Jae Crowder almost didn’t make it out of the JuCo ranks

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MILWAUKEE – Far too often, we overlook the blessings in our lives.

Whether it’s because the app we downloaded onto our iPad isn’t working or our internet provider doesn’t carry ESPN3 or even something as simple accidentally buying the wrong brand of toothpaste, the little things in life always seem to be the most annoying. I know I’ve come close to throwing my cell phone out the window because the picture I took wouldn’t upload to twitter.

Life is hard, you know?

Jae Crowder doesn’t look at it that way.

“It could be worse,” Crowder said after scoring 15 points in Marquette’s 62-57 win over Pitt on Saturday afternoon. “I’m happy every day. I’m blessed. I wake up with a smile. Even when we have two-a-days.”

And why shouldn’t he be?

It wasn’t too long ago that a future as a Division I basketball player seemed unlikely.

When Crowder graduated high school, he initially enrolled in at South Georgia Tech, a Junior College in Americus, GA, that Crowder hoped would help him land a full-ride. From a basketball perspective, it worked out. Crowder led South Georgia Tech to “Hutch”, or Hutchinson Community College, where the NJCAA Tournament is held annually. He was good enough that he had Division I head coaches coming up to talk to him, but what they were saying wasn’t exactly what he wanted to hear.

“Bob Huggins came up to me at practice and said ‘you should get out of there. If you want to play Division I basketball, you need to leave and give yourself a chance,'” Crowder said. “That’s when me and my dad started searching around and really getting the facts on what the school is.”

Or, rather, what the school isn’t: accredited.

For those that aren’t well-versed in educational lingo, “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality”, according to the US Department of Education. In other words, none of the work that Crowder did while at South Georgia Tech would count if he tried to transfer to a Division I school.

“Of course, when the coach recruited me in high school, he didn’t tell me that. He wanted a good player,” Crowder said. “I went to school a whole year and no classes transferred anywhere.”

Crowder took Huggy Bear’s advice. He left South Georgia Tech and enrolled at Howard College. But if he truly wanted to become a Division I basketball player, it was going to require him to not only continue to develop his skills on the court, but to essentially take two years worth on classes in two semesters.

So Crowder buckled down and busted his tail in the classroom. What choice did he have?

“I doubled up on classes and did summer school up at Marquette and got enough credits to transfer in,” Crowder said. “You’re doubling everything in your schedule, and on top of that your playing basketball. We won the national championship that year, but it was the toughest thing I ever had to do.”

“I had to go right back to school to do some more school work after we on the national championship.”

Did I mention he was the tournament MVP?

—————————————————————–

Its not easy to define what position Jae Crowder plays for the Golden Eagles.

He’s clearly not a point guard or a center, but beyond that it is difficult to find a label for him. Usually, that’s a negative quality for a player to have. Being placed in the tweener category is far from a punched ticket to the first round of the NBA draft.

Not true, for Crowder. Generally speaking, a tweener becomes a tweener because of what they can’t do on a basketball court — they aren’t strong enough to hold their own in the paint and they aren’t skilled or coordinated enough to be a full-time perimeter player. Crowder’s issue isn’t really an issue at all, because there simply isn’t much that he isn’t able to do on a basketball court.

“Jae’s versatility is on both ends of the floor,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams told me in the bowels of the Bradley Center. “Playing Jae at the three, playing Jae at the four. We’re running stuff to get him the ball inside, we’re running stuff to get him isolated out on the perimeter, how we’re guarding ball screens when he’s involved.”

“He’s a switchable and he completely has the best instincts of any player I ever coached.”

Under Williams, Marquette has become a hot bed for players of Crowder’s ilk. Before him, it was Jimmy Butler, who went on to become the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA draft and scored 12 points in a game for the Bulls last weekend. Before Butler, it was Lazar Hayward, who is currently getting his paychecks signed by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Before Hayward, it was Wesley Matthews, who is currently averaging more than 15 ppg for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Not a single one of those guys were blessed with the kind of physical tools that would make them a sure-fire NBA prospect, yet they thrived playing in the Marquette system.

