2014-2015 Season Preview: Ranking the biggest X-Factors

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Here is our list of this season’s biggest x-factors.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Kentucky’s buy-in: No team in the country has as much talent on their roster as Kentucky does, but the Wildcats may actually be too deep this season. They’re so deep, in fact, that John Calipari is considering using a platoon system — with five-man shifts — like he is coaching hockey. Eventually, someone’s minutes are going to get cut. Someone is going to have to accept the fact they’re a role player, nothing more than a screener or rebounder or defensive presence. If every Wildcat, from the Harrisons twins to Sam Malone, buys into this idea, Kentucky is going to be very, very tough to beat.

Gonzaga’s defense: Kevin Pangos, now that he’s healthy, is going to have a huge season. Kyle Wiltjer has had a year to develop his body and his game, making him the perfect stretch-four to create space in the paint for Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. Gary Bell, Byron Wesley, Eric McClellan, Josh Perkins, Kyle Draginis. There’s plenty of talent on the Zags, but the issue will be on defense. When Pangos, Wiltjer and Karnowski are on the floor together, Mark Few will have three defensive question marks. Gonzaga is a Final Four caliber team if they get enough stops.

D’angelo Russell, Ohio State: Aaron Craft is Ohio State’s biggest loss, but right up there, oddly enough, is the loss of LaQuinton Ross. The Buckeyes struggled to score last season, and Ross was their most consistent offensive weapon. Russell heads to Columbus with the reputation of being a big time scorer, and while the Buckeyes should, once again, be stout defensively, they’ll need Russell’s pop on the offensive end.

Devonte’ Graham, Kansas: How long have we been asking questions about the Kansas point guard play? That won’t change this season, as Graham, a freshman, and sophomores Frank Mason and Connor Frankamp will try to take the reins. Graham is the most talented of the three, however, and is expected to take over the role.

MORE: Top 25 Potential Breakout Stars | Top 25 Non-Conference Games | Coaches on the Hot Seat

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Dwayne Polee, San Diego State: Someone is going to have to replace the offensive production that San Diego State loses with the graduation of Xavier Thames. Polee is not the most talented offensive player on the roster, but he showed quite a bit of promise at the end of last season. SDSU reaches a new level if he becomes a threat as a scorer.

Mark Donnal, Michigan: Michigan’s perimeter is loaded this season, but with Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford all departing, Donnal, a redshirt freshman, is now the veteran presence in the paint for John Beilein. Should I mention that he’s also known as being a shooter, and that he redshirted strictly to add strength?

Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford had promising moments as a freshman with the Bruins, but there were also times where he looked best-suited to being an offensive sparkplug off the bench. This year, the sophomore son of head coach Steve Alford will be handed the reins.

UConn’s big men: UConn has a number of x-factors this season — Can Ryan Boatright be Shabazz or Kemba? How good will Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton be? Is this Omar Calhoun’s bounceback year? But more than anything, UConn’s front line is where the questions lie. Amida Brimah is a terrific shotblocker with the strength of a stalk of bamboo, and Philip Nolan added 25 pounds of muscle but was ‘just a guy’ last season. Losing Deandre Daniels’ inside-outside ability will hurt quite a bit, and while UConn’s guard situation will work itself out, the Huskies need big minutes out of their big men to win the American this year.

Kansas State’s transfers: Marcus Foster has a shot to be a first-team all-american this season, but there are still some questions with his supporting cast. Wesley Iwundu, Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas are all expected to take a step forward, and Malek Harris is a four-star addition, but it is a trio of transfers that could make the difference. Justin Edwards could end up being a double-figure scorer on the wing, while Stephen Hurt and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Bolden give Bruce Weber some much-needed height in the paint.

Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State: There’s no questioning Dejean-Jones’ ability to score. He can fill it up when he gets on a roll. His problem is shot selection, and while Iowa State likes to get up and down the floor, Dejean-Jones is going to be the second or third option offensively for the Cyclones. Can he accept that role?

Here are 10 more x-factors

  • Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse: For the third straight season, Syracuse will have just one point guard on their roster, and a freshman to boot. If he Tyler Ennis 2.0?
  • Chris Walker, Florida: A supreme talent at 6-foot-10, for sure, but does he have a clue about how to play basketball?
  • Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, Duke: Cook is the senior starter. Tyus Jones is the hot-shot freshman. Both are talented point guards. Can they play together? What if one has their minutes cut?
  • Kedren Johnson, Memphis: Johnson, who averaged 13.5 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 boards at Vanderbilt in 2012-2013, is the only guard for Memphis that has ever played Division I basketball.
  • Wayne Blackshear and Shaqquan Aaron, Louisville: Montrezl Harrell is an all-american, and Terry Rozier might join him this season. Can Blackshear and/or Aaron provide production from the wing?
  • Yannick Moreira and Keith Frazier, SMU: With no Emmanuel Mudiay, Larry Brown needs these two to improve. Moreira looked great at the FIBA World Cup, while Frazier was a McDonald’s all-american but couldn’t earn a starting spot as a freshman.
  • Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn was the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2012, but he’s yet to be healthy at Providence.
  • Cullen Neal, New Mexico: Neal was impressive at times as a freshman despite playing on a team with three pros while still recovering from an emergency appendectomy.
  • Robert Hubbs, Tennessee: The most talented player on a depleted Tennessee roster struggled with injuries as a freshman.
  • Texas using a 2-3 zone: How effective can Texas be defensively when they have Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley on the floor together?

