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.

UCLA guard Jaylen Clark declares for NBA draft

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES – UCLA guard Jaylen Clark has declared for the NBA draft, weeks after a leg injury forced him out of the season’s final six games.

The junior from Riverside, California, announced his plans on his Instagram account Wednesday.

“Thank you to UCLA and coach (Mick) Cronin for believing in me,” Clark’s post read. “I’d like to announce that I am declaring for the 2023 draft.”

Clark didn’t indicate whether he would hire an agent ahead of the June 22 draft or retain his remaining eligibility. He has until May 31 to withdraw and be able to return to Westwood.

He suffered a lower right leg injury in the regular-season finale against Arizona on March 4. Clark averaged 13 points and six rebounds while starting 29 of 30 games. He led the Pac-12 in total steals with 78, tying for third all-time in single-season steals for the Bruins.

He was a second team All-Pac-12 selection, was named the league’s defensive player of the year and made its five-man All-Defensive Team.

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Penn State hires VCU’s Rhoades as men’s basketball coach

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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Penn State hired VCU’s Mike Rhoades on Wednesday as its men’s basketball coach, bringing in the Pennsylvania native to take over a program coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than a decade.

The Penn State board of trustees approved a seven-year deal worth $25.9 million for Rhoades, who is from Mahanoy City in eastern Pennsylvania.

Just a few hours after Rhoades was named at Penn State, VCU hired Utah State coach Ryan Odom to replace Rhoades.

Rhoades replaces Micah Shrewsberry, who was hired away by Notre Dame last week.

Shrewsberry, an Indiana native, was at Penn State for two seasons. The Nittany Lions went 23-14 this season, reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and won an NCAA game for the first time since 2001.

Rhoades, 50, was 129-61 in six seasons at VCU, including three NCAA Tournament bids. He also spent three seasons at Rice, going 23-12 in the final year with the Owls before returning to VCU.

He was an assistant at the Richmond, Virginia, school from 2009-14 under then-head coach Shaka Smart.

Odom was 44-25 at Utah State in two seasons, with an NCAA Tournament appearance this season.

He previously spent five seasons at Maryland-Baltimore County, going 97-60. In 2018, Odom’s UMBC team became the first No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when it beat Virginia.

Temple hires Penn State assistant Fisher to replace McKie

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA – Temple named Penn State assistant Adam Fisher just its fifth coach since 1973 on Wednesday.

Fisher’s goal will be to turn around a program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2019.

Fisher replaces Aaron McKie, who was transferred out of the coaching job earlier this month after four seasons and a 52-56 overall record with no tournament berths. McKie is now a special advisor to the athletic department.

Fisher takes over a team in flux with six players in the transfer portal. Temple has yet to find any steady success in the American Athletic Conference.

Fisher spent eight years as an assistant with Miami before he joined Micah Shrewsberry’s staff last season at Penn State. Shrewsberry has since moved on to Notre Dame.

“I am confident we have found the right person to lead Temple men’s basketball,” athletic director Arthur Johnson said. “We look forward to welcoming coach Fisher to the Temple community and returning to the NCAA Tournament under his leadership.”

Fisher also worked as a graduate manager at Villanova under Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright from 2007-09.

The Owls have traditionally given their coaches significant time on the bench, though McKie’s tenure was the shortest since Ernest Messikomer from 1939-42. The next five coaches all lasted at least 10 seasons, notably Hall of Fame coach John Chaney’s tenure from 1982-2006.

Cal hires Mark Madsen as basketball coach

Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
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BERKELEY, Calif. – California is hiring a former Stanford star to revive its struggling basketball program.

The Golden Bears announced Wednesday that Mark Madsen was signed to replace the fired Mark Fox following the worst season in school history.

“We conducted an exhaustive search, and one name kept rising to the top – and that’s Mark Madsen,” athletic director Jim Knowlton said. “Mark is a person of high character, high energy, high intensity, and he’s done it the right way. He’s intense. He’s passionate. He loves his student-athletes, and he loves competing. We want an ambassador for this program who is going to make us proud and develop our young men – both on and off the court. I am absolutely thrilled that Mark will lead our program into the future.”

Madsen played at Stanford under Mike Montgomery, who later coached at Cal, from 1996 to 2000 and helped the Cardinal reach the Final Four in 1998.

After a nine-year playing career in the NBA that featured two titles as a backup on the Lakers in 2001-02, Madsen went into coaching.

He spent time in the NBA’s developmental league and a year at Stanford before spending five seasons on the Lakers staff.

Madsen then was hired in 2019 to take over Utah Valley. He posted a 70-51 record in four years with a 28-9 mark this season before losing on Tuesday night in the NIT semifinals to UAB.

“Having grown up in the area, I have always admired Cal as an institution and as an athletic program, with so many of my teachers, coaches and friends impressive Cal graduates,” Madsen said. “We will win with young men who have elite academic and athletic talent and who will represent Cal with pride.”

