The college hoops offseason is painfully long. But we're almost through it! And now it's time to get ready/informed for 2014-15 with our month-long worth of ample preseason content here at CBSSports.com. We'll be previewing all of the major conferences in addition to giving you a bevy of other features. Today's lookahead examines potential breakout stars in college basketball this season. And be sure to head here for our hub of preseason goodies.
Every year, be it due to increased opportunity or simply an improvement in skill, players break out and become college basketball stars. A lot of the time we can see it coming, and other times we don't. Often, the best breakout stories are the ones that come out of nowhere, which makes the list I'm about to give you less fun, but still very informative.
Some of the qualifiers for making the list are as follows:
- Transfers are ineligible. We already have written at length about potential star transfers in new situations here and here. Apologies to players like Rodney Purvis, Kyle Wiltjer and Kedren Johnson.
- Freshmen are also ineligible. Some off-the-radar freshmen I like include Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Elijah Macon.
- I've defined breakout players as those who averaged under 10 points per game last season because I'm admittedly lazy when it comes to creating qualifications for lists like this. There are other personal judgments that come into play, meaning I didn't automatically qualify every player who averaged under 10 last year. But that's how I narrowed it down to start. So my apologies for coming with a completely arbitrary number go to Jordan Woodard, Brice Johnson, Michael Qualls and LeBryan Nash, among others that I think are going to make a "leap" this season.
Given that a majority of the players listed below are between the ages of 19 and 21, it seems likely that all of them have improved in some capacity this offseason. However, in most cases the players below will break out simply due to increased opportunity and a larger role. Others have a shot because they are healthier this season after battling injuries.
I've got 20 players that I think are good candidates to have really good years, and I've listed them in alphabetical order below. Let's go ahead and take a look at who we are projecting to break out this season.
Bird was a highly sought-after, McDonald's All-American recruit who ended up signing with Mike Montgomery and Cal despite offers to just about every other Pac-12 program. He was a contributor for Montgomery last season, but I expect him to take a leap into stardom this year. Very few wings in America have the nose for the basket Bird does, and he moves really well off-ball and into catch-and-shoot situations. He'll need to ease up on some of the bad shots that plagued him a year ago, but I think that doubling his scoring to 16 points per game on somewhat efficient shooting numbers isn't out of the question with Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon out of the picture.
Very few players have been plagued with injuries in the same way that Dunn has been over his two seasons with coach Ed Cooley's Friars. Two separate shoulder injuries have limited the former five-star prospect to 29 games with Providence in two seasons. And that's a shame, because Dunn can really play. He's a guard equally good at getting to the rim whenever he wants and knocking down jumpers off the dribble. Plus, with Bryce Cotton gone, the opportunity is there for Dunn to really take over the Friar offense. If he's healthy, Cooley's squad might have a shot to return to the NCAA Tournament.
I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of Finney-Smith's offensive game currently, but the opportunity is ripe for the taking for this 6-foot-8 forward if he can improve his shooting percentage from distance. With the Gators being forced to replace four starters, there will be an awful lot of shots to go around for guys like he, Chris Walker, and Kasey Hill (both of whom could have also made this list). The biggest key to Finney-Smith's offensive game is if that shot can come around, because he's athletic enough to attack close outs and get into the lane with ease. If the shot falls, look for him to be the second-leading scorer on a top 10 team this year.
Frazier is another very highly-touted recruit that struggled in his first season on a college campus. The talent is absolutely there, as the former McDonald's All-American is an excellent shooter from distance who also has good instincts when it comes to getting to the rim. My guess is that he has a bigger role than he did last year despite much of SMU's core returning. If that happens, Frazier should more than double his scoring output of 5.4 points per game last season.
