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Predicting the Best Duos in College Basketball for the 2014-15 Season

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistJune 19, 2014

Predicting the Best Duos in College Basketball for the 2014-15 Season

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    The duo of Deandre Mathieu (left) and Andre Hollins helped Minnesota win the 2014 NIT championship.
    The duo of Deandre Mathieu (left) and Andre Hollins helped Minnesota win the 2014 NIT championship.USA TODAY Sports

    There's Batman and Robin, peanut butter and jelly (or chocolate, depending on the situation), Siskel and Ebert. By themselves, they're good—but together they're great.

    The same principle applies in sports, where many standout duos have combined their talents to become one magnificent entity. We love our stars in college basketball, too, and when we get a chance to see two of them together, the excitement level rises exponentially.

    As we look ahead to the 2014-15 season, we expect to see a lot of dynamic duos on the court. These one-two punches have the ability to take over the game together, lifting their teams to victory even if other players struggle.

    Using our best predictive powers, here's who we think will make up the 20 best duos in college basketball for 2014-15.

20. Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor, Duke

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    To get things going we're going to make what should be a safe prediction: The nation's top overall recruiting class will produce at least one dynamic duo among the four superstar prospects that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has landed for the 2014-15 season. 

    And judging by how the Blue Devils look to line up this season, we're thinking point guard Tyus Jones and center Jahlil Okafor are the best candidates to be the top partners in dominance.

    Yup, we're pretty bold.

    Jones, a 6'2", 180-pound prospect rated No. 8 overall, figures to be the perfect player to run Duke's offense, which in the last few years hasn't had a true point guard at the top of the key.

    Jones can score, but he'll likely defer to his many weapons—both in terms of Duke returners and newcomers—then pop in with clutch outside shots at critical moments.

    Inside is where the major freshmen impact should be felt, with Okafor throwing around his 6'11", 270-pound frame and brutalizing opposing defenders who try to contain his wealth of offensive skills.

    The No. 1 recruit in the class of 2014 also is a stud on the glass and in altering shots, which figures to vastly improve a Blue Devils defense that wasn't very impressive for much of last season.

19. Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders, Harvard

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    The school that has single-handedly busted brackets in each of the last two NCAA tournaments should already be given early consideration to do so again next March thanks to a returning duo who have been as good as any from the power conferences the previous two years.

    Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders have been Harvard's top two scorers since first teaming up during the 2012-13 season, when they helped the Crimson knock off New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

    They did it again last season, downing Cincinnati before coming up just short against Michigan State in the third round.

    Though their overall numbers aren't as flashy as guards from other schools, within Tommy Amaker's system their abilities are maximized.

    The 6'0", 170-pound Chambers hits nearly 40 percent of his three-pointers and dishes out more than two assists for every turnover. Saunders, at 6'5" and 215 pounds, averaged 14.2 points per game and shot 46.6 percent from the field.

    Harvard's 2014-15 schedule will again include numerous chances for it to go up against power programs—and it will knock off a few. Chambers and Saunders will be integral in those wins, as well in another likely appearance in the Big Dance.

18. Cliff Alexander and Wayne Selden, Kansas

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    Kansas' front line took a roster attrition beating since the Jayhawks fell early in the NCAA tournament, losing Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins to the NBA draft and Tarik Black to graduation.

    Luckily, they bring in one of the strongest post players available in the 2014 recruiting class, who should find a similarly strong returning guard to be a great partner with whom to work.

    Cliff Alexander, at 6'9" and 240 pounds, has the potential to be as impactful to Kansas as Julius Randle was to Kentucky last season.

    With strength, agility and a defensive acumen that enabled him to block five shots during the Jordan Brand Classic All-Star game in April, Alexander will be a force in the paint as the Jayhawks look for yet another Big 12 title and beyond.

    But for Kansas to succeed in 2014-15, it will need Wayne Selden to live up to expectations. As a true freshman, he averaged 9.7 points but didn't shoot well from any place on the court. He was in the shadow of Wiggins, Embiid and others and didn't need to contribute most of the time, but when called upon, he didn't always get it done.

