1 Player College Basketball's Top Contenders Need to Step Up in 2015-16
No contender for college basketball's national championship is complete without at least one player stepping up in a huge way from one season to the next.
Take one look at the teams from the 2015 Final Four for evidence of that. Quinn Cook (Duke), Andrew Harrison (Kentucky), Denzel Valentine (Michigan State) and Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin) were each substantially more valuable than they were in the previous year.
Everyone loves the one-and-done freshmen, but the lifeblood of this sport is the growth of players over the course of a multiyear career. As such, we've identified the one player on each top contender who will need to make a significant leap this year.
The top 20 teams for this list were determined from the composite rankings published earlier this month by USA Today's Scott Gleeson, NBC Sports' Rob Dauster and CBS Sports' Gary Parrish. Only returning players who have already played a game for their current team were considered for the list, so if you're looking for new transfers or incoming freshmen, you're out of luck.
20. SMU: Ben Emelogu
2014-15 Stats: 15.2 MPG, 2.8 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.6 SPG
By and large, these are players who haven't proved much of anything at the college level, but Ben Emelogu is the exception to that rule. Before transferring to SMU, Emelogu averaged 10.5 points per game for Virginia Tech while shooting 37 percent from three-point range.
That Emelogu hasn't yet shown up in Dallas. He failed to score 10 points in a single game this past season and shot just 26.7 percent from beyond the arc. Emelogu received less playing time with the Mustangs, but that wasn't the problem. He scored 15.5 points per 40 minutes with the Hokies and just 7.3 last season—less than half of his rate as a freshman.
With all that the Mustangs have lost since this time one year ago—Emmanuel Mudiay, Yanick Moreira, Cannen Cunningham, Ryan Manuel and Justin Martin, in particular—they'll need Emelogu to play an important role in 2015-16. He probably won't start—especially if Keith Frazier is academically eligible to rejoin the team—but he'll likely log at least 20 minutes per game as the first guy off the bench.
Whether Emelogu spends that time shooting like he did as a freshman or as a sophomore could determine SMU's tournament fate.
19. Wisconsin: Riley Dearring
2014-15 Stats: 2.6 MPG, 0.7 PPG
There sure are a ton of people on the "I don't care if Wisconsin is losing two-thirds of its scoring from last season, the Badgers will still be great because Bo Ryan is a coaching genius" bandwagon.
But Ryan isn't the one shooting the basketballs. If Wisconsin is going to remain a Top 25 team, it'll be because guys like Riley Dearring come out of seemingly nowhere to fill up the scoreboard.
Dearring only played 39 minutes last year as a freshman, but that makes him the fifth-most used returning Badger. And with three made three-pointers in seven attempts, only Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes made more among returning players.
The Badgers do have some key additions—redshirt freshman forward Ethan Happ and incoming freshman shooting guard Brevin Pritzl arguably top that list—but Dearring figures to be headed for an exponential increase in playing time with Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Sam Dekker all out of the picture.
He'll need to be productive with those added minutes in order for the legend of Bo Ryan to keep growing.
18. Michigan: Kameron Chatman
2014-15 Stats: 15.2 MPG, 3.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.7 APG
Heading into last season, Kameron Chatman was viewed by overly optimistic Wolverines fans as a panacea for all of Michigan's woes. Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III left town and took Jordan Morgan, Mitch McGary and Jon Horford with them. But apparently that was going to be OK, because John Beilein was adding a small forward who competed in the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic.
However, on the long list of things that went wrong for Michigan last season, Chatman playing his way right out of the starting lineup was a big one.
Not a whole lot has changed from last year's roster, though, so he'll get a second chance to be the type of hero Ann Arbor expected him to be—only this time they're hoping Chatman will be playing his way into a starting job rather than out of one.
Between Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr., Spike Albrecht and Aubrey Dawkins, Michigan's backcourt is pretty congested. To have an important role for the Wolverines, Chatman will need to play the type of role that Pat Connaughton played at Notre Dame over the past several years, rebounding efficiently enough to serve as a stretch 4.
If he can lock down that job, the Wolverines will be tough to beat.
17. Baylor: Lester Medford
2014-15 Stats: 29.6 MPG, 7.6 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.5 SPG
Among major conference teams, Kenny Chery was one of the more underappreciated point guards. He didn't put up huge numbers, but things just seemed to flow better when he was out there—similar to London Perrantes' role with Virginia.
Now that Chery is gone, though, it's Lester Medford's turn to steer the ship.
