1 Under-the-Radar Player to Watch in Each Major NCAA Basketball Conference
We all feel like we know who college basketball's stars will be in the 2014-15 season. Duke adds freshman Jahlil Okafor, Louisville's Montrezl Harrell will spend his entire junior season in beast mode, Kentucky still has a deep blue sea of talent returning from the so-called greatest recruiting class ever, yada yada yada.
But a big portion of the fun in the offseason lies in anticipating the wild cards. Who are the players who will make a major breakthrough like Cameron Bairstow did for New Mexico? Who could blossom from supporting piece to star the way Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky did in his junior year? Or, who could simply make the most of a new opportunity like the one Casey Prather earned at Florida?
Not many saw those three guys as all-conference performers at this time last season, just like some players will pop up and surprise us this year. These nine players—plus a couple of wild-card entries from each conference—could have an as-yet-unforeseen impact on the race in each of the game's top leagues.
ACC: Anthony 'Cat' Barber, NC State
For NC State fans, Cat Barber is anything but under-the-radar. He IS the radar in Raleigh this year now that he's the undisputed point guard. Tyler Lewis' transfer to Butler opens up full-time minutes at the most important position on the court for the Wolfpack.
The problem for NC State is that it's hard to get a word in edgewise in the increasingly crowded ACC. Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt are back for a second run, Louisville is joining the fight and there's always the league's resident "Hatfields and McCoys" at North Carolina and Duke to contend with.
Barber is a fearless penetrator who loves to attack the rim and get to the foul line, but his 165-pound frame can only handle so many such collisions. The Pack will be best served by Barber creating for others, since everyone has to get a piece of an offense that can't rely on ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren anymore.
Cat's shot selection and ball security will be key to any improvements, both for him and his team. Both areas typically improve with experience, and Barber will get plenty of that this year.
Other Candidates: Aaron Thomas, Florida State; Justin Anderson, Virginia
American: Ben Moore, SMU
SMU will generate a large portion of the American Conference's headlines this season, as it battles defending national champ UConn for the league crown. While most of the ink (pixels?) will focus on Mustangs such as Nic Moore and prize freshman Emmanuel Mudiay, don't overlook the frontcourt, specifically sophomore Ben Moore (no relation).
(UPDATE: Mudiay is now headed overseas to play professional basketball. Read more here. More minutes for Moore.)
If not a bang, Moore at least started out his career with a respectably loud pop. He dropped 13 points and nine boards on Rhode Island in his second collegiate game, then he followed that up with 19 and five, respectively, in a loss to Arkansas. He averaged 9.3 points and five rebounds in his meetings with the rugged defenses of Louisville and Cincinnati, sinking 11 of his 15 shots from the floor in those games.
For the season, Moore came in fourth on the team in both scoring and rebounding, while ranking only seventh in minutes. At 6'8" and 185 pounds, he's not a bulky presence in the post, but he's plenty athletic enough to hold his own with starter's minutes.
Moore could begin the season as a super-sub but don't be surprised to see Mustangs coach Larry Brown nudge the sophomore's minutes past those of true centers Yanick Moreira and Cannen Cunningham. It's not who starts the games, but who finishes them, and Moore could see plenty of crunch-time minutes this year.
Other Candidates: Shaquille Thomas, Cincinnati; James Woodard, Tulsa
Atlantic 10: Jabarie Hinds, UMass
UMass got pretty good results out of its last two guards who transferred in from other Division I programs, so why not try again? With Chaz Williams (ex-Hofstra) having graduated and Derrick Gordon (ex-Western Kentucky) expected to contend for all-conference honors this season, former West Virginia guard Jabarie Hinds gets to hope that lightning strikes three times in the same place.
Hinds is expected to take over the point guard spot from Williams, and those are some large shoes to fill. Williams was all-everything for the Minutemen during his three seasons, but the good news for Hinds is that he won't need to carry quite as large a burden.
Big man Cady Lalanne also returns, along with Gordon and glue guy Maxie Esho, giving UMass some scoring options. Hinds will need to prove he's fixed a broken shot before he becomes a major scoring factor. He shot only 35 percent in 2012-13 at WVU, ranking sixth in scoring on a team that had no one average in double figures.
Minus Williams and fellow seniors Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney, UMass is a trendy pick to slide back down the A-10 standings. If Hinds can merely be a steady presence at the point, though, that drop may not be far enough for coach Derek Kellogg's team to slide out of the NCAA tournament picture.
Other Candidates: E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island; Jon Severe, Fordham
Big 12: Stephen Hurt, Kansas State
Kansas State sorely needed depth and bulk on the front line last season. A pair of transfers will look to provide it this year, with Brandon Bolden arriving from Georgetown and former Lipscomb big man Stephen Hurt returning to D-I after a stop at a junior college in Florida.
Hurt in particular has an intriguing skill package that should earn him plenty of minutes in coach Bruce Weber's 2014-15 rotation. The 2013 Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year at Lipscomb, Hurt has been good for 50-plus percent shooting at both his stops and drained 80 percent from the line at Northwest Florida State College last year.
In that freshman year at Lipscomb, Hurt produced double-doubles against Kentucky and Memphis, so he's used to banging with power-conference opposition. The Big 12 isn't overflowing with men of Hurt's dimensions (6'11", 285 lbs), but his matchups against rebounding machines such as Baylor's Rico Gathers and Texas' Cameron Ridley should be worth the ticket price.
