The Most Indispensable Player from Every Top 10 College Basketball Team
The 2017-18 college basketball season suffered a major blow Tuesday afternoon with the news out of Missouri that Michael Porter Jr. will likely miss the entire season after undergoing back surgery.
After the initial shock wore off and everyone offered up their NBA draft hot takes on a kid who played two minutes, the focus swung back to the Tigers and how much of an impact this will have on their season.
Per OddsShark, Missouri had 16-to-1 preseason odds of winning the national championship, tied with Kansas for the fifth-best odds in the country. At this point, though, you'd have a hard time convincing anyone that Missouri will finish top five in the SEC.
Coincidentally, when the Porter news broke, I was already elbows-deep in this piece on the most indispensable players on college basketball's best teams.
The premise is simple: If we suddenly found out that one player on a championship contender had suffered a season-ending injury or was otherwise no longer going to be allowed to play this season—cough, FBI investigation, cough—which one would be most detrimental to lose?
Oftentimes, the best player and the most indispensable player are one and the same.
But that isn't always the case.
Teams are listed in ascending order of their ranking in this week's AP Top 25.
10. USC Trojans: Chimezie Metu
We get this party started with a great example of a team's best player not always being its most indispensable player.
Jordan McLaughlin is the star of this USC team. If you didn't know it, he proved it in Sunday's overtime win over Vanderbilt. He drained a cold-blooded three-pointer to force overtime and scored nine points in the extra session to finish with 35.
It felt a lot like watching 2016-17 Frank Mason when he would suddenly flip the switch and take over. And when McLaughlin isn't scoring a bunch of points, he is USC's top assist man and—until De'Anthony Melton is allowed to return—its best perimeter defender.
If McLaughlin were to suffer an injury, though, the Trojans could plug in Derryck Thornton at point guard and lean more heavily upon Elijah Stewart, Jonah Mathews and Shaqquan Aaron to shoulder the backcourt scoring load. Highly rated freshmen Charles O'Bannon Jr. and Jordan Usher would also rise up to become important reserves as opposed to their current roles as bench warmers and little else.
It wouldn't be ideal, but USC would still be competitive without McLaughlin.
But if Chimezie Metu were no longer healthy or eligible, yikes.
The big man led the team in points, rebounds and blocks last season, and he has shown marked improvement as both a jump-shooter and ball-handler thus far this year. Metu has already made as many three-pointers in three games as he attempted in his first two seasons combined. Though Bennie Boatwright is also averaging 2.0 blocks per game early on, Metu is USC's most valuable defender and its most tenacious rebounder.
There's just no way the Trojans would be able to replicate everything he does with a hodgepodge of Nick Rakocevic, Harrison Henderson and Victor Uyaelunmo.
9. North Carolina Tar Heels: Luke Maye
Just like the rationale for USC, lack of frontcourt depth for UNC makes a big man its most indispensable player.
When Tony Bradley declared for the NBA draft—thus joining graduates Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks on North Carolina's list of outgoing frontcourt weapons—it immediately became clear that Luke Maye would make or break this season.
Roy Williams signed a trio of freshman big men and has to like what he sees thus far from Sterling Manley. However, the Tar Heels didn't get a Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton or Mohamed Bamba. What they got were three investments who should be great three- or four-year players and the hope that they'll be able to join forces to create one center who can compete in ACC play.
Because of that, the go-to big man was always going to be Maye, and he has shown he is ready for that role. The junior stretch-4 is averaging 19.3 points through three games and has hauled in at least nine rebounds in each of those contests. He's shooting 55.6 percent (5-of-9) from three-point range and is even contributing 3.0 assists per game.
Should North Carolina reach the championship of the PK80 Victory bracket and run into Michigan State, it might be painful to watch the Tar Heels try to handle that Spartans frontcourt. But I also suspect a lot of people would come away from that game with the realization that Maye is more critical than Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson or Kenny Williams when it comes to North Carolina's hopes of repeating as national champions.
8. Kentucky Wildcats: Kevin Knox
Tough call on this one as Kentucky A) hasn't exactly hit the ground running in its first five games, and B) has the youngest roster in the country. Thus, we have virtually nothing from last season or this season to base this on.
