The 10 College Basketball Players Most Important to Their Teams in 2014-15
College basketball is a never-ending transition game in which today's inexperienced youngsters are tomorrow's leading men. The top programs are the ones which identify and recruit the players who can handle that sometimes-awkward shift.
Some teams see entire starting lineups leave at the end of a season, whether through graduation, transfer or answering the siren song of the NBA draft. The players who are left behind must quickly organize themselves into a cohesive unit with new roles, and somebody's got to be the leading man.
These 10 players are on teams that should still entertain serious hopes of making the 2015 NCAA tournament, and they will all be pivotal to their schools' hopes of doing so.
Alternate suggestions are welcomed in the comments, but do some homework and explain yourselves. Trust us, your program is not being "slept on" or "ignored," but assume some burden for breaking down reasons why your players of choice should have been included rather than just rattling off names. Aside from that, read on and have fun.
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10. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga
Gonzaga's guards and wings have often become household names nationally. From Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo to Dan Dickau to Adam Morrison and now Kevin Pangos, the face of the Bulldogs' program has often been a shooter.
What sometimes gets discounted is the array of post players who have passed through Spokane. Ronny Turiaf, J.P. Batista, Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk have benefited from the shooters surrounding them, balancing out the Zags' offense and frequently making it unstoppable for West Coast Conference foes.
Now, coach Mark Few has four-year starters Pangos and Gary Bell in his backcourt, but he needs Polish man-mountain Przemek Karnowski to become that post player that defenses must respect, if not outright fear.
Karnowski started making strides last season, averaging 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds while shooting just short of 60 percent from the floor. Provided he can play a consistent 28 to 30 minutes per game, he has potential to average 15 and 10 with a sufficient number of looks. Karnowski's conditioning and foul situations—he averaged 4.6 fouls per 40 minutes last season—will both be closely monitored.
GU welcomes in Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, who will likely take over at power forward, but he's much more of a stretch four than a post banger. Ryan Edwards (7'1" and 300 pounds) is an even more imposing figure than Karnowski, but he's a clumsy big man who may be more likely to redshirt next season. Recent signee Domantas Sabonis will need some more meat on his 6'10", 210-pound frame.
If Karnowski struggles to stay on the floor, Gonzaga will struggle to compete on a national level. Pangos, Bell and Wiltjer should easily shoot the Zags to another WCC title, but don't expect a major splash in March.
9. Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse
The lone freshman on our list, incoming Syracuse point guard Kaleb Joseph has the same burden of proof that Tyler Ennis had last season. Like Ennis, Joseph will enter his debut season as the only true point guard on the Orange roster, so the starting spot appears to be his by default, barring a major breakthrough by Michael Gbinije.
Joseph will need to hit the ground as quickly as Ennis did, but he's got work to do to ensure that rapid transition. His three-point shot needs some work, and his high school coach told SNY.tv's Adam Zagoria that adapting to the Syracuse defense will take time after Joseph played “10 minutes of zone defense in four years.”
Joseph's transition will rely on other unproven talents adapting quickly to the college game, growing right along with him. Freshman Chris McCullough, sophomore Tyler Roberson and junior gunner Trevor Cooney may be Syracuse's most dangerous offensive weapons, for what they're worth right now.
If there's any non-Kentucky school used to having freshmen take over at the point, though, it's the Cuse. Past rookies like Jason Hart and Gerry McNamara became four-year icons at the school, while others like Ennis and Jonny Flynn hit the ground so quickly that they were able to bounce to the NBA before even attaining upperclassman status.
That bodes well, but always keep in mind the old saying about past results and future performance.
8. Aaron White, Iowa
Aaron White has been an improving scorer and rebounder through each of his first three seasons at Iowa. In each of those seasons, however, he's had a Batman to his Robin, someone who pulled attention away from him and allowed him to operate as a complementary option.
In 2014-15, however, there is no Matt Gatens or Roy Devyn Marble to occupy the defense. The Hawkeyes are well and truly White's team as he enters his senior season.
While Iowa returns five other players who scored more than 5.7 PPG last season, White's the only one of the bunch who topped 7.8. His season could have been first-team All-Big Ten caliber if he'd spent more time attacking the rim as he was through January.
The Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants broke down White's shooting month-by-month and painted a picture of inefficiency mirroring the Hawkeyes' late-season collapse.
