1 Player College Basketball's Top Contenders Need to Step Up in 2014-15

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2014

1 Player College Basketball's Top Contenders Need to Step Up in 2014-15

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    Kansas' Wayne Selden Jr. will be a key to whether the Jayhawks are back in the mix for a title in 2014-15.
    Kansas' Wayne Selden Jr. will be a key to whether the Jayhawks are back in the mix for a title in 2014-15.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    We know who the contenders are going to be in college basketball in 2014-15. Well, at least we think we do, which is why top-25 rankings for next season came out almost immediately after last season ended.

    And we know who should be the best and most important players on each of those expected contenders—the stars from last season who have stuck around as well as the highly touted newcomers and transfers who are set to join the top teams in the fall.

    But each of these contenders has one particular player who needs to make a major contribution in order for a deep NCAA tournament run (as well as any hope of a national title) to be realistic. Without this player stepping up, any chance of cutting down the nets is minimized.

    Using the Bleacher Report's preseason top-25 poll, here's a look at the player from each top-10 contender who must rise to the challenge in 2014-15.

10. Louisville Cardinals

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Terry Rozier, So., PG

    It's one thing to have to replace a prolific scorer who served as the motor for an NCAA title team during his tenure. It's another thing to have to step in for someone so exciting that he earned a memorable nickname: Russdiculous.

    Terry Rozier is tasked with the job of filling the void left by the graduating Russ Smith. "Russdiculous" was one of the most fun players to watch; on any given possession, he could jack up a long three or make a lightning-quick move to the basket...or make an ill-advised play that often went awry. The 6'1" Rozier isn't nearly as flashy, but he won't have to be if he manages to run the offense effectively.

    A good sign that he can handle this role was his assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman. Though he only averaged 18.9 minutes per game, he had 67 dimes and only lost the ball 22 times for a 3-1 ratio (Smith was 1.6-1). He also won't have to score as much as Smith did, at least not consistently, thanks to the surprise return of monster forward Montrezl Harrell.

9. Virginia Cavaliers

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    Anthony Gill, Jr., F

    As one of the top-scoring bench players in the country last season, Anthony Gill was a key contributor in his limited role to Virginia's breakout performance. Now he's expected to start for the Cavaliers, meaning he will need to show he can play that way over longer stretches.

    He averaged 8.6 points per game in 2013-14, third-best on Virginia's team, but his minutes (19.8 per game) were sixth-most. He led the team in field-goal shooting at 58.6 percent, and at 6'8" and 235 pounds, he also provided great size and strength on both ends of the court.

    With Akil Mitchell graduating, Gill will take his spot in the lineup alongside 6'11" Mike Tobey, but he'll be more of an offensive player than Tobey. With moves like a guard but the physical presence of a post man, Gill will be a valuable asset as both a scorer and defender.

8. Wichita State Shockers

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    Shaquille Morris, Fr., PF

    Of all the top contenders heading into the 2014-15, Wichita State might have the biggest hole to fill with the loss of Cleanthony Early. The 6'8" senior was the team's leading scorer and rebounder and also the only significant inside presence among the main rotation of players.

    Shaquille Morris appears to be the player who is most likely to replace Early in the lineup, which will mean WSU will put an untested redshirt freshman on the court. The 6'7", 268-pound bruiser sat out last season and even stopped traveling with the team in February, so he could spend more time in the weight room in anticipation for the upcoming season.

    The Shockers thankfully return standout guards Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet, while Tekele Cotton's defense will help take pressure off Morris inside. Still, Morris will need to show he can contribute early if WSU wants to make another run like last season.

7. Florida Gators

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    Chris Walker, So., PF

    It wasn't until February that highly regarded recruit Chris Walker was able to play for Florida, because academic issues kept his eligibility in doubt for most of the season. When he did get into the action, though, he didn't get many chances, scoring just 1.9 points per game in less than five minutes per night over 18 contests.

    Those numbers will no doubt go up this fall, as he will be part of a group of players who are looking to replace Patric Young in the frontcourt. The 6'10" Walker will have competition for minutes from a pair of transfers, with former Michigan player Jon Horford eligible right away and former Duke player Alex Murphy coming on in December.

    Per Rivals.com, Walker was a 5-star recruit out of high school, and even with his minimal involvement this past season, he was considered a possible early NBA jumper because of his length, shot-blocking ability and overall potential. It will now be time for him to show that potential in critical situations during the Gators' tough nonconference slate and in SEC play, especially if Florida hopes to hold off Kentucky for the league title.

6. Duke Blue Devils

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Rasheed Sulaimon, Jr., SG

    Duke will once again be a young and ultratalented team in 2014-15, replacing potential No. 1 draft pick Jabari Parker and potent scorer Rodney Hood with the nation's top recruiting class. But the glue that might hold the Blue Devils' season together—and prevent another early NCAA tournament exit—is one of the upperclassmen who has seen his role change over the years.