Why?

“I think its more about being a mismatch, they’re guys that can play inside and out,” Darius Johnson-Odom said. “I think they create a lot of mismatches for other teams. Its kind of hard to guard a guy you can’t play off that can bang inside.”

Crowder reiterated the same sentiment, crediting the “freedom” Williams gives his players to do whatever they are capable of so long as it comes within the structure of the Marquette offense.

“He believes in your game,” Crowder said. “Guys like me, we just get to play freely, not worrying about if I can do this or if I can do that. Just playing within your self as long as its part of the system.”

More than anything, Williams has developed an eye for locating that kind of a player. Where some coaches are worried about athleticism and some are worried about height or shooting ability, Williams simply wants guys that understand the game and know how to play. He’s looking for kids that he can trust to have success when they get put into different situations.

“I love coaching those guys. I love guys that know how to play. That have a good pace about them,” Williams said. “I remember [former Oklahoma coach] Billy Tubbs always told me when you’re watching players, always pay attention to their glide. He wasn’t talking about their gait. What is their pace? What is their rhythm?”

“I think Jae’s glide is as good as any guy I’ve ever been around.”

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Whenever you hear stories about how a coach found a player that no one else was recruiting, there is always a story behind it; something sensational that the player accomplished while that coach happened to be standing on the sidelines. Like love at first sight, all it takes is one dunk or one no-look pass or one charge taken to realize ‘Hey, this kid’s going to be pretty good.’

What did Crowder do that caught Williams’ eye?

“Jae had three fouls in the first half, finished with three points and four boards,” Williams said. “He was awful. Played 10 minutes.”

Huh?

He did what?

Explain.

“Much has been written about all of the college coaches that I wrote as a kid. One of the college coaches of the 425 that I accumulated during my career was on the rise as a Division I coach. His name was Mark Adams. He was at UT-Pan American,” Williams, who is as good of a storyteller as you will come across in this business, said.

“Its almost role reversal. In some respects, some people think I’m on the rise. I get a call from one college coach I used to write, and he says ‘do you remember Mark Adams?’ I wrote him 400 letters, I remember him. ‘He’s the head coach at a JuCo and he loves you and he remembers you writing and he wants you to call him.'”

So Buzz called, and it turns out that Adams was the head coach at Howard College and wanted him to come check out Crowder, who Adams said was ‘the best player he’s ever coached.’ So Williams books a flight and takes in a game, and Crowder does absolutely nothing. It was bad enough that Adams came up to Williams after the game to apologize for the bad tip and poor showing.

As Williams tells it, “I said ‘Coach, I want him.’ He says ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘Coach, I was 19 years old and you were the rising star in Division I. I know you know what a player is more than I do. I trust you.'”

But there was more to it than simply trusting the instinct of a guy that was up-and-coming the better part of two decades ago.

“I saw Jae have the worst game he could have and he was by far the best teammate in the building,” Williams said. “He’s coaching, he’s on the bench waving towels, its a time out and he’s meeting them on the floor giving them dap.”

“He could play for me.”

The sticking point came in the form of the academics. Crowder had so much work to do and so little time to do it that actively recruiting him would hinder the likelihood that he would be able to get eligible immediately.

And, for Williams, this is where he got a bit lucky.

You see, Crowder’s father played for Kentucky Wesleyan when he was in college. Williams assistant coach Scott Monarch just so happened to cut his teeth Kentucky Wesleyan, acting as associate head coach when they won the Division II national title back in 1998. Once the two sides figured out that connection, the ball got rolling.

But Williams still wasn’t interested in chasing this kid if he didn’t want to come.

“I called Jae the next day,” Williams told me, “and said ‘Jae, I want you to come to Marquette. But I want you to understand that you have a lot of work to do academically. … I ain’t got time for all the glitz and glamour of recruiting. [You’re] my kind of guy, I promise you.'”

And he was right.

—————————————————————–

Jae Crowder never ended up making an official visit to Marquette.

