There are well over 4,000 players on college basketball rosters around the country this season, so it’s time to give the fans some help cutting that group down to the essentials. Most of those thousands won’t make a ripple in the race for the 2014 national title, but the ones on this list will be key factors on some of the nation’s biggest contenders.
LaQuinton Ross, for instance, is about to go from the Ohio State bench to being the No. 1 option in the Buckeyes' offense. Thad Matta’s team is bidding for its second Final Four berth in three seasons, and Ross will be a vital part of getting them to Cowboys Stadium in April.
Read on for more on the Buckeyes’ offensive heir apparent, along with the rest of the 20 most important players to watch in college hoops this year. Although you’ll find some of last season's big names, preference was generally given to players who are new to their teams or are otherwise expected to take on bigger roles in 2013-14.
In 2012-13, the best player in the Mountain West (Anthony Bennett of UNLV) became the surprise No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
Alex Kirk may not be able to match Bennett’s good fortune, but he will be the standard-bearer for one of the nation’s top mid-major leagues.
Last season, the 7’0”, 250-pound center racked up 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while playing second fiddle to PG Kendall Williams.
This time around, their roles will be reversed when the Lobos’ junior big man really comes into his own as one of the country’s most unstoppable post players.
As always, Virginia Commonwealth’s status as a contender rests on the success of its swarming “havoc” press. This year, though, the Rams finally get to see what their best defender can do as a starter after two years of bringing him off the bench.
Briante Weber averaged an eye-popping 2.7 steals per game—fifth-best in the country—as a reserve last year.
Now that he’ll be taking over the starting PG duties from Darius Theus, he’ll get a chance to add to his 5.4 points and 2.7 assists a night and to pad his ridiculous defensive stats.
Marquette is in prime position to win the first title in the new-look Big East. For the Golden Eagles to live up to that potential, though, they’ll need a monster senior year from center Davante Gardner.
The 6’8”, 290-pound bruiser stands as the best offensive weapon on the team after powering his way to 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds a night last season.
He has a shot at much bigger numbers in his first year as a starter, especially given his impressive .835 free-throw accuracy.
Few teams will be under as much pressure this season as Wichita State, which would love to show that its 2013 Final Four run was no fluke.
If that’s going to happen, it’ll be because Cleanthony Early turned in another spectacular season for the Shockers.
Early, a 6’8” combo forward, led last year’s team with 13.9 points per game and also pulled down 5.1 boards a night.
The departure of frontcourt mate Carl Hall leaves Early as the main man for Gregg Marshall’s team (especially on the glass), and the likely Missouri Valley champs will go exactly as far as their senior leader can carry them.
Being the nation’s best player under six feet can be a dubious distinction, but not for Jahii Carson. The 5’10” Sun Devil is a lightning-fast point guard who’s ready to guide his team back to the NCAA tournament.
As a redshirt freshman, Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists per game for 22-13 Arizona State.
He’s the early favorite for both the scoring title and Player of the Year honors in the Pac-12. Don’t be surprised if he develops into an impact defender, too (1.2 steals a night last season).
Jerian Grant was already Notre Dame’s leading scorer a season ago, but he still couldn’t get as much attention as big Jack Cooley did in the low post. With Cooley gone, the Irish are Grant’s team as they dive into their first season in the ACC.
Grant, the son and nephew (respectively) of ex-NBAers Harvey and Horace, is a combo guard in the best sense of the term.
The 6’5” senior has legitimate scoring punch (13.3 points per game, .344 three-point shooting), but he’s also a full-fledged playmaker who dished out 5.5 assists a night last season.
For everyone who spent last season ignoring UConn while it was banned from the postseason, it’s time to get reacquainted with the Huskies.
Shabazz Napier overcame last year’s massive transfer losses to lead his team to a respectable 20-10 finish, and now he has the entire starting lineup returning around him.
Napier, who backed up Kemba Walker on the 2011 national champs, has blossomed into an elite scorer (17.1 points per game) in the two years since.
He’s still a first-class point guard as well, dishing out 4.6 assists and grabbing 2.0 steals a night as a junior.
Julius Randle is arriving in college well ahead of the game just by measuring in at 6’9”, 225 pounds.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the most dangerous interior scorer in a deep freshman class and the best scorer of any kind on national title front-runner Kentucky.
The Wildcats have four McDonald’s All-Americans in the frontcourt alone, but of that quartet, only Randle is a lock to start.
He may not show up in as many highlights as speedy center Willie Cauley-Stein, but his half-court scoring will be at the heart of Kentucky’s championship hopes.
Most power forwards would be very happy to have the disappointing season James Michael McAdoo posted in 2012-13.
The highly anticipated sophomore averaged 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in his first year as a starter and still failed to live up to his massive expectations.
With his 6’9”, 230-pound frame and tremendous athletic ability, McAdoo has the potential to dominate to an even greater degree in the right situation.
With freshmen Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks joining Joel James down low, McAdoo will spend less time wrestling with double-teams and more time lighting up opposing power forwards with his mid-range jumper and ball-handling skills.
In the blink of an offseason, last year’s senior-laden Blue Devils have become a team relying on a youth movement.
That doesn’t mean Duke will be rebuilding, though, because top newcomer Jabari Parker has the talent to drive Coach K’s squad during another year of contending for the ACC crown.
