2013-14 Season Preview: The nation’s most important players

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

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

Throughout the course of the season there will be many debates over who the best player in the country is. Marcus Smart? Andrew Wiggins? Doug McDermott? Someone else? It’s a fun discussion to have, because frankly the debate won’t end until awards are handed out Final Four weekend. But the same can be said in regards to another important question: who are the nation’s most important players? A team’s most important player may not be the most talented, but he’s the one whose best is needed every night if the team is to be successful and make a run in the spring.

Here are ten of the nation’s most important players entering the 2013-14 season:

1. Keith Appling (Michigan State): Now a senior, the point guard from Detroit has to be at his best if the Spartans are to win the Big Ten and make a run at the school’s third national title. Last season Appling posted averages of 13.4 points and 3.3 assists per game, but the assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4) has to improve. Do that, and Michigan State is capable of winning it all.

2. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State): We went with Smart as our national Player of the Year due in part to his impressive freshman campaign. But for all the production (15.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.2 apg) the Cowboys were one-and-done in the NCAA tournament. Travis Ford’s team doesn’t lack for talent, as Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash returned to Stillwater as well, but if the Cowboys are to leave their mark in the Big 12 and nationally it’s Smart who will lead the way.

3. Andrew Harrison (Kentucky): Harrison (currently dealing with a right knee contusion) hasn’t played a college game, but the fact that he’s the point guard for John Calipari’s talented squad makes him a very important player. In regards to both his size (6-foot-4) and skill set Harrison, one of six McDonald’s All-Americans to pick UK, is tailor-made for the dribble drive motion system that turned the likes of Derrick Rose, John Wall and Marquis Teague into NBA Draft picks. If Kentucky is to make a run at a ninth national title, Andrew Harrison will be an important piece of the puzzle.

4. Naadir Tharpe (Kansas): Andrew Wiggins has received much of the preseason press and with good reason; he’s an incredibly gifted player. But for all the talent Kansas has on the wings and inside, the same can’t be said for their depth at the point. If Tharpe (5.5 ppg, 3.1 apg) proves himself to be capable of running the show in an efficient manner, the Jayhawks can win yet another Big 12 title and even a national title.

5. T.J. McConnell (Arizona): To understand McConnell’s importance to the Wildcats, one number stands out: 268. That was Arizona’s national ranking in three-point percentage defense last season, after being one of the best teams in the country in that department in each of the two seasons prior. In McConnell Arizona adds a point guard who’s a distributor first, a high-level defender (A-10 All-Defensive Team selection 2011-12) and he’s a good perimeter shooter as well.

6. Tyler Ennis (Syracuse): Ennis, like Harrison, has yet to play a college game but Syracuse’s lack of depth at the point makes him vitally important in their first season in the ACC. There’s no Michael Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche, and if Ennis doesn’t perform as expected the Orange won’t be able to take full advantage of their talented players at other spots on the roster (C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant being two).

7. P.J. Hairston (North Carolina): The Tar Heels may not be a national contender on the level of some of the other teams represented on this list, but here’s the question: who else on that roster is capable of shouldering the load offensively? James Michael McAdoo (14.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) averaged double digits last season but the currently suspended Hairston (14.6 ppg) is the marquee option. If Hairston falters, either on or off the court, UNC’s in trouble.

8. LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State): Ross averaged just 8.3 points per game last season, but he scored at least 17 points in three of the Buckeyes’ four NCAA tournament games. With Deshaun Thomas now playing at the professional level, Ohio State needs Ross to prove himself capable of producing on a consistent basis.

9. Jabari Parker (Duke): Due to the arrival of Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, the Blue Devils will be able to rely a lot more on their wings to make plays this season. Parker’s an incredibly gifted player, and after dealing with a foot issue last year the Chicago native’s healthy now. The better Parker is the more attention he’ll receive from opponents, which will ultimately benefit the other players in Mike Krzyzewski’s rotation.

10. Yogi Ferrell (Indiana): Indiana lost a lot of talent and production from last season’s Big Ten regular season champion squad, meaning that Ferrell will need to lead the way (along with senior wing Will Sheehey) if the Hoosiers are to once again be a factor in the Big Ten. As a freshman Ferrell averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists per game.


