Ranking the Best Individual Battles Ahead in 2013-14 NCAA Basketball Season
Friday’s duel between Duke’s Jabari Parker and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon lived up to its billing, and NCAA basketball fans have plenty more like it in store. The 2013-14 season has sensational one-on-one matchups yet to come at every position, featuring a pantheon of the top talents in the country.
One player who’s left no doubt that he belongs in that category is Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart. There aren’t many point guards equipped to match Smart shot-for-shot, but Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane will get two chances to prove he can equal the performance of the Wooden Award favorite.
Herein, a closer look at the meetings between the Cowboys’ and Cyclones’ stars, along with 19 more great individual showdowns on the 2013-14 schedule.
For ranking purposes, home-and-home battles were given preference simply because fans will get two games worth of highlights (and players will get a chance to adjust after the first contest). Other factors include how closely matched the two players will be and how big a game they'll be part of.
20. Cleanthony Early vs. Jarnell Stokes
Cleanthony Early has picked up right where he left off in leading Wichita State to the Final Four.
The senior combo forward is leading the Shockers with 7.1 rebounds per game and scoring 14.4 points a night even while battling through a three-point shooting slump.
He’ll have to take on a classic speed-vs.-size matchup when WSU hosts Tennessee and bulldozer Jarnell Stokes on Dec. 14.
The Vols junior owns a 40-lb weight advantage that will be as much of an asset underneath as it will be a hindrance when he has to chase Early around the perimeter.
19. Davante Gardner vs. Alex Kirk
Geologists in the vicinity of Las Vegas on Dec. 21, do not adjust your seismographs. Those tremors are just the natural result of the titanic collisions between two of the strongest players in college basketball.
New Mexico’s 7’0”, 245-lb Alex Kirk isn’t used to being pushed around, but 6’8”, 290-lb Davante Gardner will test the low-post muscle of any player in the country.
Between them, the two Goliaths have averaged 35.9 points and 18.9 rebounds a game, but something has to give when they meet at the MGM Grand.
18. Chaz Williams vs. Briante Weber
UMass is the most surprising name in the early-season rankings, and Chaz Williams is the player who put them there. The 5’9” senior is a dangerous defender on the ball, but it’s his offensive contributions—scoring as well as passing—that make the Minutemen go.
Even Williams, though, won’t have an easy time breaking the stifling full-court pressure of Virginia Commonwealth, an assault led by Briante Weber.
Williams committed 11 turnovers in two meetings with the Rams last year, and Weber (the best of many great defensive guards on the roster) wasn’t starting then, as he will be on Feb. 21 in Amherst.
17. Marshall Henderson vs. Jordan McRae
No matchup in 2013-14 is likelier to devolve into a game of H-O-R-S-E than Tennessee-Ole Miss.
Marshall Henderson, the Rebels’ high-volume shooter and high-volume celebrator, will spend their January 29th visit to Knoxville trading shots with Jordan McRae.
Another of the SEC’s top scoring threats, senior McRae is a slasher where Henderson is a sniper. If anyone can keep the 6’2” Rebels gunner from putting on his usual three-point show, the athletic 6’6” Volunteer is a fine candidate to do it.
16. Andrew Wiggins vs. Casey Prather
There won’t be a better in-game dunk contest all year than on Dec. 10 when Kansas visits Florida.
Acrobatic Andrew Wiggins, soon to be an NBA dunk-contest participant, has been the Jayhawks’ scoring leader for much of the young season.
Florida counters with Casey Prather, whose transition prowess accounts for the huge bulk of his team-high 19.1 points per game.
Neither player has exactly covered himself with glory on defense, either, so both are likely to get more than a few uncontested looks at the rim in this matchup.
15. Jabari Parker vs. Glenn Robinson III
Just four days after a tough loss to Arizona and Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker will face a very different test in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Glenn Robinson III was last year’s closest analogue to Parker, a top-flight recruit at small forward forced to play the 4 on an undersized roster.
Robinson isn’t as strong as Gordon (or Parker), but his quickness and leaping ability will pose a threat similar to the one Parker faced from Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins scored 22 points (against various Blue Devils) in that meeting, and Robinson will need a similarly stellar performance to keep Michigan in the game on Tuesday.