Madsen is the third prominent coach to flip sides in recent years in the Bay Area rivalry between Cal and Stanford. The Cardinal hired former Cal quarterback Troy Taylor to take over the football program last season and Bears women’s basketball coach Charmin Smith played and coached as an assistant at Stanford.

Madsen is faced with a tough task, taking over a program that went 3-29 under Fox and set a school record for most losses and worst winning percentage in a season.

Cal went 38-87 during Fox’s tenure, ending his final season on a 16-game losing streak. Fox’s .304 winning percentage ranking second worst in school history to predecessor Wyking Jones’ 16-47 mark (.254) in the two seasons before Fox arrived.

The Bears haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2016 and haven’t won a game in the tournament since 2013 under Montgomery.

Adding to the issues for Fox was the complete lack of interest in the program. Cal’s home attendance averaged just 2,155 this season for the lowest mark among any team in the Power 5 or Big East. That’s down from an average of 9,307 per game in Cuonzo Martin’s last season in 2016-17 and from 5,627 the year before Fox arrived.

Cal had the worst winning percentage among any school in the six major conferences during Fox’s tenure. The Bears also were the lowest-scoring team (62.4 points per game) in all Division I under Fox and had the worst scoring margin of any major conference team under Fox.

Brea Beal’s defense lifts South Carolina to Final Four

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – Brea Beal is not just South Carolina’s X factor in one of the country’s best defenses but also a four-year lesson in sacrifice and reinvention that may add a second straight NCAA title to her resume.

Beal is generally third when most think of the landmark recruiting class from 2019 led by heralded All-American Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke. But she could have the most critical role at the Final Four, most likely checking Iowa’s All-American Caitlin Clark in the national semifinals.

The Gamecocks (36-0) face the Hawkeyes (30-6) in the second game in Dallas on Friday night, with the winner playing LSU or Virginia Tech for the national title on Sunday.

Beal, who has started 136 of 137 games in her four seasons, and her senior teammates have racked up championships in their time. They have won three Southeastern Conference Tournament titles, have been to three straight Final Fours and are chasing their second NCAA crown.

Beal takes on the opponent’s best player and, more times than not, limits her effectiveness – a role that took Beal time to embrace.

“It definitely came with some hardship, but throughout time I just walked into it,” she said at the Greenville 1 Regional last weekend.

It wasn’t a path Beal envisioned after a celebrated prep career. She was a three-time Illinois Ms. Basketball from Rock Island High School, averaging 20 or more points a game her final three seasons. Beal joined Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings as the only players in the state to earn that award as a sophomore.

Beal expected to make the offensive impact that Boston and Cooke have had with the Gamecocks.

“It’s not necessarily something I was like, ‘I’m this defender, I’m the best defender,’” Beal said. “It came naturally, just as well as offensively, it’s just something you’ve got to be patient and just accept as time goes.”

Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley sees Beal’s value as more than what she does on the court. Beal, overlooked sometimes behind Boston and Cooke, didn’t look to transfer in the portal era or complain about her scoring. She has kept her head down, Staley said, and made herself an indispensable part of the undefeated defending national champions.

“It took her time to just really relax and see where she can find spots to be effective,” Staley said. “Now that she’s a senior, she sees it.”

Clark, the Iowa star, would have to be one of Beal’s most difficult assignments. Clark had a triple-double – 41 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds – in the Hawkeyes’ 97-83 victory over Louisville to reach their first Final Four in 30 years.

Clark is not one-dimensional – “I pride myself in doing a lot of different things for this team,” she said – and Beal understands it will take a team effort to slow her down.

South Carolina has relied on its defense throughout Beal’s time and this year’s run is no different. The Gamecocks lead the country in blocks and rebound margin, are second in field-goal percentage defense and are third in points allowed.

Cooke believes it’s Beal’s defensive focus that has all the Gamecocks looking to raise their intensity on that side of their game. “She’s the one that taught us how to play defense,” Cooke said. “Especially me. Just watching her and the things she does definitely wore off on me.”

Cooke’s offense may be elevating Beal’s game as of late. Beal has scored in double digits in eight games this season, seven of those since the start of February. She had 10 points in a 59-43 win over UCLA in the Sweet 16 and 16 in an 86-75 victory over Maryland in the Elite Eight.

Once considered the most likely of the 2019 freshmen class to play an extra season, the dual threat has been rising in WNBA mock drafts. ESPN.com has projected her getting called seventh in next month’s draft, going to the Indiana Fever in the first round.

Beal isn’t worried about her pro prospects or savoring all she’s accomplished. She only wants to finish her college career with another championship moment – and that means dialing up the defense.

“We’re a defensively minded team,” she said. “When we come to this part of the season, we definitely need our defense from every single individual.”