College Basketball Stars Who Will Face Unrealistic Expectations in 2014-15
Predictions and projections are as much a part of sports as the actual results. Using past performance and other factors, trying to figure out how a team or a player will fare in future contests has almost become second nature.
But sometimes hype and hyperbole can taint the predictive process, leading to expectations that are far too grandiose to be met.
That's what several of the top college basketball players in Division I will face during the 2014-15 season. What they did last year (or what they're capable of doing) gets embellished to the point that they're expected to produce some of the greatest performances in history.
Rarely does that ever happen, but those expectations keep on getting made.
We've identified eight players who face particularly unrealistic expectations for 2014-15. They should all have good years, but as it stands right now, anything short of record-setting efforts would be a disappointment.
Ryan Boatright, Connecticut
Height, weight: 6'0", 168 lbs
Ryan Boatright isn't the only returning player from Connecticut's national championship team or the only starter coming back from the Huskies' magical run through the NCAA tournament. But he is the closest thing UConn has to title catalyst Shabazz Napier, and because of that he'll be expected to replicate what Napier did down the stretch.
Boatright averaged 12.1 points and 3.4 assists as the backcourt mate to Napier and his 18.0 points and 4.9 assists. Their games are very similar, and both players have the same build, but to assume that Boatright will be able to match the pizzazz and flair that Napier had for big plays in key moments is unfair.
Napier was part of two NCAA titles with UConn, but in the first one he played second fiddle to Kemba Walker's heroics, much like how Boatright did this year. Napier did well the next year without Walker around, but he wasn't expected to carry the torch for the Huskies the way Boatright is.
With DeAndre Daniels turning pro early and Niels Giffey graduating, Boatright and forward Phillip Nolan are the only returning starters. Boatright's production will surely go up, but the key to his senior year will be how he helps integrate North Carolina State transfer Rodney Purvis into the offense at shooting guard.
Branden Dawson, Michigan State
Height, weight: 6'6", 225 lbs
Branden Dawson has slowly and steadily improved during his Michigan State career, going from an impressive 8.4 points per game as a freshman up to 11.2 this past season. He shot better than 61 percent as a junior, far and away the best accuracy on a fairly good-shooting Spartans team.
Besides positive development each year, throughout his MSU career the one constant has been the presence of other experienced standout players around him. This past two seasons he's had Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, while during his freshman year the Spartans also had Draymond Green.
Not anymore. Now it's Dawson's show in East Lansing, as Appling and Payne have graduated and Harris is turning pro after two seasons.
He'll need to become much more of an aggressive scorer without the other options around him. While that hasn't been his tendency, it did show up during the NCAA tournament, so it's not that far-fetched. He averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds during the four tourney games, including 26 points against Harvard and a 24-point, 10-rebound effort in knocking off No. 1 seed Virginia in the Sweet 16.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Height, weight: 6'8", 235 lbs
It's usually the news that a certain player has decided to turn pro that leads to the biggest surprises in the days and weeks following the NCAA tournament. But this offseason, maybe the most shocking development came in the form of Montrezl Harrell choosing to stay in school for another year.
No one would have blamed him from going pro after his monster season in 2013-14. He averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds, shot 61 percent, blocked 49 shots and struck such an intimidating pose on the court that he seemed destined for the NBA draft. However, after apparently being told he might have to spend some time in the NBA Developmental League as a rookie, he chose to come back to the Cardinals.
His return prevents Louisville from having to rebuild in 2014-15, as he'll help shoulder the loss of Russ Smith and Luke Hancock. But by coming back, Harrell now faces a season of heavy scrutiny; any time he struggles, he'll be faced with questions about whether his choice to come back was a smart one.
Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
Height, weight: 6'6", 218 lbs
Speaking of players who could have tried to parlay success into an NBA career, Aaron Harrison would have only needed to splice together footage of his two huge game-winning three-pointers during the NCAA tournament to show pro teams what he could do. Smartly, he didn't, because despite those big late shots, his .356 three-point shooting percentage for the season wasn't that spectacular.
He had a solid freshman year, averaging 13.7 points as the shooting guard on one the nation's most talent-rich teams. He and twin brother Andrew, Kentucky's point guard, are both back this fall and will be part of a team so overflowing with potential stars that it doesn't seem like enough minutes will exist for all of them.
