College Hoops Preview: Identifying this year’s X-Factors

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Preseason talk is always dominated by all-american teams and all-conference teams, player of the year candidates and who is headed for early-entry into the NBA Draft.

And, generally speaking, the players that have their names brought up in those conversations are usually the guys that dominate the headlines — and the box scores — for much of the season. But quite often, the difference-makers for the best teams in the country aren’t necessarily the leading scorers or the best pro prospects, they are the guys that the most important role. They are the guys that will be called upon to do what no one else on the roster is willing or able to do.

Here are 18 of this season’s most important x-factors (it’s by no means a comprehensive list, so feel free to chime in with oversights in the comments):

Tarik Black, Jr., Memphis: Black was expected to be a breakout performer for Memphis last season, but that didn’t happen. In fact, he put together a fairly disappointing season. One of the biggest issues was his inability to rebound the ball, which was a major reason Memphis was routinely beat up on the glass last year. With leading rebounder Will Barton gone, Black will need to become a presence on the back boards.

Austin Chatman, So., Creighton: The Bluejays returned the majority of their roster from last year, but the guy they lost was point guard Antoine Young. Chatman is the leading candidate to try and replace those 12.1 points and 4.4 assists, but more importantly, he’ll be asked to be a defensive sparkplug. Creighton’s season will hinge on whether or not they can improve on that end of the floor.

Patrick Connaughton, So., and Scott Martin, Sr., Notre Dame: Notre Dame has a pair of terrific play-makers in their back court and a big-bodied, all-conference center in the middle. In Mike Brey’s ‘Burn’ Offense, those three will need space. If Connaughton and Martin can consistently knockdown perimeter jumpers, they’ll have it.

Quinn Cook, So., Duke: The Blue Devils were missing a number of things from last season’s team, but nothing was more difficult to overcome than the lack of a play-maker at the point guard spot. While the roster will have a bit of a different feel this season, there are still plenty of weapons on it. No one will be more important than their point guard, Cook.

Gary Harris, Fr., Michigan State: It’s always tough to peg just how good an incoming freshman is going to be, and it is no different with Harris. But with the tough and physical front line that Michigan State will put on the floor, they’ll need Harris to be a serious scoring threat. Because Tom Izzo doesn’t have many others.

Andre Hollins, So., Minnesota: While Trevor Mbakwe’s legal status may be the most pressing issue for this team, Hollins’ development is a close second. It took him some time to learn the point guard spot as a freshman, but after averaging 16.8 points and 2.8 assists in the final nine games (including four points and no assists in the NIT title game when he fouled out), Gopher fans are expecting a lot out of him this season.

Elijah Johnson, Sr., Kansas: You know about Jeff Withey defensively and you know what it expected of Ben McLemore as a scoring guard, but who will be the Jayhawk’s leader? Who will be their play-maker and ball-handler? Johnson was promising at the end of last season. Can he build on that heading into his senior campaign?

Philip Jurick, Sr., Oklahoma State: Even with Brian Williams’ injury and J.P. Olukemi’s eligibility questions, the Cowboys have plenty of wing and perimeter options. What they’re lacking, however, is a presence in the middle. Jurick averaged 4.9 boards and 1.7 blocks in just 16.5 minutes last year, but he’s battling back from an achilles injury and dealing with some legal issues stemming from an offseason arrest.

Alex Len, So., Maryland: The Terps have a number of talented perimeter options and a couple of live-bodied athletes in their front court, but if Len can live up to some of the expectation he has, Mark Turgeon’s club has a chance to be very good. He’s a legitimate seven-footer and a scoring threat inside.

Mark Lyons, Sr., Arizona: Ok, Lyons may be more than simply a role player, but his role is so important for the Wildcats that I left him on this list. Arizona has a ton of talent on their roster, but it’s young talent. Lyons is a veteran guard, but can he be a facilitating leader at the point?

Anthony Marshall, Sr., UNLV: Marshall’s in a similar situation as Lyons. He’s a veteran guard being asked to play the role of facilitating point guard when it’s not exactly his strong suit. There is a lot of talent on the UNLV roster, and Marshall is the guy that can bring it all together.

