Get to Know Them: Ten Players Ready to Break Out This SeasonPosted by Chris Johnson on November 2nd, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Every college basketball season brings a new cast of stars. There are freshman, the super-prospects hyped up to disproportionate levels who may or may not live up to their billing. Then there are the returning players, the guys who showed flashes of stardom the previous season and are ready to truly hit their stride after an offseason honing their games. Highlighting these players doesn’t require much insight or deep thought. You know a star when you see one. Discovering under-the-radar gems, the diamonds in the rough, the players who emerge from the depths of the unknown to make a splash on the national stage, is another matter entirely. It requires a comprehensive knowledge of the game – and not just the Kentuckys and the North Carolinas and the Dukes of the world. You know those guys. The focus here is the more unheralded crop of players ready to make the leap into the general college hoops consciousness. What follows is my vain attempt at singling out those very players I described above. You may not know these names now, but by the time March rolls around, my bet is that you will.
*Editor’s note: you will notice there are no freshmen on this list. That is no mistake. This list is geared towards returning players. If you’re interested in a more freshmen-centric preview analysis, check out this list of newcomers who are “ready to play big roles on their new teams.”
Rotnei Clarke – Butler
Relative to recent history, Butler did not have the best 2011-12 season. Let’s not sell the Bulldogs short: They reached the semifinals of a national postseason tournament for the third straight season. Only this time, it wasn’t the NCAA Tournament. Instead, Butler got bounced in the semifinals of the CBI, a huge downturn from the two preceding Final Four trips. Butler may never again string together that level of Tournament success, but Clarke gives Brad Stevens’ team a much better chance than it had last season. Plain and simple, Clarke, who made 91 of 208 three-point attempts in 2010-11 (he sat out last season after transferring from Arkansas), can shoot the lights out from beyond the arc. And what does Butler desperately need as it enters its debut season in the A-10? Long-range shooting, where last season it finished ranked 341st in three-point field goal percentage.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – Georgia
Basically any chance Georgia has of challenging in the SEC this season and making a push for an NCAA bid rests on Caldwell-Pope, whose freshman season was something of a disappointment considering the McDonalds All-American hype he brought to Athens. With a year of experience under his belt, and a greater chance to showcase his talents without being comparatively dwarfed by the likes of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Caldwell-Pope should blossom. Georgia doesn’t offer much help in terms of solid complementary players, so Pope will be asked to carry the load. Kentucky and Missouri are heavy favorites to challenge for the SEC crown this season, but if Pope plays to his recruiting promise, the Bulldogs are more than capable of notching a few wins against the league front-runners. NBA scouts are already drooling over the 6’4’’ guard’s potential. He’ll make good on those claims this season.
Cory Jefferson – Baylor
All eyes will be fixed upon freshman Isaiah Austin, a 7’0’’ center ranked No. 1 at his position and No. 2 overall in the 2012 class, according to ESPN.com’s Recruiting Nation rankings. Scouts say Austin fits the Perry Jones mold, both physically and stylistically. That means plenty of jump shots, spot-ups and time spent away from the paint. It also means Jefferson will have plenty of room to man the low block, to use his 6’9’’ frame and 7’0’’ wingspan (per Baylor’s athletic department) to protect the rim and to refine his offensive game along the way. He posted a 12.4 percent block rate in limited minutes last season, according to kenpom.com, but should improve in a larger role this season.
Tony Snell – New Mexico
Last season, the Mountain West was by all accounts a stronger league – not just in terms of top-to-bottom depth, but also for its top-end quality – than the Pac-12. While that’s unlikely to be the case for the second consecutive season, the MW has generated plenty of preseason buzz, and almost all of it centers on UNLV and San Diego State, who rank #18 and #20 in the first AP Poll. New Mexico does not belong in that same elite class, but it certainly has what it takes to get there by the end of the season. That’s a reasonable projection given the Rebels bring back most of last season’s deep lineup, and Snell – who was largely overshadowed by all-MW forward Drew Gordon in 2011-12 – is poised to break out. Now that Gordon has moved on, Snell can come into his own on the offensive end and unleash his versatile skill set on Mountain West competition.
