2014-15 Season Preview

College Basketball Talk’s Top 100 Players: Nos. 16-1 #CBTTop100

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The #CBTTop100 Players Countdown:

From under-recruited to team leader, Caris LeVert has seen it all at Michigan

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source: AP
Caris LeVert (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Caris LeVert’s 2013-14 season ended just like the rest of his Michigan teammates: with a 75-72 loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. But unlike much of last season’s Wolverines rotation, LeVert is back at Michigan for his junior season.

Jordan Morgan graduated, Jon Horford transferred to Florida and Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas all entered the 2014 NBA Draft. As a result that leaves the junior, LeVert, and last season’s starting point guard, sophomore Derrick Walton Jr., as the vital pieces for Michigan this season.

After being passed over by numerous Division I programs and nearly ending up at Ohio during his high school career, LeVert has had a long and strange journey to become the junior leader and All-American candidate of a storied Big Ten program.

Early in his senior year of high school, LeVert was getting some college interest from small Division I schools like Alabama State and Prairie View A&M before an Ohio assistant coach saw him and realized a talented local player had no scholarship offers. From there, Ohio’s entire staff, led by former head coach and current Illinois coach John Groce, saw LeVert play, offered the Pickerington, Ohio native a scholarship, and the then-6-foot-4 LeVert committed to be a Bobcat after being recruited more by Groce and his staff.

It would be only months later that Ohio would lose a head coach and a future star to the Big Ten.

After Groce took the Illinois job, LeVert was given a release from his Letter of Intent that forced him to choose a new school outside of the MAC. Dayton quickly jumped in and offered a scholarship and received a visit while Michigan, Purdue and Xavier would call and check on LeVert. LeVert ended up taking visits to both Purdue and Michigan, but the Wolverines ultimately won out.

In fact, it was LeVert asking the Michigan coaching staff if he had the opportunity to play in Ann Arbor during his visit to campus.

“When they were meeting with Caris he told the coaching staff, ‘If it is okay with you, if you want me, I would love to come to Michigan’,” LeVert’s high school coach, Jerry Francis, told Andre Barthwell of Scout.com. “That’s just the type of kid he is.”

Head coach John Beilein was probably thrilled that LeVert asked to play for Michigan because the wing has been thriving under his watch ever since. The junior has now grown to nearly 6-foot-7, 200 pounds, after entering college as a skinny 175 pounds. Last season, LeVert was one of college basketball’s biggest breakout stars averaging 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game on 43 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Now with all of that star power from last season having left Ann Arbor, LeVert has to take on a new leadership role that he hasn’t faced at the college level before.

“I’m already a junior and it seems like just yesterday I was a young freshman here,” LeVert said at Big Ten media day last month. “Now the team only has me, Spike and Max from that team now so, it’s definitely a new look for us.”

MORE: Big Ten Preview: Wisconsin is the class of the Big Ten

Embracing the leadership role might not be as naturally easy for LeVert as the hard work it took for him to be one of the Big Ten’s best players, but Beilein said that his junior guard’s work ethic sets enough of a positive tone for Michigan’s young team to still make a difference.

“There’s guys that if they’re not comfortable being vocal they may not help,” Beilein said of LeVert’s leadership at Big Ten media day. “And I wouldn’t say he’s not comfortable but he’s not going to be like the Zack Novak like you’ve got to really jump in somebody’s face, which Zack was very happy to do several times.

“But you can still get it across. His effort every day and his attitude of being coachable and his effort every day speaks volumes for who he is. And he’s always been that way but now as one of the veteran players, our guys are watching him and that’s where I want to get this program to.”

Vocal leadership might not be LeVert’s forte, but he has a major advantage that many star players don’t have with incoming freshmen: he’s entirely relatable to Michigan’s seven new freshmen. LeVert entered the university just like this new core group at Michigan, as a physically unprepared system recruit with a chip on his shoulder. Because he was under-recruited and in the same position as many of the current Michigan freshmen, now Beilein hopes those players can follow in LeVert’s model and find success of their own.

LeVert has blazed an unlikely path to be a Big Ten star, and after the junior likely becomes a NBA Draft pick, Beilein is hoping to find another LeVert.

