Picking out the single crucial factor in making a college basketball team a winner isn’t always as easy as identifying the best player on the roster. For every Cleanthony Early who carries an unremarkable roster seemingly by himself, there’s a presumed weak link who steps up under pressure or a role player who supplies something no one else on the team can do.
At Michigan State, for example, the future NBA talents are Adreian Payne and Gary Harris, but neither of them will determine whether the Spartans reclaim the Big Ten crown from Indiana. Instead, senior PG Keith Appling must put his poor finish to 2012-13 behind him and prove that he’s ready to lead a potential national champion.
Herein, a closer look at Appling and the rest of the players who will have the most to say about the fortunes of the top 20 teams in our latest preseason rankings.
St. Louis' defense relies on team effort rather than individual brilliance, but the offense is a different story. Dwayne Evans is the only returnee who scored in double figures a year ago, and his 14 points per game were 3.4 ahead of his closest teammate.
The 6’5” power forward improved his shot selection dramatically last year, jumping from .460 field-goal shooting to .547. He’ll command even more attention with Cody Ellis gone, but don’t expect anything short of a career year from the Billikens’ senior leader.
Yes, Marcus Smart is one of the best players in the country (and better than many NBA point guards), but he couldn’t get Oklahoma State past its NCAA tournament opener last March.
Neither could his talented perimeter sidekicks, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash.
The key for this year’s Cowboys is getting something (anything) from the frontcourt, and the only player likely to provide it is Michael Cobbins.
The 6’8” junior has athleticism and two years of starting experience, but if he can’t score more than 6.9 points per game this time around, it won’t matter how good the backcourt is.
The Shockers' experienced backcourt would make them a frontrunner in the Missouri Valley even without Cleanthony Early.
However, Wichita State’s hopes of making another deep NCAA tournament run will only be fulfilled on the shoulders of their senior scoring leader.
Early, a 6’8” combo forward, is the only player on Gregg Marshall’s roster who can create matchup problems against top-level contenders.
He’ll score in bunches, but he also needs to do plenty of rebounding (a solid 5.4 boards per game last year) to help make up for Carl Hall’s departure.
Kendall Williams also deserves a lot of consideration for this spot, but there are plenty of good point guards around the country. There are very few 7’0”, 250-pound centers, and even fewer with the experience of junior Alex Kirk.
Kirk’s first year as a starter was a distinct success, as New Mexico's homegrown big man averaged 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
He’s poised to blossom into an All-America contender this season, and if he does, the Lobos will be the team to break the Mountain West’s NCAA tournament jinx.
Few elite teams are less dependent on any one player than Josh Pastner’s Tigers. That said, it’s very easy for one player to blow up a chemistry-driven team like Memphis, and Michael Dixon Jr. poses an unfortunately high risk to do just that.
Not only does the senior transfer arrive under a cloud after battling sexual assault accusations at Missouri, but he adds yet another shot-hungry guard (13.5 points per game) to a crowded backcourt.
He’s got the talent to improve these veteran Tigers but only if he tries to fit in with Joe Jackson and company rather than take over.
Very quietly, Juvonte Reddic has developed into a serious post presence on the guard-happy Rams.
If VCU is going to reach its full potential, a reliable half-court offense is a necessity, and having an interior scorer opponents must respect will go a long way toward that goal.
As a junior, the 6’9”, 250-pound Reddic scored 14.6 points per game to go with his 8.1 rebounds and (of course) 1.4 steals a night.
He and swingman Treveon Graham will also be crucial safety valves for Briante Weber, a first-year starter at PG whose offensive bona fides are still in doubt.
Indiana’s roster has no shortage of talent, but experience is another matter. The heart of the team will likely be the frontcourt trio of Jeremy Hollowell, Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Noah Vonleh…who have a combined total of 435 minutes of college experience.
That’s where sophomore PG Yogi Ferrell comes in.
After running the offense for last year’s Big Ten champs, Ferrell will need to ease the learning-on-the-fly process for a very different roster. He'll also do well to add a bit more scoring to go with his 4.1 assists per game.
Every year, Gonzaga (in an effort to compensate for the pitiful quality of many of its WCC opponents) plays one of the country’s toughest non-conference schedules.
If this year’s largely inexperienced Zags survive that gauntlet, Kevin Pangos will deserve much of the credit.
The junior PG is one of two returning starters from last year’s squad after dishing out 3.3 assists and scoring 11.9 points per game.
He’s got tremendous speed in the open floor, but it’s his ability to keep things clicking in the half court—where monolithic post players Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski will be first-time starters—that coach Mark Few really needs this year.
At this point, it’s entirely possible that even Roy Williams doesn’t know how the P.J. Hairston suspension situation will play itself out.
With or without Hairston on the floor, though, the Tar Heels will need to get a big chunk of their perimeter offense from his fellow wing scorer, Leslie McDonald.
As a junior, the 6’5” McDonald posted career highs with just 7.2 points in 17.7 minutes per game.
Now that he’s starting, he could well double his point production if he keeps shooting .359 from long range and if (crucially) he’s ready to be the player who demands the ball when James Michael McAdoo’s shots aren’t falling.
With last year’s starting backcourt gone, Davante Gardner isn’t just the best scorer left on the Golden Eagles—at 11.5 points per game, he’s the only proven scorer.
Considering that he’s also the team’s top rebounder (4.8 boards a night), it’s hard to overstate how badly Marquette needs a big year from the big man.