Less than half of White's shots in March came near the rim, which has always been his sweet spot. If he can't develop his jump shot—last season's 37.7 mid-range shooting percentage per Hoop-Math.com was a career high—it'll make recapturing last season's offensive momentum that much difficult. And if White can't score effectively, no one else has proven capable of doing so.
7. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
North Carolina's 2014-15 junior class will play major roles in the team's evolution as a championship contender, and none will be larger than leading scorer Marcus Paige. The 6'1" combo guard led the Tar Heels in scoring and assists, and may be asked to do both again.
Paige spent a chunk of his sophomore season as UNC's only perimeter threat with P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald struggling to gain eligibility. Hairston never came back, McDonald has finished his career and Paige is right back where he left off. He'll need shooting help from incoming freshmen Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson.
Aside from Paige's obvious skills, he'll need to contribute the intangibles normally associated with a senior. He helped develop fellow point guard Nate Britt, and that process will continue. Paige will be challenging classmate J.P. Tokoto to establish himself as a shooting threat. Freshmen Pinson, Jackson and yet another point guard, Joel Berry, will look to Paige for help with the transition to college.
One of two first-team All-ACC performers returning to school next season—Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon being the other—Paige will be the face of a team positioned to win the league title. He's the lone proven scorer on the team until Brice Johnson stakes a claim to full-time minutes, so the Heels need him to keep firing as he did last season.
6. Juwan Staten, West Virginia
Most of the offseason headlines about the West Virginia backcourt have surrounded Eron Harris, the guard who's transferring closer to his hometown of Indianapolis. Point guard Juwan Staten is sticking around, though, and his presence is key to the Mountaineers bettering their 2014 NIT trip.
Staten led the Big 12 in scoring, finished second in assists and became the first WVU player to record 500 points, 150 rebounds and 150 assists in a single season.
While the Mountaineers return everyone save Harris from their 2013-14 team, Staten and rising sophomore forward Devin Williams are the only players who were able to establish themselves as full-time starters. Williams was the only WVU player to pull more rebounds than the 6'1" Staten, making Staten an all-around dominant performer for his team similar to what UConn's Shabazz Napier was for his.
Until someone like Terry Henderson or Remi Dibo steps up to provide scoring support the way Harris did, Staten will be by far the biggest musket in coach Bob Huggins' arsenal.
5. Askia Booker, Colorado
Had point guard Spencer Dinwiddie remained in college, Colorado would be entering next season as a top 25 team and a valid challenger to Arizona's Pac-12 crown. He didn't, so the Buffaloes have a lot of work to do.
The man with the heaviest workload may be rising senior guard Askia Booker. Booker tried to fill Dinwiddie's shoes as the floor general after the latter tore his ACL in January. The Buffs were ranked No. 15 in the nation when their playmaker went down, but went 9-9 after the injury.
According to Ken Pomeroy, CU was held below one point per possession only twice before Dinwiddie's injury. Without him, the offense slumped to the finish line, unable to break 1.0 PPP in any of its last nine games.
If coach Tad Boyle can't get what he needs out of Booker, he has a few options. Junior-to-be Xavier Talton and rising sophomore Jaron Hopkins took their turns at the point, but both occasionally struggled with turnovers. Incoming freshman Dominique Collier will also get a look.
Booker is much better suited as a shooting guard, but he has to tighten up his work in that area as well. For his career, Booker has only hit 38.2 percent from the floor and 30.9 from long range according to StatSheet.com. He needs to master one of his trades if he intends to take Colorado back to the NCAA tournament.
4. Caris LeVert, Michigan
Michigan got a serious breakout season from Nik Stauskas en route to an Elite Eight trip in 2014. If the Wolverines intend to see the second weekend of the 2015 tournament, it'll likely be behind a similar improvement from junior-to-be Caris LeVert.
LeVert's versatile game was impossible for coach John Beilein to keep off the floor as a freshman, and Beilein elected to burn an intended redshirt to get him in the lineup in 2012-13. This past season, LeVert took it to another level, finishing in the Big Ten's top 15 in scoring, assists, steals, 3-point percentage, 3-pointers made and minutes played.
Now, without Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, all that remains of the Wolverines' 2012 recruiting class is LeVert and point guard Spike Albrecht. They're easy to tell apart. After all, LeVert's the one picked as a preseason first-team All-American by ESPN's Jeff Goodman (subscription required).
