NCAA Basketball Tournament - Saint Louis v Memphis

College Hoops Preview: Identifying this year’s X-Factors

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Preseason talk is always dominated by all-american teams and all-conference teams, player of the year candidates and who is headed for early-entry into the NBA Draft.

And, generally speaking, the players that have their names brought up in those conversations are usually the guys that dominate the headlines — and the box scores — for much of the season. But quite often, the difference-makers for the best teams in the country aren’t necessarily the leading scorers or the best pro prospects, they are the guys that the most important role. They are the guys that will be called upon to do what no one else on the roster is willing or able to do.

Here are 18 of this season’s most important x-factors (it’s by no means a comprehensive list, so feel free to chime in with oversights in the comments):

Tarik Black, Jr., Memphis: Black was expected to be a breakout performer for Memphis last season, but that didn’t happen. In fact, he put together a fairly disappointing season. One of the biggest issues was his inability to rebound the ball, which was a major reason Memphis was routinely beat up on the glass last year. With leading rebounder Will Barton gone, Black will need to become a presence on the back boards.

Austin Chatman, So., Creighton: The Bluejays returned the majority of their roster from last year, but the guy they lost was point guard Antoine Young. Chatman is the leading candidate to try and replace those 12.1 points and 4.4 assists, but more importantly, he’ll be asked to be a defensive sparkplug. Creighton’s season will hinge on whether or not they can improve on that end of the floor.

Patrick Connaughton, So., and Scott Martin, Sr., Notre Dame: Notre Dame has a pair of terrific play-makers in their back court and a big-bodied, all-conference center in the middle. In Mike Brey’s ‘Burn’ Offense, those three will need space. If Connaughton and Martin can consistently knockdown perimeter jumpers, they’ll have it.

Quinn Cook, So., Duke: The Blue Devils were missing a number of things from last season’s team, but nothing was more difficult to overcome than the lack of a play-maker at the point guard spot. While the roster will have a bit of a different feel this season, there are still plenty of weapons on it. No one will be more important than their point guard, Cook.

Gary Harris, Fr., Michigan State: It’s always tough to peg just how good an incoming freshman is going to be, and it is no different with Harris. But with the tough and physical front line that Michigan State will put on the floor, they’ll need Harris to be a serious scoring threat. Because Tom Izzo doesn’t have many others.

Andre Hollins, So., Minnesota: While Trevor Mbakwe’s legal status may be the most pressing issue for this team, Hollins’ development is a close second. It took him some time to learn the point guard spot as a freshman, but after averaging 16.8 points and 2.8 assists in the final nine games (including four points and no assists in the NIT title game when he fouled out), Gopher fans are expecting a lot out of him this season.

Elijah Johnson, Sr., Kansas: You know about Jeff Withey defensively and you know what it expected of Ben McLemore as a scoring guard, but who will be the Jayhawk’s leader? Who will be their play-maker and ball-handler? Johnson was promising at the end of last season. Can he build on that heading into his senior campaign?

Philip Jurick, Sr., Oklahoma State: Even with Brian Williams’ injury and J.P. Olukemi’s eligibility questions, the Cowboys have plenty of wing and perimeter options. What they’re lacking, however, is a presence in the middle. Jurick averaged 4.9 boards and 1.7 blocks in just 16.5 minutes last year, but he’s battling back from an achilles injury and dealing with some legal issues stemming from an offseason arrest.

Alex Len, So., Maryland: The Terps have a number of talented perimeter options and a couple of live-bodied athletes in their front court, but if Len can live up to some of the expectation he has, Mark Turgeon’s club has a chance to be very good. He’s a legitimate seven-footer and a scoring threat inside.

Mark Lyons, Sr., Arizona: Ok, Lyons may be more than simply a role player, but his role is so important for the Wildcats that I left him on this list. Arizona has a ton of talent on their roster, but it’s young talent. Lyons is a veteran guard, but can he be a facilitating leader at the point?

Anthony Marshall, Sr., UNLV: Marshall’s in a similar situation as Lyons. He’s a veteran guard being asked to play the role of facilitating point guard when it’s not exactly his strong suit. There is a lot of talent on the UNLV roster, and Marshall is the guy that can bring it all together.

Victor Oladipo, Jr., Indiana: Oladipo is the best athlete and the best perimeter defender on a team that doesn’t have much a ton of athleticism and will struggle on the defensive end of the floor. If he can consistently force opposing wings to struggle to score the ball, it’ll be a boon for Tom Crean’s team.