The demonstrative Gardner is the emotional leader for this squad, too, so expect everyone to play better when he’s on his game. On top of all that, he’s a key senior on a team that will lean heavily on a trio of freshmen for its perimeter game.
Jabari Parker has a great chance to become the second highly touted freshman in as many seasons who helps his team win by underachieving in the box score.
Like Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III last year, Parker (a natural SF) is likely to be forced to play out of position at power forward to cover for his team’s lack of effective big men.
At 6’8”, the versatile youngster might wind up being Duke’s tallest starter, teaming with 6’7” Amile Jefferson down low.
Parker is a solid rebounder and outstanding defender, so he should be able to handle bigger opponents. Even so, don’t be surprised if his numbers take a hit compared to the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle.
Replacing a consensus national Player of the Year is never an easy job, but Derrick Walton has even more pressure on him than just the specter of Trey Burke.
As a true freshman, he’s being asked to lead a defending national runner-up with three star-caliber frontcourt players returning.
Simply put, if Walton plays well, Michigan should be back in the Final Four. If the freshman struggles, though, even the trio of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary won’t be enough to save the Wolverines in a loaded Big Ten.
Few teams can point to a record of consistent success like Florida’s, which features three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight. For the Gators to get over the hump and make it into the Final Four, though, they’ll need a spark that Kasey Hill is best equipped to provide.
The celebrated freshman will take over the starting PG duties at least as long as Scottie Wilbekin is suspended, and probably even beyond that.
If he can provide the kind of late-game heroics that Trey Burke brought to Michigan (or Peyton Siva to Louisville, for that matter), the outstanding collection of role players around him will be headed to Dallas in March.
With C.J. Fair as the headliner, Syracuse boasts one of the nation’s best and deepest frontcourts in 2013-14.
However, with no Doug McDermott or Nik Stauskas raining three-pointers from the small forward spot, the Orange will be depending on a thin backcourt for perimeter scoring.
The best of Jim Boeheim’s few options is freshman Tyler Ennis, who will be thrust into the task of replacing Michael Carter-Williams at the point.
Long-range shooting is one of the few areas where Ennis should actually be an upgrade over his dazzling predecessor, and with defenses collapsing on the big men inside, he should get plenty of good looks.
These days, freshmen aren’t just asked to play significant roles—they’re asked to be the stars of national title contenders. So it is with Andrew Wiggins, the single most talented member of an all-new (but all-dangerous) starting lineup at Kansas.
Junior PG Naadir Tharpe can make his teammates better, and sophomore PF Perry Ellis can take over games as a scorer, but only Wiggins can be counted on to do both (and play impressive defense besides).
He’s the best scoring threat on the roster (and a serious candidate to lead the Big 12 in that department) in what should be his only collegiate season.
Arizona’s is one of the few starting lineups in the nation that has no obvious holes, but it does come with some question marks. The biggest of those pertains to the biggest body on the roster, 7’0”, 250-pound Kaleb Tarczewski.
A much-heralded recruit in 2012, Tarczewski didn’t get off to a fast start, scoring a mere 6.6 points (and blocking just 0.7 shots) to go with his team-high 6.1 rebounds per game.
After a year as an also-ran starter, he knows the college game (and has even more potential than classmate Brandon Ashley), so no member of the Wildcats’ loaded frontcourt is in a better position for a breakout season.
For the second year in a row, Ohio State is going to live off its defense and pray for enough scoring to win games. For the fourth year in a row, that defense will be led by point guard Aaron Craft.
The indefatigable senior has never developed into more than a passable offensive weapon (even with his occasional bursts of clutch scoring), but no player in college hoops makes more of an impact when the opposing team has the ball.
His ability to generate turnovers (even beyond his 2.1 steals per game) and keep opposing PGs off-balance is the starting point for everything Ohio State does on D.
Keith Appling was the leading scorer for a Sweet 16 team, but it’s a safe bet that no other player in that category had nearly as bad a year as the Spartans’ point guard.
Appling’s performance as a playmaker imploded in the second half of the season, leaving him with a paltry 3.3 assists per game for his junior year.
Michigan State isn’t about to complain about its speedy floor general scoring in transition, but he needs to spend more time setting up his teammates in the half court.
He’s just a .320 three-point shooter, so rather than settling for jumpers himself, he can help Michigan State far more by feeding SG Gary Harris (.411) or hyper-athletic center Adreian Payne (.381, though he does most of his damage in the paint).
The 2012-13 Wildcats had four NBA-caliber starters, but lack of a point guard sent them home in the first round of the NIT. Freshman Andrew Harrison is the man being charged with keeping that from happening again.
The 6’5” Harrison (whose twin brother Aaron will take over at SG) immediately becomes the SEC’s best point guard with his combination of scoring, playmaking and defense.
In addition to keeping the half-court offense from bogging down as it did a year ago, Harrison is also responsible for spreading the ball around on a roster that includes six new McDonald’s All-Americans, plus veterans Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Louisville’s impenetrable defense was the biggest factor in last season’s national title run, and Russ Smith’s return will ensure its continued dominance.
The ball-hawking guard’s 2.1 steals per game started a healthy proportion of the fast breaks the Cards’ offense depends on.
When Louisville is forced to play half-court offense, Smith again becomes the key figure.
His 18.7 points a night were a team high by 8.7, and his limitless ability to get shots up over triple-teams (despite standing just 6’1”) gives the Cardinals’ offensive rebounders a chance to make plays of their own.