Silva leads Gamecocks to 76-68 win over No. 18 Wildcats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari thought his freshmen looked like freshmen for the first time all season. South Carolina’s Chris Silva continued to look like a major force in the Southeastern Conference who led the Gamecocks’ dramatic second-half comeback against the Wildcats.

Silva tied his career high he set earlier this month with 27 points as South Carolina (12-6, 3-3 SEC) rallied from 14 points down in the second half to top No. 18 Kentucky 76-68 on Tuesday night.

Silva “was the difference,” Calipari said. “He manhandled everyone we put on him.”

It didn’t look like it would have an impact midway through the second half when Kevin Knox’s short jumper with 12:28 to go put the Wildcats ahead 54-40. But that’s when South Carolina, fueled by the powerful, 6-foot-9 Silva, got going and outscored Kentucky (14-4, 4-2) 36-14 the rest of the way to pull off the upset.

Silva had 12 points in that stretch to lift the Gamecocks.

As well as Silva played, Kentucky’s vaunted group of freshmen began trying to make the splashy, dramatic play instead of the smart one, Calipari said. As South Carolina gradually cut into the margin, the Wildcats shrunk from the challenge.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got a bunch of young guys that don’t know how to grind it,” Calipari said.

That was evident when Wesley Myers’ driving layup tied the game at 65-all and he followed that with a second straight layup for the Gamecocks’ first lead of the second half, this one ruled good when Kentucky’s Nick Richards was called for goaltending.

Maik Kotsar made four straight foul shots to give South Carolina a 71-67 lead and Kentucky could not respond.

“We weren’t listening to nothing the coaches were saying,” Knox acknowledged.

The Gamecocks broke a four-game losing streak to Kentucky, which managed just three points over the final 6 minutes.

South Carolina coach Frank Martin talked with Silva at halftime, urging him to go straight up and over Kentucky’s defenders instead of putting up shots away from the basket. “He told me to go strong and finish,” Silva said.

All the Gamecocks seemed to follow Silva’s lead.

“Our guys took ownership,” Martin said as the Gamecocks won for third time in four games after opening SEC play 0-2.

Frank Booker added 18 points for South Carolina.

Knox led Kentucky with 21 points. No other Wildcat had more than 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats had little consistency with their shooting touch. But their relentless style helped them claw back from an early 19-12 deficit to lead 37-34. The active Kentucky lineup pushed the pace and made the Gamecocks pay for putting them on the free throw line, going 17 of 22 in the first 20 minutes. Things changed down the stretch as Kentucky’s freshman-heavy team struggled to keep up with the Gamecocks. The Wildcats were just 6 of 14 from the free throw line after the break.

South Carolina: When the Gamecocks miss shots, they’re in trouble. After starting the game 7 of 9 from the field, South Carolina missed 18 of its final 21 shots of the opening half. That helped turn a seven-point lead into a 37-34 deficit at the break. Shooting woes have plagued the team much of the season. In fact, the Gamecocks shot just 27 percent from the field last time out and somehow pulled out a 64-57 victory at Georgia on Saturday. The Gamecocks shot just 37.1 percent in this win.

VANDERBILT’S DEBUT: Highly regarded 6-9 freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who was out with a left foot injury, finally saw his first action as he came in off the bench against South Carolina. And Vanderbilt was rusty after not playing this season. He missed his only attempt in the opening half and tipped in a ball for a South Carolina basket while fighting for a rebound. Vanderbilt finished with six points and five rebounds. “I thought he was pretty good first time out,” Calipari said.

KNOX’S STREAK-SAVING SHOT

The Wildcats were 1 of 11 on 3-pointers and the one made 3 by Knox ran Kentucky’s string of consecutive games with a basket from behind the arc to 1,031. Knox’s shot came with 7 minutes to go.

UP NEXT

Kentucky starts a two-game home stand against Florida on Saturday.

South Carolina faces its second straight ranked opponent in No. 21 Tennessee at home Saturday.

