Every year, it happens. You're knee-deep in football season, worrying about your fantasy teams, catching up on the latest season of Gossip Girl, whatever. And then BAM! Like an Emeril Lagasse secret ingredient, Midnight Madness strikes and you realize the college basketball season tips off in less than a month.
I didn't get to write every post I had been thinking about during the off-season, but here's one that I was quite excited to pen. I call it "My Guys", a post idea I'm stealing from Peter Bean over at Burnt Orange Nation (and like all great ideas, he stole it as well, from Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus). What does "My Guys" mean? Peter, take it away:
The idea is to name the five players who you think are poised to exceed expectations with big years on the field. Note the distinction between this mission and trying to name the five best players, or most productive players, or most important players to the team. Here we're simply naming the five players we might love a little bit more than most.
Now Peter writes it for his football team, the Texas Longhorns. That idea doesn't quite translate to basketball. It's hard to pick a handful of guys you think will exceed expectations when only a handful of guys play significant minutes on the court anyway. But I'll take a slightly different approach and take it back to its original, Sheehan-esque form. After the jump is my "My Guys" team. It's not just Wildcat ballers, but my picks to exceed expectations from across the nation.
I'm laying it all out there. Removing personal preference bias (no Kentucky or Texas players), my favorite player going into the 2011-12 season is Kendall Marshall. Personally, I think he's the Tar Heel that determines how successful Carolina is in its "championship or bust" run. Don't believe me? Watch some games from the Larry Drew era again. Harrison Barnes is Carolina's best player (and Tyler Zeller is the tallest), but Marshall is its most important.
Despite not playing significant minutes early in the season, Marshall finished the season averaging 5.8 assists per game, good for 20th overall in the nation. He did that while averaging just 23.4 minutes per game, approximately 8 to 10 minutes under anyone else in the top 20. To better gauge Marshall's passing proficiency, check out these numbers: an astounding 9.9 assists per 40 minutes, and 40.7% assist rate (seventh best in the nation). That's crazy good.
A lot has been made of Marshall's inability to shoot, but I disagree. He hit 37.7% of his three's (20-53 on the year), and has a decent-looking stroke. I personally think it's more about scoring confidence, and Marshall will have a lot more mojo in his sophomore season. And getcha popcorn ready: Marshall v. Teague on December 3 should be a doozy.
The Little Apple Wildcats went into the 2010-11 season with a pair of senior stars (Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly) and sky-high expectations. But missing a true point guard and team chemistry, Kansas State crashed and burned. Now, according to Big 12 coaches, they're picked to finish a lowly sixth in the ten team conference. But lowered expectations may be a good thing for Frank Martin's team--it gives them the ability to surprise.
One bright spot on their team is shooting guard Rodney McGruder, perhaps the Wildcats' most consistent player last year. After averaging just 12.5 minutes per game as a freshman, he was a fixture in the starting lineup as a sophomore. Playing off Pullen and freshman point guard Will Spradling (another guy I like), McGruder was free to score at will. He chipped in an efficient 11.1 points per game, hitting 40.8% from deep (69-169) with an effective field goal percentage of 55.6% from the field. He was also solid across the board, adding in 5.9 rebounds per game and 1.5 assists per game.
With Pullen gone, McGruder has a chance to step up as Kansas State's primary scorer. He'll need to get to the line more (just 69 free throw attempts last year, against 220 for Pullen) and play the role of a primary ball-handler without sacrificing efficiency (something Pullen struggled to do at times last year). I think he's ready to shine.
SF: CJ Fair, Syracuse Orange
CJ Fair's freshman season is perhaps best known for this monster dunk. But Fair is much more than just a freak athlete. Ranked just 94th overall by Rivals, he came in with less hype than his star-studded freshmen teammates, Dion Waiters and Fab Melo. But Fair ended up playing in more minutes (42.3% of minutes overall) than either Waiters and Melo, despite missing 3 games with an ankle injury.
On almost any other team in the nation, Fair probably would have earned more minutes. Unfortunately, the swingman came in behind established perimeter starters Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche. Both players return, so an alpha-dog breakout season from Fair could still be a year away. However, departing senior Rick Jackson leaves a starting gig open at power forward, and Fair could slide right in as an undersized 4.
There's a lot to like about Fair, but besides his propensity to throw down jaw-dropping jams, he has all the makings of an A+ defender. In Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone, he posted a 4.6% block percentage and 2.6% steal percentage to help disrupt opposing offenses. On the offensive end, he's a solid mid-range weapon, hitting 54.3% of his shots. He's supposedly been working on his long distance shot in the off-season, something that was non-existent during his freshman year (just 1-3 from deep). If he can extend his offensive game from the rim all the way to the arc, look out.
