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College Basketball’s Breakout Stars

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

One of my favorite things to do heading into each season is to put together a list of the players that are primed to become breakout stars.

Sometimes, these players are painfully obvious — Hi, Carsen Edwards.

Other, these players take a year to reach their full breakout potential — Hey, Mikal Bridges — at the expense of their painfully obvious teammate — Hello, Donte DiVincenzo.

There are players that shock the world when they become an All-American (Luke Maye, Bryce Brown), some that shouldn’t have actually surprised us when they turned out to be awesome (Keita Bates-Diop) and still others where all the dots connected but the stars never quite aligned (VJ King).

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here is the list.

Feel free to drop me a note here (or on twitter) yelling at me over who I missed.



ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova

Paschall is hardly an unknown name at this point in his career. A fifth-year senior that was a double-figure scorer for Villanova’s national title team a season ago, Paschall popped off for 24 points on 10-for-11 shooting in the win over Kansas in last year’s national semifinal, and if it wasn’t for Donte DiVincenzo turning himself into a lottery pick with a 31-point explosion off the bench in the title game, he would have been one of the great out-of-nowhere stories in recent Final Four history.

Except he’s not really out of nowhere. Paschall averaged 15.9 points as a freshman at Fordham before heading to Villanova where, during their run to the 2016 national title, he lost more than 20 pounds, streamlining his body and fine-tuning his athleticism and jumper to the point where he is an ideal fit as a role player in the modern NBA. For me, he’s a top 20 pick, and I think that will come out this year. It’s important to remember two things here: Paschall is a terrific defender with the athleticism to guard down and the size to guard up, and while he shot just 35.6 percent from three last season, he made 35 of his final 76 threes (46.1 percent) after starting his junior season 1-for-25.

I think he turns into an all-american for the Wildcats this year, following in the footsteps of Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges before him. Buy stock now.

DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

I am the conductor of the De’Andre Hunter hype train. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and the versatility to defend multiple positions while possessing the discipline that is inherent in playing under Tony Bennett for three years, my money is on Hunter becoming an all-american this year.

I’ve said this before, but I think the reason that UMBC was able to upset Virginia last season was due to the fact that Hunter was not there. Without Hunter, the Wahoos could not defend a team that played with four guards. There was more to it than that — UMBC played out of their minds, UVA choked — but what let it get to the point where UVA was in a position to choke was that they couldn’t get stops. Hunter is the piece that will allow them to play that way, and oh-by-the-way, he will be their best one-on-one scorer this season.

The question now becomes whether or not UVA has the guards to let him play the four, but that’s a different conversation for a different day.

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

PJ WASHINGTON, Kentucky

This Kentucky team is one that is hard to figure, as they run just about two-deep at every spot on the floor without a clear delineation between who is the best at a given position and who should be coming off the bench.

That’s certainly true up front, where Reid Travis, Nick Richards and Washington are all putting together preseasons that, in a vacuum, should earn them a starting spot, but for my money I think that Washington ends up being the best of that group, and probably the best player on this Kentucky team.

CHRIS LYKES, Miami

Jim Larrañaga’s best teams have come when he has a clearly defined star at the point guard spot. It happened with Shane Larkin in 2013, when they won the ACC, and it happened with Angel Rodriguez in 2016, when they finished second in the ACC. I think it will happen again this season, as 5-foot-7 dynamo Chris Lykes looked primed to takeover a backcourt that had all the talent and even more question marks last season.

The big issue that Miami dealt with was that they just didn’t have the shooters to be able to create spacing. Lonnie Walker was inconsistent while Bruce Brown and JaQuan Newton weren’t shooters. They struggled with who was supposed to play what role and where they were going to get shots. It was only after Brown went down for the year with a wrist injury that Lykes stepped up. He scored in double-figures in nine of the final 12 games, including 19 points against UVA and 18 points and four assists in a win at North Carolina.

