College Basketball’s 12 Most Important Players

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Yesterday, we took a look at the most influential “X-Factors” in college basketball for the 2016-17 season.

Players like Malik Monk, Dillon Brooks and Harry Giles III made that list. 

Today, we’re going to take a look at college basketball’s most important players, the guys who will have the biggest impact on their team, the guys who are a great year away from making their team a contender in their league and a threat in March.

We did the best we could to avoid duplicating players that were x-factors from players that are on the most important list. I do think there is a difference – that’s a different post for a different day – so without further ado, here are the 13 Most Important Players in college basketball. 

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Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble and the Terps did not have the season they were hoping to have in 2015-16, meaning that Trimble is the only member of that team’s starting lineup that will be returning to school this year. That wasn’t the plan, but it is good news for Maryland. Trimble is still the talent that completely changed the fortunes of the Maryland program, and this year, it will be his team to lead. He’s an all-american caliber talent, and with a better supporting cast than some realize, the Terps have a chance to make some noise in a wide open Big Ten race this year.

E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: As a sophomore, when Matthews was healthy, he averaged a team-high 16.8 points on a team-high usage rate of 29.5%. URI went 23-10 and made the NIT. As a junior, when Matthews managed just 10 minutes because of a torn ACL, the Rams went 17-15. Granted, there is a lot more that went into that drop-off that just Matthews missing time – he was far from the only player on the roster that was injured last season – but he was the biggest miss. He’s back now. And he’s healthy. That’s great news for URI, who should contend for the A-10 crown.

Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson: The Tigers have a chance to save Brad Brownell’s job this season if they can get to the NCAA tournament, and they are in a decent position to do so. Clemson brought back a number of pieces and added a couple of impact transfers – namely Elijah Thomas – but the key is Blossomgame. An athletic, 6-foot-7 wing with three point range that averaged 18 points last season is a rare commodity.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

London Perrantes, Virginia: It’s hard to overstate just how much the Wahoos lost with Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill graduating. The arrival of Austin Nichols should help UVA replace Gill, but the burning question that remains is Brogdon. Who is going to carry his load offensively? The answer, it seems, is that no single player will be able to carry that load on his own. But given his role as the provider in this offense, and considering the fact that Perrantes has shown flashes of being a better offensive weapon than his numbers would indicate, he may be the most valuable player UVA has. There’s a reason he’s one 89 games in his career.

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: I’ve been critical of Hayes the basketball player this preseason – and not unfairly, his shooting splits were really inefficient – but if he can improve his consistency shooting the ball, he certainly has the talent to be a really good player for the Badgers. You may not realize this, but Hayes led Wisconsin in assists last season. Playing on a team where the lead guard is a guy like Bronson Koenig, who is shoot-first, having an efficient playmaker on the floor to join him is big, particularly when you consider that Ethan Happ, the Wisconsin center, may actually be the team’s best player. If Hayes is the guy we all want him to be, Wisconsin can win a national title.

Deonte Burton, Iowa State: Monte’ Morris is the easy pick here, but given the situation on the rest of the Cyclone roster, I think Burton is more important. Iowa State has no size. Burton isn’t all that tall, but he’s 6-foot-5, strong and super-athletic. In theory, he can be a guy that plays the Draymond Green role for the Cyclones. That’s a trendy thing to say these days – and, frankly, saying it undervalues just how good and unique Green is – but Burton has the tools to be that guy. Will he be effective in that role?

Dedric Lawson, Memphis: The Memphis program was in an awful spot last season, with a lame-duck head coach, a fan base that had turned and a roster that just didn’t have the talent to win anywhere near the level expected by the city. Much of that is still the case this year, but there are two important things to note: Tubby Smith is a hell of a basketball coach, and Dedric Lawson is a guy that could average 20 points and 10 boards this year. I don’t know if this is a tournament team just yet, but I have faith in Tubby making the most of what he has on the roster and, should the best-case scenario arise, it will be because Lawson plays like an all-american.

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

DENVER, CO - MARCH 17: Vince Edwards #12 of the Purdue Boilermakers drives the ball past Josh Hagins #3 of the Arkansas Little Rock Trojans during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Pepsi Center on March 17, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Vince Edwards (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Vince Edwards, Purdue: Edwards is the difference-maker on this Purdue team. We know more or less what the rest of this team is going to be – their bigs are bigs, their point guards are not bad, they have some guys that, in theory, can shoot – but Edwards is the one player that has shown the potential to be a game-changing talent. He was the best player on the floor for the much of the final month of Purdue’s season, and he’s a versatile talent that can defend, that can make threes and that, at 6-foot-7, averaged 2.9 assists. He’s the guy that takes Purdue from being a Big Ten contender to the Big Ten champ.

Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Here’s the way that I see the North Carolina season going: Joel Berry II is going to be an upper-tier ACC point guard, good enough that he’s clearly the best player on this roster but not good enough to garner all-america consideration. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks will be good enough to old their own against any front line in college basketball but not quite good enough to ever be thought of as UNC’s strength. What I’m unsure of is Jackson. I think the kid is really talented, but I think he’s an inconsistent shooter who has yet to prove he can take over a game when needed. And that’s what UNC needs him to be this year.

Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: There are a number of teams this year with terrific point guard play and questionable talent elsewhere on the floor. That’s not the case with the Wolfpack. Smith has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft on a team with shooters on the wings and talent like Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven on the front line. There isn’t really anyone else on this team capable of creating their own, but there is enough talent for the Wolfpack to be a top 15 team. If Smith lives up to the hype, and if Mark Gottfried finds a way to get something close to the most out of his roster, I don’t think it’s crazy to say this group has Final Four upside.

Landen Lucas, Kansas: There are a number of different ways I could have gone here, but I’m going with Lucas for two reasons: 1. If he does what he did last season, he has the skills to be the anchor defensively for a team that projects to be one of the best in the country on that end of the floor. With Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson on the perimeter, KU needs a guy that can control the lane on that end of the floor and protect the rim if they get out and pressure or gamble for steals. 2. There isn’t all that much front court depth for the Jayhawks. Dwight Coleby is ‘a guy’ and coming off of a knee injury while Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot are freshmen and not exactly ready to handle the kind of load they are probably going to need to play. That leaves Lucas. Remember, Duke won a national title in 2010 with Brian Zoubek playing center.

Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics
Dennis Smith Jr., courtesy N.C. State Athletics

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.