If Michigan wants to replace all that they’ve lost from last season and move forward quickly, the program will count on LeVert not only to produce on the floor, but to show others the way it’s done this season.

Caris LeVert once asked the Michigan coaching staff if he could play basketball for them. Now, those same Michigan coaches will ask LeVert to lead the Wolverines as their best player a little over two years later.

Patience and hard work helped Frank Kaminsky transform into ‘Frank the Tank’

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source: AP
Frank Kaminsky (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Frank Kaminsky committed to Wisconsin in the middle of US Soccer’s World Cup draw against England on June 12, 2010, and it barely registered a blip in the college basketball recruiting world.

The Badgers and Bo Ryan landing a 6-foot-10, three-star, “system-fit” center from the Midwest wasn’t national news, but even in basketball-crazy Illinois, many local fans looked at Kaminsky playing in the Big Ten and shrugged.

As a high school junior, the center helped lead Benet Academy to a game away from the final four in Illinois’ Class 4A, but 2010 marked the Summer of Anthony Davis and the state of Illinois was loaded with high-major prospects.

Rivals ranked eight kids in its top 150 from Illinois for the 2011 class and Kaminsky wasn’t one of them. The center couldn’t even earn a consistent starting spot with local grassroots powerhouse the Illinois Wolves, so why would fans believe Kaminsky would be capable of performing at a high level in the Big Ten?

This certainly wasn’t, Frank the Tank: Big Man in Madison, All-American candidate and versatile senior center. This was more, Frank Kaminsky: Scrawny, developing high school center who hadn’t figured out his game or his rapidly-growing body.

But as Wisconsin’s strength program took hold and Kaminsky learned the ropes of the college game, the now 7-foot senior is one of the best players in the country. In 2013-14, during his junior season, Kaminsky started and earned heavy minutes for his first time at Wisconsin, averaging 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game and becoming a key piece of the Badgers’ well-moving offense.

Besides becoming the main post presence in head coach Bo Ryan’s offense, Kaminsky also had a knack for some timely big-game performances. Kaminsky first turned heads early in the regular season by setting a school record with 43 points in a win over North Dakota, but the junior also had 28 points and 11 rebounds in a big Big Ten road win at Michigan in February and another 28 points and 11 rebounds in the Elite Eight win over Arizona last March.

For Kaminsky, it took a long time to reach this point in his basketball career, but it was all about staying patient, learning from those around him and becoming more confident with his game as time went on.

“It came with getting older and getting more confidence and growing into my body; I grew kind of fast,” Kaminsky said of his game’s evolution to NBCSports.com. “I think the most important thing I took from high school was situational things. Like when it’s my turn to kind of take over the game but also when not to force it too much. And that really kind of slowed the game down for me. It translated into the college game. I’ve learned to take my time and not force things and not go too fast and it’s worked well for me.”

Slowing the game down helped Kaminsky figure things out on the floor, but Ryan also said that Kaminsky’s attention to detail and winning attitude have helped with his increased productivity. During the early years of his college career, Kaminsky credited learning from Wisconsin’s big men that played ahead of him, specifically Jared Berggren, and Frank took whatever opportunity he could to learn from those around him in practice or away from the floor. When he finally had his chance to play heavy minutes last season, Kaminsky’s relentless pursuit of perfection had already put him in position to shine.

“He’s worked hard to put himself into that position; it didn’t happen by accident,” Ryan said of Kaminsky to NBCSports.com.

“He does it with his actions. He works hard. He’s not one of those guys to take possessions off in practice. He’s always trying to do the right thing. Obviously, that spreads. And we have other guys with the same kind of work ethic so that puts us in position to be focused on the task at hand.”

MORE: Big Ten Preview: Wisconsin is the class of the Big Ten

It’s one thing to work hard and have talent, but not many players in college basketball can do the things that Kaminsky can do as a 7-footer. Pure back-to-the-basket scorers are becoming an endangered species in basketball and Kaminsky’s ability to knock in jumpers made him perfect to stretch opposing defenses at any number of unexpected times last season.