That might have been a good thing.

“If I knew it was this cold I would have had second guesses,” Crowder said with a smile before he headed out into yet another winter day in Milwaukee that never made it out of the teens. “But I’m dealing with it.”

Because that’s what Crowder does. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t get upset or make excuses. He rolls with the punches, making the best out of every situation.

“I did get dealt a bad hand and I know it was in God’s plan. But I learned a lot of things from that time period,” he said. “I don’t even regret what happened. I think [the time I spent at Howard] grew me up. It made me do the right things and handle my business.”

Not even two years of arctic temperatures could kill that spirit.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

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

Penn State, West Virginia set up hurricane relief exhibition

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Tuesday afternoon it was announced by Penn State and West Virginia that the two programs will meet in an exhibition that will benefit Hurricane Florence relief efforts. The exhibition will be played November 3 in Morgantown, with all proceeds being donated to the American Red Cross.

While the game won’t impact either team’s record, it is the first meeting between the Nittany Lions and Mountaineers since January 1991. At the time both schools were members of the Atlantic 10, with Penn State leaving to join the Big Ten that summer.

Ahead of the 2017-18 season there were numerous exhibitions matching Division I teams, a move that requires NCAA approval, in the name of charity. That’s certainly the most important aspect of these exhibitions, but it also gives coaches the chance to evaluate their players against similar competition as opposed to the standard preseason game against a Division II, III or NAIA opponent.

Teams also have the option of setting up scrimmages before the season begins, and those affairs cannot be viewed by the general public.

CBT Podcast: Breaking down our top 25, preseason All-Americans

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As the NBCSports.com College Basketball Talk podcast returns, Rob Dauster was joined by Raphielle Johnson to breakdown the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and the preseason All-American teams that were released this week.

Here is a full rundown of today’s podcast:

OPEN: Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Gonzaga are the clear-cut preseason top four.

19:30: Which top ten team is the most likely to be a bust?

22:30: What should we do with Loyola-Chicago heading into 2018-19?

25:15: Washington vs. Oregon as the Pac-12’s best.

30:00: Which team outside the top 25 will get to the Final Four?

32:05: R.J. Barrett vs. Carsen Edwards for Preseason Player of the Year and Zion Williamson vs. Tyus Battle for 1st team All-America.

39:40: Kentucky is No. 2 but doesn’t have a player on our 1st, 2nd or 3rd team All-America.

43:30: Who are the National Player of the Year sleepers?

No. 24 N.C. State Wolfpack: Can Kevin Keatts win without frontcourt?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 24 N.C. State.


Kevin Keatts is in just his second season as the head coach of the Wolfpack but he’s already managed to more or less completely turn over a roster that had developed a reputation for completely underachieving.

Just two of N.C. State’s scholarship players were at N.C. State when Keatts was hired — point guard Markell Johnson and wing Torin Dorn. Of the 11 players that Keatts has landed, eight of them came via the transfer market, and Johnson is the only non-freshman on the roster that began his collegiate career in Raleigh.

Normally it takes three or four seasons before a new head coach is able to turn a roster over and get “his guys” into the program

With Keatts, it took him all of 18 months, and he already is coming off of a surprise trip to the 2018 NCAA tournament to boot.

The question that needs to be answered is this: Did Keatts simply find a way to get it done with the talent that Mark Gottfried let waste away on his roster last season?

Or is he just getting started?

MOREPreseason Top 25 | NBC Sports All-Americans | Preview Schedule

N.C. STATE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

This team looks so much like the juggernauts that Keatts built at UNC Wilmington.

Prior to his move to Raleigh, Keatts spent three seasons with the Seahawks. He won at least a share of the CAA regular season title all three years, getting to the NCAA tournament twice where he lost by single-digits to ACC powerhouses Virginia and Duke.