14. Julius Randle vs. Cory Jefferson
Kentucky’s Dec. 6 showdown with Baylor at Cowboys Stadium will feature a slew of terrific individual matchups, none better than Julius Randle vs. Cory Jefferson.
Freshman Randle has dominated the paint like few players in the nation, but Jefferson is as close as he’ll come all season to facing an athlete on his own level.
The explosive Baylor senior is just as long and nearly as agile as Randle, and both have been racking up points on the low block. Kentucky’s star has a significant weight advantage, but the high-flying Jefferson is decidedly the more instinctive shot-blocker.
13. Rodney Hood vs. Kyle Anderson
Even the considerable shadow of Jabari Parker can’t obscure the magnificent start Rodney Hood has put up for Duke.
The Mississippi State transfer is pouring in 20 points a game in his own right while placing second to Parker in rebounding and outpacing the freshman sensation in three-point accuracy.
Hood will take on another eye-popping offensive talent on Dec. 19 at Madison Square Garden, when Duke squares off with triple-double threat Kyle Anderson and UCLA.
Anderson is the top rebounder and creator for the Bruins’ high-scoring attack, and he’ll test Hood’s shooting skills with his long-armed 6’9” frame.
12. Marcus Paige vs. Tyler Ennis
Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis has been the ringleader of the Orange’s vaunted 2-3 zone, racking up 2.9 steals a game so far. He’ll face his toughest test of the year on Jan. 11, in his team’s lone meeting with North Carolina and Marcus Paige.
Paige has dominated in P.J. Hairston’s absence, taking over the team scoring lead by a wide margin behind sizzling three-point shooting.
The sophomore also has more than enough quickness to test Ennis on the offensive end, where Syracuse’s floor leader has been a solid playmaker but a wildly streaky shooter.
11. Aaron Gordon vs. Glenn Robinson III
The Pac-12 has plenty of physical power forwards, but none who can match the explosiveness of Arizona’s Aaron Gordon.
For that job, fans will have to turn to Glenn Robinson III, whose Michigan team hosts the Wildcats on Dec. 14 in a game that will have major NCAA tournament consequences on both sides.
The Big Dog’s son isn’t as strong as the 225-lb Gordon, but after a year banging with Big Ten post players, he knows how to handle himself down low.
Both players feature devastating quickness for forwards, and both are good bets to produce a couple of highlight-reel dunks before this game is out.
10. Doug McDermott vs. Fuquan Edwin
Creighton’s Doug McDermott is the best pure scorer in college basketball. His toughest test from any defender will come against Seton Hall, a team led by much-overlooked forward Fuquan Edwin.
Edwin has been among the national leaders in steals in each of the last three seasons, but the 6’6” senior’s contributions have been hidden by the Pirates’ poor showing in the win column.
They’ll face their new Big East rivals from Creighton twice, and Edwin is their only hope of slowing down the dazzling Blue Jays offense.
9. Jahii Carson vs. Johnathan Loyd
The Pac-12 schedule brings two chances for fans to see the Revenge of the Little Guy, as Arizona State's meetings with Oregon will feature two of the best sub-6’0” players in college hoops going head-to-head.
The Sun Devils are led by 5’11” Jahii Carson, a lethal scorer who’s also doing a fine job running the offense. He’ll meet Oregon’s playmaker par excellence, 5’8” Johnathan Loyd and his 6.5 assists per game.
Loyd is one of the very few defenders in the country quick enough to make Carson work for his points, but the Sun Devils star may still do enough to earn a quality win or two for his team’s run at an NCAA tournament berth.
8. Aaron Craft vs. Tim Frazier
Ohio State will play higher-stakes Big Ten games than its home-and-home with Penn State, but none that will do more to showcase the value of Aaron Craft.
The Buckeyes senior is the best defender in college basketball, and he’ll be in for his toughest test against experienced, versatile Tim Frazier.
Back from an Achilles injury, Frazier has been filling up stat sheets for the 6-2 Nittany Lions.
His combination of scoring, passing and ball security (2.7 assists per turnover) will test even Craft’s prodigious skills, while his own defense will give OSU’s floor leader a taste of his own medicine.