    Rasheed Sulaimon played about four fewer minutes and averaged 1.7 points per game less (9.9, down from 11.6) in 2013-14, but when he took over the bulk of the ball-handling duties, his involvement became more integral. He had 20 points in the second-round loss to Mercer, hitting five three-pointers, and for the year, he made 41 percent of his three-point attempts.

    Duke's lineup is apt to see three freshmen starting this fall, with Tyus Jones at the point, Justise Winslow at small forward and Jahlil Okafor at center. All three of them will be counted on for a lot of production, but with his experience and ability to score big at times, Sulaimon may be the Devils' most important player when it comes to sustained success.

5. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Brice Johnson, Jr., PF

    North Carolina had five guys listed at 6'9" or taller on last year's roster, four of whom return, but none will play a bigger role in what the Tar Heels do in 2014-15 than Brice Johnson. After his promising sophomore effort, the sky is the limit for him.

    Johnson averaged 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds in just more than 19 minutes per game last season. With his lanky body, he's both a scoring machine and a lockdown defender who's adept at blocking shots and pulling down rebounds. What he showed in his limited role bodes well for UNC replacing the production of NBA early entrant James Michael McAdoo.

    After leading the team in shooting at 56.6 percent last year, Johnson will now move into a more high-profile role. But to be successful, he'll need to continue to improve his one-on-one defense and become a much better free-throw shooter than the 62 percent rate from 2013-14.

4. Kansas Jayhawks

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Wayne Selden Jr., So., G

    With Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins around, Wayne Selden Jr. was almost an afterthought when it came to talking about Kansas' talented freshman class. And while another big-name group is on its way to Kansas to help replace NBA-bound Embiid and Wiggins, it's now Selden's chance to shine.

    A superior talent who didn't get enough touches last season to show off his full value, the 6'5" Selden averaged 9.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game but was more of a role player than a key contributor. That all changes now, and he'll have to show he can handle the added responsibility in order for the Jayhawks to win an 11th straight Big 12 title and avoid another first-weekend exit from the NCAA tournament.

    He was most effective at the rim, but Kansas will have big men inside to take care of that. He'll need to improve on his overall shooting (he shot 43.7 percent from the field, 32.8 percent from outside) in order to be the potent scorer he was hyped as coming into school.

3. Arizona Wildcats

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Kaleb Tarczewski, Jr., C

    The 7-footer made a big leap from his freshman year to the sophomore campaign, becoming much more of an inside force on offense. His play down low helped soften the blow from Brandon Ashley's season-ending foot injury, but the big man still seemed to get manhandled in several games.

    Tarczewski has been a consistent defensive stopper in the paint, which is a big reason why the Wildcats allowed 58.6 points per game and were fourth-best nationally in field-goal-percentage defense at 38.0.

    The loss of scorer Nick Johnson and do-everything athlete Aaron Gordon won't be that big of a deal for Arizona in 2014-15 if Tarczewski can continue to improve offensively. Becoming stronger in the offseason and learning to finish inside instead of getting outmuscled will move him from among the better centers to possibly the top 7-footer in Division I.

2. Wisconsin Badgers

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    Nigel Hayes, So., PF

    Many things about last season's Wisconsin team were different from previous ones during the Bo Ryan tenure, and we're not just talking about reaching the Final Four. The Badgers were more skilled offensively than ever before under Ryan, but while the shooting remained an effective piece of the puzzle, the physicality was gone.

    That can change in 2014-15 if Wisconsin elects to use Nigel Hayes in the lineup at power forward. At 6'7" and 250 pounds, he has the most girth of any player on the team and can help keep the Badgers from becoming too perimeter-oriented. He'll also help take some defensive pressure off 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who is apt to draw double-teams frequently this winter after his breakout junior campaign.

    Hayes averaged 7.7 points and shot 51 percent as a freshman last season, which was good enough to earn him Big Ten sixth man of the year honors. If he can fill Wisconsin's one open starting spot and become a consistent physical force in 2014-15, he will have a huge impact on the chances of another Final Four trip.

1. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Willie Cauley-Stein, Jr., F

    As one of two upperclassmen (along with junior Alex Poythress) among Kentucky's rotation, Willie Cauley-Stein is the grizzled veteran among Kentucky's stable of young guns. While that might make it seem like he's not that good—since most Wildcats have gone pro after one season of lateit really means he has to be more than just a statistical contributor.

    He also has to be a leader on and off the court.

    Kentucky will be more "experienced" than usual this season, with enough impact non-freshmen to field a pretty good lineup. Cauley-Stein is the key to those older players, though, because while fellow big men Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are known for being explosive on the offensive end, he will be most vital in a defensive role.

    With so many scorers and athletic slashers to share points, Cauley-Stein must focus on continuing to be among the most effective shot-blockers and shot-disruptors in the nation. He had almost as many blocks (106) as the rest of the team (122) despite playing only 24 minutes per game last season.


    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.