College Basketball Upperclassmen Finally Ready to Break Out in 2013-14
In this Year of the Freshman—a year in which so much discussion centers around names like Wiggins, Randle, Parker, Harrison and Harrison—it's almost quaint to be a junior or senior. The upperclassman may as well be a relic of a bygone era where the players' shorts were short and the cheerleaders' skirts were long.
Every year, though, we still watch and enjoy players coming of age, even if it takes two or three seasons for them to find a groove.
This group of players represent merely a handful of the juniors or seniors who are ready to find major roles on competitive teams in 2013-14. Whether they were overshadowed by touted teammates or needed to find the right scenery to succeed, each has the chance to emerge as his team's star and earn some national publicity.
There are certainly many others out there, and suggestions are welcome in the comments. Insults, not so much, so conduct yourselves accordingly and enjoy the show.
Khem Birch, UNLV
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The UNLV Runnin' Rebels are going to look vastly different from the team that finished 2012-13 with a one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance. No. 1 NBA draft pick Anthony Bennett is only one of the players that left Vegas, but he is the one whose exit most affects the expectations on 6'9" post man Khem Birch.
Birch became one of the 2011 recruiting crop's biggest busts when he bolted from Pitt to head for the desert. Once in Vegas, though, he was accepted for what he is: a gifted shot-blocker, solid rebounder and remedial low-post scorer.
With both Bennett and the Rebels' previous power forward Mike Moser gone, Birch's post development becomes critical to UNLV's success. He should become a more integral part of the offense, and the opportunity will lead to production now that he's shaken off the rust from his post-transfer year.
As for the Rebels' defense, Vegas lost some of its best perimeter defenders in Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall. Expect more opponents to get into the lane, but also expect more chances for Birch to cruelly deny their shots. A Mountain West blocked-shot title should be in Birch's future, and a national one is a distinct possibility.
Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
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Jordan Clarkson was already a star as a sophomore, but it was at Tulsa. Tulsa was a minor contender in the rapidly dwindling Conference USA, and Clarkson's 16.5 points per game were a primary reason for what success the Golden Hurricane enjoyed.
After an acrimonious transfer from Tulsa, Clarkson landed at Missouri. The Tigers could have used him last season, a campaign that started under a cloud with Michael Dixon's departure and ended with an ugly loss to Colorado State as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament.
During his year in residence, Clarkson gave some tantalizing looks at what was to come. Former Tiger center Alex Oriakhi told the Kansas City Star that Clarkson dominated practice whenever he pleased:
"There were so many times in practice last year he was just torturing us," said Oriakhi, who graduated in May. "I was like (darn), how can he shoot this good? He’s a big guard, he can shoot the ball, defend, a ridiculous athlete, all the tools are there. I told him he’s a pro. Jordan Clarkson is a pro in my opinion."
At 6'5", Clarkson will be a much more difficult matchup for SEC point guards than the diminutive Pressey. He and Jabari Brown will form a highly dangerous backcourt, one that can cleanse the palate of Missouri fans after a season that went sour.
Alandise Harris, Arkansas
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Chiseled forward Alandise Harris, like Jordan Clarkson, is a transplant from a former Conference USA program to the SEC. Like Missouri, Arkansas can be cautiously optimistic heading into this season. Unlike the Tigers, the Hogs' strength should be up front.
Arkansas will be relying on Harris and senior Coty Clarke to mentor and push touted freshmen Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley. While the freshmen adapt, Harris should see all the minutes he needs to best his 13-point and six-rebound averages from his sophomore year at Houston.
During that sophomore season, Harris put up 18 points against the Razorbacks and 21 against LSU, so he's the last guy you'd expect to blink in the face of SEC opposition. He'll get the occasional block, draw a lot of fouls and even step out for a three-pointer if his man loses focus.
The 6'6", 230-pound Little Rock native will be motivated to show out for his home-state program. If that frontcourt becomes a cohesive unit, the Hogs can book an NCAA bid for the first time in six years.
Stephen Holt, St. Mary's
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Matthew Dellavedova was the face, heart and soul of the St. Mary's program for four years. Now that he's pursuing a pro career, the Gaels need new organs. It may be Stephen Holt's turn.
Holt was second on the team in scoring and third in rebounding last season, but he badly regressed as a shooter. While that would seem to be a disturbing trend for a potential lead option, Holt still has enough weapons around him to keep defenses honest.
Players like Beau Levesque, Brad Waldow and James Walker should get their shots, but the offense should run through Holt, perhaps literally. Unless Jordan Giusti steps up to claim the point guard position, Holt may be asked to adapt and inherit the mantle passed down from Patty Mills, Mickey McConnell and Dellavedova.
Holt's likely the only Gael who can come close to replicating the leadership that Dellavedova brought every night. Even if he can merely replicate the Aussie assassin's shooting figures, that's a start.
Nick Johnson, Arizona
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Last season, Arizona basketball threatened to degenerate into the Mark Lyons Show. The Xavier transfer needed to prove he could play point guard for the NBA scouts, but proceeded to throw up 230 missed shots against 99 assists. By comparison, Louisville's Peyton Siva carded 228 assists against 205 misses.