    Selden will have a much bigger role out on the perimeter for Kansas this year, and with Alexander drawing double-teams inside, that should bode well for Selden's effort to improve his shooting.

17. Stanley Johnson and T.J. McConnell, Arizona

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    Arizona lost two very explosive players early to the NBA draft, including a phenomenal freshman in Aaron Gordon.

    But the arrival of Stanley Johnson should make the Wildcats less worrisome about losing Gordon's production, while point guard T.J. McConnell's return will ensure that no decline in success occurs.

    Johnson, a 6'7", 226-pound shooting guard rated as the No. 4 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class, comes to Arizona looking not only to replace Gordon's explosiveness but also Nick Johnson's scoring punch.

    The 5-star player is regarded by many to be one of the most instant-impact freshmen in the country, and he'll be a favored target of McConnell in both the half-court set and in transition.

    McConnell, who came to Arizona from Duquesne, provided the Wildcats with a must-have asset last season: a true pass-first point guard.

    With so many offensive weapons around him, the 6'1", 195-pound guard averaged 5.3 assists per game while also scoring 8.4 points. Now a senior, McConnell provided great stability and consistency, posting a 3.01 assist-to-turnover ratio that is second-best in school history.

    The McConnell-to-Gordon duo provided numerous highlight-reel plays last season. Expect the McConnell-to-Johnson combo to match—if not surpass—that total.

16. Jameel McKay and Georges Niang, Iowa State

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    The craziness that has become the offseason transfer train hurts many schools, but some benefit from it big-time.

    That's definitely the case with Iowa State, which has made a cottage industry out of picking up players from other programs, and an acquisition from last winter should combine with one of the Cyclones' best-recruited players to form a solid frontcourt tandem.

    Jameel McKay, a 6'9", 210-pound former junior college All-American, came to ISU in December after spending one semester (but not playing for) Marquette.

    A former teammate of Cyclone Dustin Hogue at Indian Hills Community College, McKay is a prolific scorer and a great defensive rebounder who should slide right into ISU's rotation when he becomes eligible on Dec. 20.

    He'll be paired on the front line with Georges Niang, who showed off an incredibly diverse set of skills during the 2013-14 season to the tune of 16.7 points per game (including 11 20-point outbursts) while also contributing 3.6 assists in the Cyclones' balanced offense.

    His broken foot during the second-round win over North Carolina Central drastically changed ISU's makeup, taking away a major piece of versatility.

    With McKay in the rotation and Niang back to full strength, ISU's second half in 2014-15 will be something to watch.

15. Darrun Hilliard II and JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova

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    Playing alongside each other for the past three seasons, Darrun Hilliard II and JayVaughn Pinkston have become pretty attuned to what works well for each other when in the heat of the moment. Last year, that played itself out by how Villanova was near-perfect in close games.

    Now seniors, the longtime teammates must provide the leadership the Wildcats need to take back-to-back Big East titles for the first time in more than 30 seasons.

    Hilliard, a 6'6", 215-pound wing, often plays smaller than his frame would indicate, as he's become a de facto second point guard alongside Ryan Arcidiacono.

    But when he's not distributing, Hilliard's shown a very accurate shooting stroke, which enabled him to make 48.6 percent of his shots (and 41.4 percent from three-point range) while averaging 14.3 points per game last season.

    Pinkston, the Wildcats' unofficial big man despite being just 6'7"—but a sturdy 240 pounds—poured in 14.1 points per contest and averaged 6.1 rebounds last season. Those numbers were slight improvements from his breakout sophomore year, with the most promising stat being his 52.1 shooting percentage.

    Both Hilliard and Pinkston can get better, and will need to for Villanova to make a deep run. If one does it, though, odds are they'll both flourish.

14. Markus Kennedy and Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU

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    SMU is quickly moving from the realm of being an also-ran to a major player in college basketball, and much of the credit goes to Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown turning that program around so quickly.

