Without sixth man Luke Hancock, Louisville does not win the national title in 2013.
Hancock proved the value of the sixth man in Atlanta. His contribution—42 points in the semis and title game—was what we have come to value most in that role: a score-first guard off the bench. Other coaches prefer to use the spot for an elite defender or a third big man.
These 10 players do not all look like each other, but they each should play a huge role in their team's success this season. And as you'll see, the best sixth men just so happen to usually be on the most talented teams.
Maybe the next Final Four Most Outstanding Player is on this list.
Scott Drew would have had an incredibly imposing starting front line this season with Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers. Then Isaiah Austin decided to come back for his sophomore season. The rail-thin Austin is too skilled to keep out of the starting lineup.
Drew has to find a way to get Gathers more minutes. The Bears have been at their best under Drew when he has an imposing, physical big man. That's Gathers. He looks the part, and he's a beast on the boards. Gathers ranked seventh nationally in offensive rebounding percentage and was the top freshman, per KenPom.com (subscription required), pulling down 16.4 percent of Baylor's missed shots.
Oklahoma State guard Phil Forte had a big smile on his face the day his best friend, Marcus Smart, decided to stick around another year in Stillwater.
Smart has been making life pretty easy for Forte through the years, setting up the sharpshooter to chuck it from deep. Smart also wanted Forte to come to Oklahoma State because he knew the value of playing with a great shooter. They were a package deal.
Forte's transition to the college game was almost as seamless as Smart's. He averaged 10.2 points and made 68 threes as a freshman sixth man. With Smart and Markel Brown returning, he'll fill that role for at least one more year and do so happily with Smart setting him up.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson should prepare for his freshman season by watching tape of Solomon Hill. The former Arizona wing got drafted this summer by doing all of the little things really well.
Hollis-Jefferson might not be able to put up the scoring numbers that Hill did last season. Arizona has top-five talent, and it will be difficult for Hollis-Jefferson to crack the starting lineup. But if Hollis-Jefferson plays hard—he has a reputation as an energy guy—he should get plenty of minutes, and the scoring, like it did for Hill, will come down the road.
At one point in time in his college career, the belief was that Tarik Black was going to be a star. Black may not have lived up to that at Memphis, but he has a fresh start now at Kansas, and there's no pressure to be a go-to guy.
Black might even have a hard time winning the starting job. Freshman big man Joel Embiid was viewed as a project at one time, and he may still be, but Embiid could potentially be a one-and-done lottery pick—NBADraft.net has him going seventh in its 2014 mock draft.
Black has a shot at getting drafted as well, and he projects as a rebounder and defender in the league. If he can play that garbage-man role in his one year at KU, he'll get the scouts' attention. He'll also fill a need for the baby Jayhawks.
Denzel Valentine is talented enough to be a starter for the Spartans, but Valentine can do so many things so well from several different positions that he fits in well as the sixth man. As a freshman sixth man, Valentine averaged 5.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
If Tom Izzo wants Valentine to spot Gary Harris or Branden Dawson on the wing, he can do that. If he wants Dawson to play inside, he has enough size to guard at the power forward spot. Valentine is even a good enough ball-handler and passer to bring the ball up the floor if need be.
Valentine can be Izzo's Swiss Army knife, and he'll probably end up playing starter minutes. As Izzo can explain it to Valentine, it's not that he's not deserving of starting, it's just more convenient to bring him off the bench.
Andre Dawkins is a guy who is easy to forget about. Dawkins sat out last season and then decided to return to the team this year for his senior season. Dawkins will be competing with several freshmen for the role of sixth man, but because of his experience, he has to be the leader going in.
The Blue Devils will rely a lot on their perimeter scorers, and Dawkins might be the best shooter of the bunch. He's hovered around 40 percent from three throughout his career. He's also a streaky scorer. He put up more than 20 points four times in 2011-12, including 26 points in a win against Michigan State.
Eli Carter's status is still up in the air. Florida is hoping the former Rutgers star will be able to play right away because of the situation at Rutgers with Mike Rice. In similar cases—Penn State football comes to mind—the NCAA has allowed players like Carter to play right away.
If Carter is eligible, he'll join a backcourt rotation of Scottie Wilbekin (depending on when his indefinite suspension ends), Michael Frazier and incoming freshman Kasey Hill. Carter fits the mold of past UF aggressive guards who like to hunt for their shot. He averaged 14.9 points per game last season and took 31 percent of Rutgers' shots when he was in the game, according to KenPom.com (subscription required).
Carter will have to dial that back a bit on a talented Florida team, but he should thrive in Billy Donovan's offense, which gives the guards a lot of freedom to create.
Michael Dixon was awesome in this role in 2011-12 for Missouri when he averaged 13.5 points and 3.3 assists. Dixon joins a crowded backcourt at Memphis, and instead of bumping one of last year's starters to the bench, it would make sense for Josh Pastner to bring Dixon off the bench, a role he embraced at Mizzou, where Frank Haith also had a talented and crowded backcourt.
Dixon is yet to be ruled eligible to play this season by the NCAA. Without him, the Tigers will have enough talent to still be really good. Pastner's offense is built for a guy with Dixon's skill set, and it never hurts to be able to bring a super-quick attacking guard off the bench.
Luke Hancock had what must have been like an out-of-body-like experience in Atlanta at the Final Four, but he was already trending upward at the end of the season. He scored in double figures in seven of Louisville's final 10 games, and he was the team's only reliable three-point shooter.
Hancock might have made a case to be a starter in Wayne Blackshear's spot. If that proves true, Blackshear or incoming freshman guard Terry Rozier would be the leading candidates as Rick Pitino's sixth man.
More than likely, Pitino will stick with Blackshear to start and Hancock down the stretch. That won a national title. Why change?
John Calipari could name his sixth man today and whoever it is would probably be in this top spot. James Young is my projection, but I could be wrong. Calipari probably doesn't know who his starters are yet.
Young should challenge Alex Poythress for the starting small forward spot, but as you start to play out what rotations make the most sense for Kentucky, Young as the sixth man seems logical.
This would give Calipari the option to bring Young off the bench for either Poythress or shooting guard Aaron Harrison. Poythress can also play multiple positions—the 3 or 4—but the Wildcats have much more depth inside, and the perimeter is the one area where they're lacking in that area.
Even if Poythress starts, Young could end up playing more minutes and putting up better numbers. It's quite the luxury to be able to bring one of the most talented scoring wings in the country off the bench.