___

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Tuesday’s Three Things to Know: Kentucky loses, K-State whips Oklahoma and UNC wins

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1. KENTUCKY FALLS AS JARRED VANDERBILT MAKES HIS LONG-AWAITED DEBUT

Having missed No. 18 Kentucky’s first 17 games due to a foot injury, Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt made his debut Tuesday night against South Carolina. While Vanderbilt showed some flashes of the skill that made him one of the top recruits in the 2017 class, it was clear that there’s a lot of rust to be shaken off. But the return of Vanderbilt was not enough to help Kentucky avoid defeat, as South Carolina picked up the 76-68 victory thanks in large part to Chris Silva.

Silva, who’s been thrust into a position of leadership due to how much South Carolina lost from last year’s Final Four squad, was the best player on the floor Tuesday night. Silva scored a game-high 27 points while also grabbing eight rebounds, shooting 9-for-17 from the field and 9-for-13 at the foul line. Outside of Nick Richards, who tallied 12 points and four rebounds before fouling out, Kentucky did not offer up much resistance in the paint and Silva made the Wildcats pay for it.

Add in the fact that both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (six points, six turnovers) and Hamidou Diallo (five points) struggled to get going, and the end result was the shorthanded Wildcats losing a game they led by 13 points with 13:25 remaining. In a game that lacked flow for significant stretches — the teams combined to attempt 74 free throws — Kentucky managed just four fast break points. And with the point guard play lacking sans the injured Quade Green, Kentucky couldn’t do enough offensively to close out the Gamecocks.

2. KANSAS STATE WHIPS NO. 4 OKLAHOMA

There’s no denying the fact that Oklahoma freshman point guard Trae Young is one of the nation’s best players, and an early frontrunner for national Player of the Year honors. That being said, the Sooners really need their best playmaker to get his turnover issues in check. After turning the ball over nine times in the Sooners’ overtime win over TCU on Saturday, Young racked up a stunning 12 turnovers in Oklahoma’s 87-69 loss at Kansas State Tuesday night.

Add in the fact that he shot 8-for-21 from the field in scoring his 19 points, and the end result was what is the worst night of Young’s freshman season. Give credit to Bruce Weber’s charges, especially Barry Brown Jr., for much of this as they were active defensively and got after Young all night long. Brown also scored 24 points and dished out five assists, with Dean Wade adding 21, seven boards and seven assists as Kansas State picked up its first win over a ranked team this season.

3. NO. 15 NORTH CAROLINA HOLDS OFF NO. 20 CLEMSON

Having never beaten North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Clemson dropped to 0-59 all-time as Cameron Johnson led five Tar Heels in double figures with 21 points. After shooting a combined 3-for-16 from three in the four games prior, Johnson was 6-for-9 from deep and 7-for-10 from the field overall. Johnson and Kenny Williams III combined to score 20 points in the first half, which helped North Carolina build a 15-point halftime lead despite Joel Berry II and Luke Maye both struggling offensively.

Berry and Maye would pick it up in the second half, which helped North Carolina hold off a Clemson team that made ten of its first 11 shots from the field. Marquise Reed tallied 21 points and Shelton Mitchell 18 for the Tigers, who shot better than 61 percent from the field in the second half. Clemson should be fine moving forward, but the big takeaway from this result is Johnson breaking out of his slump and showing just how valuable he is to North Carolina moving forward.

Cameron Johnson ending his slump is big for No. 15 North Carolina

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When it comes to the long-term hopes of No. 15 North Carolina, not only to win the ACC but to also be a national title contender, the play of veterans Joel Berry II and Luke Maye will be critical.

Rated among the best in the country at their respective positions, Berry and Maye entered Tuesday’s game against No. 20 Clemson averaging a combined 35.6 points per game.

Yet it would be two other Tar Heels, Kenny Williams III and Cameron Johnson, who combined to do the damage that dropped the visiting Tigers to 0-59 all-time in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 87-79, holding off a Clemson squad that shot 61.3 percent from the field in the second half due in large part to the work done in the first half.

While both Maye and Berry II were kept quiet in the first half, Williams (12 points) and Johnson (eight) combined to score 20 points in the stanza. Johnson would finish the game with 21 points, the most that the Pitt transfer has scored in a North Carolina uniform, and Williams would add 15 as Roy Williams’ team moved to 4-2 in ACC play.

Berry (17 points, four assists), Theo Pinson (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Maye (11 points, four rebounds, five assists) all performed better in the second half, making it possible for the Tar Heels to hang on despite being challenged by a team that made ten of its first 11 second-half shots.

Williams and Johnson have proven themselves to be capable supplementary scorers this season, with the former averaging just over 12 points per game on the season and the latter at 9.7. But in the case of Johnson, following up his 2-for-10 effort in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame by shooting 7-for-10 from the field (6-for-9 3PT) is a needed bounce-back effort.