The backcourt will be his this season, and around him will be a trio of guys that can shoot the cover off of the ball with a monster in the middle in Dewan Hernandez. I’m not sure if this team will be able to stop anyone, but they are going to be an efficient team scoring the ball.

JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Someone is going to have to score some points for Michigan this season as the Wolverines lost their three-best offensive weapons — Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. Poole seems as likely as anyone to takeover that go-to guy role. He certainly likes to shoot, as he managed to average 6.0 points in just over 12 minutes with the highest shot rate of anyone returning this offseason.

I’m not sure if he’ll be Michigan’s leading scorer — my money is still on Charles Matthews for that role — but John Beilein has proven that he has the ability to make skilled offensive players effective at the Big Ten level, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Poole is the next in that line.

MITCH BALLOCK, Creighton

There are going to be a lot of shots opening up for Creighton this year, as Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas are both off to the NBA, and I fully expect Ballock to soak up plenty of those opportunities. A 6-foot-5 guard from Kansas that picked the Bluejays over the Jayhawks, Ballock showed flashes during his freshman season of being the next Creighton star. He finished the year averaging just 7.3 points while shooting 32.6 percent from three, but those numbers will be heading up this year. Another former four-star recruit, Ty-Shon Alexander, is eligible for this list as well.

Chris Lykes (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

HERB JONES, Alabama

Jones might end up being one of the guys that we end up being a year too early on. A 6-foot-6 lead guard with terrific measureables and defensive instincts, he’s going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season as the Crimson Tide look to replace the production they lose with Collin Sexton turning pro. He may be a better fit at the NBA level than in college.

MJ WALKER, Florida State

Walker is a former five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American that spent last season playing off the bench for the Seminoles. With Braian Angola off to the professional ranks, Walker is going to be one of the guys tasked with taking over his role offensively. He’s a talented scorer with big-time athleticism — he was a high major recruit as a wide receiver — that will play an important role for a team that looks like they could finished fourth in the ACC.

CANE BROOME, Cincinnati

Cincinnati lost three of their best players off of last year’s team, and that is not going to be easy to replace. But someone is going to have to. Jarron Cumberland is the guy that’s going to end up being Cincinnati’s leading scorer, and there is some talk that he could end up being an all-american-caliber player, but I think the guy more deserving to be on this list is Broome.

A former Sacred Heart Pioneer, Broome averaged 23 points before transferring to Cincinnati. After redshirting the 2016-17 season, Broome played as more of a distributor last season, but that’s not what he’s best at. He’s a bucket-getter, and with the lack of scoring pop on this roster along with the fact that senior point guard Justin Jenifer is still around, I think Broome ends up averaging north of 15 points this season.

NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker had some one-and-done buzz heading into last season, but the cousin of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a bit of an up-and-down freshman season. He ended up averaging 10.5 points, but he did not shoot the ball as well as he needed and he was less of a playmaker than many expected him to be. Still, he’s a talented player on a Virginia Tech team that is going to need their sophomore class to take a step forward if they want to live up to their hype this season.

MYLES CALE, Seton Hall

Cale is a guy that I loved in the high school ranks. At 6-foot-5, he has the kind of size and athleticism that should let him be a perfect wing in the Big East. With everything that Seton Hall lost this offseason — Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, Ishmael Sanogo — they are going to need someone to pick up the slack, and there’s only so much more than Myles Powell can do.

BRANDON RANDOLPH, Arizona

The big issue that Arizona faces this season is that the FBI investigation into college basketball torpedoed their recruiting. They were not able to go out and replace Deandre Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins with pieces that will be able to impact the program immediately, so they are going to have to promote from within. Randolph was a four-star prospect in high school that played on the same high school team as Mo Bamba. Is this the year the shackles come off and he can show what he can do?

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Eastern at this point is probably best-known for being the guy that declared for the draft after averaging 2.9 points as a freshman. But he’s also a 6-foot-6 guard that will see a ton of minutes next to Carsen Edwards as the Boilermakers try to replace four starters off of last season’s roster.