Those UNCW teams were built around a certain style of play that isn’t all that dissimilar from what Shaka Smart did during his VCU days. UNCW wasn’t playing an all-out, gambling defense like Havoc, but they did defend full court and they did gamble for steals quite a bit and, most importantly, they were built around the idea that Keatts could play four guards at once, forcing enough turnovers with his pressure and creating enough mismatches on the offensive end that his team would win despite being outsized every time they stepped on the court.

Reading the tea leaves, it’s not hard to envision the Wolfpack doing something very similar this season. Of the 11 players that are eligible to play this year after it was announced that freshman Immanuel Bates will redshirt following shoulder surgery, seven of them are guards and two of their forwards are decidedly perimeter-oriented.

And that depth on the perimeter isn’t just bodies. They’re talented. Let’s start with Torin Dorn, the redshirt senior transfer from Charlotte that averaged 13.9 points last season. At 6-foot-5, I would not be surprised to see Dorn get quite a few minutes playing as a four for the Wolfpack; Keatts’ best teams at UNCW used Chris Flemmings, a 6-foot-5, 175-pound Division II transfer as their de-facto power forward, and he won himself a CAA Player of the Year award in the process.

Torin Dorn (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Along those same lines, I can see C.J. Bryce getting plenty of minutes alongside Dorn. Bryce, who also stands 6-foot-5, was a first-team all-CAA player as a sophomore at UNCW when he averaged 17.4 points. He followed Keatts to N.C. State and sat last season out as a redshirt.

Markell Johnson is in line for the starting point guard gig after leading the ACC in assists a season ago, and I would not be shocked to see him partnered with Braxton Beverly in the backcourt once again. Beverly started 26 games and averaged 9.5 points and 3.9 assists as a freshman after transferring into the program from Ohio State.

The reason I don’t think it is a guarantee that Beverly starts is due to the pieces that Keatts is bringing in around him. Eric Lockett is a graduate transfer from FIU that averaged 14.3 points and 6.5 boards last season. Devon Daniels is a redshirt sophomore that sat out last season after averaging 9.9 points as a freshman at Utah. Blake Harris, a former top 100 recruit, will be eligible immediately after transferring into N.C. State from Missouri, where he averaged 3.8 points before leaving the team in January.

Beverly has the inside track to a starting spot, but he is going to have to earn it, and that’s unequivocally a good thing if you are an N.C. State fan, because Beverly is a good player.

And that’s really what this comes down to for the Wolfpack.

Their guards are really good, there are a lot of them and if Keatts has proven anything during his coaching career, it’s that he can win with teams that have good guards.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games
Markell Johnson (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

BUT N.C. STATE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

There really is no frontcourt depth to speak of.

And while the guards are the players that have gotten all of the attention for Keatts’ best UNCW teams, the truth is that those teams had big men that were really good at doing what they needed to do to anchor that defense.

Neither C.J. Gettys nor Davontae Cacok put up stat lines that would ‘wow’ you, but they were really good at two things: Rebounding the ball and defending the rim.

I don’t know if there is a guy on this roster that can do those things. Wyatt Walker averaged 12.9 points and 9.7 boards for Samford back in 2016-17, but he dealt with a knee injury last season that limited him to just two games, and even then, he’s 6-foot-9 and had just 56 blocks in two-plus years. D.J. Funderburk is 6-foot-10, but he weighs just 210 pounds and is much more of a wing than he is a post. Put another way, he averaged just 4.4 boards in Junior College last season. Ian Steere is a good player but he’s not exactly a game-changing recruit; you don’t want him anchoring the frontcourt as a freshman.

The cruel irony is that Immanuel Bates might have been the guy that could help fill that void, but he’s going to redshirt to recover from his shoulder surgery, and even when healthy, he, like Steere, is not necessarily someone you want to rely on for more than some minutes off the bench.

This is an issue for a couple of reasons:

  1. When you play a gambling style of defense, having someone that can erase shots at the rim is so important. The offense is far more likely to be able to get to the rim, and making it just that much more difficult for those layups to be scored makes all the difference.
  2. N.C. State is already going to be playing small, which inherently hinders them on the glass. Having a big man on the floor that can vacuum up caroms on the defensive end helps to end possessions. As the saying goes, forcing a miss only matters if you get rebound.