Parker, the second-ranked freshman in the country according to ESPN.com, is the complete package at small forward.
His 6’8” frame makes him a factor as everything from a scorer to a shot-blocker, and he’s enough of a leader to make up for much of the experience lost with Mason Plumlee’s and Seth Curry’s departures.
Doug McDermott is, for the second year in a row, the only first-team All-American who came back to college.
He's finished third and second in the national scoring race in the last two seasons, and now he's taking aim at first place and at National Player of the Year hardware.
When McDermott aims, he hits his mark with uncanny accuracy: he shot .548 from the field and .490 from three-point range last year.
That efficiency is a big part of the reason he can score 23.2 points per game even with every opposing defense sending two and three players to stop him.
Mitch McGary was one of the revelations of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Now he has to prove that he can play anywhere near that well over a full season.
After averaging 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds a game (mostly off the bench) in the regular season, McGary exploded for 14.3 points and 10.7 boards per contest during Michigan’s run to the national title game.
With Trey Burke off to the pros, McGary is the Wolverines’ best candidate for a sophomore leader in a talent-rich frontcourt.
Mark Lyons’ one amazing year at Arizona stole the spotlight from the team’s other newcomers: a freshman class that ranked among the best of 2012.
The jewel of that class, center Kaleb Tarczewski, will get to show what he can do as the focal point of the team as a sophomore.
The 7’0”, 255-pound Tarczewski is an NBA-caliber physical specimen who led last year’s Wildcats with 6.1 rebounds a night.
Now he has to show that his potential as a scorer and shot-blocker goes far beyond the 6.6 points and 0.7 rejections he averaged per game in his college debut.
Even as Syracuse’s leading scorer and rebounder, C.J. Fair couldn’t help but be cast as Michael Carter-Williams’ sidekick a year ago.
Now that the superstar PG is off to the NBA, the 6’8” Fair becomes the unquestioned leader of a team with hopes of making its second straight Final Four.
Fair punctuates his 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game with a healthy dose of highlight-reel dunks. With his long arms, he’s also one of the most effective weapons in Syracuse’s smothering 2-3 zone (1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest).
For the second year in a row, it looks like the heir apparent to the Buckeyes’ top offensive role took the headliner's spot a few games early.
Like predecessor Deshaun Thomas, LaQuinton Ross closed his sophomore year with a brilliant NCAA tournament, including games of 17, 17 and 19 points against Iowa State, Arizona and Wichita State.
With Thomas gone to the NBA, Ross is a good bet to claim his starting spot up front after averaging 8.3 points per game a season ago.
He’s a fine three-point shooter (.389) and a decent perimeter rebounder (2.9 per game), but he’ll probably get most of his points with his agility around the rim and his 6’8” length.
From the standpoint of sheer athleticism, Adreian Payne is the most NBA-ready player in the country. No other 6’10”, 240-pound center can come close to Payne’s explosiveness and agility.
The senior is a respectable shot-blocker (1.3 per game) and rebounder (7.6 boards a night, a team high), but his biggest value to the Spartans is as a scorer.
He averaged 10.5 points per contest even while ceding the spotlight to now-graduated Derrick Nix, and his mid-range game gives him plenty of opportunities to drive by slower defenders for roof-raising dunks.
In 2012-13, Kentucky plummeted from a preseason No. 4 ranking to a first-round NIT ouster for one major reason: inept point guard play. Andrew Harrison is the player who’s expected to solve that problem next year.
The 6’5” freshman, one of John Calipari’s six incoming McDonald’s All-Americans, immediately becomes the best point guard in the SEC and one of the best anywhere in the country.
He’s a productive scorer and defender in addition to his passing skills, but his biggest value will be in spreading the ball around and keeping all the other young Wildcats stars happy.
Ben McLemore, the best redshirt freshman of 2012-13, is gone to the NBA, but the most celebrated true freshman of 2013-14 is on hand to pick up where he left off.
Andrew Wiggins joins a Kansas lineup with five new starters and becomes the instant favorite for the Big 12 scoring title.
Wiggins is a do-it-all small forward who can get his points at the arc, at the rim and anywhere in between.
He’s one of the early favorites for the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft, but Jayhawks fans get at least one year to enjoy his prodigious talent before he turns pro.
Every other point guard in college basketball wishes Marcus Smart had entered the 2013 NBA draft.
If he had, he'd have been a surefire top-five pick and none of the collegians would've had to spend next season getting torched by his unstoppable athleticism and dazzling skill.
Smart did virtually everything well as a freshman, averaging 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.0 steals per game.
The 6'4", 225-pound guard is on the short list of Wooden Award favorites, and he's the only reason Oklahoma State has a chance to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title.
Russ Smith entered last season as a newly minted starter on a defending Final Four team, which brought him plenty of publicity already.
Now, he's the best player on the defending national champs and the best hope for Louisville as it tries to bring home a second straight title.
Smith keys Rick Pitino's aggressive defense with 2.1 steals per game, and he converts many of those turnovers into points (a team-leading 18.7 of them a night).
Without his fast-break finishes and circus shots in the half-court game, the Cardinals offense would be too unreliable to win a title, even with a steadfast D on the other end of the floor.