Sunday’s NCAA tournament recap: Duke and Tennessee survive, chalk thrives

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Zion Williamson, Duke

On a night where Duke looked like they were ready to see their season come to an end, Zion Williamson made just enough plays to keep the Blue Devils close enough to get lucky at the end.

The big fella finished with 32 points, 11 boards and four assists in the 77-76 Sunday evening win, scoring the and-one with 14 seconds left that led to the offensive rebound that R.J. Barrett’s game-winning put-back. This was anything-but a quintessential Duke performance. It was actually precisely the kind of game that Duke should have lost, but I’ll get to that at the bottom of this column.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Oregon Ducks

Payton Pritchard finished with 18 points and seven assists, the Ducks made 13 threes and, over the course of the final 12 minutes of the game, outscored UC Irvine 38-17 en route to a 73-54 win and a spot in the Sweet 16. The Ducks are the only team to make it to the second weekend of the tournament as anything other than a top five seed, but there’s an argument to make that they are actually a top 16 team at this point in the season. They’ve now won 10 straight games, and the last eight of them have come on the road or on neutral courts. It’s been a wild ride, and it’s not done yet.

GAME OF THE DAY: Duke 77, UCF 76

It was a thriller in Columbia, S.C., on Sunday night, one that we wrote about here and here (and down at the bottom of this column) and that ended like this:

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Grant Williams, Tennessee

Tennessee was getting ready to make history on Sunday, and not in a good way. The Volunteers blew a 25 point first half lead to Iowa, getting to overtime where Williams absolutely took over. Tennessee used a 9-2 run to take control in the extra frame, and Williams was responsible for all nine points. He scored three straight buckets and found Jordan Bone for a three in the mix, too.

I guess there’s a reason he’s an all-american.

WTF OF THE DAY: Admiral Schofield, Tennessee

During that overtime period, Admiral Schofield was on the bench. He was on the bench at the end of regulation, too. He didn’t foul out. Rick Barnes wasn’t drunk. Schofield knew that the Vols needed Kyle Alexander on the floor, and so did his teammates. So Alexander stayed on the floor and Schofield stayed on the bench and, as a result, Tennessee stayed in the NCAA tournament.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech

Buzz Williams must be happy to have his point guard back. Justin Robinson finished with 13 points and four assists off the bench, but 10 of those 13 points and all four of those assists came after No. 12-seed Liberty had taken a 26-18 lead on Virginia Tech late in the first half of the second round tilt in San Jose. He sparked an 18-6 surge that spanned both halves and had a pair of assists in another 11-3 run early in the second half as the Hokies landed a come-from-behind, 67-58 win over the upset-minded Flames.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Buffalo Bulls

The game that I was most excited about heading into Sunday was Texas Tech vs. Buffalo, and that’s because I thought that the Bulls would at least put up a fight. They didn’t. After staying within striking distance for more of the first half, the Red Raiders buried Buffalo down the stretch.

ONE MORE THING TO KNOW

This was the one.

This was the game that Duke was supposed to lose in this tournament.

This matchup had all the elements necessary to make it happen.

For starters, UCF has the roster makeup to be able to hang with Duke. They have size, they have depth, they have athleticism and they have the one guy in college basketball that can make Zion Williamson an inefficient finisher around the basket in Tacko Fall. They played precisely the way that you need to play to be able to beat these Blue Devils, by packing everyone in the paint, daring Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire to beat you from the perimeter and parking a shot-blocker directly in front of the rim. And they did all that while one of their shot-making wings went bonkers. Aubrey Dawkins finished with 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting, making tough shot after tough shot to give the Knights a shot to win this thing in the final minutes.

Throw in the good fortune from the basketball gods — specifically, a couple of no-calls on Fall and the shot clock violation that wasn’t in the final minutes — and it was all coming together.

Duke was going to lose.

And then that shot happened, this didn’t fall and UCF was heading home:

One of the things that I kept seeing after the end of this game is that this is evidence that Duke is not invincible, which I just don’t understand.

