average into double figures.
Of the four gunners listed above, Nash was the only one to shoot better than 43 percent from the floor. If their accuracies don't improve, offensive rebounding chances will be plentiful.
If Cobbins can improve his 8.9 offensive rebounding percentage, the putbacks alone could push the junior close to a double-double on any given night. If he can't, the Pokes will end up with a staggering number of empty possessions.
Ohio State: LaQuinton Ross
Ohio State's LaQuinton Ross now has the platform to prove that he can keep up his 17-PPG form from the Buckeyes' final three games. With Big Ten scoring leader Deshaun Thomas joining the San Antonio Spurs, Ross is first in line to pull from the available pile of shots Thomas leaves behind.
Even before the tournament, Ross was establishing himself as a highly viable perimeter option. He sank 14-of-27 from three-point range over OSU's final seven games, including the big nights in March.
If Ross can keep his effective field goal percentage near last season's 54.2 or improve it, he can certainly approach that 17-point average. If not, a large amount of the scoring load will shift to senior Lenzelle Smith and junior Sam Thompson.
All three still need to prove they can get baskets without Thomas there to draw defenders. All three struggling would lead to a long, frustrating season for coach Thad Matta's Buckeyes.
North Carolina: J.P. Tokoto
The North Carolina Tar Heels' biggest struggle in 2012-13 was a lack of production from their big men. That problem was mitigated by a deep and talented group of wing players including Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland, P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
Freshman J.P. Tokoto had a chance to stake a claim to minutes early in the season as McDonald worked to come back from an injury. However, Tokoto couldn't impress coach Roy Williams enough to keep him in the lineup when McDonald returned.
Now, Bullock is in the NBA, Strickland has graduated and Hairston is facing a shaky future with the Tar Heel program. Therefore, Tokoto will be the first guard off the bench simply because there are no other options.
UNC appears overloaded with potential in the post, as touted freshmen Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks join the likes of James Michael McAdoo, Joel James, Desmond Hubert and Brice Johnson.
On the wing, however, Williams has few bodies to draw from. Tokoto must improve on last season's pitiful 38 percent foul shooting and ugly turnover percentage (27.6). If he can't, injuries and fatigue may become an albatross for the thinned-out Tar Heel backcourt.
Syracuse: Michael Gbinije
Syracuse swingman Michael Gbinije's versatility was already intriguing when he transferred in from Duke. While he sat out his mandatory season after the move, however, he worked to add another skill to his set.
Gbinije spent many practice scrimmages handling the orange for the Orange, matching up on both ends with future NBA lottery pick Michael Carter-Williams.
This season, with both MCW and his backcourt mate Brandon Triche gone, Gbinije will get the minutes that he could never quite find in Durham, likely as the starter at shooting guard next to freshman Tyler Ennis.
Syracuse's primary perimeter sniper, forward James Southerland, is also gone. Forward C.J. Fair is the only returnee who made better than 27 percent from the arc last season, and he only attempted 64 long shots.
As a player who is considered a strong outside shooter, Gbinije's jumper will need to be in midseason form from day one. He made four of his 10 threes during his limited minutes at Duke, and Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara told the Syracuse Post-Standard that he expects Gbinije to be a "fantastic shooter."
If the shot isn't falling, Gbinije can still see some minutes as Ennis's backup at the point. If he can't make that work, either, Syracuse may again experience some backcourt depth issues forcing starters to play 33 or more minutes per game.
Michigan: Mitch McGary
Similar to LaQuinton Ross of archrival Ohio State, Michigan's Mitch McGary became a sensation during the NCAA tournament. The 6'10", 250-pounder averaged approximately 14 points and 10 rebounds per game over the Wolverines' run to the national title game.
Now, with a new season dawning, the Wolverines need McGary to prove that small sample size can be sustained over the course of an entire season.
Optimism runs rampant for McGary's sophomore year, with Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy listing him as America's No. 1 center and CBS Sports projecting him as a top-10 pick in the loaded 2014 NBA draft.
No one questions McGary's credentials as a rebounder. After all, he ranked in the Big Ten's top three last season in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, according to StatSheet.com. Where the variable lies is in McGary's ability to create his own offense without star guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. there to draw defense with their daring penetration.