This is likely going to be an issue for this team all season long. The answer is less solving the problem and more finding a way to work around it.

Braxton Beverly (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

It really is incredible just how many new faces there are going to be on this roster.

Dorn and Johnson are the only players that have been in Raleigh for more than two years. Just five of the 13 players on scholarship have been on campus for one year, and three of those five transferred into the program and sat out last season as redshirts.

Put another way, there is a ton of experience on this roster, but they have very little experience actually playing with each other.

I’d love to be able to analyze this deeper, but it’s really simple: We don’t know how teams are going to come together until we see them, you know, come together.

Role allocation, role acceptance, understanding the plays, learning defensive assignments. These are the things that are going to determine if the Wolfpack hit their ceiling.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

And frankly, I think that ceiling is pretty high.

I am a believer in Kevin Keatts. I think he’s a terrific basketball coach and a guy that will find a way to get the most out of the talent that is on his roster, and there is plenty of talent on this roster. It is also the kind of roster makeup that Keatts has had success with in the past.

That’s enough to look at this team and see a group that should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and make a run at finishing fourth — behind Duke, Virginia and North Carolina — in the ACC.

But it’s hardly a guarantee.

Beyond the simple fact that we have no idea how this group is going to come together and the issues they have in the frontcourt, there are questions to be asked about whether or not this team has a go-to guy, or if the players that transferred into the program are anything more than role playing cast-offs from another program, or if the style that Keatts had success with in the CAA will work as well in the ACC.

N.C. State is going to be fun to follow this year precisely because of that fact.

We don’t really know what they are going to do this season. Hell, we don’t even really know what the starting lineup is going to be.

All we really know is they have talent on paper and one of the best young coaches in the league.

That’s a good combination of things to have.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 25 Marquette

NBC Sports Preseason All-Americans

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are unveiling the NBC Sports Preseason All-American teams.

We went with four teams this year, and at the bottom we listed every player that received at least one vote for one team.

Unlike past seasons, there is no shortage of options for Preseason National Player of the Year.

Three different players received at least one vote for us, and I would not be surprised to see two or three others pick up the title from someone on the internet between now and the start of the season.

Without further ado, here are our All-America teams.


R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: R.J. Barrett, Duke

Barrett got the nod as the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year as he seems to be the safest pick this season even if he’s not the only potential Player of the Year on his own roster.

He is a bonafide star, a player that has proven the ability to be a game-changer against elite competition despite the fact that he is just a freshman. Remember, two summers ago, Barrett — just three weeks after his 17th birthday — was the star of Canada’s U19 national team that won the FIBA U19 World Cup. In a game against Team USA in the semifinals of the event, Barrett had 38 points, 13 boards and six assists. That team featured first round picks Kevin Huerter and Josh Okogie as well as current All-Americans Carsen Edwards and P.J. Washington, among others.

A 6-foot-8 point guard, Barrett — along with Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish — will be the latest face of the small-ball movement at Duke. Williamson is going to get all the hype and be the one to go viral and there are those that believe that Reddish actually has a higher ceiling should he put it all together, but this is going to be Barrett’s team in 2018-19. I fully expect him to have the kind of season that will justify being taken as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Carsen Edwards (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICA

CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Edwards is going to put up massive numbers this season if the Boilermakers are going to be as good as some project them to be. A borderline top 25 team that should make it back to the NCAA tournament, Purdue is losing four senior starters off of last year’s roster. Edwards — who averaged a team-high 18.5 points this past season — is going to be thrust into a role where he is asked to carry this group while showcasing more point guard ability than he has in the past. I don’t think averaging 24 points is out of the question, although I think he’s more likely to put together a junior season that looks something like the year Aaron Holiday had for UCLA in 2017-18 — averaging 20 points and six assists for a team that gets into the tournament as a double-digit seed.

RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

The Japanese forward only recently arrived back on campus after taking part in FIBA World Cup qualifiers with his national team. Hachimura is exactly the kind of big, athletic and versatile forward that dominates basketball in today’s day and age. He’ll need to be a more consistent perimeter shooter, and there are still times where he seems to get lost defensively, but 6-foot-8 combo-forwards with his physical tools do not come around often. He scored 24 points in an upset win over a very good Australian national team this summer in a World Cup qualifier.

DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

The Memphis transfer is in line to be the focal point of a loaded Kansas attack that will enter the year as the No. 1 team in the country in the NBC Sports Top 25. Lawson is precisely the kind of player that Bill Self has thrived with in the past: A face-up four that can make shots on the perimeter but is at his best from 15 feet and in. As a sophomore with Memphis in 2016-17, Lawson averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 boards, 3.3 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals. He is not going to put up those numbers at Kansas while playing in the Big 12, but he might not be all that far off.

LUKE MAYE, North Carolina

Maye might just be the best returning player in all of college basketball, which is not something that I ever envisioned myself saying. After hitting the game-winning jumper to send North Carolina past Kentucky and into the Final Four in 2017, the year the Tar Heels won the national title, Maye ended up having an All-American season as a junior, averaging 16.9 points and 10.1 boards while shooting 43.1 percent from three.

Tyus Battle (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

SECOND TEAM ALL-AMERICA

MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette

Quite possibly the best shooter in all of college basketball. As a freshman, he shot 54.7 percent from three on 4.8 attempts per game. As a sophomore, he shot 40.4 percent from three while shooting more than eight threes per game while spending more time on the ball. He’s missed 14 free throws in two seasons. And, coming off of a year where he averaged 20.4 points while ceding lead guard duties to Andrew Rowsey, Howard will now be the centerpiece of what Marquette does offensively. He, and Marquette as a team, might just score enough points to overcome the fact that they can’t guard a team of out-of-shape dads.

TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse

Battle’s efficiency numbers went in the tank as a sophomore thanks to the fact that he played on a team with no floor spacing and even less help for him in halfcourt offensive settings. But the Orange, who finished as one of the nation’s top five defenses and add some offensive weapons to a team that returns everyone, including Oshae Brissett, Battle should be more effective this year. He could average 20 points on a top 15 team.

CALEB MARTIN, Nevada

Martin averaged 18.9 points and shot 40.3 percent from three as a junior at Nevada while leading the Wolf Pack to the Sweet 16 despite the fact that he played the second half of the season with a foot injury that was initially thought to be season-ending. He’s in line for a massive season on one of the best teams in the country.

GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Did you know that Tennessee is the reigning SEC regular season champion? Did you know that Williams is the reigning SEC Player of the Year? If you did, then you shouldn’t be surprised to see the 6-foot-7 junior listed here. He averaged 15.2 points and 6.0 boards as a sophomore.

ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Williamson is an absolute freak of nature athletically. We all already knew that. The reason Williamson is slotted this high on our All-American teams is that he is far more skilled than he gets credit for. While Duke was in Canada playing their exhibition games in August, Williamson was unstoppable. I am much more bullish on him now than I was at the start of the summer.

Eric Paschall (Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

THIRD TEAM ALL-AMERICA

TREMONT WATERS, LSU

Waters is in line to be this year’s Trae Young. He averaged 15.9 points and 6.0 assists as a freshman for an LSU team that wasn’t overloaded with talent.

SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s

Ponds had some monstrous performances for the Johnnies in big games last season — including a stretch where he averaged 31.5 points an 5.0 assists during a four-game winning streak against Duke, at Villanova, Marquette and at DePaul. Can the Johnies be better this season than they were last?

ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova

With everything that the Wildcats lost this past offseason, Paschall is going to have a chance to showcase what he can do offensively. People forget he scored a ton of points as a freshman. Paschall is going to be a first round pick.

DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

For my money, Hunter is Virginia’s best and most important player, but I am concerned that his production can get stymied by A) playing in Virginia’s system and B) being forced to play out of position. He’s at his best if he can be a mismatch four. Depth issues might force Virginia to play him at the three.

ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Happ was an All-American after his sophomore year and a preseason All-American heading into his junior season. And now, as a senior, his Wisconsin team looks primed to have a bounceback year.

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

FOURTH TEAM ALL-AMERICA

KYLE GUY, Virginia

Guy will play the role that was populated by Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon. He would probably be higher on this list if he was a better defender.

KELLAN GRADY, Davidson

Grady is the next superstar at Davidson, although he ceiling looks closer to that of Jack Gibbs than that of Stephen Curry.

NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina

Little is a tremendous athlete that is going to give the Tar Heels some lineup flexibility, but he may still actually be a better prospect than player at this point.

P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

Picking a player from Kentucky for this is difficult, as the Wildcats have a handful of options, a ton of depth and no real clarity on what their starting lineup and rotation will be. But after the week he had in the Bahamas, Washington is a pretty good bet to be Kentucky’s best player this season.

DEAN WADE, Kansas State

Wade, a 6-foot-10 perimeter forward, was Kansas State’s best player last season, and he didn’t even play in their NCAA tournament Elite 8 run.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

KY BOWMAN, Boston College
MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State
ASHTON HAGANS, Kentucky
SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia
CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan
CAM REDDISH, Duke
KILLIAN TILLIE, Gonzaga
REID TRAVIS, Kentucky
NICK WARD, Michigan State

NC State looks to transfers for help on overhauled roster

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Devon Daniels, C.J. Bryce and Blake Harris spent the better part of last season leading North Carolina State’s practice team and working on their games — along with their ability to stay patient — while sitting out as transfers.

The Wolfpack’s success this season could depend on how successful they were in turning that time into sharpened skillsets, particularly with so many new faces on the roster for coach Kevin Keatts’ second season.

“They know how the game is,” sophomore guard Braxton Beverly said Monday during the team’s preseason media day. “They’re a little more mature. They know how everything goes, so that makes it a lot easier when it’s not a lot of freshmen who’ve never experienced this level.”

N.C. State has only three returning players — Beverly, senior Torin Dorn and junior Markell Johnson — who played for the Wolfpack last season. The roster now features 10 newcomers, though not all are eligible to play this season. The list includes a pair of graduate transfers who weren’t with the team last year: forward Wyatt Walker (Samford) and guard Eric Lockett (Florida International).

Daniels is a 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore who averaged 9.9 points and shot 57 percent while starting 26 games as a freshman at Utah. Bryce, a 6-5 redshirt junior was a first-team all-Colonial Athletic Association performer under Keatts at UNC Wilmington while averaging 17.4 points.

Daniels and Bryce were with the Wolfpack from the start of last season, working in practices while sitting out to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements.

“Last year we competed every day against the starters, when we were leading the practice team,” Daniels said. “We just got each other better. We came in here by ourselves and got better a lot — ballhandling drills, shooting together, all that. I think it was good.”

Bryce said he particularly worked to improve his 3-point shot by keeping his elbow in more to tweak his shooting stroke.

“It was a year of work,” Bryce said. “I feel like throughout it all, I stayed pretty dialed-in for the most part.”

Harris, a 6-3 sophomore, joined the program in January after playing 14 games for Missouri. The native of nearby Chapel Hill later received a waiver from the NCAA allowing him to play immediately instead of sitting out the fall semester as typically required by the rules.

To listen to Keatts, they all handled that sitting-out time well, even if it’s not easy.

“The tough part of when you sit out as a transfer, you’re the best player on the (practice) team,” Keatts said. “So we really don’t have a chance to coach you all the time. So you take bad shots and you really don’t know the system as well as you think they should.”

Yet to listen to Dorn, the practices were “super competitive” and helped last year’s team improve enough to return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-season absence.

“They were ready to play,” Dorn said. “They were in street clothes (during games) so they’d come in at practice like this is their game. . I appreciate those guys for doing that because it pushed us to be the team we were last year.”

Now those guys get to show what they’ve learned in games that count.