Every college basketball season turns on a few surprises, a few players who give their teams the spark that pushes them over the top—or who fail to do so. Just as Victor Oladipo did in 2012-13, some relative unknown is going to become a star by outplaying expectations, and he’ll carry his team up the rankings in the process.
One such pivotal player will be Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. Entering his fourth year as a starter, Smith could continue to play the passive sidekick role that’s defined his college career or he could break out of that shell and become the No. 1 scorer that his obvious talent has the chance to make him.
Herein, more on Smith’s importance to the Buckeyes, along with crucial elements that will shape the season—for good or ill—for 19 more of the leading contenders in college hoops.
For the first two seasons of his college career, Briante Weber has been the most aggressive perimeter defender in college basketball, averaging 2.4 steals per game in just under 20 minutes a night off the bench.
Now, though, with Darius Theus lost to graduation, the 6’3” junior becomes the heir apparent to run the offense at point guard.
He’s a poor shot (.225 from long range) and averaged just 2.7 assists per game last season, so he could easily crash and burn when thrust into the starting job. If he exceeds expectations, though, VCU will be headed for another deep postseason run.
Sean Miller’s forwards are bursting with potential, but very little of it has translated into actual production yet.
Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley combined for 11.4 rebounds but just 14.1 points and 0.8 blocks per game as freshmen, and now they’re being counted on to shoulder a big chunk of the scoring load.
Bringing in freshmen (and McDonald’s All-Americans) Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson adds to the talent pool, but also to the uncertainty.
The presumption is that the Wildcats will have an overpowering frontcourt carrying their Final Four hopes, but until the kids prove they’ve grown up, it’s all a very big “if.”
The details are still in limbo, but it’s clear that North Carolina isn’t getting a full season out of suspended shooting guard P.J. Hairston. With the team’s best perimeter scorer on ice, the pressure will be on the No. 2 man on that list: longtime reserve Leslie McDonald.
The senior has never played more than 17.7 minutes per game, but he’s a fine three-point shooter (.359 last year) and an athlete in keeping with North Carolina’s celebrated tradition on the wings.
He could fulfill his potential and finish his college career on a high note, or he could struggle in the expanded role and hamstring UNC’s run at the ACC crown.
Kentucky’s starting lineup is far from a sure thing at this stage, but suppose for the moment that the Harrison twins start in the backcourt, with Alex Poythress, Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein up front.
That leaves Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and James Young—all McDonald’s All-Americans—as reserves, a role none of them are used to playing.
Even aside from the perennial ego questions John Calipari has to juggle, not every player is cut out to come in cold off the bench and be ready to shine.
If UK can’t find the right mix of starters and reserves to maximize each player’s effectiveness, Calipari’s all-star team will be much less than the sum of its parts.
Memphis has no concerns about its backcourt, which is loaded with both experience and scoring punch for next season. Up front, though, first-year starter Shaq Goodwin will have to carry a very big load.
The 6’9” sophomore played respectably in his debut season, averaging 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds a game off the bench.
If he blossoms into a star, the Tigers will finally give Josh Pastner a strong postseason run, but if he’s no more than the solid starter Tarik Black was, Memphis’ fate becomes much less clear.
The future is now at Indiana, where three untested forwards will be counted on as the core of Tom Crean’s offense.
The 6’8” trio of sophomores Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Jeremy Hollowell and freshman Noah Vonleh consists of three outstanding shooters with hardly any meaningful college experience.
In addition to figuring out which youngsters will rise to the challenge, Crean has to decide where they’ll be playing, not a trivial issue in a Big Ten that features some daunting physical specimens at the center position.
Still, if they can find their shooting rhythm and avoid getting overrun on D, the young Hoosiers have the skills to compete with the best, even in this conference.
Ordinarily, the first requirement for any guard under coach Fred Hoiberg is being able to nail the three-pointer.
This year, on the other hand, Hoiberg’s biggest acquisition is a transfer (Marshall’s DeAndre Kane) coming off a career-worst .248 year from beyond the arc.
Kane does pretty much everything else well at the point guard spot, averaging 15.1 points, 7.0 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
He’s a safe bet to be effective running the Cyclones’ offense, but whether his own scoring approach will mesh with Hoiberg’s system is anybody’s guess.
Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and freshman Zak Irvin all have the potential to be high-impact offensive weapons for Michigan.
Unfortunately for John Beilein, all three of them are natural small forwards, and it’s hard to start three of those in the same lineup.
Robinson will be better at the 4 spot after a year of experience, but how much improvement he can make is an open question.
So too is Irvin’s ability to guard college shooting guards, a position where he may be forced to spend some time with Stauskas entrenched at the 3.
In Keith Appling’s first three Big Ten games last year, he averaged five assists. In his last three (including the conference tourney), he totaled five assists.
Which version of the senior point guard shows up, and how often, will have a lot to say about how far Michigan State can go in 2013-14.
He’s steadier as a scorer, a category in which he led last year’s Spartans, but he needs to keep his teammates involved for Tom Izzo’s squad to succeed.
A deep perimeter corps led by Jerian Grant will keep the Irish competitive in their ACC debut, regardless of what happens inside.
For Mike Brey’s squad to become a genuine postseason threat, though, it will need someone to step up in Jack Cooley’s absence.
Cooley dominated the paint for the past two seasons, opening up shots for Notre Dame’s many long-range gunners.
