Players Who Can Carry Middling CBB Teams to the 2015 NCAA Tournament
No one considered North Carolina State a contender in the ACC last season, but the Wolfpack put together just enough of a resume to reach the NCAA tournament. Credit for every win that pulled the Pack into the Big Dance had to start with star forward T.J. Warren, who was awarded ACC Player of the Year honors for dragging his team as far as he did.
As the 2014-15 season nears, there are teams just like last season's NC State squad. They're neglected groups of young men who carry in their midst one exceptional talent, a player who may be garnering notice from NBA scouts and college analysts but who also draws sympathetic sighs for being "stuck" on a team that lacks promise.
If Warren can pull his team into March, though, these 10 guys very likely can, too. Now, most shouldn't be expected to card 24.9 points per game like Warren, but they're still powerful engines that can drive a team a long way if they receive even the slightest bit of support.
While "middling" may seem a harsh term for these teams, the fact remains that none of them are listed as part of Bleacher Report bracketologist Kerry Miller's field of 68 projections from July 22.
Remember, this is an optimistic look at these 10 teams.
Players are presented in alphabetical order. All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
The Indiana Hoosiers have an absolutely loaded backcourt this season. Touted freshmen Robert Johnson and James Blackmon Jr. join sophomores Stan Robinson and Troy Williams in a lineup that won't lack athleticism and should be offensively potent.
The attack, however, will revolve around junior point guard Yogi Ferrell. The (ahem) 6'0" Ferrell shouldered a large bit of the scoring load out of necessity last season, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and first in three-pointers made per game.
Ferrell also finished sixth in assists, although that ranking should rise—perhaps all the way to No. 1—if Johnson and Blackmon live up to their scorers' reputations, and the sophomores continue to improve. Ferrell may not have to score 17.3 PPG again, but he's always capable of doing just that.
The biggest problem for this group of guards will be carrying the burden of a frontcourt that looks anything but imposing. Coach Tom Crean may frequently be forced to use the 6'7" Williams as an undersized power forward and attempt to run teams out of the building. If given enough possessions, Ferrell could very well lead the conference in both scoring and assists.
A new-age Hurryin' Hoosier team could make enough shots and pull enough upsets in Big Ten play to give the selection committee pause for thought come March, but only if Ferrell can expertly pilot such a high-performance unit.
Rico Gathers, Baylor
Baylor is far from a one-man team, with point guard Kenny Chery and wing Royce O'Neale returning from last season's starting lineup. However, the most dangerous man on the court in Waco this season may well be a guy who started all of one game and played less than 18 minutes per game last year.
Rico Gathers, a 6'8", 270-pound banger who could—and has—given football coaches happy flutters, could be the most efficient offensive option for a team that ranked 167th in the nation in two-point field-goal percentage, per Sports-Reference.com. And that was with studs such as Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin on the front line.
Over the past five seasons, Gathers has the best career offensive-rebounding percentage in the Big 12, per Sports-Reference.com, a league that's turned out glass-eaters such as Thomas Robinson, Cameron Ridley and Melvin Ejim in that span. Two seasons into his career, Gathers has ripped 14.0 rebounds per 40 minutes, and his usual playing time should edge closer to that amount this year.
Last season, Gathers carded four double-doubles, and he only needed 22.8 minutes per game in those outings to get there. If you want to quibble over level of competition in those games (Northwestern State, Oral Roberts and TCU twice), go right ahead. Still, by season's end, Gathers was ripping seven rebounds in only 17 minutes against Texas' massive front line.
Gathers needs to get more assertive in the big games without landing himself in foul trouble—he committed 5.7 per 40 minutes last year. If that happens, he's very capable of leading the Big 12 in rebounding, and players such as Chery and O'Neale have the confidence that comes with knowing that their bad shots are getting cleaned up.
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have plenty of chances for big resume wins in their second ACC season, but they'll need a great year out of a senior star who still has yet to make his ACC debut.
Guard Jerian Grant had already withdrawn from school before last season's ACC slate began, and his absence was a big reason that the Irish struggled—that, and the fifth-toughest conference schedule in the league, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Without backcourt mate Eric Atkins to help run the show, Grant has to avoid the odd bouts of inconsistency that plagued him even in his abridged 2013-14 season. The same man who shot 12-of-23 against Iowa and Ohio State somehow struggled to a combined 4-of-19 against Indiana State and North Dakota State. And the Irish lost all four of those games.
Making Grant even more pivotal is that, for the first time in four years, there is no big man with proven scoring ability. Without a Jack Cooley or a Garrick Sherman, much more of the load falls on perimeter talent such as Grant, Demetrius Jackson and Pat Connaughton.