Having a roster full of players on the same page last season gave Kaminsky and Wisconsin’s offense a chance to tinker with the center’s tremendous offensive versatility. That sort of floor-spreading ability helped Kaminsky and Wisconsin make a trip to the Final Four last season for the first time in Ryan’s tenure. Kaminsky shot 37 percent from three-point range last season,  but his offensive approach isn’t solely predicated on focusing on one area of the floor to score from.

source: Getty Images
Getty Images

“It’s reading what the defense is giving me and trying to take advantage of any situation I’m in. It varies from team-to-team,” Kaminsky said. “It’s not like I go out there and say, ‘hey, I’m going to shoot a lot of threes today.’ Obviously with scouting reports, and being able to watch film, I know what I’d like to do more with tendencies of other things. But it’s one of those things where I have to be on the floor and take what teams give me.”

No matter what the other team might “give” to Kaminsky, the senior has the rare ability at center to make defenses pay from all over the floor. That kind of shooting ability made Kaminsky attractive to some NBA scouts last season and the attention Kaminsky received from them increased this summer during trips to events like adidas Nations in Los Angeles.

But the pro game will have to wait as the college experience in Madison is appealing to Kaminsky and the center had an easy decision to stay and go for a title as the Badgers only lose Ben Brust from last season’s 30-win team. As Kaminsky walks around Wisconsin’s campus, he said he’s constantly getting recognized and shown support from a fan base that is dying for a national title.

Although he’s already beloved by Wisconsin fans, a national title would permanently cement “Frank the Tank” as an unforgettable college basketball player. From scrawny high school center, to preseason All-American, Kaminsky has maintained the same approach to preparing before each game. Not much has changed for Wisconsin from last season to this one in terms of personnel or preparation, and Kaminsky hopes he can earn a title in his final season of college basketball.

“Everyone expects to be a championship contender and to do that we have to prepare at a championship level,” Kaminsky said. “That’s something that everyone took to heart on this team this offseason. We’ve just approached everything like we’re going to win the national title this year.”

2014-15 Season Preview: Wisconsin is the class of the Big Ten

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source: Getty Images
Wisconsin junior forward Sam Dekker

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be revealing our Big Ten preview.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

The Big Ten only has one national champion in the 21st century and it came all the way back in 2000, when Tom Izzo and Michigan State reigned supreme. While the conference has had four national runners-up since — and Big Ten newcomer Maryland also won a national title in 2002 — it’s been a long title drought for the Big Ten. Wisconsin is hoping to break that streak this season. Bo Ryan returns most of a 30-win, Final Four team from 2013-14, and the Badgers will be a national title favorite this season. The rest of the conference looks a bit more murky, as the Big Ten loses a lot of talent and experience from last season.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Maryland (ACC), Rutgers (Big Ten)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Wisconsin is nearly as good as last season: Sure, the Badgers lost senior starting guard Ben Brust, but he was really the only major rotational loss for a 30-win team that nearly made the national championship game. Now, Bo Ryan has to decide whether to go bigger (Nigel Hayes as a third forward) or smaller (Bronson Koenig as a third guard) to replace Brust in the starting lineup and go from there. Either way, the Badgers are a major favorite in the Big Ten and, once again, a legitimate national title contender.

2. Michigan and Michigan State have to replace a lot of experience: This season won’t feature the tremendous, high-level basketball you’ve seen from the state of Michigan the last few years, but both programs still have some young talent. Michigan must replace three early NBA draft defections (Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas), Jon Horford (transfer to Florida) and Jordan Morgan (graduated) while Michigan State loses seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne and sophomore guard Gary Harris. The Wolverines at least still have All-American candidate Caris LeVert along with guards Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin while the Spartans still have seniors Branden Dawson and Travis Trice and junior do-it-all wing Denzel Valentine. Both teams are still very much in contention for a NCAA Tournament berth, but don’t expect any Final Four appearances or deep runs this March.

source: Reuters
Frank Kaminsky and Sam Thompson (Reuters)

3. Ohio State will rely more on young players: This won’t be the veteran Ohio State team we’ve seen the last few seasons, either. Gone is Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross, but the Buckeyes still have Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams and Marc Loving. But in order for the Buckeyes to reach their full potential, they’ll need a freshman guard, D’Angelo Russell, to come in and provide a scoring lift for a team that struggled to put the ball in the hoop a year ago. If Loving struggles to score early on, don’t be surprised if Matta gives even more minutes away to freshmen in order to find points.

