Ranking the 20 Most Indispensable Players in NCAA Basketball for 2014 Season
NCAA basketball's biggest stars are all sure to put up dazzling stats and memorable highlights, but they don’t all mean the same amount to their teams. Some rosters (see: Kentucky) are so loaded that the loss of any single player would be easy to weather, but others are absolutely dependent on one key leader to stay competitive.
Wichita State, for example, has no chance to build on March’s Final Four appearance without a big year from Cleanthony Early. The athletic forward is the last remaining weapon from the rebounding arsenal that keyed his team’s Cinderella run.
Read on for more on Early’s value to the Shockers, along with the rest of the 20 players whose teams can least afford to do without them in 2013-14.
20. DeAndre Daniels, UConn
Shabazz Napier is far and away the best player on UConn’s roster, but even in his absence, Ryan Boatright would give the Huskies a big-time point guard.
Without DeAndre Daniels, though, UConn would go from a lock for the NCAA tournament to a bubble team in a heartbeat.
A slender 6’8” PF with jaw-dropping athleticism, Daniels is the only competent offensive player in the Huskies frontcourt.
He also led the team in rebounding (5.5 boards per game) and shot-blocking (1.5 rejections a night), and his presence as a deterrent in the paint goes a long way toward making up for the lack of size among the guards.
19. Tyler Haws, BYU
Even with the No. 18 scoring offense in the country, BYU couldn’t manage better than a 10-6 record in the West Coast Conference last season.
This year, the Cougars’ offense and defense are taking serious hits with the graduation of veteran PF Brandon Davies, putting even more pressure on Dave Rose’s team to score points in bunches.
The player in charge of that effort, now more than ever, is Tyler Haws, who averaged almost twice as many points (21.7 per game) as the next-best returning Cougar.
A pair of talented freshman big men are arriving to soften Davies’ departure, but if BYU is going to make the NCAA tournament, it’s going to be because Haws has another monster year.
18. Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s
Sir’Dominic Pointer, a 6’5” swingman, led last year’s St. John’s team with a minuscule 2.7 assists per game. If the Red Storm is going to get any kind of point guard play in 2013-14, it’s going to have to come from freshman Rysheed Jordan.
The 5-star recruit will be under even more pressure because St. John’s has so much talent at other positions that an NCAA tournament berth is an entirely reasonable goal.
Scorers D’Angelo Harrison and Jakarr Sampson (not to mention defensive specialist Chris Obekpa) couldn’t mesh into a winning Big East team last season, but a strong debut from Jordan could turn that performance around.
17. Joe Harris, Virginia
Any team coached by Tony Bennett is going to win with defense above all, and the 2013-14 Cavaliers will be well supplied with long, well-schooled defenders.
What they don’t have in abundance is perimeter offense, especially with Jontel Evans lost to graduation.
The one huge exception to that rule is rising senior Joe Harris, one of the most dangerous pure shooters in the country.
The 6’6” Harris is a .425 three-point shooter—a major source of his team-high 16.3 points per game—whose 77 treys were nearly twice as many as any of his teammates sank last season.
16. Bobby Portis, Arkansas
In the brutal recruiting wars of the SEC, Kentucky, Florida and LSU all brought in freshmen with higher rankings than Bobby Portis. None of those programs, however, will ask more from a first-year star than Arkansas will from its 6’9” PF.
Not a single returning Razorback managed more than 7.6 points or 5.2 rebounds per game in 2012-13, making the agile Portis the key to the Arkansas offense.
He’ll get some help on the glass from classmate Moses Kingsley, but for scoring, he’s pretty much on his own in a conference with plenty of tough defenses.
15. Isaac Hamilton, UTEP (?)
Five-star recruit Isaac Hamilton has been trying to get out of his commitment to UTEP, a discussion that’s still ongoing.
From the Miners’ point of view, they’d better hope that Hamilton changes his mind about playing for them, because they’re in for a long season if he doesn’t.