Alex Oriakhi, Sr., Missouri: Lost in his disappointing performance as a junior at UConn was just how dominant Oriakhi was as a sophomore, dominating the paint as the Huskies won the national title. With ball-pressuring guards and versatile, athletic forwards on the roster, if Oriakhi can revert back to that form, Missouri can become an elite defensive team.

Marcus Paige, Fr., North Carolina: The point guard spot on the Tar Heels may be the most important position in the entire country. Paige is a freshman taking over the role. He’ll have talent on the roster with him, but that’s no guarantee that UNC will be successful with Paige running the show. Ask Larry Drew.

Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Ohio State: We know what to expect out of Deshaun Thomas and we know what Aaron Craft is going to give the Buckeyes. Thad Matta has plenty of highly-regarded recruits that can fill in and play roles. What the Buckeyes need is a secondary scorer to emerge on the wing, and Smith showed signs of being that guy last season.

Peyton Siva, Sr., Louisville: Siva had quite a bit of expectation entering last season, and he struggled dealing with them early on. Louisville struggled as well. Remember the 31 point loss to Providence? I do. But down the stretch of the regular season and into March, Siva started to become the kind of play-maker that we all expected from the beginning. And the Cardinals won the Big East tournament and made the Final Four. Louisville is not a good offensive basketball team, which is why Siva’s role is so important.

JT Terrell, So., USC: USC will look like a brand new team this year, with the number of transfers getting eligible and returners getting healthy. And while they have size up front and a quality point guard in Jio Fontan, they are missing some scoring pop on the wing. Terrell can be that guy.

Patric Young, Jr., Florida: From a physical perspective, Young may as well be a Greek God. The problem? That physicality hasn’t quite produced the kind of numbers you’d expect. On a team with a lot of guards and a power forward that shoots a lot of threes, Young needs to become a guy that controls the paint offensively and defensively if Florida is to become elite.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

N.C. State’s Dennis Smith Jr. fully recovered, ready to go

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Dennis Smith Jr. sure looks ready.

North Carolina State’s prized freshman point guard is pushing through a workout in the practice gym on a hot July afternoon, and there’s no sign of the knee injury that defined his past year.

He’s sprinting along the baseline to bury a catch-and-shoot corner 3-pointer. He’s dribbling between chairs and stutter-stepping his way to a pull-up jumper. He’s launching himself at the rim for a dunk off the dribble.

“I don’t expect to be rusty at all,” Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was feeling kind of nervous at one point, but I went in and did a workout and then I was thinking, `I’m putting in all this work so all the nervousness should be out of my mind.’ I had no reason to be timid.

“I just have to go out there and perform, no excuses.”

A lot has happened for Smith in 12 months. The Fayetteville native suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in a game during the Adidas Nations event featuring top prospects. He had surgery, picked N.C. State, graduated from high school early and enrolled in college in January to rehab and learn the Wolfpack’s system before his debut later this year.

Tuesday marks one year since the injury for the 6-foot-3 Smith, ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 1 point guard when he signed last fall.

“We’ve tried to be real conservative with him as far as not letting him do too much too fast,” coach Mark Gottfried said. “At his age, he can’t wait. He’s dying to play every day.”

Smith started earning his leadership role as soon as he arrived in Raleigh, pointing out instructions to teammates or calling them to the gym for extra work even though he couldn’t play. He figures that time observing from the sideline has prepared him to replace high-scoring floor leader Anthony “Cat” Barber.

“I feel like I’ve gotten smarter, definitely,” Smith said. “I see the game totally different now. I read pick-and-roll easier. I feel like I’ve gotten more sound on defense because I understand angles better.”

The physical work to get back has been tougher.

Roughly a year ago, Smith was lying in a bed after surgery trying to stay positive. He asked trainer Ja-Rell Bailey to bring him some free weights for upper-body exercises even if he couldn’t do much else, an example of why Bailey described Smith as “a man determined.”

Smith’s father said the rehab emphasized building leg strength to protect and stabilize the injured knee, something his son said he will keep doing in both legs for years to come. Smith’s work has helped him go from 180 pounds to a college-ready 192-pound frame.

“He’s got his bounce back, so he can dunk and everything,” Dennis Smith Sr. said. “But what Junior has got, God gave it to him. . A lot of times you run into kids who are built off of hype because they do a fancy move or have a good game. Junior ain’t hype. He’s the real deal.”

Regardless, Gottfried expects Smith to have “a learning curve.”