4. Illinois could be a team to watch: Despite the preseason loss of senior starting point guard Tracy Abrams to a torn ACL, many in and around the Big Ten seem high on Illinois during the 2014-15 preseason. While losing Abrams’ warrior mentality and defensive ability will hurt, head coach John Groce’s offense will improve without him in the lineup and the Illini were 11th in scoring offense in the Big Ten last season. Transfer guards Ahmad Starks (Oregon State) and Aaron Cosby (Seton Hall) are both experienced upperclassmen who are better shooters than Abrams and freshman forward Leron Black should log extended minutes as another rebounder and potential inside scoring option. If a sophomore like Kendrick Nunn or Malcolm Hill makes a leap and Rayvonte Rice continues his solid play, then Illinois should be in position to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

5. Maryland and Rutgers face immediate pressure: Not only do Maryland and Rutgers face the pressure of joining a new league in the Big Ten, but both Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon and Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan need to have some wins in the new conference in year one. Turgeon might be on the hot seat as much as any coach in the country and likely needs a NCAA Tournament trip to feel secure after this season. Rutgers is rebuilding, and will grant Jordan more leeway, but after his first season with the Scarlet Knights, he brought in a seven-man recruiting class and two new assistant coaches. Winning would give Rutgers some promise going forward in the Big Ten and Jordan needs all the help he can get right now.

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

What can you say about Wisconsin’s senior center that hasn’t been said before? The 7-footer is one of the more offensively balanced big men college basketball has seen the last five years and his 37 percent three-point shooting draws opposing big men out to the three-point line, spreading Wisconsin’s offense at most positions and creating major problems for defenses. Kaminsky also averaged 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds and shot 52 percent from the field and 76 percent from the free-throw line last season. If Kaminsky can improve as a positional post defender and rebounder, it’ll be icing on the cake to his tremendous offensive skill set.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Caris LeVert, Michigan: The Michigan offense will now run through the talented 6-foot-6 junior who averaged 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the three-point line last season.
  • Terran Petteway, Nebraska: The 6-foot-6 junior had a breakout sophomore year, averaging 18.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and leading Nebraska back to the NCAA Tournament. After a strong summer, expectations are even higher on Petteway.
  • Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: Dekker didn’t shoot it as well as he’d hoped during his sophomore year (46% FG, 68% FT, 32% 3PT)  but he’s still a tough overall performer and very skilled for a 6-foot-7 forward.
  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: The 6-foot junior point guard averaged 17.3 points, 3.9 assists and 3 rebounds per game as a sophomore while shooting 40 percent from three-point range and he could be the conference’s most important individual player this season, in terms of overall team success.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Branden Dawson, Michigan State
  • Rayvonte Rice, Illinois
  • Aaron White, Iowa
  • D.J. Newbill, Penn State
  • Dez Wells, Maryland
source: AP
Derrick Walton Jr. (AP Photo)

BREAKOUT STAR: Derrick Walton, Jr. from Michigan didn’t have to do nearly as much last season with stars like Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III around him, but he did play steady ball from the lead guard and helped guide the Wolverines to the Elite Eight. Now, as one of the returning experienced pieces, the 6-foot sophomore has to take a step up in his play this season while running head coach John Beilein’s offense. Walton looked up to the task in some camps this summer and is a natural floor leader for the Wolverines.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tom Crean and Mark Turgeon are both facing issues for not winning games and for transfers away from their programs. Crean has also faced recent legal issues for some of his team off of the floor and needs to win even more after the offseason heat surround this fall’s incidents. Turgeon lost five transfers from the Terps last season and has never made a NCAA Tournament appearance at the school.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Number-one seed Wisconsin leads a contingent of seven Big Ten teams in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The evolution of Nebraska with another year of Terran Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford. Can this team make the second weekend in the NCAA Tournament?