Given the numbers he put up last season, it shouldn't be a difficult transition. Medford was technically the shooting guard, but he and Chery shared both the point and shooting guard duties pretty interchangeably. Thus, it's not a question of whether he's capable of leading the offense, but rather one of whether he can do it alone.
Baylor is adding three shooting guards this offseason, and the Bears do still have Al Freeman as a shooting guard who played significant minutes last year as a freshman. However, not all shooting guards can effortlessly serve as combo guards, which could leave Medford in a position of needing to become a more conventional point guard.
A word of advice: Just throw the ball toward the hoop and let Rico Gathers handle the rest.
16. Georgetown: Isaac Copeland
2014-15 Stats: 20.0 MPG, 6.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.6 BPG
Georgetown has signed three freshmen in the class of 2015: A small forward (Kaleb Johnson), a power forward (Marcus Derrickson) and a center (Jessie Govan). Needless to say, John Thompson III is aware that his frontcourt could use some help after losing Joshua Smith and Mikael Hopkins to graduation.
That help could come externally from those new freshmen, but it's more likely to come internally from last year's freshmen.
Georgetown had an outstanding recruiting class this past November, headlined by forwards Isaac Copeland and Paul White, both of whom should have a significantly increased role this season, given the aforementioned vacancies.
It's Copeland, though, who we see really blossoming into a star as the primary power forward for the Hoyas.
He can hurt the opposition from just about anywhere on the court. He attempted less than 30 percent of his field goals from three-point range, but he shot 38.9 percent when he did venture beyond the arc. And only D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera was a more reliable free-throw shooter than Copeland (80.9 percent).
Losing Jabril Trawick in addition to Smith and Hopkins leaves the Hoyas plugging a lot of holes next year, but Copeland is the one solution they shouldn't need to worry about.
15. California: Kameron Rooks or Kingsley Okoroh
2014-15 Stats (Kingsley Okoroh): 13.1 MPG, 2.0 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.9 BPG
A month ago, California was a complete afterthought. No one in their right minds had the Golden Bears in their way-too-early Top 25 rankings.
But then Cuonzo Martin signed Ivan Rabb. And Tyrone Wallace decided to stay another year. Then Martin got Jaylen Brown to commit, too. Now, all of a sudden, Cal might be the team to beat in the Pac-12. With Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews still in the mix as well, Cal is rock solid at four of the five positions and is going to have an absolute stud as a reserve in the backcourt.
Will the Golden Bears be able to get by at center, though?
Kameron Rooks played sparingly as a freshman before missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Kingsley Okoroh wasn't much more valuable in his freshman season, finishing the year with 60 points, 59 fouls and 21 turnovers.
At least one of them needs to step up this season. We're not looking for a double-double machine, but if they can combine for 35 minutes of rebounds and blocked shots without too much foul trouble, it could put Cal in contention for a No. 1 seed.
14. Indiana: Emmitt Holt
2014-15 Stats: 11.4 MPG, 3.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.7 BPG
Of all the teams on the list, Indiana was the toughest to come up with, which should tell you how I feel about the Hoosiers being ranked this poorly.
Yogi Ferrell, James Blackmon and Troy Williams were excellent offensive weapons last season. Robert Johnson, Nick Zeisloft, Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Collin Hartman each played very well in their own right. They all come back for another year while Tom Crean adds a pair of outstanding freshman power forwards in Thomas Bryant and Juwan Morgan.
It's a little ridiculous that none of the three polls has the Hoosiers higher than No. 13.
But there's no question that this team's biggest weakness last season was in the defensive frontcourt, as opposing teams scored at will in the paint against the Hoosiers. An improved Emmitt Holt—who already averaged 12.7 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman—could go a long way toward fixing that problem.
The problem with that statement is that Holt played sparingly last season and figures to see even more time on the bench with Bryant on the way. But if he can effectively serve as Mosquera-Perea's reserve, giving Indiana a solid interior defensive presence for 40 minutes per game, the Hoosiers will be much more likely to contend for the Big Ten crown.
13. Wichita State: Shaquille Morris
2014-15 Stats: 12.7 MPG, 4.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.8 BPG
Forget stepping up. Wichita State needs a frontcourt player to make a major leap in 2015-16.
The backcourt is beyond set. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker will handle the bulk of the scoring, Evan Wessel will continue to be a great glue guy who occasionally puts a few points on the board and Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp should be the first guy off the bench giving all three of those starters some occasional respite.