If senior Garrick Sherman (who showed flashes of brilliance) or little-used sophomore Zach Auguste can be more than long-armed rebounders, the guards will have a chance to make this a special season.
Most college hoops players make their biggest jump in performance between their freshman and sophomore seasons. If Omar Calhoun can make enough of a leap, his Huskies will challenge even mighty Louisville for the AAC title.
The 6’5” Calhoun is the one big guard in a small but prolific UConn backcourt. He averaged 3.9 rebounds and just 11.1 points per game a year ago, and a breakout scoring season from him would make Kevin Ollie’s offense a scary unit.
Marquette’s perimeter game was hit hard by graduation and NBA losses. With only Jamil Wilson looking like a reliable veteran, the Golden Eagles’ offense will need someone from a solid recruiting class to take over quickly.
Point guard Duane Wilson and shooting guard JaJuan Johnson are both likely to start from the get-go, and if they’re ready for that pressure, both bring a much-needed offensive spark.
However, physical Big East defenses take their toll on every freshman, and Marquette can’t afford to have its starting guards fade when the conference season is in full swing.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. has been a mystery almost from the moment he stepped on campus in Columbus.
The senior shooting guard has size (6’4”, 205 pounds), athleticism and shooting touch (.374 from deep), yet he hardly ever scores the way a major conference starter is expected to do.
Smith’s quiet 9.2 points per game a year ago were a career high, even though Ohio State’s offense would’ve welcomed a more shot-hungry version of its starting 2-guard.
If Smith can flip that switch in his final season, Ohio State will go from Final Four candidate to national title contender.
Duke’s five best players next season will be Amile Jefferson, Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook.
However, an undersized power forward, two small forwards and a backcourt is tough to swallow as a viable power-conference starting five.
This won’t be the first time Coach K has faced questions about how to deploy a small but skilled frontcourt, but he doesn’t even have an obvious Brian Zoubek-type brawler to turn to down low.
If Krzyzewski can find a rotation that lets all five of his stars show off their skills, Duke becomes a favorite for the ACC crown, but even he may not be able to come up with a championship-ready solution to this tangle.
Marcus Smart has already proven that he can make the Cowboys winners even without any noticeable help from his big men. Of course, Smart wouldn’t turn down a stellar year from athletic power forward Michael Cobbins, either.
The 6’8”, 220-pound Cobbins is the one post player who’s shown signs of real offensive talent, but it’s time to put up or shut up for the third-year starter.
If he can make defenses respect him as more than an alley-oop target for Smart, Cobbins will open up driving lanes for OSU’s many outside scoring threats.
New Mexico’s offense is guaranteed to have two high-powered scoring options with senior Kendall Williams outside and junior Alex Kirk inside.
Whether the Lobos have enough offense to thrive outside the Mountain West will depend on the contributions they get from the supporting cast.
With Tony Snell gone, seniors Hugh Greenwood and Demetrius Walker get their chances to prove they can combine for more than 12 points per game.
The duo has demonstrated solid long-range shooting touch (Walker hit .400 last year), but one or both of them must convert on the additional opportunities that have been freed up by Snell’s NBA departure.
Another year, another suspension for talented Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin. There’s no guarantee the senior will even rejoin the Gators—his current suspension is indefinite—but if he gets his act together, he has a lot to offer.
Freshman Kasey Hill will run the point in Wilbekin’s absence, but he doesn’t have the veteran’s outside shooting touch.
Wilbekin’s return would also get another pair of active hands on the top of Billy Donovan’s high-pressure defense, not to mention adding a postseason-tested floor leader who dished out 5.0 assists per game last year.
During last season’s dramatic Final Four run, three-point shooting was just one of many weapons Wichita State deployed effectively.
With some key stars gone from last year’s squad, though, perimeter scoring will become a much more vital part of the offense…if the Shockers’ shooters are up to it.
Young snipers such as Ron Baker (.357) and Fred Van Vleet (.408) benefited immensely from the inside presence of now-graduated Carl Hall, not to mention from Hall’s ability to turn their mistakes into offensive rebounds.
The simultaneous loss of playmaker Malcolm Armstead will also take its toll, and even Cleanthony Early can only draw so many defenders. If Gregg Marshall's team is going to knock down treys this season, it will be with fewer easy shots than it had a year ago.
Replacing a breakout star such as Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams is never an easy task, and trying to do it as a true freshman adds even more pressure.
That’s the challenge faced by Tyler Ennis, the gem of Jim Boeheim’s recruiting class and the only viable candidate for Syracuse’s starting PG spot.
Even if Ennis is mediocre, the Orange’s always formidable zone and a deep frontcourt can carry Syracuse to a solid year. If Ennis can be a legitimate threat as a defender or scorer, though, he’ll elevate a strong team into Final Four territory.
As Bill Self replaces his entire starting lineup, question marks abound in Lawrence.
Nowhere is the uncertainty more obvious than in the middle, where one newcomer tries to adjust from a different college system and another tries to adjust to college, period.
Memphis transfer Tarik Black was never more than respectable in the Tigers’ track-meet offense, but his physicality could turn out to be a perfect complement to mobile Perry Ellis inside.
Meanwhile, athletic freshman Joel Embiid could be a Jeff Withey-level defender, if he’s ready to handle Division I opposition and if Self can tolerate the youngster’s raw offensive game.