Lyons' efforts took opportunities away from his backcourt mate, rangy sophomore Nick Johnson. Johnson produced a very solid 11.5 PPG, but was too often unheralded behind Lyons and veterans Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom.
With all three gone and the arrival of a true pass-first point guard in Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, Johnson has his chance to establish himself as a team leader.
He'll be relied upon for a heavy dose of perimeter shooting, since there aren't many other threats on the UA roster. Johnson also has no qualms about getting to the basket, as he drew two free throws for every five field goal attempts last season.
Ballyhooed freshman Aaron Gordon is getting headlines for now, but when the games begin, expect Johnson to carry more than his fair share of the weight.
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
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Another transfer who deserted Conference USA, DeAndre Kane didn't follow Jordan Clarkson and Alandise Harris to the SEC. Instead, the ex-Marshall guard traveled to Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State University—AKA Mayor Fred's Home for Traveling Ballers, AKA Transfer U.
At Marshall, Kane was the entire focus of the offense. He put up at least 15 PPG in each of his three seasons, while still finding enough possessions to hand out seven assists per game last year. He assisted on a ludicrous 41% of his teammates' baskets last season, according to StatSheet.com. That figure ranked him eighth in the nation.
The original plan for Kane's year at ISU may have called for him to be even more of a scorer and play off the ball. That was before would-be point guard Bubu Palo was kicked off the team in August.
Now, Kane may get to run a Big 12 offense. If he can handle it as effectively as he did a Conference USA attack, expect to hear his name on national television a lot more often than you ever did when he performed for Marshall.
Nick Kellogg, Ohio
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D.J. Cooper became a star by helping Ohio topple Michigan and reach the Sweet 16 of the 2012 NCAA tournament. His backcourt mate Nick Kellogg got some shine by virtue of being CBS analyst Clark Kellogg's son.
This season, Cooper and three other starters are gone, leaving the younger Kellogg in charge of the team as a senior. Kellogg has established himself as one of Ohio's most potent shooters ever, ranking in the school's all-time top 10 in three-point makes, attempts and percentage.
For him to truly break out, Kellogg will have to establish himself as more than just a sniper. More than 75 percent of his career shots have come from behind the arc.
If Kellogg attacks the basket more often and gets to the foul line, where he's a career 81 percent shooter, the potential is there for a MAC scoring title. That's one of the few feats that Cooper never accomplished in his decorated career.
Ohio State's "We Three Wings"
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Are we copping out by making Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson and LaQuinton Ross share a slide?
It's only appropriate, though, considering that the three will have to share the scoring load after the departure of Big Ten scoring champion Deshaun Thomas. Smith, Thompson and Ross combined for 25.3 PPG last season, and that figure should climb into the 40-45 range.
Even with Thomas still in the lineup, the trio still combined for 33 PPG during Ohio State's run to the Elite Eight, with Ross garnering specific praise for his strong game (and game-winner) against Arizona.
Smith is the senior of the group, but he seemed to save his big games for overmatched opponents like Northwestern, Nebraska and Iona.
Which one becomes the biggest star of the season for the Buckeyes? OSU fans likely don't care, as long as someone does and the team gets back to the Final Four. How these three adapt to living outside Thomas' shadow will determine how dangerous the Buckeyes are in March.
Orlando Sanchez, St. John's
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The curious case of Orlando Sanchez (pictured here as a member of the Dominican Republic's national team) became a cause célèbre when the NCAA ruled him ineligible to play at a four-year institution.
ESPN's Dana O'Neil chronicled the story, which saw Sanchez punished for eight games with a Dominican club team and less than four minutes of action with the national squad, just because it all occurred after Sanchez turned 21.
St. John's went to the mat with the governing body to get Sanchez one more year of eligibility. Now 25, he's preparing to suit up for the Red Storm and see his first Division I action.
The Johnnies have one of the most loaded rosters in the new Big East, but intrigue surrounds Sanchez most of all. A junior college All-American honorable mention as a freshman, he was a double-double machine who loved swatting shots (4.3 per game his first year).
If Sanchez proves as productive against D-I competition as he was in junior college, no one will be allowed to drive on the duo of him and Chris Obekpa. More importantly, St. John's will be looking to go dancing for only the second time in 12 years.
Will Sheehey, Indiana
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Leaving aside newly arrived Arizona State grad transfer Evan Gordon, Will Sheehey is the only senior on the Indiana Hoosiers' 2013-14 roster. As such, the Hoosiers need him to perform as an example to a loaded class of freshmen and sophomores.
Sheehey's been a consistently efficient option off the IU bench in all three of his seasons. His true shooting percentage has never sagged below 53, he's secure with the ball and plays rugged defense against multiple positions.
His biggest question is how he'll perform in a leading role. It's much easier to be a strong shooter and ball-handler when opponents are forced to make plans for the likes of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo.
With Gordon, point guard Yogi Ferrell and freshman big man Noah Vonleh sharing the court, defenses still have to be honest and not cheat too much toward Sheehey. If he can pull his three-point percentage close to 40 and sink his free throws more consistently, the Hoosier veteran can place himself among the Big Ten's top scorers this season.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Coming soon: the 32 in 32 conference preview series.