The frontcourt, however, is a plethora of question marks with Darius Carter out of the picture.
Of the in-house options, Shaquille Morris easily showed the most promise. As a freshman, he led the team in block percentage and was a pretty solid source of defensive rebounds and two-point buckets. He played sparingly for most of the season, though, rarely logging more than 15 minutes in a game—partially due to his outlandish foul rate. Morris committed one foul for every 4:34 spent on the court.
He'll be expected to play at least 24 minutes per game this season, provided he can avoid the whistles long enough to do so.
12. Arizona: Kaleb Tarczewski
2014-15 Stats: 26.0 MPG, 9.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.6 BPG
For the fourth consecutive offseason, we're trying to talk ourselves into a big year for Kaleb Tarczewski.
247Sports rated Zeus as the seventh-best overall player in the class of 2012, but when exactly does that guy plan on showing up?
You would think a player with that much promise on an annual title contender would be closing in on 2,000 career points by now, but it will probably be early December 2015 before he even reaches the 1,000-point plateau.
Despite standing 7'0", Zeus averaged just 14.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 0.9 blocked shots per 40 minutes last season. Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston had an absolutely abysmal season compared to our expectations for him, but even he surpassed Tarczewski in each of those categories.
But that doesn't mean Zeus can't finally explode as a senior. Rakeem Christmas was a 5-star center in the class of 2011, but he was little more than an above-average shot-blocker before putting up 17.5 points per game this past season for Syracuse.
Tarczewski isn't going to suddenly triple his scoring average, but he needs to become a more crucial part of Arizona's game plan with studs like Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson no longer a part of the equation.
11. Gonzaga: Kyle Dranginis
2014-15 Stats: 17.2 MPG, 4.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.6 SPG
Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Byron Wesley played a combined 88.1 minutes per game for Gonzaga in 2014-15, but they'll be logging 0.0 minutes in the upcoming campaign, as the entire starting backcourt graduated.
Tulsa and Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan and medical redshirt freshman Josh Perkins figure to pick up a large portion of that slack, but it also might finally be time for Kyle Dranginis to shine. After three years as the permanent backup to some combination of Pangos, Bell and David Stockton, there should be a starting job for Dranginis in his senior season.
To this point in his career, Dranginis has merely been a glue guy. He doesn't shoot much, but he is efficient with his time spent on the court, similar to Wichita State's Evan Wessel or Wisconsin's Josh Gasser. However, he'll need to be a little more assertive this year without Pangos to lead the way.
If Dranginis doesn't at least double his scoring average from last year, it just puts that much more pressure on the frontcourt to do everything for this team.
10. Oklahoma: Khadeem Lattin
2014-15 Stats: 11.9 MPG, 2.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 0.9 BPG
Four of five starters are returning for Oklahoma, so it stands to reason that the replacement for the departed player is the one who needs to step up. The only question is whether it will actually be Khadeem Lattin who profits from the absence of TaShawn Thomas.
Lattin was an outstanding rebounder and a pretty solid shot-blocker as a freshman, but he'll need to become a substantially more efficient scorer in order to lock down the starting power forward job. One field-goal attempt for every 6.2 minutes on the court isn't going to cut it. Neither is averaging 1.03 points per field-goal attempt.
The Sooners already have one big man in Ryan Spangler who isn't a particularly aggressive scorer. They can't very well have an entire starting frontcourt that isn't concerned with putting the ball in the hoop.
If Lattin is unable to become an assertive big man, Oklahoma has two other options in redshirt freshman Dante Buford and incoming JUCO transfer Akolda Manyang. As long as someone from that trio becomes a key piece of the puzzle, Oklahoma will make another spirited run at a Big 12 title.
9. Villanova: Darryl Reynolds
2014-15 Stats: 5.4 MPG, 1.4 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 0.5 BPG
Villanova brings back precisely two players taller than 6'6" who played a minute last season: 6'11" Daniel Ochefu and 6'8" Darryl Reynolds.
In no way whatsoever would it be a surprise if Jay Wright decides to go primarily with a lineup of Ochefu in the post and four guys on the perimeter—presumably Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart with Kris Jenkins playing a stretch 4.
But even if Ochefu surpasses his 24 minutes per game from last season and manages to log 30 per contest this year, that still leaves a significant amount of playing time for Reynolds as the primary backup.
He hasn't played much in his two-year career, but Reynolds is 17-of-23 from the field and has been plenty competent in the rebounding and shot-blocking departments. And let's just say it has been pretty rare for players to not improve from one year to the next under Wright.
