20 Players You Need to Know Before the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 19, 2014

20 Players You Need to Know Before the 2014-15 College Basketball Season

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    The 2014-15 college basketball season tips off in less than three months, which means it's about time to bone up on the need-to-know names and faces of the hoops year ahead.

    If you're planning on paying attention to the college basketball regular season for the first time in your life, keeping tabs on these 20 players will help you sound like a certified fan in no time.

    Alternatively, if you're already a diehard fan who doesn't believe in offseasons, feel free to use this list in your weekly debate over the preseason All-Americans.

    Either way, these are the names who should be frequent fliers in the national headlines throughout the course of the 2014-15 season.

    The following players are listed alphabetically by last name.

Cliff Alexander, Kansas

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    By the Numbers

    N/ASenior at Curie High School in Chicago, Illinois.

    Why You Should Watch

    It can't possibly get as much attention as Andrew Wiggins vs. Jabari Parker, but for the second consecutive year it'll be a freshman from Kansas and a freshman from Duke battling to become the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

    It's almost inevitable that you'll hear about Cliff Alexander at least once per week over the latter half of the season, so you might as well familiarize yourself with him now.

    What You Should Expect

    Alexander is unanimously one of the five best incoming freshmen in the country, and his Wikipedia page is already the length of a short novel. Simply put: He's kind of a big deal.

    Alexander should be one of the nation's best power forwards this season. He'll start for Kansas from Day 1 and pick up right where Thomas Robinson left off in 2011-12.

Ryan Boatright, Connecticut

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    By the Numbers

    12.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 37.6 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    Ryan Boatright is the most noteworthy remaining player from the team that won the national championship this past April. He has spent the past three seasons living in Shabazz Napier's shadow, but now we'll finally get a chance to see what he can do as the team leader.

    What You Should Expect

    Boatright is a marginally above-average shooter who distributes the ball well and plays great defense without fouling. He has basically been Aaron Craft with 30 percent more points and 30 percent fewer steals.

    But that was the Boatright who had to concede 23 field-goal attempts per game to Napier and DeAndre Daniels. If he was averaging 12.1 points per game as the third option in the offense, could he perhaps increase his output to 18.0 points as the head honcho?

    With interior players like Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan who aren't exactly known for their offensive prowess, a ton of the scoring load is going to fall on Boatright and his mates in the backcourt. If the Huskies are even going to flirt with repeating as champs, they'll need Boatright to be every bit as magical as Napier was last year.

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

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    By the Numbers

    14.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.3 BPG, 1.0 SPG

    Why You Should Watch

    In a sport where we have grown all too familiar with players leaving for the NBA before they're ready, Montrezl Harrell is the rare breed to turn down a spot in the first round in hopes of exchanging it for a national championship and a top-10 pick next June.

    What You Should Expect

    Harrell is a physical freak of nature who was just getting started when Louisville's 2013-14 season ended.

    In his final 21 games, Harrell had 10 double-doubles and recorded multiple blocks 11 times. Whereas we're hoping that others will be able to simply replicate what they did last season, Harrell's line from last season is less than the baseline of our expectations for his junior year.

    Particularly without Russ Smith and Luke Hancock around to do a lot of the scoring, I'll be shocked if Harrell doesn't average a double-double and block at least 1.8 shots per game.

Andrew Harrison, Kentucky

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    By the Numbers

    10.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 4.0 APG, 0.5 SPG, 35.1 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    Kentucky legitimately might go 40-0, and Andrew Harrison will be the one steering the ship. There are plenty of places to focus attention on the Wildcats this season, but Harrison will inevitably get the most praise and/or scrutiny.

    If he's great, we'll applaud his decision to return for a second season to improve his all-around game and become an NBA-ready point guard. If he struggles, we'll scream for his head and beg to know why Tyler Ulis isn't starting.

    What You Should Expect

    It's no coincidence that Kentucky was at its best at the end of last season, because that's when Harrison really blossomed into an excellent point guard. He averaged 5.4 assists per game over the final nine games and became the catalyst of the offense.

    With Ulis breathing down his neck, expect Harrison to pick up right where he ended last season. As opposed to just dribbling around in the half-court offense as he tended to do for the first four months of last season, it'll look like Harrison is playing "hot potato" with his quick decision-making.

    If he plays his cards right, we'll be comparing him to Rajon Rondo by the end of the year.