Victor Oladipo, Jr., Indiana: Oladipo is the best athlete and the best perimeter defender on a team that doesn’t have much a ton of athleticism and will struggle on the defensive end of the floor. If he can consistently force opposing wings to struggle to score the ball, it’ll be a boon for Tom Crean’s team.

Alex Oriakhi, Sr., Missouri: Lost in his disappointing performance as a junior at UConn was just how dominant Oriakhi was as a sophomore, dominating the paint as the Huskies won the national title. With ball-pressuring guards and versatile, athletic forwards on the roster, if Oriakhi can revert back to that form, Missouri can become an elite defensive team.

Marcus Paige, Fr., North Carolina: The point guard spot on the Tar Heels may be the most important position in the entire country. Paige is a freshman taking over the role. He’ll have talent on the roster with him, but that’s no guarantee that UNC will be successful with Paige running the show. Ask Larry Drew.

Lenzelle Smith, Jr., Ohio State: We know what to expect out of Deshaun Thomas and we know what Aaron Craft is going to give the Buckeyes. Thad Matta has plenty of highly-regarded recruits that can fill in and play roles. What the Buckeyes need is a secondary scorer to emerge on the wing, and Smith showed signs of being that guy last season.

Peyton Siva, Sr., Louisville: Siva had quite a bit of expectation entering last season, and he struggled dealing with them early on. Louisville struggled as well. Remember the 31 point loss to Providence? I do. But down the stretch of the regular season and into March, Siva started to become the kind of play-maker that we all expected from the beginning. And the Cardinals won the Big East tournament and made the Final Four. Louisville is not a good offensive basketball team, which is why Siva’s role is so important.

JT Terrell, So., USC: USC will look like a brand new team this year, with the number of transfers getting eligible and returners getting healthy. And while they have size up front and a quality point guard in Jio Fontan, they are missing some scoring pop on the wing. Terrell can be that guy.

Patric Young, Jr., Florida: From a physical perspective, Young may as well be a Greek God. The problem? That physicality hasn’t quite produced the kind of numbers you’d expect. On a team with a lot of guards and a power forward that shoots a lot of threes, Young needs to become a guy that controls the paint offensively and defensively if Florida is to become elite.

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

VIDEOS: New footlocker commercials make fun of Trae Young, LiAngelo Ball

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A new series of commercials being released today by Foot Locker feature the stars of the NBA draft getting roasted.

Well, “stars”.

Because the commercial that is going to get the most play is of LiAngelo Ball, who never actually played in college. Ball, if you remember, was arrested for shoplifting while his UCLA team was on a trip to China. He was eventually dismissed from the program and ended up playing for a year in Lithuania before entering the NBA draft.

And, well, they touch on all of that in this commercial:

The other player to get roasted was Trae Young, who was a sensation for the first half of the college basketball season before a dreadful finish saw him losing 12 of his last 16 games. It was ugly, and Foot Locker made sure to remind him of it:

I appreciate the effort here from Foot Locker, but I have to say that these just are not all that funny.

Michael Porter Jr. says info on hip injury ‘got exaggerated a lot’

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Michael Porter Jr. told the Will Cain Show on Monday that he’s “feeling great” and that the information that made the rounds last week was “exaggerated a lot”.

Porter, who missed almost his entire freshman season after undergoing surgery on his back, cancelled a workout that was supposed to take place on Friday due to issues in his hip. It was reported to be spasms, bad enough that he wasn’t able to get out of bed, according to a report from ESPN. It’s worth noting that the original injury he was said to be dealing with at Missouri was a hip injury, not a back injury.

Porter eventually attended Friday’s team workout, although he didn’t workout, he only allowed teams to have their doctors evaluate his back.

“I got evaluated,” Porter said. “I let the doctors come in and do all their tests on me. I’m feeling good. I think the teams are comfortable, but I might get a couple workouts in.”

“It was just a little sore, so I told [my agent] my hip was kind of sore and he just wanted to shut it down for a couple of days,” Porter said. “And then people took that and kind of ran with it, saying, you know, my hip was injured, I couldn’t get out of bed. None of that was really true. I was just sore and I wanted to take a couple of days off. So that’s all that was.”

Porter added that his back is “normal. I have no issues with it. There’s no risk of reinjury [and] every MRI that I’ve done is perfect.”

