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Critical Coaches: Who's the most coveted player in college hoops?

By Eye on College Basketball staff | CBSSports.com
Cody Zeller: inevitable preseason First Team All-America selection, and the biggest desire for coaches. (US Presswire)

CBSSports.com's college basketball quartet spent the July open recruiting period hobnobbing with nearly 70 coaches and texted another 30 more, brain-picking them on some of college basketball's current issues. From the best players to their comrades in coaching; from the AAU programs to the agents' involvement; from the rule changes to the NCAA as a whole. We had to promise them anonymity, and in exchange, they gave us honest answers. Over the next three weeks here on the blog, we'll be putting out one question per weekday and giving you the array of results, straight from the coaches' mouths.

Today we're starting with one of the easy ones, or so we thought. Turns out, a lot of coaches don't really know all the best players in college basketball off the top of their heads. Quite a few of the men interviewed had to think for a good while about who was best, as not to overlook anyone. (Yeah, turns out these guys are quite tunnel-visioned with their teams. Surprise, surprise.)

The question: If you could add any one player to your team for next season, who would it be?

  1. Indiana sophomore Cody Zeller: 35 percent
  2. UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad: 12 percent
  3. Ohio State junior Aaron Craft: 9 percent
  4. Creighton junior Doug McDermott: 9 percent
  5. Murray State senior Isaiah Canaan: 7 percent
  6. Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel: 7 percent
  7. Michigan sophomore Trey Burke: 5 percent

Also received votes: C.J. Leslie (N.C. State), Pat Young (Florida), Otto Porter (Georgetown), Gorgui Dieng (Louisville), Lorenzo Brown (N.C. State), Phil Pressey (Missouri), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State).

Quotes that stuck:

On Zeller: "He has an unbelievable skill set and he plays hard. He's just a winner. Plus, there's no dynamic guards this year."

On Muhammad: "Is Shabazz going to miss a lot of games because of NCAA issues? If not, I'd take him. He'll be able to score at a high-level from day one."

On Craft/Noel: "I'd rather go to four Elite Eights with Aaron Craft than one title game with Nerlens Noel, because the headaches that come with the top players isn't worth it."

Takeaway (by Matt Norlander):

Zeller winning this question, if you will, isn't a surprise. In fact, of the other 14 litmus tests/topics/survey Qs coming your way in the next three weeks, I think this one is the most predictable. But we had to ask it because we wanted to know what the masses thought. Zeller's so revered because he's polished already and showed an immediate ability to expand his game in his freshman year. He can step out and shoot. He has terrific feet. He has grown to adapt in the paint. His attitude is fantastic. At this point, there's no danger with Zeller -- and the ceiling still seems to be out of reach, which is a great thing.

Looking elsewhere at the roster of the desired, some of it seems looney, yeah. I mean, more coaches would honestly rather take Craft than Noel? That surprises me, but remember this is a selection of coaches across major, mid-major and low-major lines. That quote above doesn't mean Noel's a diva, but it does mean a majority of top 25-level players are perceived as a burden in one way or another by some coaches. Sometimes it's not even the player. It can be that the player has a lot of people around him and appeasing a player's friends/family/entourage during his time at a school can be stressful for a coach. The winning makes it worth it for most, though. It's only when we remove the veil of identity that they can speak freely about which players are worth it.

But right now, it's Zeller and then everyone else. If we parachuted into 70 coaches' offices in the middle of next January and asked them the same question, I'm not positive Zeller still leads -- and it's highly doubtful he would have a 23-point margin over No. 2 -- but it's not likely he'll drop out of the top three. The pressure's on for him and Indiana to take the huge next step. He's expected to be the nation's best while taking that program to a Final Four.

Coming Tuesday: The votes are tallied for the most underrated head coach in college basketball.

 
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