Tyler Haws, Brigham Young

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    By the Numbers

    23.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 40.4 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    Last year was a fantastic one for seniors. Between Doug McDermott, Sean Kilpatrick, Shabazz Napier and Russ Smith, there was no shortage of players setting the world on fire in their fourth year.

    This season's class of seniors isn't anywhere near that noteworthy, but BYU's Tyler Haws is a player you absolutely need to watch. With 1,944 career points and an average of 773.5 points per year over the past two seasons, he could finish his college career in the top 20 in all-time scoring.

    What You Should Expect

    Despite scoring a boatload of points per game, Haws hasn't been much of a three-point shooter in his career. He did shoot better than 40.0 percent last season but only averaged 3.0 attempts per game.

    Rather, Haws is a slasher who set up residence at the free-throw line last season. Of his 23.2 points per game, 6.8 came from the charity stripe, where he shot 88.1 percent for the year. McDermott, Napier, D'Angelo Harrison and Billy Baron were the only other players in the country to attempt at least 200 free throws while making at least 85.5 percent of them.

    With Eric Mika on an LDS mission and Matt Carlino transferring to Marquette, Haws might actually attempt more shots than he did last yeara slightly insane proposition, as he already ranked seventh in the nation in total field-goal attempts.

    Leading the country in scoring at around 26.5 points per game wouldn't be an unreasonable expectation for Haws.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona

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    By the Numbers

    9.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.1 BPG, 0.7 SPG

    Why You Should Watch

    As is the case for Andrew Harrison at Kentucky, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the most exciting and most important player for a team that could flirt with perfection.

    What You Should Expect

    Few players in the country possess Hollis-Jefferson's raw athleticism. And according to Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated, he has dedicated this summer to becoming a threat from more than five feet from the hoop.

    Arguably the reason Arizona struggled without Brandon Ashley for the final two months of last season is because the Wildcats were left with two forwards who couldn't shoot. Hollis-Jefferson finished the season just 2-of-10 from three-point range, and as I documented in early February, Aaron Gordon was a dunker and not much else.

    He'll still be a high-flying shot-blocker and rebounder, but if Hollis-Jefferson's tireless offseason work results in the addition of a reliable 15-foot jumper to his arsenal, he might be the most unstoppable small forward in the country.

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

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    By the Numbers

    13.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.7 BPG, 37.8 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    Frank Kaminsky was one of the most enthralling figures of the 2014 NCAA tournament. There might not be a single unanimous preseason All-American this year, but Frank the Tank is one of the few who could get there. 

    What You Should Expect

    A big man who does a little bit of everything, Kaminsky came out of nowhere last season.

    In his first two years at Wisconsin, he started a grand total of two games, scoring 196 points while averaging just 9.0 minutes per game. It wasn't until Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans graduated last summer that he finally got his chance to shine.

    Kaminsky averaged the above numbers while playing just 27.2 minutes per game, but he became more durable as the season progressed. He logged at least 26 minutes in 13 of his final 14 games, with the one exception being a 40-point win over American in which he got into early foul trouble.

    Given Wisconsin's slow pace, he's not going to average 20 points or 10 rebounds per game, but few players are more valuable on a per-possession basis than Kaminsky. Whether it's a timely three-pointer, a big offensive rebound, a crucial blocked shot or simply an ability to be a focal point of the offense without committing turnovers, there's hardly anything he can't do.

Caris LeVert, Michigan

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    By the Numbers

    12.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.2 SPG, 40.8 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    Much like Ryan Boatright at Connecticut, Caris LeVert is making the leap from "great secondary player" to "focal point of the offense." Behind Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, LeVert was probably the fourth most-talked-about Wolverine last season.

    But this year? Michigan's season will hinge heavily on whether he can be an All-American on a team otherwise relying almost entirely on freshmen and sophomores. 

    What You Should Expect

    Forget about what you saw in the tournament, as LeVert was playing the tail end of the season on an ankle that required surgery in May.

    Rather, look for LeVert to be an even better version of the man who averaged 15.9 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 46.9 percent (30-of-64) from three-point range during a 14-game stretch from January 25 through March 15.

    He was pretty hit or miss for the first 2.5 months of the season, but he really emerged as one of the most reliable assets as Michigan incredibly won the Big Ten regular-season title by a three-game margin. At full health, he could be the most important player in the conference this year, if not the country.

Georges Niang, Iowa State

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    By the Numbers

    16.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.6 APG, 32.7 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    Fred Hoiberg has gotten quite the reputation for capitalizing on the transfer market in recent years, but it's a player he landed as a high school recruit who will lead Iowa State to new heights in 2014-15.