2018 NBA Draft: 12 players outside the lottery that will out-perform their draft position

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In three of the last five seasons, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award was given to a player that was picked outside of the top five.

Damian Lillard was the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Michael Carter-Williams went 11th in 2013.

Malcolm Brogdon? He was a second round pick in 2016.

This season, Donovan Mitchell, who was selected 13th in the 2017 NBA Draft, would be a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year if Ben Simmons had not been hurt last season.

Kyle Kuzma, the 27th pick in the draft, will be a First-Team All-Rookie selection.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at 12 players projected to be picked outside of the lottery in the 2018 NBA Draft are going to out-perform their draft position.

ROBERT WILLIAMS, Texas A&M

I know I said outside of the lottery and I know that Williams is projected by many to be scooped up in the back-end of the lottery, but he deserves a mention here because anyone getting him outside of the top ten will be getting a steal.

The reason for that is simple: Williams has the perfect set of skills to play the five in the NBA. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and the kind of athleticism that will leave him in danger of concussing himself on the backboard, Williams has every tool needed to be a rim-running, lob-catching, rim-protecting center in today’s NBA.

NBA scouts saw this in Williams prior to last season. That’s why he was projected as a lottery pick early on in his freshman season, but the combination of returning to school, playing on a team where the pieces did not fit together and dealing with some suspensions and injuries throughout the year limited his production. The biggest hindrance? For a player that needs space to operate, Williams played on a team that had no floor-spacing whose go-to option offensively was Tyler Davis, a 6-foot-10 land-warrior that did all of his damage within eight-feet of the rim.

Put another way, playing in the NBA, where spacing is plentiful and point guards excel at throwing lobs up at the rim, will be better for Williams’ production than playing in college.

One other note on Williams: One of the biggest knocks on him is his work ethic. Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy told me before the season started that the one thing that Williams had been working the hardest on was learning how to work hard. That’s a major reason why there are concerns about whether or not Williams will hit his upside or develop a three-point shot.

He can add nothing to his repertoire between now and when he hits free agency and Williams will, in my mind, be somewhere between Clint Capela and Tristan Thompson by then. If he drops all the way to the Wizards at No. 15, John Wall’s celebration will make Alex Ovechkin’s look humble.

DE’ANTHONY MELTON, USC

Everyone loves hot takes, so here’s a scorcher for you: If De’Anthony Melton had been allowed to play this season, if he had not gotten caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, we would he talking about his as a potential lottery pick. Melton is a swiss-army knife. He’s 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, an athletic defender that averaged 2.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman. His size and length should allow him to defend multiple positions, and his ability to create — 5.1 assists per 40 minutes as a freshman — makes him an intriguing and versatile talent. He was the only player in the NCAA to average 10 points, five boards, five assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes in 2016-17, something that has only been done seven times in NCAA history.

His big question mark is his ability to shoot the ball. That was the major reason he opted to return to school for his sophomore season; he made just 21 threes in 36 games at USC. Melton spent some time working out with Drew Hanlen, who helped reconfigure the shooting stroke of Jayson Tatum and Mo Bamba and is now working with Markelle Fultz to get his shot fixed, and had a full year to do nothing but get his shot right. It looked improved at the combine, and sources at USC say that he looked much-improved before he opted to leave school.

Melton is likely always going to be somewhat limited offensively, but I see him as a perfect fit as a role player alongside a ball-dominant lead guard.

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AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA

I love Holiday as a mid-to-late first round pick in this draft, and I think he has the potential to thrive as the first guard off the bench for a playoff team even as a rookie. The season he had as a junior — 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.7 boards, 1.3 steals — has been underrated because of the disappointment that UCLA was. He’s a point guard by trade, and capable of playing against second-units in the NBA, but as a career 42 percent three-point shooter that spent last season playing alongside Lonzo Ball, he’s also quite capable of playing off-the-ball as a floor-spacer.

He’s just a shade under 6-foot-1, but he’s a good athlete with a 6-foot-7.5 wingspan and is a better defender than he’ll get credit for because of Steve Alford’s inability to coach a team to get stops. Throw in his NBA pedigree — he is the younger brother of NBA player Jrue and Justin — and I think you’re looking at a guy that will spend a decade in the league.