7. Adreian Payne vs. Noah Vonleh
There’s no shortage of low-post talent in the Big Ten, and the best of the bunch will square off when Michigan State faces Indiana.
The Hoosiers may not be ready to challenge for the conference title this year, but freshman Noah Vonleh doesn’t intend to take a backseat to anyone—not even Spartans senior Adreian Payne.
Both Vonleh and Payne boast agility you’d normally expect from a much smaller player, but neither of them is soft by any stretch of the imagination (18.1 combined rebounds per game).
Neither one is a top-flight shot-blocker, either, so expect plenty of points from a pair of scorers who can go off in a hurry against the right matchup.
6. Kevin Pangos vs. Tyler Haws
A point guard for his first two seasons, Kevin Pangos has blossomed into a 22 point-per-game scorer alongside new starter David Stockton. That makes him the only player in the WCC who might beat Tyler Haws for the league scoring title.
BYU’s Haws, who averaged 21.7 points a night last year, is up to 24.2 so far in 2013-14.
He has a three-inch height advantage on Pangos, but don’t expect that to daunt the Zags’ most intense competitor, especially when the Cougars represent the only serious threat to yet another conference crown for Gonzaga.
5. Jordan Adams vs. Joseph Young
Much more than just the Pac-12 scoring title will be on the line when Jordan Adams and Joseph Young lock horns.
Adams’ UCLA team and Young’s Oregon Ducks are both jockeying for Top 25 position, and their spots in the Pac-12 standings will go a long way toward sorting out their Big Dance seeds.
Young currently has the slimmest of leads on Adams in the points column, 21.5 per game to 21.4.
Both are aggressive defenders averaging 2.0 steals per game or better, and whichever guard can keep the ball out of his counterpart’s hands will give his team a valuable edge.
4. Marcus Smart vs. DeAndre Kane
Iowa State has frequently played the role of spoiler in the Big 12, and Cyclones’ PG DeAndre Kane will get a chance to be a spoiler of another sort this year.
No player on Oklahoma State’s schedule has a better chance than Kane of upstaging Cowboys superstar Marcus Smart.
Sophomore Smart has ratcheted up his scoring while preserving the rest of last season’s astonishing all-around game.
In Kane, though, he’ll have a rare opportunity to face someone his own size (6’4”), another scoring point guard who loves to hit the boards and who will test even Smart’s defensive acumen.
3. Shabazz Napier vs. Chris Jones
For the third year in a row, 6'1" point guard Shabazz Napier is doing everything the Huskies need, including leading the team with a staggering 7.7 rebounds a game.
He’ll also be the best thing about Louisville’s one year in the AAC, because he and Cards PG Chris Jones will get two regular-season showdowns (including the season finale) that should determine the conference's inaugural champ.
Juco transfer Jones, a playmaking defender who’s taken over the team lead in steals from Russ Smith, will test Napier on both ends of the floor.
The newest Cardinal has been dialed in from three-point range early on (as has UConn’s star, who’s 10-for-17 from beyond the arc).
2. Andrew Wiggins vs. Melvin Ejim
As skilled as he is, Andrew Wiggins has garnered so much hype largely because he’s one of the most impressive run-and-jump athletes in the college ranks this season.
He may get beaten at his own game, though, in the Jayhawks’ meetings with conference rival Iowa State.
The Cyclones’ electrifying Melvin Ejim returned from a knee injury earlier this season in dramatic fashion, lighting up the stacked Michigan frontcourt for 22 points and seven boards in a win in Ames.
Wiggins is longer and a bit quicker, Ejim has experience and 20 extra lbs of muscle in his corner, and both will get the lion's share of the offensive touches for their respective teams.
1. Jabari Parker vs. James Michael McAdoo
There isn’t a better rivalry in college hoops than Duke vs. North Carolina, and this year’s showcases two of the country’s top power forwards.
UNC’s James Michael McAdoo is one of the only big men around who has the quickness to keep up with Jabari Parker, not to mention the shooting touch to survive Parker’s smothering D.
The Duke freshman sensation has been lighting it up from beyond the arc, but Tar Heels junior McAdoo has the length (at 6’9”) to contest plenty of those shots.
Don’t be surprised if Parker’s Wooden Award candidacy takes a hit from allowing a dominant performance by his opposite number in Carolina Blue.