There's a case to be made for Wenyen Gabriel as the most experienced player on the roster. You could also argue for Nick Richards as the rebounding phenom for a team that doesn't shoot very well. My guess is we eventually come to regard Quade Green as the player Kentucky could least afford to lose, because he's a respectable shooter who is also the floor general at point guard for this ridiculously young team.
For now, though, it probably has to be Kevin Knox.
At any rate, John Calipari seems to believe Knox is the most important player to have on the floor, as the wing-forward has averaged 35.6 minutes per game—7.4 more than any other Wildcat. He has become their primary perimeter shooter, and he is leading the team in rebounds per game. He also has seven steals and has been a solid perimeter defender.
While everyone else is trying to carve out one role in this rotation, Knox has taken on several, making up for his so-so efficiency by becoming Kentucky's most versatile piece.
The three-point shooting and general alpha-dog mentality are the parts of this Swiss Army knife that Kentucky needs the most, though.
A passive Knox who shoots 30 percent from three-point range does the Wildcats no good. They can get better rebounding elsewhere, and he hasn't been irreplaceably valuable on defense. But he has both made and attempted at least twice as many three-pointers as everyone else on the roster.
Knox appears to be the answer to our preseason concerns about the lack of shooting on this team. And as long as he continues to accurately let it fly, he's the guy Kentucky cannot live without.
7. Florida Gators: Egor Koulechov
Without question, Florida's top two players have been the two transfers: Egor Koulechov (Rice) and Jalen Hudson (Virginia Tech).
Hudson—who was woefully inefficient in his two seasons with the Hokies—is averaging 1.72 points per field-goal attempt and has committed just one turnover in three games. Mike White is going to be tinkering with his rotation options for another few weeks, but it's clear Hudson needs to be on the floor a ton.
Koulechov is the most indispensable player, though, because he can do it all. He averaged 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season while shooting 47.4 percent from three-point range, and he is putting up comparable numbers—20.3, 8.3 and 45.0, respectively—thus far. Koulechov is leading the Gators in all three of those categories and is No. 2 in assists at 3.7.
Maybe you don't want him running the point for long stretches of the game, but in a pinch, this 6'5" guard can play any position 1 through 4.
The 4 will be his most critical role, because the Gators have some major question marks in the frontcourt until John Egbunu returns from a torn ACL. Kevarrius Hayes is a solid option at the 5, and Gorjok Gak will be a valuable backup to Hayes for 10 to 15 minutes per game. Beyond Koulechov and that tandem, though, the Gators have little in rebounding prowess.
Koulechov's double-double against New Hampshire was a big reason the Gators were able to avoid that disastrous loss. At the same time, it's partially because he shot 4-of-14 from the field that they never managed to pull away from the Wildcats.
Things will be a bit different once KeVaughn Allen gets rolling and once Egbunu returns, but for now, Florida goes as Koulechov goes.
6. Wichita State Shockers: Shaquille Morris
There's no obvious choice for Wichita State. Once Markis McDuffie is healthy, the Shockers will legitimately run two-deep at each position:
PG—Landry Shamet and Samajae Haynes-Jones
SG—Conner Frankamp and Austin Reaves
SF—McDuffie and Zach Brown
PF—Darral Willis and Rashard Kelly
C—Shaquille Morris and Rauno Nurger
Moreover, a lot of those guys can serve in multiple roles. Both Shamet and Frankamp are combo guards who put up virtually indistinguishable numbers last year. Nurger is a stretch 5 who shot 46.4 percent from three-point range in 2016-17. Brown is a jack-of-all-trades. And Morris is a respectable passer for a big man.
This team is equipped to survive just about any injury, which explains why the Shockers still look good despite currently playing without last year's leading scorer.
But if there's one player they can least afford to lose, it would probably be Morris.
There's a strong case to be made for either Shamet or Frankamp in this spot, since they're both great shooters who can create their own shot and they're both good at finding open teammates and avoiding turnovers.
Morris, on the other hand, is in a class of his own.