Don't expect a monster season, but Reynolds should be an important, minor piece of Villanova's success story in 2015-16.
8. Michigan State: Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr.
2014-15 Stats: 19.4 MPG, 2.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 2.4 APG
Even with ESPN's Jeff Goodman breaking the news on Thursday afternoon that Caleb Swanigan has decommitted from Michigan State, the Spartans still figure to be one of the better teams in the country.
Tom Izzo still has Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling to platoon the center position while Marvin Clark Jr. and incoming freshman Deyonta Davis share the reps at power forward. Denzel Valentine could be the Big Ten Player of the Year at small forward, and the combined force of Bryn Forbes and West Virginia transfer Eron Harris at shooting guard will be ridiculously lethal.
And that brings us to Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr.
He showed occasional flashes of brilliance toward the end of last season, finishing the year with a 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. However, he was a dreadful shooter (31.8 percent) and was a below-average defender.
Of the 11 Spartans who logged at least 100 minutes last season, Nairn was the only one to record a negative Box Plus/Minus, according to Sports-Reference.com.
But he is and needs to be better than that. If March comes around and we're comparing Nairn to former Spartans like Kalin Lucas and Mateen Cleaves, they'll be one of the favorites to win it all.
7. Duke: Matt Jones
2014-15 Stats: 21.7 MPG, 6.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.9 SPG
To say that there are some changes to Duke's roster would be a mild understatement. Nearly 77 percent of last year's points are no longer on the team as Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Quinn Cook move onto the next stage in their careers.
The Blue Devils do retain one starter, though, and Matt Jones figures to be a pretty important part of what they plan to do. At any rate, he'll be the most veteran member of the starting rotation unless Amile Jefferson or Marshall Plumlee is able to start ahead of either Brandon Ingram or Chase Jeter.
Jones will really need to prove himself in order to keep his starting job, though. Some combination of Derryck Thornton, Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard will be breathing down his neck for playing time. But he played very well toward the end of last season, even though he was the least talked-about starter by a country mile.
Jones' active hands on defense were an underrated part of Duke's improvement on the whole as the season progressed, and his 37.6 three-point percentage made him just enough of a scoring threat to keep the opposition from slacking off him to double-team higher-profile scorers.
6. Virginia: Marial Shayok
2014-15 Stats: 14.6 MPG, 3.8 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.6 SPG
Two years ago, Virginia lost an excellent three-point shooter and a great, defensive-minded power forward when Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell graduated. Lo and behold, the Cavaliers suffer very similar losses this offseason with Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins out of the picture.
The thing is, though, both Anderson and Atkins came out of nowhere last season to play those crucial roles. Anderson shot 29.8 percent from three-point range in his first two seasons. Atkins barely even saw the court toward the end of his junior year. They both stepped up in a big way to keep Virginia near the top of the national hierarchy.
Now, Tony Bennett needs Marial Shayok to do the same.
But Shayok isn't a senior who showed minimal signs of life for his first three years. Nor is he a junior who shot woefully from distance. He's a sophomore who shot 38 percent from three-point range and led the team in steal percentage as a freshman. He didn't really have a defined spot in the rotation, but he had a tendency to capitalize on the opportunities he was given.
Whether he starts right away in November will depend on how committed to playing Evan Nolte the Wahoos are, but Shayok could be the ACC Sixth Man of the Year if that's the role Bennett decides to give him.
5. Kansas: Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk
2014-15 Stats: 11.2 MPG, 2.8 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.7 APG
On behalf of Jayhawks fans and anyone who has committed the spelling of Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk to memory, here's hoping the Ukrainian assassin decides to actually start living up to the hype from when he was signed.
"I think that he will be an immediate impact guy," said Kansas head coach Bill Self when Mykhailiuk committed. "He is a guy that can play all three positions on the perimeter."
Maybe next year.
He shot 28.8 percent from three-point range, averaged 2.3 assists per 40 minutes and finished his freshman season with just two more assists than turnovers. It took less than a month for Mykhailiuk to play his way out of the starting lineup.
But he's very young. He doesn't even turn 18 for another month, and a few games of November basketball is hardly enough to judge how good a player might be in the long run. If he can improve his shooting stroke while reprising the role of starting small forward, the Jayhawks just might have enough firepower to make it 12 consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships.
