This upcoming season is shaping up to be an incredibly exciting one in college basketball. Much like last season, there are any number of teams that could wind up on top when the nets are cut in April. Of course, this could be said about any season, but in this case there are so many X-Factors contributing to each program that make it impossible to tell.
We’ve all heard the big names coming into this season. Returning potential stars like North Carolina’s Marcus Paige and Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell have their names mentioned in nearly every pre-season Wooden Award watch. Freshmen such as Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Arizona’s Stanley Johnson are frequently mentioned in pre-season All-American teams. However, there are a few players that don’t often get mentioned, yet their success is vital for their teams’ success this upcoming season.
Here is our list of quiet players to watch, guys who might emerge from the shadows of talent-laden power conference teams.
UNC’s JP Tokoto – If you haven’t seen a clip of JP Tokoto launching off the ground for a breathtaking dunk yet, you will soon. On a team who is in a position to make some noise in the ACC this season, Tokoto will be in a position to provide what could be a much needed spark. He is a freak athlete, a lanky yet solid-bodied defender and pads his rebound numbers from the small forward position, averaging just under six per game last season. However, his 50% number from the free throw line is not going to get it done. If he wants to bring his PPG numbers up, free throws and consistency are the way to do it.
Louisville’s Terry Rozier – The loss of Russ Smith is going to be obvious this season for the Cardinals. Without Russdiculous, UofL does not have a pure scorer in the starting lineup. All five starters this year are capable of either hitting an open shot or attacking the rim, but they don’t have the means of scoring that Smith did. On a defensive minded team, they need an offensive distributor. Enter Terry Rozier. The 6’1″ PG is quickly rising in draft stock. After adding some serious muscle this summer and developing what was a relatively average jump shot as a freshman, Rozier enters his sophomore campaign as a guard who could be a lottery pick by season’s end.
Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas – In a 2-3 zone, the person in the middle is the most important. In the case of Syracuse, Rakeem Christmas is that anchor. The 6’9″ senior has improved his shot blocking capabilities each season, and there is no inclination that trend will stop this fall. If Christmas can keep out of foul trouble and become a semi-consistent contributor on the offensive end, then the Jim Boeheim-led Orange will be a tough team to compete with in the daunting ACC.
Indiana’s Troy Williams – Playing alongside a standout true point guard like Yogi Ferrell makes playing a wing position a little bit easier. Despite being recruited as a shooting guard, Williams will be playing the role of a bigger forward this season for the Hoosiers. Having made just six three pointers last season, his shooting will not be missed. What he lacks in shooting ability he makes up for in energy and defense. However, Williams is a phenomenal athlete who will be able to get serious minutes following the departures of both Noah Vonleh and Will Sheehey.
Michigan State’s Branden Dawson – Last season saw frustration on Dawson’s end, and that frustration continued with a midseason hand injury. However, when the undersized power forward returned, he came back with a vengeance. He dominated the boards, and seemingly finished every one of his shots at the rim. He was so effective he took home MVP honors at the Big Ten Tournament. Dawson will undoubtedly continue his at the rim dominance this season in Coach Izzo’s wizardly system.
Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson – In the Final Four last year, Jackson was a few inches away from being a superstar and beating Kentucky. No dice. However, this season Wisconsin comes into the season as one of the favorites to make it back to the Final Four, returning nearly all of its key players. Jackson this season will play alongside two potential All-Americans in forward Sam Dekker and center Frank Kaminsky, and will serve as this unit’s facilitator. He can hit a big shot when need be, but this season will be one in which Traevon becomes one of the most well respected point guards in the Big Ten.
TCU’s Kyan Anderson – Let’s first get the two most pressing questions out of the way. Yes, Texas Christian does have a basketball team. No, they’re not very good. However, Anderson put up 17 points per game last season. Yes, scoring points on a bad team is not a difficult task nor is it one that draws much merit. However, it’s Anderson’s assist numbers that are startling. His 4.5 APG are good enough for fourth among returning Big 12 players, and doing so on a bad team is incredibly impressive. If Anderson’s teammates can step up their production, look for Anderson’s numbers to rise as well.