Over the past few seasons, coach Scott Drew has had highly touted big men like Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Isaiah Austin come and go from Waco with disappointing results. That mostly has to do with Drew's system, which relies heavily on guard penetration with big men down low in the post as opposed to out on the wings creating offense. Indeed, guys like the aforementioned trio were never going to get the most of their talents in Drew's system. However, the physical Gathers should reverse that, as he's the ideal Drew big man in that he doesn't need the ball to be effective with his excellent offensive rebounding skills and physical defense. It's fair to say that he's somewhat limited, but he'll also be a perfect contributor next to Kenny Chery in Baylor's offense.
Likely moving into the starting lineup to replace the departed Ben Brust, Hayes should see an increase in usage despite sharing the frontcourt with potential All-Americans Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. Hayes is a big, physical forward with a midrange game that should mesh perfectly with the highly-skilled duo that he'll join. I might be a year early on him because of the lack of opportunity, but Hayes could be in for a solid year in the neighborhood of 12 points and seven rebounds per contest.
With Tracy Abrams' injury and the departure of Joseph Bertrand, one of the Illini's three rising sophomores are going to break out. I'm choosing Hill as opposed to Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn. Hill has performend well in early practices and exhibitions, and his length and skill level will complement the pure power of returning leading scorer Rayvonte Rice well on the wing. He shoots the 3-pointer well when he has confidence, and has potential to be a plus defender if he has put on any strength over the offseason.
Anyone that follows me on Twitter will tell you that I have been a fan of Irvin's for a long time. He's a true shot maker from distance that should see a large uptick in usage as he steps into the starting lineup to replace Nik Stauskas. The sophomore jump that players often take under coach John Beilein is well-known, and I think this is the next player to experience it. Caris LeVert will obviously take on the brunt of the ball-handling, but it wouldn't totally surprise me to see Irvin score 15 points per game this year as a spot-up shooter that knocks down 40 percent of his 3-point attempts and attacks close-outs to finish from the midrange or get to the free throw line.
I was surprised to learn Jones, not Rasheed Sulaimon, is expected to start for the Blue Devils to start the season next to Tyus Jones in the backcourt. But the 6-foot-5 sophomore is a great defensive player that can knock down shots, which makes him a valuable commodity for a team that struggled to defend everyone last season. His play on the other end is going to be much more vital to Duke, but given the amount of open shots he'll see it wouldn't surprise me to see Jones average double digits this year as the Blue Devils try to replace the floor spacing of Tyler Thornton and Andre Dawkins.
This is purely a speculative addition. If Kingsley gets minutes, he could be one of the best rim protectors and most valuable defensive players in the country after averaging 5.3 blocks per 40 minutes last season with a 13.4 percent block rate. Plus, he moves well on the perimeter and is an excellent compliment to Bobby Portis on both ends. He's still a work in progress on offense, but his ceiling is legitimately SEC Defensive Player of the Year if everything goes right and Arkansas performs up to their potential.
Mason should step right into the role vacated by Naadir Tharpe last season as one of Kansas's lead guards along with Devonte Graham. He's a slasher through and through who can get into the paint and to the rim better than most in college basketball. The jump shot needs to improve after only shooting 32 percent from 3-point range last season, but coach Bill Self has been gushing about Mason all offseason and expects him to make a big impact on this season's Jayhawk team. If he improves either his shot or his ability to finish at the rim -- where he only shot 50 percent -- Mason's scoring should double to around 11 or 12 points per contest on this deep Kansas team.
Meeks was a per-minute superstar last season, averaging over 18 points and nearly 15 rebounds per 40 minutes with a PER of 24.5. And that was with him coming into camp over 300 pounds. This season, he was a downright svelte 266 pounds entering practice and his added athleticism is showing off. Assuming he is able to box out and pin frontcourt players down against the baseline using his still-wide frame, Meeks could be in for a huge season in the halfcourt next to the uber-athlete Johnson.