CHANDLER HUTCHISON, Boise State

I love Hutchison’s potential as a scorer at the next level. He has positional size — 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan — and he spent the last year working on improving his shooting stroke and his toughness. His fluidity and shot-making should translate well to the NBA, and I think that he has the physical tools to hold his own on the defensive end of the floor. A late-bloomer with size, athleticism and the ability to shoot the ball should be something that playoff teams are looking for. I’m not sure that he is a starter at the NBA level, but I think he can help a playoff as a role player off the bench next season.

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KEVIN HUERTER, Maryland; MELVIN FRAZIER, Tulane; JOSH OKOGIE, Georgia Tech;  and KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton

All four of these guys fit the mold for what NBA teams are looking for out of a player at the end of the first round or the beginning of the second round. Players with positional versatility, size, length and shooting ability.

To me, Huerter is the best of the group. At 6-foot-7, he has the height to make up for what he lacks in length. He’s probably the best shooter of the group, and he has a much better feel for how to play than the others; he averaged 3.4 assists as a sophomore. Toughness and his impact defensively are the question marks, but what he’ll bring offensively will help to offset some of that.

Huerter, like Okogie, is also very young, younger than Mo Bamba, Deandre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr., and that adds to their intrigue. Okogie is just 6-foot-4, but his 7-foot wingspan, athleticism and ability to knock down perimeter shots makes him an ideal 3-and-D prospect, and his age is the reason why he’s likely to get picked ahead of Thomas, whose profile — 6-foot-3, 6-foot-10 wingspan, knockdown shooter — isn’t all that different.

Frazier is the x-factor. He’s the biggest (6-foot-7, 7-foot-2 wingspan) and the most athletic, but he’s also the rawest. The tools are there, and the 38 percent he shot from three this past season is promising, but sources around the Tulane program have said that number may be a bit fluky, like the 38 percent Josh Jackson shot from three as a freshman at Kansas. He’s a risk, but in the late-20s or 30s, he is certainly worth the risk.

RAWLE ALKINS, Arizona

Alkins hasn’t gotten much as any of the four players I just listed, but he’s a guy I think could sneak up on some people. He’s strong and athletic with that New York City toughness in his blood. He’s not a great three-point shooter, but he’s good. He’s not an elite defender, but he’s good. I do think he ends up in an NBA rotation by the end of next season, which is a pretty good return for a guy projected as a early-to-mid second round pick.

DEVON HALL, Virginia

Hall is a strong, 6-foot-4 guard with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and the kind of defensive toughness you know you are getting from a product of Tony Bennett’s system at Virginia. He shot 43 percent from three as a senior while averaging 3.1 assists. He can defend multiple positions, he can play off the ball and he is a playmaker when the ball is in his hands. As a mid-to-late second round pick, Hall seems to me to be a great fit as a back-end-of-the-rotation guard that will come on the cheap. I think he makes an NBA roster within two years.

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JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova

Brunson is so smart and so efficient and such a good shooter that I cannot imagine him not finding success in the NBA. Before Quinn Cook had the season that he had, I would have pegged Golden State as the perfect landing spot for Brunson. Now, I think he’ll probably slide to the second round, and if the Suns don’t land Aaron Holiday with the 16th pick, I think that might be a perfect landing spot for Brunson at 31. Either way, I think that his floor is Fred VanVleet, who averaged 8.6 points and 3.2 assists while shooting 41 percent from three as Toronto’s back-up point guard.

WHOEVER THE WARRIORS PICK

Golden State needs to find a player that can simply fill a role on the best team in NBA history, and they’ve proven in recent years that they excel at finding those kind of talents. Damian Jones was a miss, but Kevon Looney, Pat McCaw and Jordan Bell all played key roles for the Warriors during title runs the last two seasons. None of them are ever going to be great NBA players, but they don’t have to be: They are on a roster with two MVPs, three of the best shooters in NBA history and four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA today. All they have to do is the job they’re asked to do, and to do so on the cheap.

Whoever the Warriors get with the 28th pick should be able to do the same, whether that’s someone on this list — Thomas, Okogie and Brunson all make sense to me — or a player like Grayson Allen, a shooter that played both guard positions in college and is older and more physically ready for the league.