Iowa State’s Bryce Dejean-Jones – Playing alongside potential All-American Georges Niang will undoubtedly benefit Dejean-Jones this season. The UNLV transfer put up some very solid numbers last season with UNLV averaging 13.6 points per game, as well as nearly four rebounds and four assists. With Niang attracting the majority of the attention from opposing defenses, Dejean-Jones will have an opportunity to recreate those good numbers against some better competition in the Big 12.
Kansas’ Perry Ellis – On any team except Kansas, Perry Ellis would have been the standout big man. However, losing out on the spotlight to future lottery pick Joel Embiid isn’t such a big deal. However, with Embiid gone, Ellis now has the opportunity to be the go-to guy on the low block for the Jayhawks. Three stellar freshmen will start this season for Kansas, along with projected first round draft pick Wayne Selden. Top to bottom Kansas is stacked, and if Ellis was able to average 13.5 ppg and 6.7 rpg alongside Joel Embiid, his numbers have the potential to be staggering this season.
UCLA’s Norman Powell – This summer saw the departure of…well…everyone for the Bruins. They lost three first round NBA draft picks and are now in a large what do we do? situation. Powell averaged a very respectable 11.5 PPG last season, which is high for an under the radar player coming into this season. However, he was completely overshadowed by the group that left Brentwood for the pros. UCLA will need major production from Powell this season. If he is able to improve upon his sub 30% three-point performance last season combined with a higher responsibility in the offense, he should have no problem performing.
Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski – Almost all seven footers find great success at the college level. Tarczewski is no exception here. Last season, he played the role of defensive anchor in the star studded Arizona team. This season, he will be given similar tasks, however he is now an upperclassman. With this will come more touches on offense, and more responsibility on defense. More touches will lead to more points, as he shot a phenomenal 59% from the field last year. He’s seven feet tall, so the rebounds will come naturally, but if he can improve his blocks on the defensive end, Arizona will be a very daunting opponent all season.
Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss – At a school that seems to spit out NBA bound guards such as Isaiah Thomas and Terrence Ross, Williams-Goss appears to be next in line. Despite multiple NBA point guards lining college basketball last season, Williams-Goss could have been the best one in the NCAA. He averaged over 13 points per game and was able to grab over four rebounds per contest as well. If he can bring up his assist per game numbers (just 4.4 last season), he will be on track to be the next NBA-bound guard from the long lineage of the northwest.
Kentucky’s Alex Poythress – A former Mr. Tennessee in basketball, Poythress joins the rest of the slew of former McDonald’s All-Americans for UK this season. Just like the others, he will battle for playing time, fight for touches and be asked to perform at an immensely high level this upcoming season. However, there are two things that separate Poythress from the rest of the roster. First, Poythress is coming off of a season in which every statistical category of his fell from the preceding one, except for blocks. He is coming into this season with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Second, his age. Now an upperclassman, head coach John Calipari will look to Poythress to help lead this incredibly young team that’s probably good enough to beat the 76ers.
Auburn’s Antoine Mason – The son of former NBA standout Anthony Mason, Antoine enters his senior campaign as a transfer student from Niagara University. If you haven’t heard his name before, you’ll hear it a lot in 2014 and 2015. Last season, Mason was second in the nation in scoring behind only Doug McDermott with 25.6 PPG last year. This season, Mason has the opportunity to tear up the SEC under Head Coach Bruce Pearl the same way he tore up basically everyone last year.
Florida’s Chris Walker – After being declared academically ineligible for the fall of 2013, Walker became a no-name in the college basketball world. Florida had plenty of other talent and continued on without him. However, with the departure of Patric Young, the Gators have a small void in their 4/5 slot. Enter Chris Walker. At 6’10” with an incredible vertical leap, Walker’s physical skills are well known. If his fundamentals and playmaking abilities catch up to his physical prowess, Walker will make some major noise in the SEC this season. Let’s not forget what Florida’s strength and conditioning team is capable of doing.
Of course, there will be some players from non-major conferences that will become powerful, dominant forces in the world of college basketball this year. The Big East and other smaller conferences will produce high quality teams, led by high quality players; no one has any doubt about that. Despite that, the teams mentioned above are the ones that will be getting the most TV time, and these key players for these big teams will earn their keep in the upcoming school year.
*Section Photo credit to Mark Konezny, USA Today Sports; Featured Photo above (credit) to Ellen Ozier, Associated Press