One of my favorite things to do during the preseason is try and identify the guys that will have breakout years in the upcoming season.
Unlike Luke Winn, I’m not using any mathematical formulas to make these determinations. Instead, its a combination of young players that have looked promising early in their careers, talented role players that are in a position to take on a much larger role in the offense or simply kids that I have a hunch on. This list is not scientific, but we do believe it to be all-encompassing.
Here’s the catch — too many of these lists have been done already. Everyone has written that Thomas Robinson, Jeremy Lamb and Terrence Ross have a chance to be all-americans this season. We all know that Terrell Stoglin and DeShaun Thomas are expected to have monster sophomore years. So we went a little deeper.
Without further ado, here is our list of 20 players — and 10 extras — that we expect to have a big 2011-2012 season:
Keith Appling, So., Michigan State: Appling came into East Lansing with some significant hype. That’s generally what happens when you’re a McDonald’s all-american and you join a program like the Spartans. And while his minutes and shots were limited thanks to the presence of Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, Appling did show off an impressive jump shot, knocking down 41.1% of his threes, which is a good sign given the reputation he had as a slasher and a driver in high school. Appling will the primary ball-handler for Michigan State, but the offense will run through playmaking power forward Draymond Green. That will allow Appling to be aggressive as a scorer, a role I expect him to thrive in this year.
Tarik Black, So., Memphis: On a team that boasts already Joe Jackson and Will Barton, would you believe me if I told you that Tarik Black was the sophomore on the Memphis Tigers? What if I told you that he was the most likely to win the Conference USA Player of the Year award, would you believe that? Black spent much of last season out of shape and in foul trouble. He’s still on the road to recovery from a knee injury he suffered during his junior year of high school. But despite those problems, Black still came on very strong late in the season, finishing the year with averages of 9.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 1.6 bpg. After spending the summer working out with Frank Matrisciano, Black, who is one of the most aggressive offensive rebounders in the country and an excellent shot blocker, is in the best shape of his life. That’s a scary thing to hear for Conference USA opponents.
Rob Brandenberg, So., and Juvonte Reddic, So., VCU: There are a ton of minutes available for the Rams this season Shaka Smart’s club lost four of their top five scorers from the Final Four team. Bradford Burgess does return to anchor this roster, but he’s going to need help, and both Brandenberg and Reddic seem primed for big years. Brandenberg, a 6’2″ sophomore and an athletic slasher, had a some big performances in the middle of the season — including a couple of 20 points outbursts — before an injury in February slowed his progress. Reddic didn’t see a ton of minutes, but he was a well-regarded recruit and he has the kind of talent that should allow him to fill in for the production lost with Jamie Skeen’s graduation.
Allen Crabbe, So., Cal: Allen Crabbe may have already broken out. After struggling for the first 13 games of last season, the 6’6″ sophomore wing flourished when Gary Franklin decided to leave the team and transfer to Baylor. Crabbe, who averaged just 8.4 ppg with Franklin in the lineup, scored 16.9 ppg the rest of the way. That number would be even higher if it wasn’t for an injury he suffered at Washington in February. I wouldn’t be surprised if he led the Pac-12 in scoring this season.
Jared Cunningham, Jr., Oregon State: There aren’t many players in the country that can claim to be remotely as athletic as Jared Cunningham. The 6’4″ wing is a physical specimen when it comes to playing the perimeter at this level. He’s got an outstanding vertical, he’s got an impressive wingspan and he’s very quick, both laterally and with his first step. That’s a major reason why he’s one of the best defenders in the country; he averaged 2.8 spg last season. But what’s most intriguing about Cunningham is he’s no where near a finished product. While he led the Beavers in scoring last season at 14.2 ppg, he did it mostly as a spot-up shooter, attacking the offensive glass and scoring points in transition. What happens when the 20 year old becomes adept at beating his man off the dribble and scoring in the mid-range?
Seth Curry, Jr., Duke: The key for Duke this season may end up being how well Seth Curry plays. Duke is going to be talented but unproven at every position on the floor next year. Austin Rivers will likely go through the ups and downs that freshmen have. The only thing the Plumlees have done consistently in their careers has been being inconsistent. Ryan Kelly has some hype, but he still needs to prove it in the ACC. Alex Murphy and Michael Gbinije are freshmen. Curry will have to be the anchor for this team, a leader that can create shots in crunch-time and understands how to distribute the ball. Curry needs to embrace the role of being a point guard.
CJ Fair, So., Syracuse: A member of the same recruiting class as Dion Waiters and Fab Melo, CJ Fair actually turned out to be the most productive and promising freshmen Jim Boeheim recruited. After a relatively ho-hum start to the season, Fair was thrust into the national spotlight when he scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Pitt in mid-January. Fair averaged 7.9 ppg over the final 17 games, putting up a couple of impressive performances. A lefty, the 6’8″ combo-forward is a terrific athlete that understands how to make plays with his athleticism — offensive rebounds, steals, blocks. As his skills develop, Fair will only become a more dangerous player.
Erick Green, Jr., Virginia Tech: I actually think that Virginia Tech is going to just as good as, if not better, than they were the past few seasons with Malcolm Delaney running the show. Green is the reason for that. He didn’t start to see significant minutes until Dorenzo Hudson had his season cut short with a broken foot, but he was very good when he finally got into the lineup. Green averaged 11.7 ppg and 2.7 apg while posting a 2.3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He did that despite Delaney dominating possession of the ball. Expect a big season out of Green as Tech’s point guard this year.
