Pressure can crush an object or make a diamond depending on how it is handled.
That notion can be metaphorically applied to today’s crop of college basketball stars, many of whom are teenagers and expected to succeed under such a bright and constant media spotlight. Throw that on top of the expectations placed upon their shoulders by their own fanbase, and the mentally weak would be ready to wilt.
Read on to find 20 college basketball stars facing the most pressure for this season. Given their pedigrees, it’s a safe bet that they will all resemble diamonds instead of broken pipes by March.
If we are just talking pressure derived from media spotlight, nobody will be under more scrutiny that Kansas’ sensational freshman Andrew Wiggins.
As soon as Bill Self landed the coveted commitment from arguably the best high-school prospect since LeBron James, the Jayhawks skyrocketed near the top of everyone’s far-too-early preseason rankings. They are also considered the favorites to win the Big 12 yet again thanks largely to Wiggins’ talent.
That means the fate of one of the game’s best historical programs, which expects nothing less than a Final Four every season, falls on the shoulders of a freshman that everybody will be watching. That’s a lot of pressure, but if anyone has the talent to handle it, Wiggins is the man.
Andrew Wiggins may be the flavor of the month in terms of freshmen, but Jabari Parker was gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated quite some time ago.
Parker faces pressure from a number of different directions. For one, he will be playing at Duke, meaning almost every game will be on national television, drawing an audience largely consisting of “haters” who want to see every Blue Devil fail on the basketball floor.
Secondly, he hails from the Chicago prep scene, which has produced a number of different superstars in recent years. There is a level of expectation that comes with that type of background, and Duke is hoping Parker lives up to it.
If the Blue Devils are going to challenge for another Final Four, they are going to need their superstar freshman to deliver in a big way.
Since Thad Matta took over at Ohio State no Big Ten team can match the amount of combined conference regular season and league tournament titles of the Buckeyes. Part of that success hails from the fact that there seems to always be a superstar ready to step up when the previous one departs for the greener pastures of the NBA.
Deshaun Thomas was the star who led the Big Ten in scoring last year that Matta needs to replace in the production department. It is widely assumed that role will fall to LaQuinton Ross, who flashed moments of brilliance in the NCAA tournament, including a game-winning shot against Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Ross is a junior but rarely played in his first year on campus. He has never had to carry an offense as the primary go-to guy, meaning the pressure will either make or break him and his squad in 2013-14.
Gary Harris doesn’t get the type of recognition outside of Big Ten territory that he deserves, but the pressure will be on him to produce this season for the sake of both Michigan State and his own NBA potential.
Professional scouts really like what Harris brings to the table, and a productive sophomore campaign in East Lansing could mean an early selection in the next NBA draft. That will undoubtedly be in the back of Harris’ mind throughout the season.
Of course, there is also the pressure of being one of the best players on a Spartans team that has Big Ten championship and possible Final Four aspirations. Harris should be ready to handle it, though, with that year of experience under his belt.
Louisville’s Russ Smith will face a different type of pressure than anyone else on this list.
Being a defending national champion means there is a target on your back every time you take the floor. Smith will have to face that without the benefit of playing alongside Peyton Siva in the backcourt in 2013-14.
Smith also faces the pressure of being a wild card that Rick Pitino will ride harder than other players because of the potential that Smith has as a player. If he can cut down a little on his ill-advised shot attempts and develop as an on-floor leader, Smith has the chance to be an even bigger superstar this year.
Whether that would result in another championship or not remains to be seen.
Sure, it’s cheating to lump all of Kentucky’s freshmen into one slide, but after last year in Lexington, no collective group faces more pressure than John Calipari’s latest bunch.
The Wildcats came into the 2012-13 campaign as the defending national champions with sky-high expectations but failed to even make the NCAA tournament. Throw in the first round NIT loss to Robert Morris, and the season couldn’t have gone much worse for Kentucky.
This incoming group of freshmen (including the Harrison brothers, James Young and Julius Randle) is being looked at as saviors among Big Blue Nation. On the other side of the coin will be a group of rabid Kentucky haters who will cheer for another colossal failure out of Calipari’s group.