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 18, Duke vs. Michigan State in Indianapolis
  • Dec. 2, Ohio State at Louisville
  • Dec. 3, Duke at Wisconsin
  • Dec. 12, Iowa State at Iowa
  • Dec. 13, Michigan at Arizona

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @B1GMBBALL

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Wisconsin: The Badgers only lose Ben Brust and still have Kaminsky, Dekker and senior guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson. If Bo Ryan gets more from Nigel Hayes and other bench players, last year’s Final Four team could go back.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers have the talent and scoring power to compete for a Big Ten title between Petteway, Shavon Shields and Walter Pitchford. Can this team get stops and win games away from home?
3. Michigan: Losses of Nik Stauskas, Jordan Morgan, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary hurts, but Walton and LeVert are back along with a crop of talented younger players.
4. Michigan State: Seniors have left East Lansing but Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello return along with some productive guys off of last year’s bench to keep an eye on.
5. Ohio State: Three seniors in Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams and Trey McDonald return, but the Buckeyes need production from a good freshman group that includes guard D’Angelo Russell.
6. Illinois: Transfers Aaron Cosby and Ahmad Starks both fill in for Tracy Abrams and provide more outside shooting. If Nnanna Egwu can avoid trouble and get post defense help from someone like Leron Black, Illinois will be in good shape.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes return a ton of production from a deep team and gain talented guard Trey Dickerson. Can Aaron White or someone else step up and assume the primary scorer role?
8. Minnesota: The NIT champions need to upgrade their defense and win games down the stretch. Andre Hollins needs to be more efficient but he’s productive.
9. Indiana: The program looks to be in disarray with the off-the-court incidents, but Yogi Ferrell can ball and he has athletes around him. Can the Hoosiers limit turnovers and get stops?
10. Maryland: After losing five transfers, this new-look Maryland returns Dez Wells, Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz and gains Melo Trimble and some other talented freshmen who can shoot.
11. Purdue: A lot rests on the shoulders of junior center A.J. Hammons, but Kendall Stephens, Raphael Davis and a new crop of freshmen gives head coach Matt Painter and fans some hope for a rejuvenated team.
12. Penn State: D.J. Newbill and Brandon Taylor both return, but the rest is uncertain for Patrick Chambers’ team. Can the front court give any boost on offense?
13. Northwestern: The Wildcats could start two freshmen on a young team that features as many as six new freshmen. But five guys with 20-plus minutes a game return from last season, so plenty of experience peppers the roster.
14. Rutgers: Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack are both Big Ten players but the rest of the young roster has to prove they are as well for Eddie Jordan.

2014-15 Season Preview: Arizona leads the way in the Pac-12

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Arizona looks to win a second consecutive Pac-12 title (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today we take a look at the Pac-12, which has a clear favorite to win the title.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

After going through a rough three-year period the Pac-12 took steps in the right direction last season. Six teams reached the NCAA tournament with four winning at least one game, and three (Arizona, Stanford and UCLA) managed to reach the second weekend. Heading into the 2014-15 season there’s a clear favorite in Arizona, a team with the talent, depth and coaching needed to win a national title, but beyond Sean Miller’s Wildcats there is a lot of uncertainty in the Pac-12. Spots two through five look to be wide-open, and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that any of the teams pegged to finish sixth through ninth can make a jump themselves. This uncertainty should make for an intriguing season in the Pac-12.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Arizona lost two starters, but they’re at a point where they simply reload: Both Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon left for the NBA, with the former being the bigger loss. Johnson was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, and his leadership was incredibly valuable for last season’s team. Arizona has a lot of talent, in regards to both their returners and a recruiting class that rates among the best in the country. PG T.J. McConnell is back to run the show, and among the players he’ll have at his disposal are Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. But who takes over from a leadership standpoint? That’s the biggest question facing Arizona.

2. UCLA will have to replace four starters from last year’s team: In his first season at the helm Steve Alford led the Bruins to a Pac-12 tournament title and a Sweet 16 appearance. His next act will be a bit more difficult, with five contributors from that team (four starters and reserve Zach LaVine) gone. Senior Norman Powell returns, and while the Bruins are younger they don’t lack for talent with guard Isaac Hamilton and forward Kevon Looney being the headliners amongst the newcomers.

3. Utah and Colorado return more production than any team in the conference: Tad Boyle welcomes back four starters from last season’s NCAA tournament team, including guard Askia Booker and forward Josh Scott, with the Buffaloes’ returnees responsible for 88.4% of the team’s points and 94.1% of the team’s rebounds a season ago. As for Utah Pac-12 POY candidate Delon Wright returns as does Jordan Loveridge, who will move back to his natural small forward position. The experience certainly helps, but their talent is another reason why many expect the Buffs and Utes to contend this season.