This is something that we have known all season long. Duke struggles to shoot the ball, particularly at the point and the five, and good teams are capable of exploiting that. They pack in the paint, they do their damnedest to avoid turnovers that allow Duke to get out in transition and they hope that all of this happens on a night when their star plays like a star.

That’s how you beat Duke.

That’s the blueprint.

UCF had all the tools they needed, and luck just didn’t break their way.

It’s not different than the end of last year’s Elite 8 game, when Duke was on the other end of the luck spectrum.

That’s when Grayson Allen’s game-winner rolled off the rim, just like Dawkins’ did on Sunday night:

Just how different would the narratives be for these two Duke teams had both of these shots fallen?

Top overall seed Duke survives No. 9 UCF’s upset bid

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Two days removed from the first NCAA tournament victory in program history, East Region No. 9 UCF had two shots at knocking off top overall seed Duke Sunday in Columbia, South Carolina. But B.J. Taylor’s floater and Aubrey Dawkins’ attempted tip-in both missed the mark in the final seconds, and as a result the Blue Devils pulled out the 77-76 victory.

UCF took a 76-73 lead with 45 seconds remaining, but the failure to cap a key defensive possession with a rebound proved costly. Zion Williamson’s offensive rebound led to a basket and Tacko Fall’s fifth foul with just over 14 seconds to go. RJ Barrett would corral the resulting missed free throw, and his put-back with 11.4 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winning basket.

Williamson finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, leading four double-digit scorers on the day. And even with the freshman’s offensive mastery Duke nearly saw its season come to an end, as UCF defended well and also shot the ball well on the other end of the floor.

UCF used multiple looks on defense, from man-to-man to a standard 2-3 zone to a matchup that purposely left Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire open. Jones and Goldwire (combined 2-for-11 from three Sunday) would both make a three-pointer in the second half, but neither was proficient enough to punish UCF for this approach.

This proved especially problematic for Duke when Cam Reddish was on the bench with four fouls, as the Blue Devils turned to a backcourt tandem that is the team’s best defensively but struggles mightily to shoot the ball.

Reddish (3-for-4; including a huge three with 1:45 remaining) and Barrett (2-for-3) combined to shoot 5-for-7 from three on the day, with Williamson making three of his seven attempts. While future opponents won’t be able to replicate the size that UCF has in Fall, teams can certainly pack it in defensively and force Duke’s non-shooters to prove that they can hit those shots. Johnny Dawkins’ team nearly made Duke pay the price, but two offensive rebounds in the final 30 seconds cost the Knights.

Offensively UCF was proficient, making 48.1 percent of its shots from the field and shooting 9-for-18 from three, with Aubrey Dawkins leading the way. In scoring his 32 points Dawkins shot 12-for-18 from the field (5-for-8 from three), and he also accounted for four assists, three rebounds and three steals. Taylor and Fall added 15 points apiece, with the latter also racking up six rebounds and three blocked shots.

UCF may have revealed the “blueprint” to beating Duke, but it isn’t as simple as allowing them to put up perimeter shots. Knowing the personnel is especially key, as the Knights did a good job of funneling those shots to players Duke would be better served not having shoot. And even with that blueprint UCF was unable to take full advantage itself, which is why Duke is moving on.

“Survive and advance” is the preferred saying this time of year, and Duke managed to do just that.

No. 12 Oregon locks up third Sweet 16 in four seasons

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South Region No. 12 Oregon appeared to be in some trouble during the second half of Sunday’s second round matchup with No. 13 UC Irvine. Dana Altman’s team went more than seven minutes without scoring a point, with the Anteaters going on a 16-0 run to take a two-point lead. But Oregon regained its composure and shooting ability, going on to win by the final score of 73-54.

Payton Pritchard led four double-digit scorers with 18 points while also dishing out seven assists, with Louis King adding 16. The two other double-digit scorers were just as impactful on the defensive end of the floor, as Ehab Amin and Kenny Wooten changed the tenor of the game after UC Irvine’s 16-0 run.