Yet Aaron Harrison will still be expected to make big shots and show off that clutch touch regardless of how much he has to share time on the court. It may be a lot harder to achieve, though; coach John Calipari will have the luxury of pulling players if they struggle, which Harrison did several times from outside last season.
Antoine Mason, Auburn
Height, weight: 6'3", 210 lbs
Antoine Mason was known for two things before the 2013-14 season came to a close: being the son of a former NBA star and putting up lots of points for a really bad team.
Now that he has transferred from Niagara to Auburn—and thus shifted from the shadows of the MAAC to the spotlight of the SEC—he'll have to show he's capable of scoring effectively at a higher level. That's easier said than done, though, as instead of facing Fairfield, Marist and Quinnipiac twice he'll have to try and score against Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Mason—the son of former New York Knicks forward Anthony Mason—will be part of a Tigers team that, while they finished 12th in the 14-team SEC with a 14-16 overall record, isn't going to be a one-man show like what he experienced at Niagara. With the Purple Eagles (who went 7-26), his 25.6 points per game average was nearly 16 points better than the team's second-leading scorer.
At Auburn he'll step in for the graduated Chris Denson, who led the team at 19.1 points per game, but he'll be sharing the scoring with senior guard K.T. Harrell. He averaged 18.3 per game last season after transferring from Virginia.
Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU
Height, weight: 6'5", 190 lbs
There's something about flashy point guards that leads to unrealistic expectations. This is something that Emmanuel Mudiay will have to face during his first year of college basketball, as the top-rated point guard in the 2014 recruiting class will not only be expected to produce on an individual level but also carry the Mustangs to the next level.
His choice of SMU over Kansas, Kentucky and others turned heads, though it wasn't that surprising considering he's from the Dallas area (where SMU is located) and he'll get to play for a Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. His addition to a roster that had several good players last season, and which just missed out on the NCAA tournament but ended up reaching the NIT title game, will make the Mustangs a trendy pick to be the breakout team of 2014-15.
Mudiay fared well in the McDonald's All-American game, scoring 15 points with six assists in 21 minutes, and he had another 19 points and six dimes in 20 minutes in the Jordan Brand Classic (as well as a sweet 360-degree alley-oop dunk). But until he starts facing top college competition—SMU's nonconference schedule features games against Gonzaga, Indiana and Michigan, while the league slate will include matchups with Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville and Memphis—we won't know for certain how good he is.
Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Height, weight: 6'11", 270 lbs
Getting recruited to play for Duke always comes with a high level of expectation and hype, even more so if you're the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 class and part of the top Division I recruiting group in the country. Throw in the fact that you're already being compared to some of the best big men in Blue Devils history before ever playing a game, and you can understand what Jahlil Okafor faces as a true freshman.
He fills a huge need for Duke that contributed to the Devils' early exit last season. A lack of a defensive presence in the paint led to Duke allowing a lot of easy baskets in 2013-14, something that Okafor will be expected to fix while also contributing on offense. Comparisons to Carlos Boozer, Elton Brand and Shelden Williams have already been thrown about.
A potential one-and-done player—he is projected as the No. 2 pick in NBADraft.net's 2015 mock draft—Okafor will be expected to be an instant impact guy from the first minutes of his college debut all the way through whenever Duke's season ends. There will be no time for development or learning.
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
Height, weight: 6'4", 195 lbs
Isaiah Whitehead is the best basketball recruit to come out of New York City in several years, and as a graduate of Brooklyn's Lincoln High School, he follows a long line of standouts such as Stephon Marbury, Lance Stephenson and Sebastian Telfair. The No. 13 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class, the shooting guard chose Seton Hall over offers from Indiana, Pittsburgh and St. John's.
Seton Hall isn't exactly a star factory, as the program hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2006 and has only made a postseason tourney twice since then. The Pirates went 17-17 last year, only reaching .500 thanks to a pair of wins in the Big East tournament that included a shocking upset of conference champ Villanova.
Whitehead will be expected to step right in and take over with Seton Hall, which might seem like a great deal for him on an individual level. However, it will no doubt come with some headaches as he finds himself without much support around him besides guard Sterling Gibbs.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.