That’s a lot to handle for a group of 18-year-old kids.
The American Athletic Conference may be the butt of a joke or two during the college football and basketball seasons, but there are a handful of dangerous teams in there on the hardwood.
If Louisville is going to receive a serious challenge in 2013-14, it could very well come in the form of the Memphis Tigers. Joe Jackson is the star of this Memphis team, and the chances of a tight race in this newfound league will fall on his shoulders.
There is plenty of talent in place for the Tigers, but Jackson is the returning leader. He will have to score, dish out assists and contribute on the defensive side of the ball if Memphis is going to have a chance at contending in the league.
James Michael McAdoo has somewhat been the victim of his own hype at North Carolina thus far.
He came to Chapel Hill as a highly promising recruit and has had a serviceable career. However, those solid numbers he has put up haven’t exactly matched up with the hype that accompanied him out of high school.
With the off-court problems that P.J. Hairston had this offseason, McAdoo will be expected to take on a leading role for the Tar Heels in 2013-14. North Carolina fans and Roy Williams are ready for McAdoo to finally assume the superstar status that he has been destined for since he arrived.
Marshall Henderson was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons this offseason, but it appears he is not done at Mississippi just yet.
Neutral fans never had much reason to tune in to see the Rebels’ basketball team in the past, but Henderson’s emergence on the national scene as an instigator, streaky shooter and all-around entertainer last season got Mississippi some extra attention.
This year Henderson (assuming he does play) will draw eyeballs of those interested to see how he holds up after an offseason of scrutiny. If the Rebels have any prayer of challenging the likes of Kentucky and Florida in the SEC, they are going to need Henderson to become the superstar he is capable of being.
It’s not like Syracuse isn’t used to the bright lights from its Big East days, but there will be a certain level of pressure to succeed right away in the new-look ACC.
The Orange fanbase will be counting on C.J. Fair to lead a relatively young team against the likes of Duke and North Carolina this season. Throw in the media attention that these “first” ACC games will get, and Fair will be under the spotlight this season.
Fair will likely serve as the primary offensive option, but he needs to do more than that. He will anchor the famous Syracuse 2-3 zone when the opposition has the ball and lead the team in rebounding if everything goes according to plan.
Virginia wants to make the NCAA tournament in the 2013-14 season after narrowly missing it last year, and its only realistic hope at doing that is for superstar Joe Harris to repeat his All-ACC performance.
Harris doesn’t get nearly the amount of media attention that a lot of other names on this list do, but he was one of the best players in the ACC last year. This time around he will be facing even stiffer competition with the additions of schools like Syracuse, so the Cavaliers have an uphill battle to make that tournament.
But if Harris can shoot three-point shots like he is capable of, Virginia has a chance.
Creighton’s Doug McDermott is always on the short list of candidates to lead the nation in scoring, and that will be no different in 2013-14.
However, McDermott will be facing more pressure than just that which comes with being your team’s go-to option in crunch time. The Bluejays are in the new-look Big East this season, meaning the level of competition will be ratcheted up from what it was in the Missouri Valley.
There will be naysayers out there that doubt McDermott’s ability to post his impressive numbers against better defenses. That brings more pressure to his role, but he will in all likelihood handle it with ease.
Mitch McGary had an interesting 2012-13 season.
He came to Michigan with tons of hype and was supposed to thrive as the inside tandem to Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but inconsistent production led to much more playing time for Jordan Morgan. It looked as if he wasn’t going to live up to the hype as a freshman.
Then the postseason rolled around, and McGary took off. In fact, his level of play probably surpassed the high expectations that were put in place for him at the beginning of the season.
Now the pressure is on for McGary to follow up his impressive postseason with an entire year’s worth of production. NBA scouts have their eyes on him, and he will have to put up numbers without Burke and Hardaway drawing the attention of the defense.