“For me,” he said, “I think what you see in November is going to be much different than what you see in January.”

The Wolfpack will look much different, too, after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons. N.C. State welcomes Scout.com’s No. 6-ranked recruiting class that includes five-star Turkish big man Omer Yurtseven. Senior guard Terry Henderson returns from an ankle injury that sidelined him 7 minutes into last season. Charlotte transfer and former Conference USA freshman of the year Torin Dorn Jr. will play after sitting out last year.

Still, Smith is the guy stirring the most buzz for Wolfpack fans – something he has no trouble embracing.

“I really don’t feel that pressure though,” Smith said. “I feel like if you come in and you expect to play well, then you should have those expectations of people talking. It’s just playing basketball to me. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Washington lands commitment from Mamoudou Diarra

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For the second time this summer, Washington has landed a commitment from a forward in the Class of 2017.

On Friday, it was Mamoudou Diarra that pledged his future to Lorenzo Romar. Diarra is a 6-foot-8 combo-forward that is currently unranked by Rivals but was targeted by a number high major program.

Washington landed a commitment from Michael Porter Jr. earlier this summer, and given Porter’s standing as the potential No. 1 player in the class, the Huskies will be in the mix for the best crop of freshmen in the country in 2017-18. Romar has also landed commitments from four-star guard Jaylen Nowell and three-star guard Blake Harris.

RELATED: How the Michael Porter Package Deal came to fruition

Diarra played his high school basketball in St. Louis.

Xavier lands second top 100 commitment in 2017

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Xavier landed a key commitment on Friday morning in Naji Marshall, one of the Musketeers’ top targets in the Class of 2017.

Marshall is a la 6-foot-5 wing from Washington D.C. that is currently ranked 62nd in the 2017 class by Rivals. He’s a scorer that has shown off a versatile offensive game, averaging better than three assists on the Under Armour Association circuit.

This is the third commitment from head coach Chris Mack in the class and the second top 100 player to pledge to the Musketeers. Marshall picked Xavier over Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia Tech, among other.

Four-star 2018 guard Coby White commits to North Carolina

North Carolina coach Roy Williams, center, reacts with his team behind him after a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against Pittsburgh, Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Washington. North Carolina won 88-71. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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With guards Jalek Felton and Andrew Platek having committed in their 2017 recruiting class, North Carolina received a commitment from one of the better guards in the Class of 2018 Thursday night. Four-star guard Coby White, who’s ranked 61st in his class by Rivals.com, made his pledge to Roy Williams’ program. News of White’s commitment was first reported by Scout.com.

The 6-foot-4 White is a native of Wilson, North Carolina, where he attends Greenfield HS, and he played his grassroots basketball for the CP3 16U basketball program this summer. His commitment to UNC comes just a couple days after the ACC school offered him a scholarship.

White took an unofficial visit to UNC in June, and his play in July ultimately led to the program making the aforementioned scholarship offer. By the time White enrolls in Chapel Hill, current veterans such as Joel Berry II and Nate Britt will be out of eligibility. Among the perimeter would could potentially be on campus in 2018 are freshmen Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson, and sophomore Kenny Williams.

White is the second commit in the 2018 class for the Tar Heels, with 6-foot-7 guard Rechon Black being the first.

Point guard Small to transfer from Oregon

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18:  Kendall Small #21 of the Oregon Ducks shoots over Derek Mountain #40 of the Holy Cross Crusaders in the second half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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After navigating a lack of depth at the point to win the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles and earn the program’s first-ever one seed in the NCAA tournament, Oregon will have no such issues in 2016-17. Dylan Ennis, who missed most of last season with a foot injury, is back for another season as is returning starter Casey Benson. Add in freshman Payton Pritchard, whose shooting ability can help a team that struggled from three a season ago, and Dana Altman has multiple players to call upon at that spot.

That left Kendall Small, who played just under eight minutes per game as a freshman, in a spot where it would have been tough to earn more playing time as a sophomore. As a result he’s decided to transfer, with the news first being reported by Scout.com.

In addition to the three guards mentioned above, sophomore Tyler Dorsey also has the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands. Small will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at whichever school he chooses to transfer to, and he’ll have to sit out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules.

A 6-foot guard from Anaheim, Small’s best outing came in Oregon’s 77-59 win over Savannah State on November 23. In that game Small accounted for nine points, four assists and three rebounds in 23 minutes of action. But he played double-digit minutes in just four games after the Ducks began Pac-12 play in early January, the last of which being Oregon’s win over Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA tournament.