2013-14 Season Preview: The nation’s most important players

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

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

Throughout the course of the season there will be many debates over who the best player in the country is. Marcus Smart? Andrew Wiggins? Doug McDermott? Someone else? It’s a fun discussion to have, because frankly the debate won’t end until awards are handed out Final Four weekend. But the same can be said in regards to another important question: who are the nation’s most important players? A team’s most important player may not be the most talented, but he’s the one whose best is needed every night if the team is to be successful and make a run in the spring.

Here are ten of the nation’s most important players entering the 2013-14 season:

1. Keith Appling (Michigan State): Now a senior, the point guard from Detroit has to be at his best if the Spartans are to win the Big Ten and make a run at the school’s third national title. Last season Appling posted averages of 13.4 points and 3.3 assists per game, but the assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4) has to improve. Do that, and Michigan State is capable of winning it all.

2. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State): We went with Smart as our national Player of the Year due in part to his impressive freshman campaign. But for all the production (15.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.2 apg) the Cowboys were one-and-done in the NCAA tournament. Travis Ford’s team doesn’t lack for talent, as Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash returned to Stillwater as well, but if the Cowboys are to leave their mark in the Big 12 and nationally it’s Smart who will lead the way.

3. Andrew Harrison (Kentucky): Harrison (currently dealing with a right knee contusion) hasn’t played a college game, but the fact that he’s the point guard for John Calipari’s talented squad makes him a very important player. In regards to both his size (6-foot-4) and skill set Harrison, one of six McDonald’s All-Americans to pick UK, is tailor-made for the dribble drive motion system that turned the likes of Derrick Rose, John Wall and Marquis Teague into NBA Draft picks. If Kentucky is to make a run at a ninth national title, Andrew Harrison will be an important piece of the puzzle.

4. Naadir Tharpe (Kansas): Andrew Wiggins has received much of the preseason press and with good reason; he’s an incredibly gifted player. But for all the talent Kansas has on the wings and inside, the same can’t be said for their depth at the point. If Tharpe (5.5 ppg, 3.1 apg) proves himself to be capable of running the show in an efficient manner, the Jayhawks can win yet another Big 12 title and even a national title.

5. T.J. McConnell (Arizona): To understand McConnell’s importance to the Wildcats, one number stands out: 268. That was Arizona’s national ranking in three-point percentage defense last season, after being one of the best teams in the country in that department in each of the two seasons prior. In McConnell Arizona adds a point guard who’s a distributor first, a high-level defender (A-10 All-Defensive Team selection 2011-12) and he’s a good perimeter shooter as well.

6. Tyler Ennis (Syracuse): Ennis, like Harrison, has yet to play a college game but Syracuse’s lack of depth at the point makes him vitally important in their first season in the ACC. There’s no Michael Carter-Williams or Brandon Triche, and if Ennis doesn’t perform as expected the Orange won’t be able to take full advantage of their talented players at other spots on the roster (C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant being two).

7. P.J. Hairston (North Carolina): The Tar Heels may not be a national contender on the level of some of the other teams represented on this list, but here’s the question: who else on that roster is capable of shouldering the load offensively? James Michael McAdoo (14.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) averaged double digits last season but the currently suspended Hairston (14.6 ppg) is the marquee option. If Hairston falters, either on or off the court, UNC’s in trouble.

8. LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State): Ross averaged just 8.3 points per game last season, but he scored at least 17 points in three of the Buckeyes’ four NCAA tournament games. With Deshaun Thomas now playing at the professional level, Ohio State needs Ross to prove himself capable of producing on a consistent basis.

9. Jabari Parker (Duke): Due to the arrival of Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, the Blue Devils will be able to rely a lot more on their wings to make plays this season. Parker’s an incredibly gifted player, and after dealing with a foot issue last year the Chicago native’s healthy now. The better Parker is the more attention he’ll receive from opponents, which will ultimately benefit the other players in Mike Krzyzewski’s rotation.

10. Yogi Ferrell (Indiana): Indiana lost a lot of talent and production from last season’s Big Ten regular season champion squad, meaning that Ferrell will need to lead the way (along with senior wing Will Sheehey) if the Hoosiers are to once again be a factor in the Big Ten. As a freshman Ferrell averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists per game.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

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1. Montrezl Harrell (Louisville): With Chane Behanan suspended the Cardinals don’t have a great amount of depth inside, so Harrell will have to put together the breakout campaign many expect if they’re to repeat.
2. Doug McDermott (Creighton): McDermott was outstanding for the Bluejays last season, posting averages of 23.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 54.8% shooting from the field and 49% shooting from three.
3. Jahii Carson (Arizona State):
Carson’s the reason why the Sun Devils want to play even faster this season, as he averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists per game as a freshman. The goal now is to get ASU to its first NCAA tournament since 2009.
4. Kasey Hill (Florida):
With Scottie Wilbekin suspended Hill becomes even more important to the Gators, and given the freshman’s skill level it can be argued that he’d be running the show either way. If he performs well, Florida can be one of Kentucky’s biggest challengers in the SEC.
5. Glenn Robinson III (Michigan):
The Wolverines lost Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., but the return of their talented sophomore class makes Michigan a threat to win the Big Ten. Mitch McGary is obviously a key player, but given the lost production the Wolverines have to account for Robinson may be their most important player.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.