    Georges Niang's broken foot in the 2014 NCAA tournament is arguably what kept the Cyclones from flirting with a national championship. If his absence kept them from a Final Four last season, imagine what his presence could do this year.

    What You Should Expect

    Niang was already one of the most important players in the Big 12 before getting into the best shape of his life.

    If improved fitness and stamina lead to better legs on free throws (72.1 percent), three-pointers and rebounds, he could finish the season as a first-team All-American.

    Niang was a workhorse for the Cyclones last year, averaging 18.3 field-goal attempts per 40 minutes despite sharing the spotlight with DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim. This year, he'll be the go-to guy in what should be the most efficient offense in the country.

    He could average 20.0 points per game for a team that seriously contends with Kansas and Texas for a Big 12 title.

Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, Duke

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    By the Numbers

    N/ASenior at Whitney Young (Jahlil Okafor) and Apple Valley (Tyus Jones).

    Why You Should Watch

    We're cheating by including them both, but Okafor and Jones were a recruiting package deal and will be mentioned together in the same breath all season long. It only makes sense to pair them together on this list.

    As mentioned earlier, Okafor and Cliff Alexander will be battling all season for the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. Jones will likely win a battle for playing time with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. Both will be huge factors as freshmen for a team looking to win an ACC regular-season title for just the second time since 2006.

    What You Should Expect

    Okafor is the highest-rated player in this year's recruiting class and will give Duke the type of dominant big man it hasn't had since the latter stages of Sheldon Williams' college career. He'll be the anchor in the paint that keeps opposing teams from cheating out to defend the three-point arc.

    The lightning to Okafor's thunder, Jones should average upward of 10 assists per 40 minutes while pacing the Blue Devils' potent offense. He probably won't be a one-and-done player unless Duke wins it all, but Jones will put up enough points and assists to be projected as a mid-first-round pick.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina

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    By the Numbers

    17.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, 38.9 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    The past two seasons have been a struggle as far as North Carolina basketball is concerned, but Marcus Paige has been a bright spot in an otherwise dark time.

    After averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 assists as a freshman, he more than doubled his scoring output as a sophomore while serving as the team's only reliable three-point threat.

    What kind of extra gear might he have in store for his junior year? 

    What You Should Expect

    Honestly, just about anything is on the table for Paige.

    Like Yogi Ferrell at Indiana, he evolved from "great freshman point guard" to "great sophomore combo guard" out of necessity. Both guys had to simultaneously serve as the starting point guard and shooting guard because there weren't any other options in the backcourt.

    Though he clearly has the skill to average at least 20.0 points per game, it might be better for all parties if he serves as more of a facilitator of the offense. With Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, J.P. Tokoto and Justin Jackson around to help carry the scoring load, Paige could reduce his point output while drastically increasing his assist count.

    I doubt he'll have more than the 9.8 assists that Kendall Marshall averaged for the Tar Heels three seasons ago, but something in the vicinity of 14.5 points and 8.0 assists en route to being a first-team All-American sounds about right.

Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga

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    By the Numbers

    14.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 41.2 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    Gonzaga is headed for a season that could rival that one that resulted in a No. 1 seed in the 2013 NCAA tournament, and Kevin Pangos is the biggest reason why.

    He won't contend with Tyler Haws for the honor of West Coast Conference leading scorer, but those two senior guards will easily be the most talked-about players in the WCC.

    What You Should Expect

    Doesn't it feel like Pangos has been at Gonzaga for at least a decade? Every year, there are a few "How is that guy still in college?" players, and Pangos will certainly be near the top of that list this season.

    In actuality, he has only been at Gonzaga for three years and has been a consistently strong player for all three of those seasons. He averaged 13.6 points, 3.4 assists and 2.7 rebounds as a freshman while shooting 40.1 percent from three-point range. As you can see from the numbers above, he only marginally improved in each of those categories in his junior year.

    However, he spent most of last season dealing with lower leg injuries, fighting through to play 34.4 minutes per game. He was setting the world on fire in November, averaging 22.0 points before turf toe derailed the rest of his season.

    Give him a clean bill of health and new toys in the offense in Byron Wesley and Kyle Wiltjer, and he could explode as a senior for a Gonzaga team that finally advances past the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999.

Terran Petteway, Nebraska

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    By the Numbers

    18.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.6 APG, 0.8 BPG, 0.9 SPG

    Why You Should Watch

    Because we didn't start watching last year until it was too late.