Three starters are gone from a team that was already ranked 264th nationally in scoring offense, but a solid frontcourt remains.
Adding Hamilton’s sky-high offensive potential to the mix could send UTEP to its first NCAA tournament in four years, but without his perimeter shot, the Miners won’t even have the firepower to match last year’s 18-14 record.
14. Tim Frazier, Penn State
A perennial punching bag in the Big Ten, Penn State went 2-16 in conference to finish with a dismal 10-21 overall record last season.
In spite of all that futility, the Nittany Lions are in a position for a breakout 2013-14, but only if Tim Frazier is running the offense.
The versatile Frazier was one of the most productive players in the country as a junior, averaging 18.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game.
Add him to returning standouts D.J. Newbill at SG and Ross Travis at PF, and Penn State could be a terrific sleeper pick. Take him away, as a ruptured Achilles did last season, and the Nittany Lions are doomed again.
13. A.J. Hammons, Purdue
In the bruising Big Ten, having a physical presence inside is a vital part of any successful team. For Purdue, the only player equipped to fill that role is rising sophomore A.J. Hammons.
At 7’0”, 280 lbs, Hammons can bang with any center in the country, and he led last year’s Boilermakers with 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
Moreover, none of Matt Painter’s other returning frontcourt options managed even half as many boards or rejections last season.
12. Keith Frazier, SMU
As a team, SMU made 113 three-pointers in 2012-13, leaving it 21 behind the national lead…for a single player, Oakland’s Travis Bader. If the Mustangs are going to recover from that embarrassing showing, Keith Frazier will be the reason why.
Frazier, the first McDonald’s All-American in program history, is a 6’5” shooting guard who will provide boatloads of points, from beyond the arc and otherwise.
If SMU didn’t have his offense available, the prospect of this season’s move to the AAC would be even more daunting than it already is.
11. Jerrelle Benimon, Towson
With Jerrelle Benimon, Towson is a leading candidate to become this year’s answer to Wichita State as a mid-major postseason surprise. Without him, the Tigers wouldn’t even be a factor in their own conference.
Benimon, the prohibitive favorite for CAA Player of the Year, averaged 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.9 blocks per game last season.
Not only did he lead the team in all those categories, but he personally accounted for 28 percent of the boards on the ninth-best rebounding squad in the nation.
10. Davante Gardner, Marquette
Buzz Williams’ always-punishing defense makes Marquette one of the favorites for the Big East crown. For the Golden Eagles to make good on that potential, though, they’ll need Davante Gardner to dominate even more than he did last season.
The 6’8”, 290-lb bulldozer is Marquette’s leading returning scorer, getting his points not only on post-up opportunities but with his lethal .842 free-throw shooting.
The loss of the entire starting backcourt will make perimeter scoring an uncertain proposition, putting all sorts of pressure on Gardner to carry the offensive load on his massive shoulders.
9. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Cincinnati has plenty of muscle returning inside with Titus Rubles and Justin Jackson. However, the nation’s 305th-ranked field-goal shooting team is losing several key offensive contributors, leaving Sean Kilpatrick as the only veteran scorer worth mentioning.
Kilpatrick accounts for 45 percent of the returning scoring on the Bearcats roster with his career-high 17 points per game.
Freshman Jermaine Lawrence will provide some interior offense, but for jump-shooting, Cincinnati has no viable second option behind its rising senior SG.
8. Jordan Adams, UCLA
No player on this list has provided such an apt demonstration of his value to his team as Jordan Adams.
The 6’5” SG broke his foot in the Pac-12 tournament semis last March, and UCLA proceeded to lose its next two games (to Oregon in the conference championship and Minnesota in March Madness) by a combined 29 points.
With leading scorer Shabazz Muhammad off to the NBA, Adams’ 15.3 points per game become even more important to the Bruins. He’s also the best perimeter defender on the roster, having racked up 2.2 steals a night as a freshman.
7. Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis
Last year’s Billikens ranked 16th nationally in scoring defense despite a dearth of impressive individual stats on that end of the floor.
St. Louis’ offense, however, wasn’t nearly as impressive to start with, and now it’s lost two of its top three scorers to graduation.
That leaves only team leader Dwayne Evans, a rising senior who averaged 14 points per game a season ago.
Not only will the 6’5” bruiser have to put up even more points in the post and from the mid-range, but he’ll need to keep dominating on the glass (7.7 rebounds a night, or 23.4 percent of the entire team’s total).
6. Jahii Carson, Arizona State
In his redshirt freshman year at Arizona State, Jahii Carson joined a team that had gone 10-21 and led them to a 22-13 record. Now, the dynamic PG looks to provide an encore with a roster that (once again) has hardly any senior leadership.
Carrick Felix’s graduation leaves towering Jordan Bachynski as the Sun Devils’ main interior presence, but the rising senior has never established himself as a scorer.
Even with Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall pitching in, Arizona State’s offense is going to be prohibitively dependent on Carson's prolific scoring and deft passing.
5. Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Even more than last year, Ohio State’s success in 2013-14 will depend on controlling games with its defense.
In Deshaun Thomas’ absence, the Buckeyes aren’t going to overwhelm anyone with scoring, but as long as Aaron Craft is hounding the ball, OSU will be a Final Four contender.
Craft creates even more turnovers than the 2.1 steals he gets credit for per game, and no defender in the country affects opposing game plans more than he does.
On top of that, his clutch three-point shooting (just ask Iowa State) and reliable playmaking will help steady the ship for a committee of scorers led by LaQuinton Ross.
4. Russ Smith, Louisville
For large chunks of its national title season, Louisville had only one offensive weapon it could rely on: Russ Smith.
Not only did the junior guard lead the team in scoring with 18.7 points per game (8.7 more than his closest competitor), but his speed on the fast break routinely kept the Cardinals’ iffy half-court attack from coming into play at all.
Now, for the first time in three years, Louisville won’t have Peyton Siva to run the point.
That’s a recipe for even more possessions of “give the ball to Russ and pray,” not to mention a likely opportunity for the undersized Smith to show off his underappreciated passing ability.
3. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State
Wichita State’s celebrated Final Four run last March owed a great deal to Cleanthony Early.
Not only did the 6’8” combo forward drain clutch shot after clutch shot in the Shockers’ close victories, but he actually managed to outperform his regular-season numbers by averaging 16.2 points and 7.6 rebounds a night in the Big Dance.
This season, the graduations of Carl Hall and Ehimen Orukpe will drastically weaken Gregg Marshall’s imposing frontcourt.
WSU still has enough three-point shooters to be a very dangerous team, but for reliable scoring on the inside (not to mention rebounding), Early is pretty much on his own.
2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Marcus Smart’s arrival in Stillwater took the Cowboys from 15-18 to 24-9. As promising as Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown are, they wouldn’t be enough to make Oklahoma State more than a bubble team without its unstoppable point guard.
Not only did Smart lead the Cowboys in assists and steals, but he edged out Brown for the team scoring lead and tied for second in rebounding. A surefire top-five NBA draft pick, the rising sophomore will fill up stat sheets better than any player in the NCAA.
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton
Doug McDermott is the only player in the country in the last four years to be named a first-team All-American twice.
He’s a safe bet to add a third season to that mark, and it’s hard to get more irreplaceable than that, especially for a mid-major team joining the Big East.
Creighton spent much of last season in the Top 25 despite having the No. 81 scoring defense and No. 75 field-goal defense in the nation.
That’s because the Blue Jays had McDermott scoring 23.2 points per game and grabbing 7.7 rebounds a night, and those contributions become even more essential now that top defender Gregory Echenique is gone from the low post.