Some college basketball players are easy to identify before the season tips off, but for every no-brainer like Cody Zeller, there’s a surprise like Kelly Olynyk waiting in the wings. Just as Olynyk went from unknown to first-team All-American a season ago, there will be plenty of lesser-known names who will make huge jumps in performance in 2013-14.
One such star in the making had his own year in the spotlight preempted by Olynyk’s greatness. Gonzaga big man Sam Dower, forced to the bench a year ago, will get to strut his stuff as a senior as one of the best power forwards in the country.
Read on for more on Dower and the rest of the 10 players who will show the most improvement—and gain the most in recognizability—next season.
Indiana’s frontcourt is being rebuilt from the ground up with a committee of inexperienced (but potential-heavy) youngsters. Of that group, the one with the best chance for a breakout 2013-14 is rising sophomore Jeremy Hollowell.
The 6’8” Hollowell—much like departing Christian Watford—is a smooth power forward who will knock down jumpers at every opportunity.
He gets the edge over classmate Hanner Mosquera-Perea and freshman Noah Vonleh by virtue of having a bit more experience (9.7 minutes per game in 33 appearances last year, including a respectable 2.1 rebounds per game).
Unlike the rest of the players on this list, Kaleb Tarczewski spent the bulk of last season in the starting lineup. You wouldn’t know it, however, from his stats, including 0.7 blocks and a mere 6.6 points per game (sixth-best on Arizona’s roster).
This year, though, the 7’0”, 255-lbs Goliath will be the focal point of a frontcourt-first Wildcats team.
Considering the jump many players make between their freshman and sophomore campaigns—and the experience he got on a Pac-12 title contender—Tarczewski is primed to become the superstar he was expected to be as one of 2012’s most celebrated recruits.
Villanova returns four starters from last season’s upset specialists, a group led by explosive PG Ryan Arcidiacono and high-scoring forward JayVaughn Pinkston.
The one vacant starting job is in the middle, where Daniel Ochefu will get his turn to join the ranks of the Big East’s top low-post weapons.
As a freshman, Ochefu backed up Mouphtaou Yarou with a solid 3.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.
He’s a better shot-blocker than he showed in his college debut (0.7 per contest), and his 6’11”, 245-lbs frame is definitely ready to control the paint even in this physical conference.
If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate to become this year’s Victor Oladipo, here he is. Like the NBA-bound former IU star, Casey Prather is a long (6’6”) and athletic swingman who loves making impact plays on defense.
Prather doesn’t have a great shooting touch (he’s attempted all of 27 three-pointers in three years), but he’s an astounding dunker who will become a highlight-reel fixture as a starter.
He’ll also be a devastating weapon for Billy Donovan’s shifting defenses, using his quickness and wingspan to block shots and force turnovers in bunches.
A prize recruit for Steve Fisher in 2012, Winston Shepard joined an Aztecs team that really didn’t have a place to put him last year.
The 6’8” combo forward wound up as the last man in Fisher’s seven-player rotation, overshadowed by superstar Jamaal Franklin outside and veteran Deshawn Stephens inside.
Those two are gone, as is sniper Chase Tapley, leaving Shepard in prime position to claim a starring role for San Diego State.
He showed admirable versatility as a freshman—5.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game—and could easily become a poor man’s version of the dazzling Franklin as soon as this year.
There might not be a player in the country in a more enviable position than Montrezl Harrell, who’s set to step into a starting job on the defending national champs. Even better, Harrell brings a scoring mindset the Cardinals’ frontcourt hasn’t had in a few seasons.
Coming off the bench a year ago, the freshman put up 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in only 16.2 minutes per game.
He’ll provide a welcome alternative to Russ Smith having to shoot on every half-court possession while also giving undersized Chane Behanan some help on the glass.
With five new starters, Kansas has no shortage of candidates for this list. The one in position to enjoy 2013-14 the most, though, is the one who’ll be setting up all the other high-powered newcomers: PG Naadir Tharpe.
As Elijah Johnson’s backup, Tharpe turned in a strong sophomore campaign, averaging 5.5 points and 3.1 assists a night.
Even more valuable to the young Jayhawks, he finished with a pair of terrific NCAA tournament performances, scoring 12 points against North Carolina and dishing out 12 assists while matched up with Trey Burke in the season-ending loss to Michigan.
Most college students wish they could shed a few pounds after their freshman years, but Amile Jefferson needs to head in the opposite direction.
His lack of bulk (195 lbs on a 6’8” frame) is the only thing that can keep him from becoming a star on next season’s Blue Devils.
During his freshman season, Jefferson brought extraordinary energy and hustle while backing up seniors Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.
In just 12.7 minutes per game, he averaged 4.0 points and 2.9 rebounds, and with a wealth of perimeter shooters around him, he’ll be racking up boards and putbacks all year long in 2013-14.
Sam Dower showed up on a lot of lists like this one in the summer of 2012, but Kelly Olynyk’s magnificent season left the then-junior stuck on the bench.
In his final year in Spokane, though, the bruising Dower will finally get to show off his much-discussed potential.
Few post players in the country, let alone the depleted WCC, can stand up to the power his 6’9”, 255-lbs frame can generate.
Even in limited minutes behind Olynyk and Elias Harris, Dower amassed 6.9 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, and he’s a big-time candidate to be the best mid-major player in the country as a senior.
Few players did more with 16.9 minutes per game than LaQuinton Ross did a year ago.
The 6’8” SF contributed 8.3 points a night to the offense-challenged Buckeyes, capped off by an NCAA tournament in which he poured in 17, 17 and 19 points in OSU’s last three outings.
Heading into his junior year, Ross has the athleticism to finish through contact inside and the shooting touch to drain 38.9 percent of his three-point tries.
With veteran PG Aaron Craft to set him up, he’s looking like the best offensive weapon on a Buckeyes squad with serious Final Four aspirations.