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.

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.