    Sure, Petteway had great games in season-defining wins over Michigan State (23 points) and Wisconsin (26 points and 10 rebounds), but he was shooting 39.8 percent from three-point range and averaging 1.43 points per field-goal attempt through Nebraska's first 20 games.

    Over the final 12 games, he only shot 23.4 percent from long range and averaged 1.25 points per field-goal attempt.

    This year, let's try to actually watch him at his best.

    What You Should Expect

    Did Petteway's numbers drop because of fatigue or because opposing defenses focused more on limiting his open looks at the expense of better ones for other Cornhuskers?

    It's tough to say, but Nebraska should be every bit as good as it was last year. Walter Pitchford really emerged as a third scoring option over the latter half of last season, and Tai Webster has nowhere to go but up.

    As secondary scorers improve, better scoring opportunities should open up for Petteway. He might not average 18.1 points again, but a more efficient 16.0 points per game would be better for Nebraska anyway.

Cameron Ridley, Texas

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    By the Numbers

    11.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.2 BPG

    Why You Should Watch

    There aren't a ton of true centers in college basketball, but Cameron Ridley is one of the best.

    At 6'9" and 285 pounds, he's a mountain of a man who could and should average more points and rebounds than he did last season.

    What You Should Expect

    While the whole world was falling hopelessly in love with Joel Embiid (11.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG and 2.6 BPG), Cameron Ridley sure was putting up similarly dominant numbers for the Longhorns.

    On the one hand, Ridley needed an extra 2.5 minutes per game to tally those numbers. On the other hand, at least he was durable enough to average better than 25 minutes per game.

    With Texas' deep roster, there's plenty of debate over who deserves to start and earn the lion's share of the minutes, but there's no question that Ridley will be a staple in the paint for close to 30 minutes per game.

    If the Longhorns expect to contend with Kansas (Cliff Alexander and Perry Ellis) and Iowa State (Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue and Jameel McKay), they'll need Ridley more often than not.

D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown

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    By the Numbers

    17.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 39.3 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    Two years ago, Connecticut missed the NCAA tournament. Last year, Shabazz Napier not only led the Huskies back to the tournament, but all the way to the title behind 18.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.

    If anyone is going to duplicate that feat this season, it's D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and the Hoyas.

    What You Should Expect

    Georgetown had a pretty dreadful 2013-14 campaign, but Smith-Rivera is the type of combo guard who can elevate everyone else's game by doing a little bit of everything.

    Whether it's a big bucket, rebound, extra pass or defensive stop, Smith-Rivera will be the one at the forefront of Georgetown's attack. It's the kind of infectious (positive) attitude that makes teammates want to bend over backward to ensure those efforts aren't for naught.

    Despite attempting 51 fewer shots than departing senior Markel Starks, Smith-Rivera led the Hoyas in scoring last season. He tallied at least 17 points in 21 of 33 games and averaged 1.45 points per field-goal attempt.

    We'll see how his approach changes as the primary point guard with Starks out of the picture, but he should have a big season in preserving John Thompson III's job as head coach for at least one more year.

Juwan Staten, West Virginia

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    By the Numbers

    18.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.2 SPG

    Why You Should Watch

    Haven't you ever wondered if one player can single-handedly will an entire team to the NCAA tournament?

    The Mountaineers lost their second-, third- and fifth-highest scorers from last season, but there's still a glimmer of hope because of Juwan Staten.

    If he can lead West Virginia to the tournament while playing in the toughest conference in the country, it'll be one of the most impressive accomplishments of the past decade.

    What You Should Expect

    What you definitely shouldn't expect is a barrage of three-pointers. Despite standing 6'1", Staten only took 15 of his 422 field-goal attempts from three-point range last season.

    Staten is a slasher extraordinaire, doing just about all of his damage within 15 feet of the hoop. Whether he's driving for a bucket of his own, sucking in the defense before kicking the ball out to an open teammate or fighting for a rebound, he's perfectly content mixing it up with guys who are eight inches and 80 pounds bigger than him.

    He may not be as effective without the team's three best long-distance threats from last season, but he'll still be one of the most valuable players in the Big 12 when all is said and done.

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State

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    By the Numbers

    11.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.9 SPG, 41.8 3P%

    Why You Should Watch

    We have a good number of point guards on the list, but none is better than Fred VanVleet.