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1. Montrezl Harrell (Louisville): With Chane Behanan suspended the Cardinals don’t have a great amount of depth inside, so Harrell will have to put together the breakout campaign many expect if they’re to repeat.
2. Doug McDermott (Creighton): McDermott was outstanding for the Bluejays last season, posting averages of 23.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 54.8% shooting from the field and 49% shooting from three.
3. Jahii Carson (Arizona State):
Carson’s the reason why the Sun Devils want to play even faster this season, as he averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists per game as a freshman. The goal now is to get ASU to its first NCAA tournament since 2009.
4. Kasey Hill (Florida):
With Scottie Wilbekin suspended Hill becomes even more important to the Gators, and given the freshman’s skill level it can be argued that he’d be running the show either way. If he performs well, Florida can be one of Kentucky’s biggest challengers in the SEC.
5. Glenn Robinson III (Michigan):
The Wolverines lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but the return of their talented sophomore class makes Michigan a threat to win the Big Ten. Mitch McGary is obviously a key player, but given the lost production the Wolverines have to account for Robinson may be their most important player.

Sister Jean: “I don’t care that you broke my bracket.”

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As Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Clayton Custer came off the floor after Loyola earned its spot in the Elite Eight after beating Nevada, he had to make a quick apology.

He had to tell the Ramblers’ star fan Sister Jean he was sorry. She, of course, had picked Loyola’s Cinderella run to end in the Sweet 16 in her bracket before the start of the tournament.

The apology was quickly accepted.

“I said I don’t care that you broke my bracket,” Sister Jean said. “I’m ready for the next one.

“For a nice little school like ours, we are just so proud of them.”

Michigan rolls past Texas A&M into Elite Eight

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Historically known as a team that lived and died with the three-ball, No. 3-seed Michigan had spent the first weekend of the NCAA tournament proving history wrong.

In an ugly game in their opener against Montana, the Wolverines shot 5-for-16 from three while turning the ball over 14 times and managing a measly 61 points. Against Houston in the second round, Michigan shot 8-for-30 from beyond the arc, with one of those threes coming courtesy of Jordan Poole at the buzzer, sending the Wolverines into the Sweet 16 with a 64-63 win.

Put another way, Michigan looked the part of the defensive grinder that they turned into this season.

Against No. 7-seed Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, however, the Wolverines turned into the Golden State Warriors.

Michigan bested the number of three that they had made in the tournament to date, hitting 14-of-24 bombs while shooting 62 percent from the floor in a 99-72 win over an Aggies team that had finally, for the first time since November, looked the part of the SEC title contender that they have the talent to be.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 24 points, seven assists and five boards for Michigan. Mo Wagner chipped in with 21 points — 14 of which came in the first 15 minutes of the game — while Zavier Simpson added 11 points, five boards, five assists and five steals. Charles Matthews had 18 points. Duncan Robinson busted out of his slump with 10 points, including a couple of threes and a dunk to boot.

Put another way, the Wolverines were firing on all cylinders.

And that should terrify everyone on the left side of the bracket.

Entering this weekend’s games, Michigan was the best defensive team left in the tournament. They ranked third-nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and that’s not a fluke or a flaw within KenPom’s formula. The Wolverines can absolutely grind teams down defensively. They are so much more athletic on the perimeter than they have been in past seasons, and with Simpson playing as the point man for them on that end of the floor, they’ve simply overmatched everyone that has gotten in their path on that end of the floor.

That’s why they were able to win two games in the first weekend of the tournament despite scoring a total of just 125 points.

At some point, you knew they were going to find a way to be better on the offensive end, and the Aggies were the team they needed to see.

Texas A&M’s strength in their front line. Tyler Davis, Robert Williams, D.J. Hogg. They have so much size along that front line that it can overpower just about anyone this side of Duke. But what those big, burly dudes bring in the paint they lack on the perimeter, and Michigan was able to spread them out and beat them down the floor in transition. It didn’t help matters that the Aggies struggled with the idea of passing the ball to the guys in maroon instead of the guys in yellow during the first half, and the end result was a Michigan team that found their confidence.

At one point, they were 9-for-12 from three. They made 10 of their 14 threes in the first half. The score at one point was 52-23. It was a three-point avalanche of Villanovian proportions.

And here’s the kicker: The Aggies actually did manhandle Michigan inside. Tyler Davis and Robert Williams combined for 36 points on 17-for-25 shooting.

It didn’t matter.

Michigan will advance to face the winner of No. 4-seed Gonzaga and No. 9-seed Florida State tonight, and regardless of who they end up getting in the Elite 8, they will be taking on a team that is much, much, much better suited to matching up with Michigan’s spread attack.