Amin was a pest on the perimeter, racking up three steals to go along with 12 points, five rebounds, and two assists. And if any UC Irvine player managed to get into the paint more often than not Kenny Wooten was waiting, as he blocked seven shots and changed many others. He was a finisher around the basket as well, adding 12 points and nine rebounds to his stat line.

Robert Cartwright led three UC Irvine players in double figures with 14 points, but Russell Turner’s team shot just 5-for-18 from three and the 24-point differential (Oregon finished 13-for-25) was too much for the Big West champions to overcome.

This is the third time in the last four years that the program has managed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But unlike those runs, an Elite Eight appearance as a 1-seed in 2016 and a Final Four as a 3-seed in 2017, this run has been more about a team getting hot at the right time.

Oregon lost Bol Bol in mid-December to a season-ending foot injury, and even though the Ducks won their first two games without the talented freshman it was obvious that things weren’t right. Oregon lost four of its first six conference games, and in February there was a three-game skid capped by a 90-83 loss at UCLA in which the Bruins scored 62 second-half points.

Since then the Ducks have been outstanding on the defensive end of the floor, allowing 60 points or less in eight of their ten wins. There’s still offensive talent on the roster, but without Bol Oregon had to buckle down defensively in order to have any chance of making good on the preseason expectations. It took some time but the Ducks eventually got things right, and the end result is a run that few imagined possible a month ago.

Next up for Oregon will be top-seed Virginia, a program well-known for its work on the defensive end of the floor. This will undoubtedly be a challenge for the Ducks, but thanks to the improved defense they’re more than capable of continuing this run.

Houston reaches first Sweet 16 in 35 years with in over Ohio State

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It may not be Phi Slamma Jamma, but Kelvin Sampson has something special brewing with his iteration of the Houston Cougars.

Behind 21 points from Corey Davis Jr. and 13 points, five assists and five steals from Galen Robinson, the No. 3-seed Houston Cougars advanced to the program’s first Sweet 16 in 35 years with a 74-59 win over the 11th-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes on Sunday evening.

Houston will advance to take on No. 2-seed Kentucky.

The names that you read there, the leading scorers and the players that will go down in the recaps as the stars of the game, are Houston’s guards. They have a bunch of them. Davis is the best of the bunch and Robinson has been a rock solid lead guard all year, but Armoni Brooks and Dejon Jarreau – neither of whom were particularly great on Sunday – are both capable of popping off for big games on the right night.

In fact, the top five scorers on the Houston roster are all perimeter players.

But they are heading to the Sweet 16 thanks in very large part to their very large men.

Ohio State’s strength is that they have Kaleb Wesson. He’s their leading scorer, their leading rebounder, one of their best passers and the guy that Chris Holtmann runs his offense through. He finished with 15 points, six boards and a pair of assists — his average on the season — but he was no where near as effective as we have come to expect out of the all-Big Ten center. To get a sense of just how in check he was, think about this: Wesson attempted just a single two point field goal on the night. Kelvin Sampson’s crew double-teamed him to perfection, with Breaon Brady, Fabian White and Brison Gresham doing everything that you can ask of them.

They are going to need that heading into the next round, as they will take on a Kentucky team that may or may not be getting P.J. Washington back from the foot injury that has kept him out since the SEC tournament.

Whatever happens in the Sweet 16 is besides the point by now.

Houston is back in the Sweet 16.

Everything from here on out is playing with house money.

WATCH: Johnny Dawkins addresses locker room after loss to Duke

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East Region No. 9 UCF nearly pulled off the upset of this year’s NCAA tournament, but two shot attempts in the final seconds missed the mark in the Knights’ 77-76 loss to top-seed Duke.

Following the game head coach Johnny Dawkins addressed the locker room, thanking his senior class and the team as a whole.

While the NCAA tournament is about determining a champion, it’s moments like this that make the event so special.