    In pacing the Shockers to an undefeated regular season, VanVleet averaged 5.4 assists per game and 4.0 assists per turnover.

    What You Should Expect

    When he wasn't busy setting up his teammates for buckets, VanVleet was Wichita State's most accurate three-point shooter and one of its best free-throw shooters (83.0 percent). He also led the team in steals.

    The 5'11" guard even finished the season with 139 rebounds.

    He could be even better this year.

    Losing Cleanthony Early could negatively impact his assist total, but he still has Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton to set up for open jumpers. And we have to assume that VanVleet will attempt more than 7.7 field goals per game in Early's absence, potentially leading to an inverse change between his points per game and assists per game.

    Moreover, he only averaged 31.7 minutes per game last season. Between being one year older and Wichita State losing four seniors who averaged at least 12 minutes per game last season, that's another category in which VanVleet only figures to post a higher number this year.

Chris Walker, Florida

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    By the Numbers (season totals)

    87 minutes, 34 points, 24 rebounds, eight blocks

    Why You Should Watch

    247Sports.com rated Chris Walker as the seventh-best incoming freshman last season, but Walker missed the first 21 games of the season between academic ineligibility and an investigation into improper benefits.

    By the time he was finally allowed to play in early February, Florida was already one of the best teams in the country and could barely find any use for him in its offense.

    But this year, he'll probably lead the team in scoring and serve as one of the most dominant big men in the country.

    What You Should Expect

    Once he was cleared to play, it didn't take long to show off what he's capable of. Get ready to see a good number of alley-oop connections between Walker and Kasey Hill.

    After all, "Sky" Walker did best Aaron Gordon, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to win the 2013 McDonald's All-American dunk contest.

    When he isn't throwing down ridiculous dunks, he'll be one of the most valuable rebounders and shot-blockers in the country. Though he only played six minutes in the game, Walker had seven points, three offensive rebounds and a blocked shot in the Sweet 16 against UCLA.

    It should be fun to see what he can do as a starter after a full offseason of workouts and practices.

Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara

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    By the Numbers

    21.3 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 2.4 BPG, 1.2 SPG

    Why You Should Watch

    If you only pay attention to one player from a mid-major, non-Top 25 team, make it Alan Williams.

    Despite standing just 6'7", UC Santa Barbara's senior center has been putting up ridiculous numbers over the past few years.

    Say what you will about the level of competition he faced, but Williams ranked second in the nation in rebounds per game and 13th in points per game last season.

    What You Should Expect

    More of the same, really.

    According to Sports-Reference.com, Williams led the nation in player efficiency rating and ranked fourth in win shares per 40 minutes.

    However, he only averaged 31.1 minutes per game. If he can follow in Doug McDermott's footsteps and ratchet his playing time up by two minutes per game as a senior, posting 25.0 points, 14.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game wouldn't be completely out of the question.

    Make sure you watch him in the season opener against Kansas. Not only will it be a great time to see what he can do against some of the best players that D-I has to offer, but it also might be the only nationally televised game the Gauchos play all season.

Delon Wright, Utah

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    By the Numbers

    15.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 5.3 APG, 1.3 BPG, 2.5 SPG

    Why You Should Watch

    Like Frank Kaminsky and Terran Petteway, Utah's Delon Wright came out of nowhere as a junior to become one of the best stat-stuffers in the nation.

    Actually, he came out of JUCO's City College of San Francisco, where he was named two-time California Player of the Year. But JUCO transfers will never get as much attention as D-I transfers or incoming freshmen, so nobody saw his season with the Utes coming.

    Now that we're watching, though, and now that Utah has beefed up its nonconference schedule, Wright could end up being one of the most talked-about players in the country this year.

    What You Should Expect

    Defense is perhaps Wright's best attribute.

    According to Sports-Reference.com, he finished the season tied for second in the country in defensive win shares, finishing just 0.1 points behind Aaron Gordon, despite the fact that Gordon played five more games than Wright. Wright ranked eighth in the nation in steals with 82 while also adding 43 blocked shots.

    Then, of course, there's his offense. Wright was a terrible long-range shooter12-of-54 (22.2 percent) from three-point rangebut that didn't stop him from being one of the 10 best scorers the Pac-12 had to offer. And if he wasn't scoring, he was setting up teammates with more than five assists per game.

    It's been a decade since anyone was appearing in national headlines for the Utes, but Wright is ready to take that torch from Andrew Bogut in leading Utah to the 2015 NCAA tournament.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.