    Being able to acquire some of the talent Brown has helps, including the incoming addition of an electrifying point guard that should put the Mustangs over the top.

    Teaming him with a very underrated, yet supremely efficient, big man will keep SMU in the conversation for high rankings all season long.

    The arrival of 6'5", 190-pound Emmanuel Mudiay, the No. 2 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class and the top point guard, is the best prospect SMU has ever had in terms of hype and promise.

    A gifted scorer as well as distributor, Mudiay will probably switch back and forth between both guard spots because of the presence of returning point Nic Moore. Whatever role he takes, though, he should be getting plenty of opportunities to show off his talents.

    When Mudiay works the point he'll likely go inside often to Markus Kennedy, a 6'9", 245-pound former Villanova big man, who had a solid debut with SMU last season as a sophomore.

    Kennedy was second on the team in scoring at 12.7 points per game and led the Mustangs with 7.1 rebounds, while also shooting 53 percent and collecting a surprising 57 steals. 

13. Przemek Karnowski and Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga

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    Gonzaga has had its fair share of under-the-radar standouts during its 15-year run as the most dominant mid-major program in the country.

    This run should continue in 2014-15 with the help of a senior point guard and his very large inside target.

    Kevin Pangos will be at the helm for the Bulldogs this fall, going from last year's dual-point guard system to one where the 6'2", 180-pound senior will be running the offense on his own.

    That will likely cut down on his scoring, which last season was tied for the team lead with Sam Dower at 14.4 per game, but will also cause his assist numbers to rise massively from the 3.6 he notched in 2013-14.

    The beneficiary of Pangos' adjustments should be Przemek Karnowski, the 7'1", 296-pound center who began to come into his own last year with 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in just over 25 minutes of action. Karnowski, from Poland, also blocked 55 shots and shot 59 percent from the field.

    When Gonzaga earned an historic No. 1 seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament, it was due to having a great guard-center combination that featured Kelly Olynyk, and a similar dynamic should come from this pairing.

12. Isaiah Taylor and Myles Turner, Texas

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    Combine one of the most promising, young point guards in Division I with a highly coveted big-man recruit, and you've got a recipe for a great combination.

    Texas has this dish cooking in the crock pot right now, ready to serve it up on the Big 12—and the nation—this fall.

    The 6'1", 170-pound Isaiah Taylor was a pleasant surprise for the Longhorns at the point during his freshman year, chipping in 12.7 points and 4.0 assists per game. His 39 percent shooting was a concern, but at times Taylor looked too much to shoot instead of dishing it out to the main, talented pieces around him.

    The addition of 6'10", 223-pound Myles Turner, considered the No. 6 overall prospect in the class of 2014, should help diversify Texas' lineup and enable Taylor to become much more of a facilitator.

    Turner had seven points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes in the 2014 McDonald's All-American game, and is part of the United States' Under-18 national team that's set to compete June 20-24 in the FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship in Colorado.

    We've had a chance to see what Taylor can do with some talented big men, as some of his favorite targets last season were Texas' Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley. Add in one more big body for him to work with, and we could see some major give-and-go.

11. Ryan Boatright and Rodney Purvis, Connecticut

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    The defending national champions had a potent inside-out combination that paced the title run in March and April, but Connecticut won't get another year of guard Shabazz Napier and forward DeAndre Daniels to work with.

    Instead, the Huskies will look for a second straight championship behind a different duo—one that could be even better if the conditions are right.

    Ryan Boatright was every bit as important to the 2014-15 title as anyone else on Connecticut, serving as a great second option in the backcourt who often rose to another level when Napier struggled or needed a break.

    The 6'0", 188-pound guard averaged 12.1 points during his junior season and upped that to 13.5 during the Final Four. With Napier off to the pros, look for Boatright to slide into that point guard spot.

    Taking over Boatright's place will be Rodney Purvis, the former North Carolina State standout, who missed last season per NCAA transfer rules.

    The 6'4", 203-pound Purvis started 23 games as a freshman for the Wolfpack in 2012-13 and averaged 8.3 points while shooting 38 percent from three-point range.