Sure, Andrew Wiggins stole headlines when he elected Kansas, and John Calipari dominated the 2013 recruiting trail so much that Kentucky may move from the NIT to preseason No. 1 based on freshmen, but Marcus Smart shocked college and pro basketball fans by electing to return to Oklahoma State for a sophomore season.
Smart was almost surely a lock for lottery status had he gone to the NBA, which means he needs another productive season if he wants that status offered to him again.
So add playing to maintain your lofty NBA projections on top of a pressure cooker that includes being the best player on an Oklahoma State team that hopes to finally knock Kansas off from the top of the Big 12 crown.
Isaiah Austin came to Baylor as a ballyhooed freshman big guy who was going to swat everything within range.
The big man put up very productive numbers, but it felt like there was room for improvement. After all, he came to Baylor’s campus as a towering presence who was going to give the men’s team an answer to Brittney Griner on the women’s side.
The pressure is on Austin to improve his consistency as a sophomore. He showed glimpses of brilliance at times during his first year, but it needs to come on a nightly basis if Baylor has any hope of challenging Kansas and the rest of the Big 12.
The 2013-14 season will mark the first one since the core of the group that brought Indiana basketball back to relevance departed from the hallowed halls of Bloomington.
That means that a young basketball team will be expected to continue a tradition of winning that has just recently been reestablished. All the pressure will be on the shoulders of incoming freshman and potential superstar Noah Vonleh.
Cody Zeller has been occupying the post the past two seasons for the Hoosiers, a spot that Vonleh must fill effectively if Indiana is going to compete with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan for the Big Ten crown. He is expected to become a star right away, which isn’t easy in any league let alone the physically demanding Big Ten.
Penn State was a poor basketball team in 2012-13, but it showed life late in the season when it stunned Michigan (you know, the same Wolverines squad that went to the NCAA championship game).
In fairness to the Nittany Lions, they were playing without their superstar Tim Frazier. Frazier suffered a season-ending injury early on and was granted an additional year of eligibility. That additional year will mean everything to his career.
Any hope at the NBA relies on a healthy season and impressive performance. Furthermore, Penn State would like to establish some sort of tradition of winning and home-court advantage, and Frazier is critical to those efforts as far as 2013-14.
Frazier has the talent to contend for the Big Ten scoring title, but his team needs to play at a higher level now that its star is back.
Arizona made it to the Sweet 16 last season and challenged for a Pac-12 crown, but it is expected to be better on paper in 2013-14 thanks in large part to a formidable incoming recruiting class.
There will be no more Mark Lyons to direct traffic for the Wildcats, but headlining recruit Aaron Gordon will slide right in eventually as the team’s household name. The only problem is that is a lot to ask of a freshman who has never played a minute of college basketball before.
Fortunately for Sean Miller, there are some pieces around Gordon to help take the pressure off. But don’t count Gordon out of the Pac-12 Player of the Year races just because there is some pressure in place.
UCLA’s 2013 recruiting class didn’t receive the type of hype that Kentucky’s 2014 group has thus far, but the expectations were certainly there.
However, the Bruins had somewhat of a disappointing season even though it included a trip to the Pac-12 tournament championship game. Inconsistent play, turnovers and costly errors ended up spelling demise for what was once a promising year.
That correction of last year’s issues falls on the shoes of Kyle Anderson with Shabazz Muhammad gone. He needs to live up to the hype that accompanied his recruitment and become a go-to guy for the Bruins with no more Muhammad. That’s a lot of pressure, especially when you consider the banners that Anderson is going to be playing under.
Florida was dealt a significant early-season blow recently when incoming freshman Chris Walker was declared ineligible for the first semester. He still plans on enrolling when he can and playing in the second half of the schedule, but it still hurts.
Walker was supposed to play alongside Patric Young in the middle and formulate one of the most intimidating post tandems in the SEC or even country. That will have to wait, which means Young needs to hold down the fort while Walker is out.
Young will be asked to lead the team in rebounding and blocks while contributing in the scoring department. Some offensive rebounding numbers would also be welcomed by Billy Donovan.
The pressure is there for a team that really needs a star to step up and lead.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.