4. Three Pac-12 programs have new head coaches: Two firings and a retirement resulted in three head coaching positions needing to be filled in the Pac-12. In the end Washington State brought in a coach Pac-12 fans certainly remember, hiring former Oregon head coach Ernie Kent to replace Ken Bone. Oregon State called it quits on the Craig Robinson era, reeling in Wayne Tinkle from Montana where he enjoyed a successful run at his alma mater. And with Mike Montgomery deciding to retire California managed to land Cuonzo Martin, who led Tennessee to the Sweet 16.

5. Seven first team all-conference selections have moved on: The Pac-12 selects ten players to its first team all-conference squad, and at the end of last season seven of those players were either out of eligibility or decided to turn pro early. The three returnees: Scott, Wright and Stanford PG Chasson Randle. And of the five players on the league’s second team all-conference squad, just two return: Arizona PG T.J. McConnell and Oregon SG Joseph Young.

PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chasson Randle, Stanford

source: Getty Images
Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins and Chasson Randle (Getty Images)

Randle’s first season running the point for Johnny Dawkins ultimately resulted in the Cardinal making their first NCAA tournament (and Sweet 16) appearance since 2008. Randle averaged 18.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in 2013-14, and with leading assist man Dwight Powell gone the last number should increase this season.

THE REST OF THE ALL PAC-12 FIRST TEAM:

  • Delon Wright, Utah: One of the most versatile players in America, Wright led Utah in points (15.5 ppg), assists (5.3 apg), steals (2.5 spg) and blocks (1.3 bpg) in 2013-14.
  • Joseph Young, Oregon: Young averaged 18.9 points per game as a junior, and he could score even more given the Ducks’ lack of depth.
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: Hollis-Jefferson was Arizona’s sixth man last season, and with Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon moving on he’s capable of doing even more as a sophomore.
  • Stanley Johnson, Arizona: The Pac-12’s best newcomer is also one of the most talented players in America.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • DaVonte Lacy, Washington State
  • Josh Scott, Colorado
  • Norman Powell, UCLA
  • Brandon Ashley, Arizona
  • Jordan Loveridge, Utah

BREAKOUT STAR: Jabari Bird, California

Bird showed flashes of the skill that made him a McDonald’s All-American as a freshman, but he’s certainly capable of more and the experiences of last season will help him moving forward. With Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon, Bird, Tyrone Wallace and David Kravish will be the leaders for Cuonzo Martin’s first team in Berkeley. Look for Bird to take a noticeable step forward for the Golden Bears in 2014-15.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Dana Altman, Oregon

How can a coach who’s won 67 percent of his games in four seasons at a school be under pressure? Well, the offseason in Eugene provides the answer to that question. Three players (Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin) were dismissed in the spring after being investigated on charges of sexual assualt (they weren’t charged), and two talented freshmen (JaQuan Lyle and Ray Kasongo) weren’t admitted to the school in the fall. Now Oregon enters the 2014-15 season short on depth. Wins and losses won’t be an issue, but the players need to avoid any missteps off the court.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …: Will Arizona make its first Final Four appearance since 2001?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT :  The battle to see who Arizona’s biggest threat will be.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • December 6, Gonzaga at Arizona
  • November 18, Utah at San Diego State
  • January 17, UConn at Stanford
  • December 13, Gonzaga at UCLA
  • December 7, Colorado at Georgia