4. Iowa State: Abdel Nader
2014-15 Stats: 16.4 MPG, 5.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.7 APG
The Iowa State bandwagon has been gaining steam since Georges Niang decided to return for his senior season, but the Cyclones will need a much better year out of Abdel Nader in order to be all that they can be.
Three years ago as a freshman at Northern Illinois, Nader averaged 13.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. He wasn't a great three-point shooter (27.7 percent on 4.9 attempts per game), but a little improvement in that department and he would be a stud.
Instead, his shooting got even worse, as he hit just 21.7 percent of his 2.2 attempts per game in his first season at Iowa State.
It often felt like he was pushing the issue, trying to do too much with his limited playing time behind Bryce Dejean-Jones and Dustin Hogue. But both of those guys graduated, leaving Nader (6'6") as one of just four players on the roster taller than 6'4"—until they inevitably add a graduate-transfer or two.
As the roster currently stands, though, Nader is likely to either start at small forward or serve as the first guy off the bench. With a role that important, he'll need to rediscover some of the defensive intensity he showed at Northern Illinois and either figure out how to shoot from downtown or just eradicate that part of his offensive attack.
3. Kentucky: Marcus Lee
2014-15 Stats: 10.9 MPG, 2.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.7 BPG
To the surprise of pretty much everyone, Kentucky whiffed on every big-name recruit that was still available at the end of the season, leaving the Wildcats with substantially less talent and depth than they had this past year.
At most positions, they'll be absolutely fine. John Calipari will have a very talented backcourt made up of Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, Charles Matthews and JUCO transfer Mychal Mulder. Skal Labissiere might be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft after spending a year as Kentucky's center, and if he can fully recover from a torn ACL, Alex Poythress should be a stud at forward.
But if the Wildcats are going to contend for the title, they'll need power forward Marcus Lee to finally start putting up the numbers you would expect from a McDonald's All-American.
Per 40 minutes, Lee has averaged 11.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in his career. However, he has only averaged 9.1 minutes per game during that career. Ideally, he would more than double his playing time while nearly doubling his efficiency.
Even if Kentucky primarily goes with a three-guard lineup, Lee is going to receive significant minutes as the primary reserve for both Poythress and Labissiere. He had better actually do something with that playing time.
2. Maryland: Jared Nickens or Dion Wiley
2014-15 Stats (Jared Nickens): 19.3 MPG, 6.1 PPG, 1.4 RPG
2014-15 Stats (Dion Wiley): 13.5 MPG, 4.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.6 APG
A big jump from either member of Maryland's 2014 recruiting class would be phenomenal.
Like so many other teams on the list, the Terrapins are absolutely solid at four positions. Melo Trimble (PG), Jake Layman (SF), Robert Carter Jr. (PF) and Diamond Stone (C) are more than enough to make Maryland a Top 10 team.
If Jared Nickens or Dion Wiley can lock down the starting shooting guard job and set the nets on fire, the Terps should win the national championship.
Nickens was already a very good shooter last year, making 39 percent of his 146 three-point attempts. However, Wiley was the higher-rated recruit and the one expected to replace Dez Wells in the rotation this season.
Either one could blossom into a star. Heck, they could both make a leap this season, giving Maryland the best seven-man rotation in the country.
Imagine if that had been written one year ago amid players transferring out of the program left and right. Quite the rapid rebuilding job by Mark Turgeon and staff.
1. North Carolina: Joel Berry II
2014-15 Stats: 13.2 MPG, 4.2 PPG, 0.9 RPG, 1.5 APG
Marcus Paige is an outstanding talent, but the Tar Heels need to give Batman a Robin.
Call Justin Jackson a shooting guard if you want, but I prefer to refer to 6'8", 30.4 percent three-point shooters who only attempt 28 percent of their shots from beyond the arc as small forwards. And there's a pretty good chance Roy Williams will be playing him as such with J.P. Tokoto deciding to declare for the NBA draft.
That leaves an opening in the backcourt to be filled by any number of options.
Theo Pinson might be the front-runner for the gig if he's fully healthy after recently undergoing foot surgery. Nate Britt is also a contender, but he hasn't been able to capitalize on opportunities thus far in his career. Incoming freshman Kenny Williams could be in the mix as well.
But North Carolina's best option might be to make Joel Berry II the primary point guard while letting Paige do his damage off the ball.
After missing nearly a month with a groin injury, Berry came on strong toward the end of the season, consistently putting points on the board without committing many turnovers. If he can continue to hone his craft over the summer and become a reliable ball-handler, best of luck finding a weakness on this roster.
Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.