But Michigan has their confidence back.

I don’t expect that we’ll be seeing them shoot 28 percent from three on Saturday.

And that defense?

It’s not going anywhere.

And the Wolverines won’t have to face a team seeded higher than them until the national title game.

This run may not be close to over yet.

No. 11 Loyola moves on to Elite Eight after beating No. 7 Nevada

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It was supposed to cripple the league – and maybe it still will in the long-term – but it also gave birth to an idea. It created space to dream and imagine. There simply was reason to hope.

Wichita State’s decision to leave the Missouri Valley Conference for the AAC robbed the league of its marquee program and, the thinking went, its national relevance. With the conference’s dominant force suddenly gone, though, there was a question that suddenly became pertinent. Once perhaps delusional, it was not essential.

“It’s this huge overwhelming wave of optimism,” Loyola coach Porter Moser told NBC Sports in January. “I think every single program is asking, ‘Why not us?’”

Two months later, the Ramblers are still asking that question, but for a different audience. Once, they just asked it of themselves. Then of the conference. Now, of the country.

The Ramblers’ run through March continued Thursday as they won a spot in the Elite Eight by toppling No. 7 Nevada in the South Region semifinals, 69-68, in Atlanta to be just 40 minutes shy of a Final Four that last hosted Loyola in 1963.

Fifty-five years later, it’s now fair to ask, why not these Ramblers?

Loyola and its magnetic, lovable and charming sensation of a team chaplain, Sister Jean, haven’t come up with an answer to that question yet. There has been no reason it can’t be Loyola through an entire MVC season, Arch Madness and three NCAA tournament opponents.

There are no lottery picks on the floor. Moser is in his second stint in the Valley after being fired from Illinois State in 2007. They don’t play with much flash or even speed.

Loyola, though, makes it work.

All the Ramblers have done this season is win. They won in Gainesville against Florida. They won 15 MVC games and the league title with a four-game cushion. They skated through the conference tournament. Buzzer-beaters got them by Miami and Tennessee in the first weekend. In the Sweet 16, they didn’t spare a fellow Cinderella, instead dispatching Nevada with lethal offensive efficiency.

Nevada looked like it may overwhelm Loyola early as it built a 12-point lead less than seven minutes into the game. The Ramblers, though, struck back by keeping the Wolf Pack off the board for nearly the last 8 minutes of the first half to take a four-point lead into the break.

The strong play considered on the other side of halftime for Loyola, which astonishingly made its first 13 shots of the second half. Still, despite the perfect start, the Ramblers only briefly took a double-digit lead before Nevada sliced it back down below 10.

Loyola’s inability to build a substantial lead came back to bite it as Nevada, the comeback kids of this tournament, mounted its attack on the deficit and had it erased before the under-four timeout, setting up the final frantic minutes of a battle.

With a one-point lead and less than 10 seconds on the clock, Loyola got a 3-pointer from Marques Townes to seal victory. The Ramblers shot 75 percent from the floor in the second half, but still needed a clutch shot. And they got it.

Nevada Caleb Martin scored 21 points and Jordan Caroline added 19. They spearheaded a Wolf Pack offense that looked like its speed and athleticism just might be too much for Loyola. There were times when the Ramblers just looked overmatched. But there were more times when they just out-executed Nevada anyway.

Loyola is in the Elite Eight. The question persists.

Why not Loyola?

2018 March Madness: Fans in Times Square pick fake teams in Sweet 16 predictions

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NBC Sports went into Times Square this week to ask basketball fans for their Sweet 16 picks.

The only problem?

The teams in the games are not actually playing in the NCAA Tournament.

They aren’t even actually teams.

Hilarity ensued.

Miami’s Bruce Brown declares for draft without an agent

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Bruce Brown wants to hear what the NBA has to say.

The Miami sophomore has declared for the draft but will not hire an agent, the school announced Thursday.

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game during his second season with the Hurricanes. He did, though, see his shooting numbers take a tumble compared to his freshman season with his field goal percentage down from 45.9 to 41.5 percent and his 3-point shoot go from 34.7 to 26.7 percent. There’s also the matter of a foot injury that required surgery and kept him off the floor for the ‘Canes’ last 12 games.

By declaring for the draft, Brown can get in front of NBA teams, who will likely take a very close look at his shooting mechanics after that sophomore season downturn. It will also be an opportunity for him to build up his reputation in the professional ranks after spending much of his sophomore season injured.