    During the 2013-14 season, Napier would usually take the offensive lead but get key baskets contributed by Boatright. The pair worked in a way as if they planned who would score ahead of time. With a season to practice together, Boatright and Purvis could have a similar relationship.

10. Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter, Georgia State

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The most deadly duo from the mid-major ranks last season came from different backgrounds, but used a common goal to help Georgia State dominate the Sun Belt Conference.

    If not for a close loss in the conference tournament final, far more people would know about Ryan Harrow and R.J. Hunter.

    Harrow, a 6'2", 160-pound point guard, arrived at GSU last year after stops at North Carolina State and Kentucky, neither of which came with rave reviews.

    According to NBC Sports' Rob Dauster, Harrow took a lot of the blame for Kentucky's 2012-13 flameout as a veteran among 4- and 5-star freshmen, but given a fresh start with the Panthers, he thrived with averages of 17.8 points and 4.2 assists.

    He served as the perfect complement to the already-productive Hunter, a 6'6", 190-pound shooting guard (and son of GSU coach Ron Hunter), who averaged 18.3 points and shot 39.5 percent while draining 100 three-pointers last season.

    Harrow and Hunter were a true one-two punch a year ago, and their success together has prompted other transfers to join the program.

    Kevin Ware came from Louisville and will be eligible this season, while Samford's Isaiah Williams and Indiana's Jeremy Hollowell will hit the court in 2015-16 and could produce another potent pairing. 

9. Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu, Minnesota

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    Connecticut isn't the only defending champion with a great duo set to fight for a repeat.

    While not as prestigious, Minnesota showed grit and promise for the future with its NIT championship run.

    The return of guards Andre Hollins and Deandre Mathieu, two key players down the stretch last season, make a return to the NCAA tournament very likely for the Golden Gophers.

    The 6'2", 195-pound Hollins, who has started games since his freshman year, saw his production and shooting accuracy dip this past season, but he still led the Gophers at 13.6 points per game.

    He came up big when it counted, including draining three of four free throws in the final 16 seconds of the NIT title win over SMU.

    Part of the reason Hollins' numbers went down was because of the arrival of Mathieu, a 5'9", 165-pound point, who came in from Central Arizona College and averaged 12 points and 4.2 assists while shooting a stellar 51.1 percent from the field. Mathieu had 13 points and seven assists in the NIT championship against SMU.

    Together, the pair will need to replace the loss of fellow backcourt scorer Austin Hollins, who averaged 12.4 points and 5.0 rebounds. But with the great games they put forth last season, being able to fill in that void shouldn't be difficult.

8. Dwayne Polee II and Winston Shepard, San Diego State

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    Xavier Thames, the Aztecs do-everything player who carried them to the Sweet 16 last season, is gone. But the supporting cast had some pretty special players who will now get to put their full repertoire on display.

    Dwayne Polee II and Winston Shepard will be the offensive leaders for the Aztecs in 2014-15, and a year after combining for 20 points and eight rebounds per game, they'll take on the roles of being the main go-to scorers.

    Shepard was a full-time starter in 2013-14, and he was second behind Thames in scoring at 11.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.

    At times he deferred too much to Thames, but with as explosive as Thames was, the 6'8", 205-pound Shepard was more concerned with providing strong defensive play to help SDSU maintain its edge in that area.

    Polee, who started his career at St. John's and then saw less than 10 minutes per game in 2012-13, still had a limited role this past season but maximized his time on the court.

    In less than 18 minutes per game, he averaged 8.5 points and shot a solid 46.9 percent from the field, while also showing some amazing leaping ability and athleticism at 6'7" and 195 pounds.

    To see what Polee will be capable of in 2014-15, look at his last five games—all during the postseason—when he averaged 15 points and shot 50 percent from the field.

7. Zak Irvin and Caris LeVert, Michigan

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    Michigan once again lost a lot to the allure of the NBA draft, but thanks to one of the best pair of sharpshooters in the country, the Wolverines should again be in contention for the Big Ten title and another deep NCAA tournament run.

