Possible breakout players: Kentucky, UNC, Kansas have candidates to make a big leap
Here's 11 players who didn't do much last season, but are poised to do big things in 2017-18
Each season in college basketball there are players who thrust themselves into the national spotlight with their play on the court seemingly out of left field.
Whether it be due to newfound opportunity or to a shift in attitude, a training change or simply natural development, these breakout players are sometimes difficult to project. But with the season countdown clock ticking, we're going to do just that and give you 11 players who could enjoy a breakthrough at their respective school this season.
The only stipulations: The player must have been at the NCAA level last season, averaged less than 8 points per game, and played less than 22 minutes per contest in 2016-17.
A former five-star talent, Gabriel is on the short list of Kentucky blue-chippers who decided to not take the one-and-done route -- and his career might be all the better for it.
Last season, Gabriel was buried on the depth chart behind veteran big man Derek Willis but he flashed talent in spot duty. This season, we should see him take over a bigger role, even with five-star freshmen Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington all likely to challenge him for playing time in the rotation.
Gabriel's 17.8 minutes per game backup time might be doubled as a sophomore as he appears destined for a sophomore-sized leap. The 6-foot-9 athletic freak is an elder on one of the youngest John Calipari-coached teams he's ever had.
If not for a wrist injury that cut short his freshman season just ahead of Big 12 play last season, Azubuike might well be a household name by now. It's a matter of time before the big man from Jacksonville, Fla., is making his presence felt in a big way in the post for the Jayhawks.
Azubuike is a 7-foot, 280-pound traditional center. And while he's not the rim-running big you see now taking over the NBA, he has the ability to dominate the glass and pick up any scraps left around the rim from KU's vaunted backcourt. He should be in line to take over starting duties now that he's back at full strength, and he's got the ability to potentially put up double-doubles on a nightly basis similar to what Caleb Swanigan did at Purdue last season.
In his second season with the program in 2016, Spalding shared frontcourt responsibilities with Jaylen Johnson at power forward. However now that Johnson's off pursuing a professional career, Spalding's in line to soak up a major role in the post for the Cardinals in 2017-18.
Spalding's an analytics marvel who, theoretically, should thrive based off his per-40 minute projections. He averaged 5.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season in 19.2 minutes per game, and with Johnson and Mangok Mathiang both out of the picture, the time is now for Spalding to fill the void left by the two talented big men. More minutes should equal more production and for Spalding, the writing is on the wall for him to break out in a big way for the Cards.
Guy barely makes this list in part because Virginia was already plenty reliant on his talents as a freshman last season.
The former four-star guard will step into an ever bigger role he had last season with two of Virginia's top scorers, including the always reliable London Perrantes, no longer part of the program.
Guy averaged 7.5 points and 1.3 assists per game last season, but should see a new role not only as a primary scorer for Virginia, but also as a play-maker on the ball more often in Tony Bennett's system. He's now the unofficial face of the Cavaliers program, and it's only a matter of time before his potential lines up with his production.
I could make the case here for any number of Michigan State's returning sophomores, but Josh Langford, a plus defender and efficient scorer, seems destined to be the breakout player not already on your radar.
Langford led the Spartans in three point shooting at 41.6 percent and averaged 6.9 points per game as a freshman, but a lack of consistency stunted his playing time unlike Cassius Winston or Nick Ward. So with Alvin Ellis having expired his eligibility, Langford now steps into the primary role at small forward this season where his perimeter scoring will open up driving lanes for Miles Bridges and keep defenses honest.
That's a bigger responsibility than it might seem like on paper.
The veteran-laden Michigan team that made a magical run to the Sweet 16 last season is a shell of itself after losing two of its leading scorers. But under John Beilein, the Wolverines are equipped to reload -- thanks largely due to the expected re-emergence of Duncan Robinson.
Robinson played in the shadows last season behind the uber-talented Zak Irvin, but he's thrived once before in Michigan's system. As a freshman, Robinson put up 11.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game before seeing his role reduced last season as a sophomore.
The departure of Irvin should open up a wealth of opportunities for Robinson, and he appears slated to cash in on that newfound opening in the frontcourt. Expect him to return to his freshman form (and then some) in 2017.
As Wisconsin looks to replace four starters from a season ago, Greg Gard will rely heavily on sophomore guard D'Mitrik Trice.
Trice shot an efficient 41.8 percent from the 3-point line and averaged 5.6 points per game last season in mop-up time. This season, however, Trice returns as the second-leading scorer -- so his role will increase exponentially.
Virtually everything Wisconsin does this season will run through versatile big man Ethan Happ, but Trice is a close second. His emergence as a reliant scorer on the perimeter will be paramount to the Badgers and their success in the Big Ten.
The Tar Heels rode junior point guard Joel Berry through the regular season and all the way to a national title, but this season he should be able to finally get some needed breathers as sophomore guard Seventh Woods grows into a larger role.
Woods had some bright spots off the bench last season for UNC, but he struggled with ball security and, as to be expected by most youngsters, made freshman mistakes that limited his playing time on the floor to just 7.7 minutes per game.
While Woods' scoring and efficiency were relatively pedestrian, he should be able to settle in and enjoy a bit of a sophomore breakout. UNC needs him to absolutely play to his potential.
Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson come to mind when you think of Irish coach Mike Brey and his knack for recruiting and developing under-the-radar talent. It might officially be time to add Temple Gibbs to the watch list.
Last season, Farrell went from bit player to a point guard Brey claims is better than Bobby Hurley. This season, Gibbs could enjoy that same meteoric rise, even with Rex Pflueger clogging his playing time.
The former four-star prospect has all the talent in the world and did well in spot duty as a scorer and distributor as a freshman, despite playing just 15 minutes per game. With Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem exhausting their eligbility, Gibbs could find himself playing a major role at the shooting guard, with Pflueger perhaps sliding over to small forward if Brey opts to go with small and athletic lineups.
Hassani Gravett, South Carolina
South Carolina's unlikely run to the Final Four last season was fueled by Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier, but both have since moved on to chase their dreams in the NBA. That opens the door for little-used backup Hassani Gravett, a rising sophomore expected to take over the shooting guard position left vacant by yet another departed starter in Duane Notice.
Gravett averaged 3.2 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 16.6 minutes last season and appeared in 35 games, including three double-digit scoring performances. And while his shooting percentages don't jump off the page, he's got the talent and the opportunity to make a leap in year 2 with the Gamecocks.
No team in the Big 12 is undergoing the roster haul Iowa State is this season.
The Cyclones lose four of their leading scorers from last season, including All-Big 12 point guard Monte Morris. But the talent is there for junior college point guard Donovan Jackson to step in as a stop-gap to prevent any major drop off.
Jackson played behind Morris last season where he averaged 6.4 points in 16.8 minutes. This season, his scoring and ability to command the offense will be vital to the Cyclones' ability to fight in a rebuilding season. With his 3-point percentage of 45.5 ranked 28th nationally last season, Jackson's in line to score in bunches and make plays for his younger teammates.
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