Michigan's coaching staff has expressed excitement about the idea of moving McGary to the power forward spot this season. The toughest part of that transition will likely lie on the defensive end, a place where McGary committed five fouls per 40 minutes last season. Even in the Wolverines' last three tournament games, the big man committed 12 fouls in 90 minutes, or 5.3 per 40.
Florida: Kasey Hill
Florida coach Billy Donovan has several potential headaches lingering this summer.
Rutgers transfer guard Eli Carter may or may not be eligible this season. Incoming blue-chip freshman Chris Walker may or may not be cleared academically. Big man Will Yeguete's early-season status is in limbo following major knee surgery. Finally, rising senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is suspended for undisclosed violations of team rules.
In the face of all this, the impending arrival of McDonald's All-American point guard Kasey Hill is the Gators' primary cause for optimism.
Hill will need to quickly take charge of a team featuring veterans like forwards Patric Young and Casey Prather, one that must also integrate transfers Damontre Harris (South Carolina) and Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech).
Backcourt depth will be a problem if Wilbekin is not allowed to return and Carter has to sit out, since sophomore Michael Frazier is the only returning guard who played more than four minutes per game last season. All of this makes it even more essential that Hill put up a highlight tape like the one shown here from his first game in a Gator jersey.
Kansas: Naadir Tharpe
Andrew Wiggins' commitment returned Kansas to its accustomed top-five expectations from borderline top-20 status overnight. While adding the top recruit in North America to an already strong class was a huge get for coach Bill Self, it's one of KU's few returnees that holds the key to the Jayhawks' Final Four aspirations.
For those who know that Webster defines "nadir" as "the lowest point," junior point guard Naadir Tharpe often lived up (down?) to his name last season.
Tharpe's shooting was frequently hideous, making only 33 percent of his three-point shots and 35 percent of his twos. In one of the worst losses in Kansas history, the upset defeat at TCU, Tharpe embodied KU's offensive struggles by shooting 2-of-15 from the floor.
While Tharpe's assist percentage (28.2 according to StatSheet.com) ranked sixth in the Big 12, his turnover percentage stood at a shaky 21.5, ranking in the league's top 20.
This season, Tharpe and sophomore forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor are expected to be the only returnees playing significant minutes. While Ellis and Traylor are surrounded by frontcourt talent, including senior Memphis transfer Tarik Black, Tharpe has a pair of freshmen nipping at his heels.
One recruit, Connor Frankamp, is considered primarily a shooter. The other, three-star prospect Frank Mason, is considered primarily a towel-waver by KU's recruiting standards.
Kansas can usually reload with veterans capable of running Self's system in their sleep. This season, the most experienced presence on the roster is Tharpe, who needs to prove he can shoot straight and keep the offense moving.
Arizona: T.J. McConnell
It was somehow fitting that Arizona's 2013 NCAA tournament run ended at the hands of Aaron Craft and Ohio State. In the 2013-14 season, U of A will suit up a point guard who is drawing favorable comparisons to Craft himself.
While T.J. McConnell didn't become a household name in his first two seasons at Duquesne, the Dukes' Atlantic 10 foes were delighted to see him transfer to the other side of the country. In both of his seasons at DU, McConnell finished in the A-10's top five in assists and the nation's top five in steals. As a sophomore, he also finished above a 60-percent true shooting rate, sensational for a 6'1" guard.
A player who was able to dish 5.5 assists per game on an Atlantic 10 doormat should have little difficulty, even in a slightly resurgent Pac-12, when surrounded by an entire lineup filled with NBA prospects. McConnell's pass-first mentality will certainly keep Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski et al. fed.
The Cats were frequently undone last season by nominal point guard Mark Lyons' shaky decision making. Lyons had only three conference games with fewer than 10 shots, but seven with two or fewer assists.
McConnell will not look to shoot nearly as much as Lyons, but he must be able to keep close to his career 41-percent rate from three. After all, with Grant Jerrett gone after one season, the new floor general currently shapes up as Arizona's only proven three-point threat.
Duke: Amile Jefferson
Duke may have the most ridiculous stockpile of wing talent this side of Lexington. Players like Jabari Parker, Rasheed Sulaimon and Rodney Hood will force defenses to choose between respecting the perimeter or preventing the drive, and they can make them pay for either choice.