Prior to Tuesday night, Johnson reached double figures just once in the four games prior (14 vs. Boston College) and shot a combined 3-for-16 from three. Getting Johnson back on track is a big deal for North Carolina, and if his performance against Clemson can serve as a spark that would certainly bode well for the Tar Heels moving forward.

A productive Johnson affords Roy Williams the luxury of playing a “small” lineup in which Johnson mans the four and Maye the five. This North Carolina team isn’t like past editions in the Williams era, as many of those squads possessed the ability to have two “true” big men on the court at all times. With the big men lost from last year’s national title team, it’s been Maye carrying much of the load with freshmen Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley both looking to work their way into the fold.

A consistent Johnson not only makes North Carolina better, but it’s also a necessity given the team’s available options.

As for Clemson, this game felt like one of the program’s best chances to finally pick up that elusive win in Chapel Hill. Brad Brownell’s group entered the game with a 15-2 record, and with the improvements both in the post (Elijah Thomas) and on the perimeter (Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell) this is a group that has some staying power.

But Reed, Mitchell and forward Donte Grantham got off to frigid starts, combining to score two points on 0-for-13 shooting from the field in the first half. Despite the first-half efforts of Thomas the hole was too deep to climb out of, with Clemson pulling to within two on multiple occasions in the second half. Reed got hot in the second stanza, finishing the game with 21 points, and Mitchell would add 18 points to the effort.

Now 1-1 halfway through an important four-game stretch — Notre Dame next, followed by a trip to Charlottesville to take on No. 2 Virginia — when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding prospects, Clemson paid the price for its inability to knock down shots in the early going. But in their comeback, the Tigers put forth a performance along the lines of what they’ve managed to do for much of this season to date.

Unfortunately for Clemson, its supplementary scorers were unable to match the production of Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams III.

VIDEO: Kentucky coach John Calipari shows long-range skills during shootaround

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Kentucky coach John Calipari’s shooting touch is still there, even from long range.

The Hall of Famer proved that during Tuesday’s shootaround before the No. 18 Wildcats faced South Carolina in a late-evening Southeastern Conference contest. In a video posted on his official Twitter account, Calipari stepped up and drained a basket from center court to his players’ surprise.

The coach smiled as he walked off the court, showing the swagger and confidence he seeks from another young roster of freshmen and sophomores.

Then again, one key to a coach getting what he wants from players is showing them how it’s done.

No. 3 Boilermakers keep rolling by blowing out Badgers 78-50

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Vincent Edwards scored 21 points and Carsen Edwards added 20, leading No. 3 Purdue to a 78-50 blowout over Wisconsin on Tuesday night.

The Boilermakers (18-2, 7-0 Big Ten) have won 14 straight overall, 19 in a row at home and have matched the best 20-game record in school history. The only other time Purdue did that was 1987-88 when it also won its first seven conference games.

Ethan Happ had 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds to lead the Badgers (9-10, 2-4). Wisconsin has lost three straight — all on the road.

But they were never in it Tuesday.

Purdue made its first four 3-point attempts to jump out to a 12-0 lead, and then things got even worse for the Badgers.

Wisconsin needed more than 7 1/2 minutes to make a basket, and then the Boilermakers continued to pour it on.

Purdue extended the lead to 36-16 before the Badgers finally fought back to get within 39-22 at the half.

The second half was a virtual replay when Purdue’s first three baskets were again all 3s. And when Vincent Edwards drove in for a layup with 16:59 to go, the Boilermakers led 50-29.

Wisconsin cut the deficit to 16 with 14:50 to go, then allowed a 10-2 run to make it 62-38.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: Tuesday night’s performance looked very non-Badger like. They struggled to score, struggled on defense, got into foul trouble, couldn’t get to loose balls and had 15 first-half turnovers. They’re young, and, yes, they were playing their third straight road game. But they need to improve greatly.

Purdue: The Boilermakers just keep rolling along. They’ve held 11 straight opponents under 70 points, have made at least 10 3s in six of their last seven games and have won their last two by a combined 62 points. It’s hard to imagine Purdue playing much better.

KEY STATS

Wisconsin: Finished with a season high 20 turnovers. The Badgers’ previous high was 15. … Nobody other than Happ scored more than eight points or made more than two baskets. … The Badgers are 0-5 against ranked teams this season, each coming from a different conference: Xavier (Big East), Baylor (Big 12), UCLA (Pac-12), Virginia (ACC) and Purdue.

Purdue: P.J. Thompson scored 14 points and Carsen Edwards had five rebounds and four assists. … Purdue was 14 of 22 on 3s, giving them 10 or more in six of its last seven games. … The Boilermakers have held 11 straight opponents to fewer than 70 points. … Purdue is 17-0 on American soil.