This guy is a 280-pound monster who worked a ton on his perimeter game this offseason. He looked a bit off for the Tuesday morning game against Marquette in the Maui Invitational, but he still affected the game with 11 points and a pair of blocks. Through his first three games, Morris was averaging 19.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game.
While it would be possible for the Shockers to keep winning a lot of games without him, it would change what they're able to do on offense and would make them a little less formidable on defense.
5. Villanova Wildcats: Jalen Brunson
There have already been several cases on this list where we picked a guy because of his versatility. After all, if a player does a bunch of different things well, it's probably going to take more than one person to replace him. And from that point of view, it's a little indefensible to pick anyone other than Mikal Bridges in this spot.
Bridges is having the exact breakout season that everyone was expecting. He has always been the type of player to fill up the box score with rebounds, steals and blocks, and he is now capitalizing on his opportunity to shine on offense with Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins out of the picture. Bridges is averaging 18.3 points per game and is shooting 72.7 percent from two-point range, 55.6 percent from three and 90.0 percent from the free-throw line.
Good luck finding a more efficient player.
But if Bridges were to miss some time, Villanova has viable options. Eric Paschall is no Bridges, but he does have similar traits in terms of versatility, range and defensive focus. Plug Donte DiVincenzo into the starting lineup and make Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree the primary sixth man, and the Wildcats would still win a ton of games.
Jalen Brunson, on the other hand, is the heart and soul that cannot be replaced. That's no disrespect to Collin Gillespie, who has looked great in three early games against nothing opponents. It's just that Brunson is one of the most important players in the country.
In his most recent game against Lafayette, Brunson had 22 points on 11 shots with six assists and four steals. The steals aren't a particularly common occurrence for him—four was a new career high—but he is an efficient scorer who creates for his teammates and rarely makes careless mistakes. Before the season began, he was my pick to win the Wooden Award, and I see no reason to shy away from that now.
4. Michigan State Spartans: Miles Bridges
Here we have another case of a multitalented guy and a noteworthy point guard on the same roster. However, unlike Brunson's case at Villanova, Cassius Winston could conceivably be replaced by Lourawls Nairn without a cataclysmic drop in Michigan State's offensive production.
The Spartans also have two outstanding big men in Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr., but if Tom Izzo had to replace one of them with the combined force of Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Xavier Tillman, it would not be the end of the world.
Then there's Miles Bridges.
He wasn't just the preseason favorite for the Wooden Award. He's also the glue that ties this team together.
Bridges is the only legitimate wing-forward on this team, so there's no replacement for him in terms of talent or roster fit. If he disappears, Izzo would have to decide between playing Matt McQuaid and Joshua Langford at the 2 and 3 or effectively putting Jackson at the 3 by pairing him with two other big men and letting that 6'11" phenom prowl the perimeter.
Those might be fun change-of-pace options, but neither one seems like a great permanent solution for a team with championship aspirations.
If you don't believe me that Michigan State would not be the same team without him, we might find out this weekend. Bridges sprained his left ankle in Sunday's game against Stony Brook and is questionable to play in the PK80—against a projected path of DePaul, Oregon and North Carolina.
At full strength, that should be three wins for the Spartans. If he doesn't play, they may well get bounced by the Ducks.
3. Kansas Jayhawks: Udoka Azubuike
I said throughout the offseason that Udoka Azubuike might be the most indispensable player in the country.
That's high praise for a sophomore who played all of 142 minutes as a freshman, but it's a product of this Kansas roster construction—particularly with freshman power forward Billy Preston suspended for the first few games of the season.
Aside from Azubuike and Preston, the only frontcourt player on the roster is Mitch Lightfoot, and he played a grand total of 13 minutes against Kentucky and South Dakota State. As a result, there have been times this season where Svi Mykhailiuk—a 6'8" shooting guard—has been the de facto 5 for the Jayhawks.
Every now and then, they can survive for a few minutes without Azubuike. But if he were to suffer another season-ending injury, Kansas can kiss that 13-year Big 12 streak goodbye.
(Even if Silvio De Sousa is ruled eligible to join the team in December, there's no guarantee he would immediately shine. Let's not forget how poorly Chris Walker's midseason debut went for Florida a few years ago.)
As long as Azubuike is in there, though, the Jayhawks are in great shape.