Penn State’s Mike Watkins arrested for third time in two years

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Penn State forward Mike Watkins has found himself in trouble with the law for the third time in his career as a Nittany Lion.

On Monday, Watkins, a 6-foot-9 forward that just completed his redshirt sophomore season by averaging 12.9 points and 8.8 boards, was arrested for possession of drug paraphenalia. According to a report from the Centre Daily Times, Watkins was found to have a weed grinder as well as three .40 caliber bullets in a team issued gym bag. Police were investigating Watkins for possessing an unregistered gun.

“We are aware of the incident and take this situation seriously,” Penn State Associate Athletic Director Jeff Nelson said. “We hold our student-athletes to high standards and will address this violation of team rules.”

In September of 2016, Watkins was arrested for criminal mischief and eventually ordered to pay nearly $3,000 in fines and fees, according to Centre County court records. Last July, Watkins was arrested for disorderly conduct after allegedly getting into a fight, and that led to Watkins being left home from Penn State’s tour of the Bahamas and suspended for the first game of the 2017-18 season for what was termed a disciplinary issue.

Annual doubleheader featuring state of Iowa’s four schools ending after 2018

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One of college basketball’s distinctive events is coming to a close after this season.

The Hy-Vee Classic, formerly the Big Four Classic, which has put the state of Iowa’s four Division I programs under one roof for a doubleheader each season since 2012 will have its last edition this December with the University of Iowa electing to exercise its option to pull out of the event with the Big Ten’s move to 20 conference games.

“The addition of two conference games is good for our fans, the Big Ten Conference and our strength of schedule,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said in a statement, “but unfortunately it created some scheduling challenges that impacts this event.”

The event was unique as it pit the state’s two Power 5 institutions – Iowa and Iowa State – against its two Missouri Valley Conference programs – Northern Iowa and Drake – on a rotating basis each season in the state capital of Des Moines. One year Iowa State would play Drake while Iowa would face Northern Iowa with the following year featuring Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa and Iowa vs. Drake. And so on and so forth for the last six years and ending after one last go-round this December.

The event was a sort of compromise to keep the intrastate series alive after years of both the Hawkeyes and Cyclones playing home-and-homes with Drake and Northern Iowa most years, putting them on the road in hostile MVC arenas.

That went away in 2012 and doesn’t appear to be likely to return with the dissolution of the yearly doubleheader.

“Although we would certainly welcome continuing to play games against UNI or Drake in the future,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said in a statement, “our ability to do that will most likely depend on each of their institution’s willingness to play games in Hilton Coliseum.”

Needless to say, Drake and UNI were not pleased with Iowa’s decision to force the end of the event.

“What has made our state unique on the college basketball landscape was the willingness and cooperation between the state’s four Division I universities to play each other on a regular basis,” Drake athletic director Brian Hardin said in a statement. “I understand the position that Iowa and Iowa State believe they are in. However, it is a sad day for passionate basketball fans of all four programs who have enjoyed nearly a century of history and rivalries between these four schools that were played in various great venues in our state.”

When the event was initially announced, it always felt like it was intended to act as a wind-down for Iowa and Iowa State – who will continue to face each other in on-campus games every year –  of the mid-major games that were popular with fans but not always with Hawkeyes and Cyclones coaches. Given the option, few Power 5 coaches are going to be excited about facing a lower-tier in-state rival every year anywhere other than its home floor.

Still, it’s a major loss for a unique situation in a small-population state that is not home to professional sports, but four Division I men’s hoops programs. College athletics is the passion in Iowa, and depriving the state’s fans of what were – if not national marquee – fun and interesting matchups that carry with them pride and bragging rights is a step in the wrong direction.

Ultimately, these games are likely going to be replaced on the schedules for the Cyclones and Hawkeyes with low-major opponents that won’t move the needle either at the gate or on their NCAA tournament resumes. Instead of an innovative event that against a co-worker’s or neighbor’s alma mater, Iowa and Iowa State fans can say hello to a steady diet of games against Bryant, Campbell and Maryland Eastern Shore while Drake and UNI get relegated to even more pronounced second-class status.

The move isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing.