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College Basketball’s 12 Most Important Players

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Yesterday, we took a look at the most influential “X-Factors” in college basketball for the 2016-17 season.

Players like Malik Monk, Dillon Brooks and Harry Giles III made that list. 

Today, we’re going to take a look at college basketball’s most important players, the guys who will have the biggest impact on their team, the guys who are a great year away from making their team a contender in their league and a threat in March.

We did the best we could to avoid duplicating players that were x-factors from players that are on the most important list. I do think there is a difference – that’s a different post for a different day – so without further ado, here are the 13 Most Important Players in college basketball. 

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Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble and the Terps did not have the season they were hoping to have in 2015-16, meaning that Trimble is the only member of that team’s starting lineup that will be returning to school this year. That wasn’t the plan, but it is good news for Maryland. Trimble is still the talent that completely changed the fortunes of the Maryland program, and this year, it will be his team to lead. He’s an all-american caliber talent, and with a better supporting cast than some realize, the Terps have a chance to make some noise in a wide open Big Ten race this year.

E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: As a sophomore, when Matthews was healthy, he averaged a team-high 16.8 points on a team-high usage rate of 29.5%. URI went 23-10 and made the NIT. As a junior, when Matthews managed just 10 minutes because of a torn ACL, the Rams went 17-15. Granted, there is a lot more that went into that drop-off that just Matthews missing time – he was far from the only player on the roster that was injured last season – but he was the biggest miss. He’s back now. And he’s healthy. That’s great news for URI, who should contend for the A-10 crown.

Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson: The Tigers have a chance to save Brad Brownell’s job this season if they can get to the NCAA tournament, and they are in a decent position to do so. Clemson brought back a number of pieces and added a couple of impact transfers – namely Elijah Thomas – but the key is Blossomgame. An athletic, 6-foot-7 wing with three point range that averaged 18 points last season is a rare commodity.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

London Perrantes, Virginia: It’s hard to overstate just how much the Wahoos lost with Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill graduating. The arrival of Austin Nichols should help UVA replace Gill, but the burning question that remains is Brogdon. Who is going to carry his load offensively? The answer, it seems, is that no single player will be able to carry that load on his own. But given his role as the provider in this offense, and considering the fact that Perrantes has shown flashes of being a better offensive weapon than his numbers would indicate, he may be the most valuable player UVA has. There’s a reason he’s one 89 games in his career.

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: I’ve been critical of Hayes the basketball player this preseason – and not unfairly, his shooting splits were really inefficient – but if he can improve his consistency shooting the ball, he certainly has the talent to be a really good player for the Badgers. You may not realize this, but Hayes led Wisconsin in assists last season. Playing on a team where the lead guard is a guy like Bronson Koenig, who is shoot-first, having an efficient playmaker on the floor to join him is big, particularly when you consider that Ethan Happ, the Wisconsin center, may actually be the team’s best player. If Hayes is the guy we all want him to be, Wisconsin can win a national title.

Deonte Burton, Iowa State: Monte’ Morris is the easy pick here, but given the situation on the rest of the Cyclone roster, I think Burton is more important. Iowa State has no size. Burton isn’t all that tall, but he’s 6-foot-5, strong and super-athletic. In theory, he can be a guy that plays the Draymond Green role for the Cyclones. That’s a trendy thing to say these days – and, frankly, saying it undervalues just how good and unique Green is – but Burton has the tools to be that guy. Will he be effective in that role?

Dedric Lawson, Memphis: The Memphis program was in an awful spot last season, with a lame-duck head coach, a fan base that had turned and a roster that just didn’t have the talent to win anywhere near the level expected by the city. Much of that is still the case this year, but there are two important things to note: Tubby Smith is a hell of a basketball coach, and Dedric Lawson is a guy that could average 20 points and 10 boards this year. I don’t know if this is a tournament team just yet, but I have faith in Tubby making the most of what he has on the roster and, should the best-case scenario arise, it will be because Lawson plays like an all-american.

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

DENVER, CO - MARCH 17: Vince Edwards #12 of the Purdue Boilermakers drives the ball past Josh Hagins #3 of the Arkansas Little Rock Trojans during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Pepsi Center on March 17, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Vince Edwards (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Vince Edwards, Purdue: Edwards is the difference-maker on this Purdue team. We know more or less what the rest of this team is going to be – their bigs are bigs, their point guards are not bad, they have some guys that, in theory, can shoot – but Edwards is the one player that has shown the potential to be a game-changing talent. He was the best player on the floor for the much of the final month of Purdue’s season, and he’s a versatile talent that can defend, that can make threes and that, at 6-foot-7, averaged 2.9 assists. He’s the guy that takes Purdue from being a Big Ten contender to the Big Ten champ.

Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Here’s the way that I see the North Carolina season going: Joel Berry II is going to be an upper-tier ACC point guard, good enough that he’s clearly the best player on this roster but not good enough to garner all-america consideration. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks will be good enough to old their own against any front line in college basketball but not quite good enough to ever be thought of as UNC’s strength. What I’m unsure of is Jackson. I think the kid is really talented, but I think he’s an inconsistent shooter who has yet to prove he can take over a game when needed. And that’s what UNC needs him to be this year.

Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: There are a number of teams this year with terrific point guard play and questionable talent elsewhere on the floor. That’s not the case with the Wolfpack. Smith has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft on a team with shooters on the wings and talent like Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven on the front line. There isn’t really anyone else on this team capable of creating their own, but there is enough talent for the Wolfpack to be a top 15 team. If Smith lives up to the hype, and if Mark Gottfried finds a way to get something close to the most out of his roster, I don’t think it’s crazy to say this group has Final Four upside.

Landen Lucas, Kansas: There are a number of different ways I could have gone here, but I’m going with Lucas for two reasons: 1. If he does what he did last season, he has the skills to be the anchor defensively for a team that projects to be one of the best in the country on that end of the floor. With Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson on the perimeter, KU needs a guy that can control the lane on that end of the floor and protect the rim if they get out and pressure or gamble for steals. 2. There isn’t all that much front court depth for the Jayhawks. Dwight Coleby is ‘a guy’ and coming off of a knee injury while Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot are freshmen and not exactly ready to handle the kind of load they are probably going to need to play. That leaves Lucas. Remember, Duke won a national title in 2010 with Brian Zoubek playing center.

Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics
Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics

Martin brothers lead No. 24 Nevada past Utah State, 93-87

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LOGAN, Utah — Cody Martin scored 30 points on 13-of-18 shooting and twin brother Caleb Martin added 23 points to lead No. 24 Nevada to a 93-87 win over Utah State on Saturday.

Jordan Caroline chipped in with 20 points for the Wolf Pack. Nevada (23-5, 11-2 Mountain West) shot 59.3 percent from the field — including 11-of-21 from 3-point range — to pull away from the Aggies.

Koby McEwen scored 32 points and Sam Merrill added 16 to lead Utah State. The Aggies (14-14, 7-8 MW) have lost 14 straight to ranked opponents and fell to the Wolf Pack at home for the second time in five games.

Utah State was the hotter team from the field early, going 13 of 19 (68.4 percent) in the first 12 minutes. Nevada used a 17-0 run late in the first half to take its first double-digit lead at 47-37. Cody Martin converted a four-point play to ignite the run, and Hallice Cooke and Kendall Stephens put the Wolf Pack in front with back-to-back 3-poitners.

Nevada ultimately took a 52-40 halftime lead as Utah State missed 12 of 13 shots over the final 7:19 of the first half.

The Aggies trimmed the lead to 72-66 on a dunk from DeAngelo Isby with 8:32 left. Nevada kept Utah State from getting any closer by hitting six straight baskets over a five-minute stretch. Caroline finished the string with a 3-pointer that put the Wolf Pack up 87-75 with 3:10 remaining.

McEwen ran off eight points in a minute, capped by a hammer dunk, to cut Nevada’s lead to 91-87 with 14.6 seconds left. Caleb Martin sealed the win by making a pair of free throws with 7.6 seconds to go.

BIG PICTURE

Nevada: The Wolf Pack opened up a 1 1/2 -game lead over Boise State atop the Mountain West standings and avoided a loss that could have damaged their NCAA Tournament hopes. With three of its four remaining games coming against the lower half of the league, Nevada can clinch at least a share of the regular season title in the week ahead.

Utah State: The Aggies feasted on a steady diet 3-pointers from the opening tip and it ultimately cost them. Utah State hit 6 of 10 from beyond the arc through the first 12 minutes, but went 1 of 10 over the next eight minutes. The Aggies finished 10 of 33 (30.3 percent) from the perimeter.

UP NEXT

Nevada: The Wolf Pack host San Jose State on Wednesday.

Utah State: The Aggies visit Air Force on Saturday.

Yante Maten leads Georgia to upset of No. 18 Tennessee

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ATHENS, Ga. — Yante Maten scored 19 points and Georgia held off No. 18 Tennessee for a 73-62 victory Saturday that denied the Volunteers an opportunity to pull within a game of the SEC lead.

Derek Ogbeide had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Georgia (15-11, 6-8 Southeastern Conference) won its second straight in a late attempt to return to NCAA Tournament consideration.

Tennessee (19-7, 9-5) remained two games behind No. 10 Auburn, the SEC leader, which lost to South Carolina 84-75 on Saturday. The Vols have lost two of their last three.

Lamonte Turner led Tennessee with 14 points. Jordan Bowden had 13, and Admiral Schofield 11.

Foul trouble helped to limit Tennessee’s Grant Williams to five points, 11 below his average. Williams made only one of eight shots from the field.

Tennessee’s last lead was 6-5. Georgia briefly led by double figures at 38-28 before a 3-pointer by Schofield started the Vols’ comeback.

A tip-in by Kyle Alexander cut the Georgia lead to 51-49, but the Vols couldn’t take advantage of repeated opportunities to pull even.

A three-point play by Ogbeide and a 3-pointer by Tyree Crump gave the Bulldogs a 57-51 lead. Ogbeide’s tip-in of a Maten miss pushed the lead to eight points. Crump added another 3 for a 62-54 lead with 1:54 remaining.

Maten scored 11 of Georgia’s first 13 points but left the game after collecting his second foul with about five minutes remaining in the half. He sat out all but a few seconds of the final five minutes as the Bulldogs saw their big lead of 21-12 shrink.

Turner and Bowden made 3-pointers to help the Vols cut into the deficit before halftime.

Schofield briefly left the game midway through the first half when he landed hard on the court after battling for a rebound.

There were delays at the start of each half, each lasting several minutes, due to shot-clock malfunctions.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Vols trailed by only two points at halftime, 28-26, despite offensive struggles most of the half. Tennessee showed good composure in trimming Georgia’s lead after Williams went to the bench with four fouls and only four points with 11:21 remaining.

Georgia: The Bulldogs continue to struggle with their backcourt play. Tennessee’s man-to-man pressure had an immediate effect on Georgia’s half-court offense as Georgia struggled to run plays. The Bulldogs’ best success came when the guards were able to quickly pass to Maten, even if he wasn’t near the basket.

TAKE A BOW

Two former Georgia standout guards were featured in promotions. J.J. Frazier bobblehead toys were given to fans, and Frazier was on hand to lead a pregame cheer. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, now with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, attended the game and given a tribute during a timeout.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: Hosts Florida on Wednesday night.

Georgia: Visits South Carolina on Wednesday night.

Does Kansas have enough in the tank after rallying to beat West Virginia?

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For the second time this season, Kansas overcame a double-digit deficit to knock off Big 12 rival West Virginia.

This time, the No. 13 Jayhawks might have saved their chances of winning another Big 12 regular-season title with a critical, 77-69 home win over the No. 20 Mountaineers on Saturday evening.

After trailing by as many as 12 points during the second half, the Jayhawks finished the game on a 19-3 run to close things out as West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins was ejected towards the end of the contest.

Struggling to a slow start once again against West Virginia, the Jayhawks grinded out offense at the free-throw line before finally figuring things out down the stretch. Playing with a thin rotation that looked exhausted by the end of the game, Kansas is lucky to come out of this one with a win. The free-throw disparity certainly played a huge part as Kansas had a 35-2 advantage in that department. The discrepancy helped lead to Huggins’ ejection as he had to be frustrated by those numbers. Even though West Virginia is a pressing team that commits a lot of fouls, and shoots a ton of threes, 35-to-2 is a pretty staggering difference.

Big man Udoka Azubuike had a strong second half for the Jayhawks, as he took advantage of additional touches on the interior to finish with a team-high 21 points and five rebounds. Dominant whenever he was able to get a post touch within five feet, Azubuike was 7-for-8 from the floor on Saturday as he’s now 20-for-22 from the floor over his last three games. Also coming up with a few key blocks down the stretch, Azubuike made momentum-shifting plays on both ends of the floor.

While Kansas had a monster performance from its monster in the middle, this was another win in which the Jayhawks needed to claw back from a big deficit to win at home. Not quite the same threat at The Phog this season as they’ve been in years past, the Jayhawks have looked beatable at home during many nights this season.

But even though Kansas hasn’t looked immortal, they’ll certainly take an important win like this over a tough opponent like West Virginia. To put this in context, the Jayhawks entered the day a game out of first place in the Big 12. They ended the game tied for the Big 12 lead after No. 7 Texas Tech fell at Baylor. The Jayhawks still have to make a trip to Lubbock to play the Red Raiders, but they’re now tied for first in the league. The idea of winning the league — hell, of winning an outright regular season title — is still very much in play.

Before they get to that all-important game, however, the Jayhawks have to overcome being worn down. Having to exert a lot of energy by playing starters heavy minutes during emotional comeback wins isn’t going to help in that equation.

Jay Bilas noted that Kansas senior guard Devonte’ Graham has only missed 30 seconds of action total over his last 10 games. The All-American floor general is literally playing 40 minutes per night. And although Graham was still a warrior in finishing with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, he never took over in a tight, must-win game like an All-American would usually do.

Graham made a key three-pointer and still put up a good stat line, but he only finished with six field goal attempts. His teammates were usually the ones going on strong scoring runs. This could ultimately be the byproduct of Graham riding the hot hands of his teammates and being a good floor leader. It should also be noted that Graham went to the charity stripe 10 times as he was getting fouled quite a bit.

But Graham could also be wearing down after all of the recent minutes. Graham is averaging 37.2 minutes per game this season. For perspective, Jimmy Butler is leading the NBA in minutes at 37.3 minutes a night. Basketball fans constantly make jokes about Tom Thibodeau running him into the ground. In other words, Graham’s recent workload has been ridiculous.

And Graham’s fatigue is starting to show in his shooting numbers. Over his last four games, Graham is shooting 36 percent from the floor (20-for-55) as his scoring production has started to dip. Graham is also only 8-for-24 on two-point field goals during that span, as most of his offensive production is coming from threes and free throws. Things aren’t going to get any easier for Graham when he has to face opponents like Trae Young and Oklahoma and Texas Tech next week.

Does Graham have enough in the tank to get Kansas past that stretch for two more wins? When will his teammates run out of gas if they have to keep playing at full speed during every game?

Azubuike also had to play 31 minutes in Saturday’s win over West Virginia — the first time he’s had to play over 25 minutes since Jan. 20. Looking gassed at the end, Azubuike still managed to muster enough energy for those big plays late in the game. Other Kansas starters are also playing well north of 30 minutes every game as it leads to some inconsistent nights.

Even if Kansas somehow manages to win another Big 12 regular season title, it might come at the expense of everything else this season. The Jayhawks might not have anything left to give after another few weeks of games like this.

Minnesota’s Amir Coffey out for the season with shoulder injury

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Minnesota sophomore Amir Coffey will miss the rest of his sophomore season with a season-ending shoulder injury, according to a release from the school.

The 6-foot-8 Coffey was one of the Big Ten’s most productive freshman last season but he wasn’t able to stay consistently healthy during the 2017-18 campaign. Coffey put up solid numbers when he was able to play, averaging 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, but he missed 10 total games with the injury.

Coffey has been out for the last five games, and with Minnesota’s postseason hopes plummeting during an eight-game losing streak, the decision to hold him out was probably best for his long-term health.

Barford leads dominant Arkansas past No. 21 Texas A&M, 94-75

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Daniel Gafford capped off the most difficult stretch of his young Southeastern Conference career with a disappointing and foul-plagued performance the last time Arkansas faced Texas A&M.

The standout Razorbacks forward remembered that game all too well, and it showed as he added yet another dominating effort to his remarkable freshman season on Saturday.

Gafford scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting to lead Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 SEC) to its fourth straight win, 94-75 over the No. 21 Aggies. It was the fifth straight game in double figures for Gafford, who is shooting 70.7 percent (29 of 41) since the 80-66 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 30.

The 6-foot-11 freshman was on a mission to atone for that loss, and it showed as he hit his first five shots and punctuated the dominating win with a late dunk.

“Playing them here, in my mind I had to play smarter and more physical,” Gafford said. “Because in my mind, I was ready for them. I was ready for Tyler Davis, I was ready for pretty much all the big men because pretty much I got punked when we went up to Texas A&M, and I didn’t want that to happen tonight.”

Gafford had plenty of help from his teammates, with Jaylen Barford scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half and adding five rebounds and five assists for the surging Razorbacks.

Also, Daryl Macon finished with 20 points for an Arkansas team that’s won seven of its last nine. It was the eighth time in the last nine games Macon has scored 20 or more. C.J. Jones had 13 points off the bench.

Robert Williams had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8), which lost its second straight after entering the rankings this week. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also had three blocks and finished 10 of 13 from the field.

Admon Gilder also scored 20 points for the Aggies, while Davis added 15 points and T.J. Starks had 12. However, Texas A&M was unable to slow down an Arkansas team that shot 49.3 percent (35 of 71) from the field and hit 10 of 23 3-pointers.

“There’s not many teams going to come in here and beat Arkansas when they shoot the ball like they did today,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I thought they shot the ball extremely well and made some tough shots.”

REBOUNDING RAZORBACKS

Texas A&M entered the game 3rd nationally and tops in the SEC in rebounding with an average of 41.9 per game. The Aggies also outrebounded Arkansas 45-30 in their win last month, but the Razorbacks turned the tables on Saturday — finishing with a 45-33 edge on the glass.

Freshman Darious Hall followed up his career-best 11-rebound effort in a win over Mississippi earlier in the week with seven rebounds in only 17 minutes on Saturday, and Gafford and senior Trey Thompson had six rebounds apiece.

“This is a team that beat us by 15 at their place, and they’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country with all that size,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Somehow we found the energy. We found the players that were really engaged and going to get those rebounds.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas A&M: The last time the Aggies won in Fayetteville was March 1, 1986, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference and Arkansas still played in Barnhill Arena. They led only once on Saturday, a 4-2 advantage that disappeared quickly after the Razorbacks went on an 11-0 run. Texas A&M was 0 of 7 on 3-pointers while trailing 43-32 at halftime, and it just avoided matching its season low for 3-pointers — finishing 4 of 17 as a team.

Arkansas: The win starts a difficult five-game stretch to end the regular season for Arkansas, which entered Saturday 32nd in the NCAA’s RPI ratings. Beginning with the 18th-rated Aggies, the Razorbacks face teams all 31st or higher in the ratings during the five games — including Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. They started the stretch in dominating fashion on Saturday, a key victory for a team hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four seasons this year.

UP NEXT

Texas A&M returns home to face Mississippi State on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks host Kentucky on Tuesday.