This 7'0", 280-pound Goliath shot 90.5 percent from the field in his first three games and recorded a pair of blocks in each of those contests. His free-throw shooting (43.8 percent this season, 40.0 percent career) is downright atrocious and is an end-game factor that may be a significant problem. But if he's dunking, rebounding and defending the paint, a few bricks from the charity stripe is a small price to pay.
2. Arizona Wildcats: Allonzo Trier
In the long run, this spot will likely belong to Deandre Ayton.
If you haven't gotten the chance to watch this big man yet this season, you are in for one heck of a treat in the Battle 4 Atlantis and beyond. He has recorded a double-double in each of Arizona's three games. He has legitimate three-point range on his jumper, but he's even better when putting his big body to good use on the low blocks. Ayton has also been a solid defender and should continue to cause problems with his length.
But the Wildcats have Dusan Ristic starting at center and would be OK with Emmanuel Akot, Ira Lee and Keanu Pinder holding down the fort at the 3 and 4. It wouldn't be ideal, but it would be better than trying to figure out how to survive without both Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier. So, at least until Alkins is back to 100 percent from his offseason foot surgery, Trier is the dude Arizona could least afford to lose.
This is the part where you sarcastically say, "Oh really? The guy averaging 30 points per game is kind of important? How shocking!"
Trier has scored at least 28 points in all three games, shooting 78.3 percent from inside the arc and 58.8 percent beyond it. Those aren't sustainable numbers over the course of a season, and they came against teams that have effectively already been eliminated from at-large consideration. Still, it's a testament to Trier's ability to catch fire and maintain it for multiple games—an important trait to consider when picking your Final Four teams in a few months.
Trier has never been one to shy away from contact, but it's almost like he craves it now. He's averaging 10 free-throw attempts per game and has been both a more aggressive driver and better shooter than the sophomore-year version of Grayson Allen that became the Wooden Award favorite the following offseason. If he keeps this up, he'll be the Pac-12's first Wooden Award winner since Ed O'Bannon in 1995.
1. Duke Blue Devils: Trevon Duval
Trevon Duval's assist and steal numbers have plummeted in the last two games against Southern and Furman, but there's still no denying he's the most important piece of Duke's championship puzzle.
Through the first three games, Duval was averaging 13.3 points, 10.0 assists and 4.0 steals per game. The points have remained roughly the same, but over the last two games, he's at 4.0 assists and no steals. It seems we'll need a larger sample size to find out which of those is his norm.
But even if it's 4.0 assists from here on out, that would still be better than anything Duke has had in the past two seasons. In fact, outside of Grayson Allen averaging 3.5 assists in both years—because someone had to handle the ball and occasionally pass it—no Blue Devil had a rate higher than 2.5 per game.
Better yet, you have to go back more than a decade to find the last time someone from Duke averaged better than 6.0 assists or 2.0 steals per game. It was Chris Duhon averaging 6.1 assists and 2.2 steals as a senior in 2003-04. But Duval is at 7.6 assists and 2.4 steals through five games.
And the last time someone averaged 7.0 or more assists per game at Duke? Bobby Hurley (8.2) in 1992-93.
It's early and it has primarily been against lackluster foes, but Duval's numbers are in rarefied air as far as Duke lore is concerned.
If Allen got hurt, Gary Trent Jr. would become the primary shooting guard with Alex O'Connell likely becoming a starter. Similar story if Trent suffered an injury. And while Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. are both likely to become lottery picks, Duke would be surprisingly well-equipped to handle an injury to either one with Javin DeLaurier playing like a National Sixth Man of the Year candidate and Marques Bolden at least capable of standing on the floor and taking up some space.
But, no, the Blue Devils do not have someone who could adequately take Duval's place if he vanished. I suppose Plan A would be moving Allen back to lead guard and bumping O'Connell into the starting lineup. Plan B would be starting Jordan Goldwire, who has an almost impossibly bad 56.6 O-rating in 54 minutes played.
Maybe losing Duval wouldn't be quite as dire as it would be for Kansas to lose Udoka Azubuike, but it's certainly close. At any rate, Duval is the most indispensable player on a title contender east of Lawrence.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.