"Obviously they're looking for more of a leadership role for me this year and I'm definitely ready to take on that role," LeVert said to MLive.com's Brendan F. Quinn earlier in April. He'll need to bulk up a 6'6" frame that's already grown from 170 to 185 pounds over his first couple of seasons, but Stauskas made a similar gain to prepare for his renaissance year.
With no McGary or Jon Horford—both gone with eligibility remaining—Michigan's perimeter game will need to carry the full load. Young guards Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin will look to LeVert to set the tone.
3. Georges Niang, Iowa State
The last time we saw Iowa State forward Georges Niang, he was suffering through a pretty rough March. In the Big 12 tournament, he led the Cyclones to a win over Kansas despite sporting a crimson mask that would make Ric Flair queasy. Eight days later, he broke his foot in ISU's NCAA tournament opener against North Carolina Central.
With his wingman, Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim, out of eligibility, Niang will be Iowa State's undisputed leader in 2014-15. He'll be the most experienced member of a typical Fred Hoiberg team, stitched together out of transfers from both junior colleges and Division I programs. This after he just finished his second year in Ames.
Niang will be joined in ISU's frontcourt by JUCO products Dustin Hogue and Daniel Edozie, along with Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader (currently suspended, per the Des Moines Register) and one-time Marquette signee Jameel McKay. Niang has played 69 games as a Cyclone, compared to a combined 60 for the other four.
The rising junior will be the closest thing to a veteran presence in Ames next season. Niang's play and leadership will be key to getting Hoiberg's latest group of vagabonds rowing in the same direction, a trick that's nowhere near as easy as "The Mayor" makes it look.
2. Branden Dawson, Michigan State
It's folly to bet against the Michigan State Spartans as long as Tom Izzo stalks the sidelines, but next season's MSU team will debut with arguably less proven talent than any in the past decade.
With Adreian Payne and Keith Appling out of eligibility and Gary Harris off to the NBA, rising senior Branden Dawson is the most experienced returning Spartan. The 6'6" forward has started 90 games over his three seasons, playing a supporting role on teams combining for 85 wins.
"Supporting role" is the operative phrase there, but MSU isn't returning many others more qualified to take leadership of the team. Point guard Travis Trice played well in spurts as relief for an injured Keith Appling in 2013-14, while rising junior Denzel Valentine has established himself as a versatile, if inconsistent, talent.
Dawson played very well in 2014 NCAA tournament wins over Harvard and Virginia, combining for 50 points and 19 rebounds. State's frontcourt will also feature bangers like Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling and deadly shooter Kenny Kaminski, but only Dawson has ever shown the capacity to be a competitive Big Ten scorer.
He and Valentine will need to continue doing just that, while simultaneously hoping for support from less heralded players like Kaminski, Alvin Ellis or incoming freshman Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn. Dawson missed chunks of his freshman and junior seasons with injuries, and a repeat of those issues will severely damage Michigan State's hopes of Big Ten contention.
1. Ryan Boatright, UConn
Ryan Boatright's decision to remain at UConn for his senior season gives coach Kevin Ollie a grand total of one player who averaged more than 4.1 points per game in 2013-14. As the Huskies attempt to defend their surprising national championship, Boatright may find himself saddled with a larger burden of leadership than any player in America.
There will be plenty of talent in the UConn backcourt, make no mistake. NC State transfer Rodney Purvis becomes eligible, junior college star Sam Cassell Jr. and touted freshman Daniel Hamilton join the roster and the Huskies also return Omar Calhoun and Terrence Samuel, the latter after giving UConn some solid play during the NCAA tournament.
None of those players, however, has substantial collegiate point guard experience. Boatright has the opportunity to be the undisputed leader of a team after years as a complement to Shabazz Napier.
With Louisville leaving the American for the ACC, UConn still has a good chance to top the conference standings, but beating out SMU will depend heavily on Boatright's defensive abilities. The Mustangs return point guard Nic Moore and supplement him with McDonald's All-American Emmanuel Mudiay.
The Huskies will counter that talent with Boatright's seasons of experience. If he's able to balance his desire to score with the flow of the team's offense, he'll contend for AAC Player of the Year and UConn will be firmly back in the top 25.