The Wildcats need shooters to step up outside of Marcus Foster, otherwise defenses will be sorely tempted to pack the lane to contain Hurt, Bolden and senior Thomas Gipson inside. If the opponents have to play Hurt honestly, though, he could see another season similar to the 11.5 PPG and 7.8 RPG he put up two years ago.
Other Candidates: Jordan Barnett, Texas; Devin Williams, West Virginia
Big East: Devin Brooks, Creighton
Like Bonnie Tyler's immortal song says, Creighton basketball will be "holding out for a hero" in 2014-15. With the Doug McDermott era over—not to mention that of Grant Gibbs and Ethan Wragge—someone's got to get buckets for the Bluejays if they're going to stay competitive in the Big East.
Senior Devin Brooks may be as qualified as anyone.
Brooks put up only 6.5 PPG in his first season at Creighton, but he had his explosive moments. A 16-point game against St. Joseph's and a 23-point explosion—in only 19 minutes—against Arizona State stamped Brooks as a potential sparkplug off the bench. Now, how will he react to being a prominent part of the scouting report?
Brooks is most dangerous when he can get to the rim, but he'll need to make some major improvements to his jumper. He made only nine three-pointers all of last season, with four of those coming in the ASU game.
Creighton is highly unlikely to compete for another conference title with players such as Brooks and Austin Chatman leading the way. Both struggled with their efficiency when McDermott was around to draw defenders. Without him, everyone will need to take a major step up for the Jays to even stay in NCAA tournament consideration.
Other Candidates: Tyler Harris, Providence; J.P. Macura, Xavier
Big Ten: Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
The big question facing the Wisconsin Badgers in 2014-15 revolves around who can fill the starting spot vacated by sniper Ben Brust. For a straight apples-to-apples trade, sophomore Bronson Koenig could enter the lineup, and Badger fans will be happy, especially after his superb first half against Kentucky in the Final Four.
Wisconsin may be a better team, however, if another sophomore joins the starting five. Forward Nigel Hayes could allow budding star Sam Dekker to move back to the perimeter instead of playing power forward in a three-guard lineup, as he did last season. Dekker's pro stock may be best served by rediscovering his three-point stroke, and he's not going to do that by scrapping for rebounds.
Hayes put up eight double-figure scoring games during Big Ten play and another two in the postseason. If there's a complaint on Hayes, it's that a 250-pound man should snatch a lot more than 6.4 rebounds every 40 minutes. If Hayes becomes a force on the glass, he'll escape the shadows of Dekker and Frank Kaminsky very quickly.
Other Candidates: Carlos Morris, Minnesota; Jacob Hammond, Nebraska
Mountain West: Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming
There may be no more an important injury rehab in the country this season than the one being undertaken by Wyoming forward Larry Nance Jr. Nance tore an ACL in mid-February against Fresno State, and a Cowboys team that could have pushed for an NIT berth was forced to settle for the CBI, where it was blitzed by Texas A&M.
The 6'8", 225-pound Nance spent part of his summer at the Nike Big Man Camp, where he could only learn by watching others compete against NBA stars such as Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. He told the Casper Star-Tribune's Mike Vorel, “I think I can play with anybody in college basketball. And just from watching those guys there, I felt like I definitely belonged at that camp.”
Nance's 15.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game don't constitute an under-the-radar line, but his school doesn't get much national love. If Nance is fully recovered from the knee injury, Wyoming has a chance to surprise in a Mountain West facing a slight vacuum behind San Diego State.
Other Candidates: Nick Duncan, Boise State; Stanton Kidd, Colorado State
Pac-12: Jonah Bolden, UCLA
Again, how under-the-radar can a top-40 national recruit, per 247Sports, really be, especially on the hallowed hoop campus of UCLA? In the case of Jonah Bolden, you'd be surprised.
The 6'9", 205-pound Bolden finds himself battling for open frontcourt minutes with a pair of even more touted recruits, 6'10" Kevon Looney and 7'0" Thomas Welsh, in the race to flank incumbent center Tony Parker.
Bolden's not exactly built for extensive battles under the rim in the Pac-12, but his versatility and perimeter skills may see him slot in at the 3. The only Bruins on scholarship there are seldom-used sophomore Noah Allen and Texas Tech transfer Wanaah Bail. That duo combined for only 32 points in 98 minutes last season.
The Bruins lost five of their top eight scorers, so there are plenty of shots to be had. Don't be surprised if coach Steve Alford is trotting out an all-freshman front line by season's end.
Other Candidates: Shaquielle McKissic, Arizona State; Stefan Nastic, Stanford
SEC: Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
Solid touch from the outside? Check. Former Division I player? Check. Detour to junior college following drug-related suspension? Check again.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy may not have signed the second coming of Marshall Henderson when he recruited ex-Florida Atlantic guard Stefan Moody, but Moody has certainly traveled a similarly checkered road.
Leaving aside Moody's off-court issues, he was a potent scoring threat for FAU in 2012-13. He dropped in 15.7 PPG on 35.4 percent shooting from the arc and 81.5 percent from the foul line. At only 5'9", Moody is most likely to see minutes off the bench as a reserve combo guard, but he's very capable of being the spark off the bench that the Rebels frequently lacked last season.
As for whether Moody will be frequently popping his jersey or throwing up "rooster sharks" after making his first triple in eight attempts, that's anyone's guess.
Other Candidates: Keith Hornsby, LSU and Moses Kingsley, Arkansas