Grant may need to top last season's 19.0 PPG, but the question of his ability to score against ACC opposition still lingers. If he stays hot once conference games start, the Irish have a puncher's chance of contending in what should be the toughest league in America.
A.J. Hammons, Purdue
If A.J. Hammons had lived up to his early projections, he'd be preparing for his second season in the NBA right now rather than his junior year at Purdue. The 7'0" behemoth—who's listed anywhere from 260 to 280 pounds, depending on who's doing the listing—was a fixture in mock drafts before each of his two college campaigns, and he's currently shown as a second-round pick on DraftExpress' 2015 mock.
Hammons' career averages of 10.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 50.3 percent shooting from the floor form a decent enough line, but it feels that there's something missing. A consistent effort level would make Hammons an All-Big Ten lock, if not conference Player of the Year.
When Hammons is locked in, he's very capable of the dominance Purdue needs from him. No other player in America had a day like Hammons put up on New Year's Eve against Ohio State—18 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks and four assists.
According to PurdueSports.com, he was the only player in the nation to go 15-15-5-4 in any single game. There was also the 20-point, 14-rebound, six-block outing against Minnesota and his 16-14-4 vs. Iowa.
Those moments of dominance, however, were offset by puzzling efforts such as his back-to-back efforts in Orlando at the Old Spice Classic. Hammons took a combined two shots against Oklahoma State and Washington State, both Boilermaker losses.
No player on this list would so literally carry his team to the NCAA tournament, because Purdue lacks a great secondary scorer like James Blackmon at Indiana or Pat Connaughton at Notre Dame. However, Hammons needs to play with consistent effort and hunger, while making conditioning a priority so he can play 30 minutes per game without becoming gassed and committing careless fouls.
An in-shape, constantly motivated Hammons would be the Big Ten's resident Godzilla. If he has more games that more closely resemble the Geico Gecko, Purdue will be destined for the CBI at best.
Jordan Mickey, LSU
McDonald's All-American Jarell Martin was getting the hype coming into the 2013-14 season, but classmate Jordan Mickey provided twice the steak with half the sizzle. All the 6'8" Mickey did was lead the SEC in blocked shots while ranking fourth in rebounding and eighth in two-point field-goal percentage.
Remember, while the SEC was down overall last season, it still sported big men such as Jarnell Stokes, Bobby Portis and Mickey's teammate Johnny O'Bryant III. Mickey proved he belonged in that conversation, and now that O'Bryant has left for the NBA, Mickey is the large man in charge, man.
The biggest task for Mickey will be to prove that he can produce at the rim as well as last season with no O'Bryant there to draw defensive attention. Martin will help take some heat off this season, as will mammoth freshman Elbert Robinson. On both ends, however, look for the Tigers' post game to run through Mickey.
That post game needs to be potent, because LSU's backcourt lost nearly all of its productive experience when Anthony Hickey transferred to Oklahoma State. Junior college transfer Josh Gray should be productive, as he's used to major-conference opposition from his freshman season at Texas Tech. Ex-UNC Asheville shooting guard Keith Hornsby, however, could struggle against tougher competition.
The SEC still boasts quality post players such as Portis, Dakari Johnson and Chris Walker, but it'll be an upset if anyone can wrest away Mickey's blocked-shot crown. If his per-game averages fall more in line with last season's per-40 numbers of 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds, he'll make All-SEC, and LSU will reach its first tournament since 2009.
Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming
Still, it bears re-emphasizing.
In a Mountain West Conference that bade farewell to stars such as Xavier Thames, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow, there's a talent vacuum. The league's new top attractions are players such as Winston Shepard (San Diego State), J.J. Avila (Colorado State), Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic (both Boise State). That's if you're not sold on hyped freshmen such as UNLV's Rashad Vaughn.
Despite tearing his ACL in February, Nance still earned first-team All-Mountain West honors, a testament to the strong production he was giving Wyoming. He's one of only four All-MWC selections returning this season and the lone first-teamer.
A strong rebound from the injury will make Nance a player to watch in the Mountain West, while simultaneously giving the Cowboys a chance to contend in a depleted-looking league. Nance's fellow seniors Riley Grabau and Derek Cooke, along with junior Josh Adams, give coach Larry Shyatt a veteran nucleus to build around.
That experience will give Wyoming one small advantage over clubs such as San Diego State and UNLV, both of which will need substantial contributions from freshmen. The meetings between Wyoming and UNLV could easily swing either team's resume off the bubble and into the tournament. For the Cowboys, it would be only the program's second trip to the Big Dance since 1988.