Morris was a good piece on last season's fun Iowa State attack, a perfect point guard for coach Fred Hoiberg's system with his ability to knock down the outside shot and break down the defense to get into the lane. This year, he'll be responsible for getting everyone on a deep yet somewhat unfamiliar team involved, including potential All-American Georges Niang. If anyone is going to be able to do that, it's Morris whose 6.9 assist-to-turnover ratio in conference was the best mark in America. I'll go slightly out on a limb and predict that Morris ends up as an All-Big 12 performer by the end of the year.
Parker was an efficient, low-usage forward on a loaded UCLA team a year ago. This year, he will likely step into a starting role next to Kevon Looney in the frontcourt, bringing along his averages of 16 points and 10 rebounds per 40 minutes last year. Replicating those per 40 numbers is probably attainable for Parker this season in a larger role, but to do so he'll need to stay out of foul trouble after averaging nearly eight fouls per 40 last season. If he can do that, UCLA will have a much easier time getting back to the NCAA Tournament under coach Steve Alford.
Polee was the Mountain West's Sixth Man of the Year last season, scoring over eight points per game while playing at the top of their 1-3-1 zone and wreaking havoc with his length on opposing offenses. He was voted preaseason All-MWC this year, so the secret is out about Polee's skill level. But with Xavier Thames gone, the Aztecs need someone to replace the offense that the departed point guard provided. The 6-foot-7 swingman is the most likely place that creation will come from.
Rozier was the darling of summer camps this offseason, and saw his stock skyrocket to the point where he is now considered a potential lottery pick by some NBA draft prognosticators. Stepping into the massive hole that Russ Smith leaves behind, Rozier will be counted on to create offense for a Louisville team that could struggle to do so if he can't. Luckily Rozier is quick enough to get into the paint almost at will, so he should have an easy time setting up his teammates. He has the skill to be an All-ACC performer, so 15 points and five assist per game could be a pretty reasonable approximation given Louisville's pace of play.
Scott also replaces a legendary performer at his school, in his case Aaron Craft. With he and D'Angelo Russell in the fold, the Buckeyes should have much more balanced offensive attack while keeping some of the defense that Craft provided due to Scott's proficiency there. The reports out of Columbus about Scott have also been glowing this offseason, as many have said he is Ohio State's best player and looks ready to take over as the primary ball-handling option. If that's the case, 13 points and five assists per game could be doable. And if you take that in conjunction with his now two-time All-Big Ten defensive game, that's probably an All-Big 10 performer.
You're probably seeing a pattern here with Big Ten teams making up quite a few of these players. The conference lost a lot in the offseason, and didn't replace it with much in the way of recruiting. Therefore, it's going to be incumbent upon returning players to step up into their new roles. There's no better example of that than Valentine in East Lansing, who will bring his well-rounded game to replace the losses of Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne. Offense could be hard to come by in East Lansing this year unless Valentine can step up and become a secondary scoring option next to lead guard Travis Trice and physical brusier Branden Dawson. I think it's likely that he'll help out in that regard while keeping his all-around game intact.
Williams was suspended Monday because of a failed drug test, but that doesn't mean Indiana won't be counting on him in a major way when he returns. After losing Will Sheehey and Noah Vonleh, the Hoosiers are going to need the 6-foot-7 wing to provide offense next to Yogi Ferrell and freshman James Blackmon in the backcourt. He came on in the final three games of the year last year, averaging 15 points on 19-26 shooting. That's a good example of what he can provide when he's on and rolling offensively, plus he's a long defender that's tough to get around. Coach Tom Crean will need a big contribution from Williams to keep his job at the end of the season.
Young is a combo forward for Jamie Dixon's Panthers team that will be looking to replace the scoring of Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna. He was often equipped as the team's defensive stopper last year, but he has the athletic ability to step into more of a primary scoring role as Pitt waits for guard Cam Wright to return from injury at some point before the new year. The versatility that Young provides will pay dividends for a team that is without an alpha dog right now and will need to score in a variety of ways. If he can do that, plus provide the defensive skill that he did last season, Young will probably be the Panthers' best player.