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @AMurawa

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Arizona: There’s no question that this team has the talent to play into early April. But who steps forward as the leaders? That’s the key.
2. Stanford: The Chasson Randle/Anthony Brown duo is one of the best perimeter tandems in the conference, but their young big men will need to step up.
3. Colorado: The Buffs learned a lot playing without Spencer Dinwiddie for most of conference play, and they’ve got a big man in Josh Scott who’s underrated nationally.
4. Utah: The Utes have depth and talent, giving Larry Krystkowiak his best team since taking over in 2011. The next step: reversing their fortunes in close games.
5. UCLA: The talent isn’t to be questioned, but depth can be especially with Jonah Bolden being declared a partial qualifier by the NCAA.
6. California: The Golden Bears can climb into the mix for second if Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews make strides in their games, but the front court depth is a concern with Kameron Woods out with a torn ACL.
7. Washington: Robert Upshaw and Jernard Jarreau will give the Huskies needed depth in the front court, with Andrew Andrews and Nigel Williams-Goss the headliners in the backcourt.
8. Arizona State: The Pac-12’s mystery team is chock full of newcomers from the high school and junior college ranks. Remember the name Willie Atwood.
9. Oregon: Oregon’s lack of depth is a concern, but with Young being the feature offensive option this team will score points.
10. USC: Andy Enfield’s Trojans will be improved, with Jordan McLaughlin and UNLV transfer Katin Reinhardt on the perimeter. But they’re a year away from a serious charge up the standings.
11. Washington State: Luckily for Wazzu, DaVonte Lacy’s back for his senior season.
12. Oregon State: This could be a rough first season for Tinkle in Corvallis, but he and his staff are off to a good start with their 2015 recruiting haul.

2014-15 Season Preview: Ten of college basketball’s most important players

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Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

As is the case with the debate as to who the best player in college basketball, the question of who the most important players in college basketball can result in a variety of answers. A lot of attention in basketball is given to the point guard position, especially in March, but the truth is that the answer ultimately varies from team to team. Below are some of the most important players in college basketball heading into the 2014-15 season.

1. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky: He’s one of two point guards on the Kentucky roster with freshman Tyler Ulis being the other. Harrison has the experience of not only reaching the national title game but also dealing with the hype that annually surrounds the Kentucky program. Those experiences and his improvement skill-wise will be of great importance to Kentucky in 2014-15.

2. T.J. McConnell, Arizona: On the court there won’t be much of a change in McConnell’s role, as he’ll once again run the point for the Wildcats. The key here: leadership. Arizona lost a great leader in Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson, so someone has to step forward and fill that void. McConnell may be the best option at this point in time.

3. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell averaged 14.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season, and he’s expected to be an even greater force for the Cardinals in their first season as a member of the ACC. And his progress is critical, because even though the Cardinals have depth in the front court there isn’t a lot of experience beyond Harrell.

4. Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: After being a reserve on a team that reached the Final Four in 2013, Van Vleet took the big step forward many expected him to as a sophomore. Van Vleet averaged 11.6 points, 5.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game last season in helping lead the Shockers to 35 straight wins, and he’ll once again run the show in 2014-15.

5. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: One of Duke’s issues last season was the lack of a presence in the middle that opponents had to respect offensively, much less one they had to fear. Okafor, CBT’s pick for preseason National Player of the Year, will take care of that concern and open things up for Duke’s other scoring options in the process.

source: AP
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (AP Photo)

6. Frank Mason, Kansas : In recent years consistency has been an issue for Bill Self’s point guards, and while the Jayhawks have continued to rule the Big 12 they’ve had some issues in March. Can Mason step forward and change that? The hope in Lawrence is that he can, with freshman Devonte Graham also due to see time at the position.

7. Marcus Paige, North Carolina: Whatever North Carolina needed on the perimeter Paige did it last season, leading the team in scoring and assists. Roy Williams has more perimeter options at his disposal this season, but Paige will still be the man the Tar Heels look to for production and leadership.

8. Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang’s changed his body since the end of last season, and with Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane gone he’ll be asked to lead the way for the reigning Big 12 tournament champions.

9. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: It goes without saying that Dekker was a key player for the Badgers last season, averaging 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. And with leading three-point shooter Ben Brust moving on, Dekker’s success in improving as a perimeter shooter (32.9% 3PT last season) will be a key for Wisconsin as they look to return to the Final Four.

10. Siyani Chambers, Harvard: In each of the last two seasons Chambers has helped lead Harvard to wins in the NCAA tournament. That’s one way in which to measure his value to the Crimson ahead of the 2014-15 season, but here’s another: where does Harvard turn at the point should he suffer an injury? Harvard doesn’t have much depth at the position, which makes Chambers an even more important player as they look to make a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

1. Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse
2. Nic Moore, SMU
3. Ryan Boatright, UConn
4. Delon Wright, Utah
5. Isaiah Taylor, Texas