C.J. Aiken – Saint Joseph’s
There’s a reason St. Joes was picked to finish first by a handful of coaches and media in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll. All five starters return from last season’s 20-14 outfit. Their year-to-year cohesion and growth will only lead to bigger and better things this season. Phil Martelli has nuanced and innate knowledge of the league landscape. That’s all well and good, but what separates the Hawks from an incredibly deep A-10 is Aiken, whose low post presence and emerging offensive game will serve as a fantastic complement to lead guard Carl Jones. Aiken posted a 13.8% defensive rebounding rate, a 10.9% block rate and ranked fifth in the nation with 3.53 blocked shots per game last season. If he can clean up his offensive execution and maintain that baseline defensive strength, Aiken can help lead the Hawks not just to a top-end A-10 finish, but to a multi-win run in the NCAA Tournament.
Anthony Collins – South Florida
From an aesthetic perspective, there were few teams more frustrating to watch last season than South Florida. The Bulls employed an hypnotically slow, Wisconsin-esque style. On offense, they did everything in their power to slow the game down and run their half-court offense to a grinding halt. They would swing the ball around on the perimeter, usually to no avail, then wait for Collins to bail them out with a miracle shot at the end of the shot clock. This strategy was predictably ineffective for most of the season (the Bulls finished with the nation’s 101st most efficient offense). But it didn’t matter all that much, because South Florida regularly rolled out one of the nation’s best defenses. If they can work out the kinks in the offense this season, an enterprise which (almost certainly) will require Collins to run isolation sets in the halfcourt, the Bulls can aim for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Kwamain Mitchell – Saint Louis
Last year’s one-seed Michigan State team knows all too well how dangerous Mitchell can be in a Tournament setting. He finished with just 13 points on 3-of-10 shooting in a third round match-up last season with the Spartans, but Mitchell was a constant pest on the defensive end and he was one of the few players able to find cracks in Michigan State’s unforgiving perimeter defense. Mitchell will miss the first few weeks of this season while rehabbing a foot injury, but his return should coincide with a strong A-10 title bid for the Billikens and a return to the NCAA Tournament. And one thing is certain: This is not a team you want to see in a do-or-die, winner-take-all scenario.
Joe Jackson – Memphis
As talent goes, Memphis stands up with just about any team in the country. Forward Adonis Thomas has drawn rave reviews for his improved jump shot this offseason, and freshman Shaq Goodwin has a bright NBA future. Jackson has just as much talent as his teammates but an inconsistent career has minimized his brand-name recognition among casual fans. Tiger loyalists know his potential, and if he can put it all together in his third season – if he can extrapolate his back-to-back C-USA Tournament MVP bona fides over a season-long sample – Jackson can lift this team to the exalted status it enjoyed under John Calipari. He’s not Derrick Rose (but I mean come on, who is?), nor does he boast a first-round draft grade, but Jackson is a promising if sporadically brilliant player. That’s enough to garner some national attention come March.
Alex Len – Maryland
It’s been a long time coming, but the Terrapins are on their way back to the upper echelon of the ACC. The renaissance is more likely to hit full gear next season, with transfers Dez Wells, Evan Smotrycz and highly-touted point guard Roddy Peters entering the fold. Len can condense that timetable and help the Terrapins contend in an arguably top-heavy ACC as early as this season. Len’s debut was delayed 10 games due to questions surrounding his involvement with a professional European club, but once he got on campus and learned Mark Turgeon’s system, Len flashed the uncanny athleticism and ferocious shot blocking (he finished third in the ACC in blocked shots) that’s made him one of this season’s more intriguing center prospects for the 2013 draft. Len will get more touches now that ball-stopping guard Terrell Stoglin left to pursue a professional career. With a year of experience under his belt, the 7’0’’ center could develop into one of the ACC’s best big men.
Chasson Randle – Stanford
Even if you’re not interested in Stanford’s basketball team per se, newly-hired assistant Mark Madsen provides must-see viewing. I’m as big of a fan of Madsen’s dancing skills as the next guy, but Randle’s sophomore development is a far greater component of Stanford’s on-court package. After an impressive first season, one in which he submitted an impressive 108.8 offensive rating while drawing consideration as a Pac-12 freshman of the year candidate, Randle will broaden his horizons and embrace the lion’s share of the Cardinal’s scoring responsibilities this season. Leading scorer Josh Owens is gone, which means Randle, along with off-guard Aaron Bright, will constitute the focal point of Stanford’s halfcourt attack. Randle’s rise may come earlier than most on this list; the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field – which includes, among others, Stanford, Mizzouri, Duke, Louisville and Memphis – will serve as an early showcase event for Randle and the Cardinal.