Interior size, however, will be hard to come by outside of what seems like Duke's eighth or ninth Plumlee, 6'11" sophomore Marshall. Another sophomore, 6'9" Amile Jefferson, will need to assert himself as an interior force for Duke to make another deep run in 2013-14.
Jefferson entered college weighing about 185 pounds, and that may have been with rocks in his pockets. The Duke Chronicle reported that when he arrived for late-May workouts, he was up to 214 with 220 as his goal.
It's a perfect season to get away with starting a 6'9" center in the ACC, with players like Alex Len, Richard Howell and the Miami duo of Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson now departed. Even occasionally battling such players, Jefferson was a respectable force on the offensive glass as a freshman, pulling 12.7 percent of his offensive rebound chances according to StatSheet.
The Blue Devils will need Jefferson to continue capitalizing on his rebounding opportunities, especially on the defensive end. With the caliber of athletes coach Mike Krzyzewski has at his disposal this season, fast breaks will be devastating if someone can crash the glass to start them.
Louisville: Montrezl Harrell
There were flashes of greatness out of Louisville freshman Montrezl Harrell last season, particularly when he dismantled the Cards' eventual fellow Final Four entrant Syracuse in the Big East championship game.
Harrell squashed the Orange for 20 points and seven rebounds, then proceeded to shoot 71 percent (15-of-21) in the Cards' run to the national championship.
This season, U of L needs a lot more than flashes from Harrell. With Gorgui Dieng in the NBA and perpetual underachiever Zach Price transferring to Missouri, Harrell and rising junior Chane Behanan will embody the majority of Louisville's interior offense.
During the USA's run to the U19 world championship gold medal, Harrell impressed knowledgeable observers like VCU coach/Team USA assistant Shaka Smart (via ESPN Insider post) and the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy with not only his strength inside, but an improving mid-range game.
Harrell scored 17 points and blocked four shots in the Americans' 82-68 gold-medal win over Serbia, including a pair of 17-foot jumpers late in the action.
Russ Smith will undoubtedly make the highlight reels with more than his share of "Russdiculous" baskets, and the Cardinals have plenty of able perimeter support in players like Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear. The openings for those shooters, however, will come from Harrell imposing his will inside.
Michigan State: Gary Harris
Most college basketball players of any age in any conference would salivate at a season of nearly 13 points per game and 41 percent three-point shooting, let alone as a freshman in the Big Ten.
Michigan State's Gary Harris did that with a gimpy shoulder that lingered for most of the year.
With the shoulder problems, Harris often eschewed drives to the basket for fear of further injury and took nearly half his shots (158 of 329) from three-point range. At full health, he's a player capable of breaking down any defender off the dribble and finishing in traffic.
The Spartans need Harris to form the outside half of a dominant inside-outside duo with Adreian Payne, if for no other reason than to allow point guard Keith Appling to become more of a distributor. Appling's dire shooting last season often derailed the Spartans at inopportune times, an issue exacerbated by the fact that Appling led the team in shot attempts.
If Harris doesn't assume that mantle this season, Appling may again do more harm than good to MSU's chances of reaching its seventh Final Four of the Izzo era. There's plenty of scoring talent in East Lansing, but the offense must flow through Harris.
Kentucky: Andrew Harrison
Looking at Kentucky's potential depth chart for the 2013-14 season is not unlike examining a mock draft list. In fact, both DraftExpress and NBADraft.net have five Wildcats listed on their current 2014 mocks.
Six frontcourt players are former McDonald's All-Americans and likely NBA prospects, if you include swingman James Young as a small forward.
But what of the Kentucky backcourt? We all know about Aaron and Andrew Harrison, and if an injury befalls Aaron, Young could easily become one of America's top shooting guards. If floor general Andrew goes down or struggles with the college game, who replaces him?
Aaron can play point guard in a pinch with Young at the two, but does John Calipari want to blunt Aaron's nose for the basket by making him orchestrate the offense for 30 minutes per game?
That may be the only palatable option, since relatively unheralded freshman Dominique Hawkins and unimpressive veteran Jarrod Polson are the next men up.
This team simply has too much talent to be banished to the NIT again, but if the Wildcats are to reach their legendary potential, Andrew Harrison is by far the hardest piece to replace.