With the college basketball season beginning on Friday, it’s time to dive into the journey ahead. Lead college basketball writers Scott King and Steve Fetch join TSS managing editor Matt Zemek in a roundtable on the coming season. This installment looks at key players from a number of different vantage points: breakout performers, lonely stars, and players who can carry a team into the NCAA tournament.
Question 1: Frank Kaminsky and Nik Stauskas were two examples of players who quickly ripened into stars last season. Setting aside any of the ultra-hyped freshmen in the sport, which player will be the breakout star in college basketball this season?
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I’m saying Monte Morris at Iowa State. He had some struggles shooting the ball in Big 12 play, but still managed to shoot over 40 percent from three last season, and has a decent assist rate compared to a miniscule turnover rate.
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Louisville’s Terry Rozier. Rozier was a seventh man-type player for the Cards last season, but this year he should develop into their top guard. Rozier filled up the stat sheet in points, rebounds, assists and steals in his role, numbers that should all rise with him starting. Some draftniks thought Rozier was the Cards’ best draft prospect last season. He may have lottery potential with a huge 2015 season.
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Derrick Walton, Michigan. This is admittedly a cowardly answer, but John Beilein seems to crank out one highly improved player on his roster each season, and this is one of a few possibilities on the Wolverines’ roster. Walton enjoyed a three-game sequence beginning late last January against Michigan State, Purdue, and Indiana in which he averaged over 15 points per game and was a defensive pest. He was a central figure in Michigan’s win in the Breslin Center against Michigan State and the Izzone. Walton then seemed to hit a wall in February; defenses were much more able to contain him. Walton’s struggles in February paradoxically allow him to become a breakout player last season.
Consider Stauskas under Beilein in 2013 and then in 2014. When the 2013 NCAA Tournament ended, the book on Stauskas was that he was the shooting specialist you didn’t want to leave open, especially in the corners, where he torched Florida in the 2013 South Regional final in JerryWorld. However, the Stauskas everyone saw in the 2013-2014 season was a player who had an actual handle. He could put the ball on the deck and drive to the rim. He could fake out defenders with a crossover dribble and a series of hesitation moves that could create space in one-on-one situations.
Stauskas developed an extensive set of skills last season. There’s nothing wrong with being a standstill catch-and-shoot sniper — such a skill gave Steve Novak an NBA paycheck and a few productive seasons. However, if you can become a breakdown force who can cause defenders’ knees to buckle and can take the ball to the basket to draw fouls, your stock as a player increases to a considerable degree. Walton shouldn’t be compared to Trey Burke, but let’s see how high his ceiling can become under Beilein this season. If Stauskas could make such a leap, what about another Michigan player in 2014-2015? (Zak Irvin could also be this kind of player, it should be said.)
Question 2: What’s your foremost example of a great player who is stuck on a roster that probably won’t be able to help him very much?
Olivier Hanlan of Boston College. Ryan Anderson – who averaged over 14 points last season – transferred to Arizona. The Eagles have a first-year head coach, Jim Christian, who will almost certainly have to make a profound adjustment as he moves from the Mid-American Conference (Ohio) to the ACC. The Christian hire was seen as a curious move among many pundits (and that might be charitable), but the Christian thing to do is to avoid being unnecessarily harsh. Let’s wait and see how the Eagles fare in season one before assessing the direction of the program.
Yet, if you were to lean in one direction over another, you would very likely guess that Boston College won’t make a sharp upward move this season. Moreover, you would very likely say that as Christian tries to instill his system and his identity into a new program, Hanlan is going to have to shoulder the workload in Chestnut Hill. He will need to provide what Kyle Tucker of the Lexington (Ky.) Courier-Journal calls “rescue buckets.”
Even if Hanlan maxes out, though (let’s say he does), do you really think the Eagles can climb all the way to March Madness? The ACC has its five brand-name schools at the top: Duke, Carolina, Syracuse, Louisville, and Virginia. Miami is likely to be a tournament team. Pittsburgh generally gets to the Dance (it just doesn’t go very far). Boston College will have to elbow its way into the conversation from the bottom tier of the league. That’s just not likely to happen – not this season. Hanlan figures to be a lonely young man in basketball terms.
This was the easiest question to me because the immediate answer that jumped out was Jerian Grant of Notre Dame. Grant was having a tremendous season with 19 points, 6.5 assists, 2.5 boards and 2 steals, along with a career-best slash line of 51.8 / 40.8 / 86.5. He’s a great, great player that’s going to be the centerpiece of the team. I think the Irish will bounce back to a winning record, but ultimately not the heights they want.
Hanlan is an easy answer here, but I am dipping into the mid-major ranks and going with Alan Williams of UC Santa Barbara. He had the third-highest usage rate in the nation last season, and still shot 52 percent inside the arc. He was great as both an offensive and defensive rebounder. Even with all that production, UCSB did not win the Big West regular season championship and lost in the first round of the conference tournament. Unless Williams receives some reinforcements, the Gauchos could experience a similar journey this season.
Question 3: What’s your foremost example of a great player who will be able to carry a flawed team, with all of its imperfections, into the NCAAs and maybe even make a deep run?
I have been harping on Juwan Staten of West Virginia (pictured in the cover photo for this story) for awhile now, but I think it’s a crime he wasn’t a first team All-American. He’s not a great outside shooter, but he shot 49 percent from two, had an assist rate of 33 percent, and just a 13 percent turnover rate. Moreover, he consistently got guys open looks with his ability to get into the lane. I don’t think West Virginia has what it takes to make a big run, but if the Mountaineers do get into the tournament, no one is going to want to play them because of him.
The player I’m going with is DeAngelo Harrison of St John’s. The Johnnies had a 20-win season in 2013-’14 and should break through in an uncertain Big East. Harrison dominates a lot of the offense, but he’s pretty efficient. He’s always on the floor. Harrison is a dead-eye foul shooter and a pretty good 3-point shooter. With this team being somewhat limited offensively, he’s going to have to play a large role for the team to be a force.
We all see athletes from time to time who make us sad — not because we want a team to win, but because we see potential in a young man and want that potential to be realized. “What might have been” is rarely something we want to say about an athlete. Sure, there are occasions when we hate a particular athlete for off-field conduct or some public controversy (especially at the pro level, but this will happen occasionally in college — think of Christian Laettner for stepping on Aminu Timberlake in the 1992 Duke-Kentucky classic), but generally, we don’t want to see young athletes fail.
This is why seeing Demetri McCamey in his senior season at Illinois was such a wrenching experience. You could identify McCamey’s natural physical talent a mile away. Strong, agile, quick — McCamey had a basketball body. He just couldn’t feel his way into a game or make the decisions that would allow his talent to spill out in full flower. It was genuinely sad to watch him play at Illinois. His unrealized potential helped prevent Bruce Weber from having a better career in Champaign.
This season, Rayvonte Rice has a chance to become a fully actualized star for Illinois, a player who can take a limited roster under John Groce and carry it to the dance. Rice was the only Illini player who averaged more than 11 points per game last season. The Illini have a lot of worker-bee players on their roster, which means Rice will have to carry the team this season.
One thing stands out about Rice’s 2013-2014 season: He led Illinois in scoring (by a wide margin) even though he hit under 30 percent of his threes. Just a little extra polishing on his jumper — or an intent to attack the basket and get to the foul line, or both — could make Rice a far more devastating force, one who can carry Illinois back to America’s favorite bracketed tournament.