    Last season, Zak Irvin and Caris LeVert combined to make 122 three-pointers—both shooting better than 40 percent beyond the arc.

    The main difference between the two was their role and time on the court, as the 6'6", 200-pound Irvin came off the bench as a freshman, while the 6'6", 185-pound LeVert started every game and averaged 34 minutes.

    LeVert's time on the court tripled from his freshman to sophomore year, stepping in after Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. went pro, and he went from 2.3 points per game to 12.9 with the extra involvement.

    Now, with Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III leaving early, Irvin gets to provide a similar year-over-year boost and showed enough promise this past season (6.7 points per game in 15.4 minutes) to indicate he'll be just as successful as LeVert.

    Other backups and newcomers will also need to step up for Michigan to do well again this fall, but Irvin and LeVert will be the key pieces to continuing the run.

6. Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, North Carolina

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    The country got to see what Marcus Paige could do when pressed into the role of scoring machine and overall team leader.

    His supporting cast is about to get much better with a strong recruiting class, yet the perfect complement to Paige's skills is already on North Carolina's roster in the form of Brice Johnson.

    Together, the guard/forward combo should put the Tar Heels in position to win their first ACC title since 2012.

    The 6'1", 175-pound Paige was required to be more assertive offensively with the suspensions of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, and he responded by more than doubling his output from his freshman season to lead UNC at 17.5 points per game.

    Paige was still the team's top assist man at 4.2, while his 86 made three-pointers were 26 more than the rest of the Heels' roster sank.

    With Paige doing so much on the outside, UNC was able to develop several inside players who will have big roles in 2014-15, most notably Johnson.

    Johnson's role was limited as a sophomore last year, yet in just 19 minutes per game, he averaged 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting a team-best 56.6 percent. 

    Like Paige, the 6'9", 210-pound big man pretty much doubled his production from 2012-13 and was among the top defenders on the team with 43 blocks.

5. Michael Frazier II and Chris Walker, Florida

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    Few teams can be expected to have a great season the year after losing four senior starters who paced a trip to the Final Four.

    But with the remains of that squad—including one of the nation's most accurate three-point shooters and a tremendous athlete waiting for his chance to excel—don't sleep on Florida in 2014-15.

    Michael Frazier II had a sweet job with the Gators as a sophomore last season, needing to worry about doing only one thing as the only non-senior in the starting lineup: shoot from deep.

    And the 6'4", 200-pound guard did just that, making 118 of 264 threes to finish 10th nationally in three-point field goal percentage (44.7), while setting school records for long shots in a season and in a game (11, against South Carolina on March 4).

    Walker, one of the top prospects of the 2013 recruiting class, had to wade through academic eligibility issues before finally making his Florida debut in early February.

    He made his presence known right away.

    The 6'10", 220-pound forward dunked twice on alley-oops in seven minutes of action, but for the year averaged less than five minutes and 1.9 points in 18 appearances.

    Considered such a gifted talent that he gave serious consideration to turning pro after his short stint in college, Walker will be one of the most feared players in the country this fall and is a leading candidate for most improved player.

    As the inside presence that will cause defenses to collapse in the paint, he'll provide Frazier with ample space to get open on the perimeter to drain three-pointers all season.

4. Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, Virginia

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    Before the 2013-14 season began, few people outside Charlottesville knew how good Virginia could be. Now the nation is expecting continued greatness from the Cavaliers from now on—with the duo of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill leading that future charge.

    The 6'5", 217-pound Brogdon sat out the 2012-13 season following surgery on a broken foot, but you'd never know he'd missed any time. The redshirt sophomore led the Cavs' methodical offense with 12.7 points per game and was among the many stoppers that helped the team lead Division I in scoring defense.

    In Gill, Virginia had itself a secret weapon coming off the bench that seemed to create instant offense every time he entered a game.

    The 6'8", 230-pound forward (who also missed the 2012-13 season, but because of NCAA rules after transferring from South Carolina) played less than 20 minutes per game, but he was third on the team in scoring at 8.6 points along with 4.0 rebounds and a stellar 58.7 percent shooting efficiency.