Tim Hardaway Jr, So., Michigan: Tim Hardaway Jr. is in a similar position to both Jeremy Lamb and Allen Crabbe. After spending the first part of his freshman season as a role player for the Wolverines, Hardaway really came on strong down the stretch. He gave John Beilein a second go-to scoring option alongside Darius Morris, and his play late in the year was a huge reason Michigan was able to win eight of their last 11 games and sneak into the NCAA Tournament. With Morris making the jump to the NBA, even more responsibility will fall onto Hardaway’s shoulders. He should be ready to handle it.
Sean Kilpatrick, So., and Yancy Gates, Sr., Cincinnati: Part of the reason I think that Cincinnati is going to be a sneaky-good team in the Big East this season is that I am expecting big years out of both Gates and Kilpatrick, albeit for different reasons. Gates has always been one of the most talented players in the conference, but conditioning and effort were an issue. A mid-season suspension was the wake-up call he needed, however, and Gates averaged 15.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 1.3 bpg over the final 10 games. Kilpatrick, on the other hand, was a high-efficiency, high-volume shooter last season. He averaged 9.7 ppg but only averaged around 20 mpg. It will be interesting to see what he is able to do in a more focal role this year.
Khyle Marshall, So., Butler: Marshall had a promising freshman campaign with the Bulldogs, putting together a pair of impressive performances during the Bulldog’s run to the national title game. Marshall is not your typical Butler player. He’s a terrific athlete, the kind of guy that normally gets scooped up to ride the bench of a high-major program. Marshall is an excellent rebounder (especially on the offensive end of the floor) and defender, and playing alongside Andrew Smith, that’s about all he is going to be asked to do. Expect a significant bump from the 5.8 ppg and 3.8 rpg he averaged last season.
Rodney McGruder, Jr., Kansas State: McGruder was a bystander like the rest of us, a witness to the late-season performances from Jacob Pullen as he carried the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament last season. That said, McGruder did have some of his best games late in the season, particularly when it came to scoring the ball. There isn’t much that McGruder doesn’t do well at this level. He can shoot (40.8% from three), he can rebound (6.0 rpg) and he can score (11.4 rpg). He’s a high-efficiency player that has already begun to embrace the role of being the leader for this team.
Brandon Paul, Jr., and DJ Richardson, Jr., Illinois: Illinois lost five of their top eight players from last season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Demetri McCamey and Jereme Richmond were head cases and distractions, their loss ending up being addition by subtraction. With all those players leaving, it opens up quite a few minutes and shots for Paul and Richardson, both juniors. Richardson is a better shooter than Paul, but Paul is a more dangerous all-around player, especially on the offensive end of the floor. Expect them to become the first and second options offensively this year.
Andre Roberson, So., Colorado: Roberson wax an unheralded recruit coming out of high school, but at 6’7″ with long arms and terrific athleticism, Roberson quickly proved his value to Big 12 opponents. Playing just 22.3 mpg, Roberson averaged 7.8 rpg, finishing in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. He was also a terror on the defensive end, where he was among the Big 12 leaders in steals and blocks. Right now, Roberson’s strength lies in the things he can do without the ball — rebound, defend, cut to the basket — but with Colorado losing so much talent from last season, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to score this season. Here’s to hoping Roberson put in the work this summer on his offensive arsenal.
Maalik Wayns, Jr., and Mouphtaou Yarou, Jr., Villanova: The obvious pick here is Jeremy Lamb of UConn. The trendy pick is Sean Kilpatrick of Cincinnati. So in order to buck that trend, I’ll go with Villanova’s two elder statesmen. The Wildcats have almost no hype heading into this season. Having flamed out in the postseason the past two years and losing four key pieces from that team, you wouldn’t be wrong to ignore Villanova heading into the year. But I like the makeup of this team. I think they have similar pieces at the two, three and four to the group that made the Final Four run in 2009, but I also think that with the opportunity to take over the role of the star, both Wayns and Yarou will shine. Both players are impressive talents that were forced to play third and fourth fiddle to the two Coreys last season. If Wayns has gotten his jumper more consistent and Yarou has become a better low-post scorer, I think those two will carry a Villanova team that will rely more heavily on the defensive end of the floor than we are used to.
Kendall Williams, So., New Mexico: Williams can flat out play. As a third or fourth option for the Lobos as a freshman, Williams — who won the freshman of the year award in the MWC — finished with averages of 11.5 ppg and 4.0 apg despite playing alongside Dairese Gary. Gary graduated in the offseason, which means that Williams, along with Drew Gordon, will become the center of the New Mexico attack. To get an idea of what kind of production can be expected, Williams scored 18 points in both of the Lobo’s NIT games after Gary suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Ten more players to keep an eye on:
Mike Breusewitz, Jr., Wisconsin
Jordan Clarkson, So., Tulsa
Tyreek Duren, So., La Salle
Langston Galloway, So., St. Joseph’s
Stephen Holt, So., St. Mary’s
Cedrick Lindsay, So., Richmond
Dundrecous Nelson, So., Ole Miss
Jake Odum, So., Indiana State
Devon Saddler, So., Delaware
Peyton Siva, Jr., Louisville