Kethan Savage, George Washington
George Washington was storming through its schedule in mid-January. The Colonials were 15-3 with wins over eventual tournament teams Manhattan, Creighton and VCU, plus major-conference foes Miami, Maryland and Georgia.
Shooting guard Kethan Savage was a major catalyst for the team's winning ways, scoring 12.7 points and ripping 1.9 steals per game through 18 outings. In that 18th, however, he broke a bone in his foot and was virtually done for the season. GW still reached the tournament as a No. 9 seed but was sent home by Memphis.
With a healthy Savage back this season, GW will seek its first back-to-back tourney berths since 2006 and '07. Large chunks of shots are available with veterans Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood gone and look for Savage to take the lion's share of them.
Support will come from wing Patricio Garino, point guard Joe McDonald and power forward Kevin Larsen, but none showcased quite as versatile a game as the 6'3", 200-pound Savage. He put up a sweet line of 19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 3.0 steals and one block per 40 minutes.
While Savage won't play 40 minutes a night, expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 32 to 35. That's plenty of time for Savage to put up All-Atlantic 10 numbers.
Aaron Thomas, Florida State
Far from being exposed when he transitioned from reserve to starter, Florida State wing Aaron Thomas resoundingly proved he belonged. Nearly all of the sophomore's efficiency numbers improved; he led the team with 14.5 PPG, and he established himself as a capable scorer and dangerous defensive pest.
In his junior season, Thomas is firmly entrenched as the leader of the Seminoles now that hard-nosed forward Okaro White has graduated. While it's anyone's guess who takes White's place in the post, Thomas will lead a solid FSU backcourt that must learn ball security while replacing dangerous shooting threat Ian Miller.
Thomas is a good place to start in both those categories. He ranked third on the team with 39 made threes, sinking 37.1 percent of his attempts. Thomas also finished the season with a 19.2 turnover percentage, a decent rate for a guy who used 24.4 percent of the Noles' possessions, per Sports-Reference.com.
Thomas' offseason has been spent working on his shot, preparing for another season of leading the Noles in scoring. He'll have support, but unless someone like redshirt freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes comes out smoking, it's Thomas' team.
Dez Wells, Maryland
Heavy offseason attrition has left Maryland without a lot of proven talent as it enters 2014-15. To replace five transfers, the Terps bring in four freshmen who could all contribute, with two of them very likely to be starters.
The length of UM's season, however, will be largely dependent on how those newcomers blend with returning veterans Evan Smotrycz, Jake Layman—and especially two-time team scoring leader Dez Wells. The 6'5", 215-pound Wells will play all three perimeter positions as needed, setting the tone for what could be a very versatile Terrapins team.
Wells was a second-half assassin in 2013-14. He posted several strong finishes, including 17 points against Notre Dame, 21 against Miami (including the game-winning triple with 5.9 seconds left), 17 at Duke and 13 against Syracuse.
In all but the Miami game, Wells was forced to take over and drag the Terps back from hefty halftime deficits. If he gets a little support, Maryland won't have to go into the locker room in such major holes, and Wells' heroics can be better used for salting a game away, rather than merely fighting to make it interesting.
There'll be a learning curve for Maryland in its inaugural Big Ten season, but there will also be a period of adjustment for the new league to get used to Wells. Terrapin Nation hopes that by the time the Big Ten gets a book on Wells, UM has won enough games to put itself safely into the bracket.
Joseph Young, Oregon
We discussed the players defecting at Maryland, right? Well, Oregon thinks that Maryland's "attrition" is as cute as a basset hound puppy. And in comparison to what the Ducks dealt with this spring, Maryland's problems loom about as large.
Coach Dana Altman's Ducks return two—count 'em, two—players from last season's rotation: backup forward Elgin Cook and star shooting guard Joseph Young. Of the 10 players who averaged double-digit minutes last season, five were seniors, one transferred and two were thrown off the team in the wake of sexual-assault allegations, along with a transfer who was sitting out his mandatory year in residence.
Young, a 6'2" transfer from Houston, finished second in the Pac-12 in scoring one year after doing the same in Conference USA. He got his points in supremely efficient fashion, leading both leagues in free-throw percentage and finishing in the top five in effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage both seasons, per Sports-Reference.com.
This season, the 18.9 PPG Young produced in his first year as a Duck will merely be a starting point. Even more so than T.J. Warren at NC State, Young will be the only proven producer on his team while it integrates four freshmen and two junior college transfers.
All this is to say that Young may be your early favorite for the national scoring crown. Unless the new Ducks are able to take heat off of him from the jump, he'll certainly run away with the Pac-12 title this year. If Oregon wants to shock the world and get back to the Big Dance, he'll have to.