    Gill should move into the starting lineup this season with Akil Mitchell graduating, which should make for an easy transition if he can keep his production up over longer minutes.

    And with both players getting great looks on offense from underrated point guard London Perrantes, the notoriously low-scoring Cavaliers could be much more high-flying in 2014-15.

3. Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    The maturation and evolution of Traevon Jackson and Frank Kaminsky in 2013-14 epitomized Wisconsin's rise to its first Final Four in 14 years.

    Jackson, a serviceable 6'2", 208-pound point guard, put up good numbers for his position last season as a junior. But to really understand how big he was to the Badgers' success requires looking at the late stages of games.

    Andrew Rosin of the SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter chronicled some of these end-game moments, citing six such instances between the start of the season and early November.

    He continued that solid play in the final stages during the run to the Final Four, hitting 17 of 19 free throws while cutting down on turnovers. As a senior this fall, he'll again be asked to help operate Wisconsin's efficient and prolific offense, and he'll probably get called on for a few more big plays down the stretch.

    With Kaminsky, a 7'0", 234-pound center who'd had little exposure in his first two college seasons, last year was a major breakthrough.

    By season's end, Kaminsky was one of the best players in the country, finishing with team highs in points (13.9) and rebounds (6.3), while also shooting 52.6 percent from the field. And that included hitting 37 three-pointers at a 38-percent clip.

    What makes Jackson and Kaminsky work so well together, and will make them very difficult to deal with again in 2014-15, is how both have the ability to play inside and out, making both a matchup nightmare that wreaks havoc on teams trying to switch defensively.

2. Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State

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    As freshmen, they helped Wichita State make a surprise run to the Final Four. As sophomores, they managed to somehow top that by pacing an undefeated regular season that had the country watching every move the Shockers made.

    What do guards Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet have in store as juniors? All we know is we can't wait to see it.

    The 6'3", 213-pound Baker has cultivated somewhat of a rock star persona with Wichita, using a fiery personality and a tenacity on the court to back up his hard work and solid talent.

    Baker was second on the team in scoring last year at 13.1 points per game, shooting 45.6 percent from the field—including 38 percent from three-point range.

    He also displayed what The Topeka Capital-Journal's Kevin Haskin called "a gritty toughness that seems to turn Baker into a pincushion for elbows."

    With the 5'11", 194-pound Van Vleet, the toughness is also there, but it's also mixed in with a heavy dose of flash and quickness that has seen the part-time player from 2012-13 become the full-time floor leader this past season.

    He averaged 11.6 points and a team-best 5.4 assists per game, while also showing amazing ball control and decision-making by finishing fourth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.02 per game. 

    Whatever these two have planned for 2014-15, there's no doubt it will be exciting to watch.

1. Treveon Graham and Briante Weber, VCU

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    Treveon Graham and Briante Weber aren't the players that put VCU on the map. They're the ones who have kept the Rams in the spotlight.

    Since arriving as freshmen together in 2011-12, the backcourt duo have been a key part of VCU's continued success and overwhelmingly positive transition from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Atlantic 10.

    Now seniors, there is no better pair of teammates in terms of how they work together toward a common goal.

    The 6'6", 220-pound Graham has started 69 of VCU's last 71 games, and has averaged more than 15 points per game in each of the past two seasons. A strong rebounder for his size, he pulled down seven boards a game as a junior after collecting 5.8 per contest his sophomore season.

    For everything that Graham has meant to the Rams' offense, the 6'2", 165-pound Weber has been that integral to the "Havoc" style of defense that Shaka Smart's VCU teams have been known for.

    He is already the overwhelming school career leader in steals with 296, and last season had 121 to lead the nation at 3.46 per game.

    With forward Juvonte Reddic having graduated, Graham and Weber's play will become even more integral to VCU's success. Look for the speedy backcourt mates to feed off each other in all facets of the game, as partners are known to do.

     

    All stats courtesy of NCAA.com.

     

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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