I was all set to go with Thomas Robinson here (second on my "no-bias favorites" list behind Kendall Marshall), but then the fine folks at CBS Sports had to go and spoil that pick by naming Robinson a pre-season first team All-American. (Aside: They even had the audacity to pick him over Wildcats Terrence Jones and . The horror!) You can't get much higher praise than that.
So instead, I turned to a five-star freshman that threw down this amazing triple slash: 3.4/3.8/0.3. Umm, and 17.8 minutes per game. Score! OK, so Jared Sullinger or Tristan Thompson he was not. But Young's limited playing time was for good reason. Last year, the Gators had a trio of excellent senior bigs, all 6'8"+, in Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus, and guard-forward hybrid Chandler Parsons. This year, they're all gone.
Enter Patric Young. Last year, he often looked confused on the court and exhibited a lack of experience. Yet he also displayed extreme athleticism and raw talent. He averaged just 0.8 blocks per game, but posted a team leading 5.2% block percentage. The question is: can he score? The answer is: with backcourt gunners Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker returning, along with transfer Mike Rosario and touted freshman Bradley Beal, Young may not have to. He can just camp in the paint amassing rebounds and blocks to be a valuable contributor. But IF he's developed into a scoring threat? Then that's one dynamic, high-octane, get buckets Gator team you're talking about.
Admittedly, I made my pick before news leaked that Festus Ezeli would be suspended for the first six games for improper benefits. (Dinner and a hotel room from a booster! Gasp! Let's lock him up!) That knocks him out for early season games against Oregon (which would have been a great test, with immediately eligible transfers Tony Woods and Olu Ashaolu) and the Legends Classic.
However, Ezeli will return for tilts against Xavier, Louisville and Marquette, giving the Commodores ample time to make a non-conference statement. In fact, expectations are sky-high at Vanderbilt. The Commodores return their entire starting lineup, including star scorer John Jenkins and glue guy swingman Jeffery Taylor. And these guys aren't just guys. They're good--good enough to contend for an SEC title. What's more, the roles of their starters are clearly defined, and Ezeli is the rock in the middle.
From his sophomore to junior campaigns, Ezeli doubled or tripled practically everything. His minutes played per game jumped from 12.7 to 23.5; points from 3.8 to 13.0; rebounds from 3.2 to 6.3. Defending the low post, Ezeli is a swatting machine. His block percentage of 10.6% was good enough for 16th in the nation. He's equally proficient in the offensive paint, hauling down 14.4% of available rebounds. And if that's not enough, Ezeli is close to being an offensive juggernaut. Despite the potent perimeter scoring, Ezeli was involved in 26.9% of his possessions, a heavy usage rating, and hit 58.8% of his shots. If there's one thing the big guy needs to improve, it's staying on the court. Too often he was plagued by foul trouble, limiting his considerable impact. Also, he probably shouldn't eat any free dinners, even if it's free pizza at the University Biology Association meeting. Can't be too careful, you know.
The KenPom Shocker Special: Andre Roberson, Colorado Buffaloes
Admittedly, I watched somewhere between zero and negative seventeen minutes of Colorado Buffaloes basketball last season (note: values are approximate). Not that they were unwatchable. Alec Burks ended up being a first round pick, and perimeter senior Cory Higgins, Marcus Relphorde and Levi Knutson also played well, and played significantly.
Due to the above factors, I had never heard of Andre Roberson until Ken Pomeroy heaped vast amounts of praise on Roberson as his "My Guy". He compares Roberson favorably to Darius Morris, a breakout star last year for Michigan. How does Ken love thee? Let us count the ways.
Incredible rebounder (15.1% offensive rebounding rate and a 25.5% defensive rebounding rate). Great defender (5.0% block rate and 3.5% steal rate). And an efficient scorer (64.0% scorer from 2-points, 61.5% effective field goal percentage) to boot.
Now Pomeroy does caveat that Roberson's strong efficiency rating may be a product of playing with equally efficient scorers. But Roberson did also play in a healthy 55.2% of available minutes, and with all four players mentioned above now gone, this mile high show becomes his. While his efficiency may drop, his usage should skyrocket. Consequently, those absolute per game numbers should look pretty robust come year-end. Remember where you heard it first (thanks, Mr. Pomeroy!).
The Bluegrass Pick: Darius Miller, Kentucky Wildcats
Another Calipari year at Kentucky, another hyped freshman class. But Calipari doesn't just develop the diaper dandies. DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson, and Patrick Patterson can all attest that the Cal can coach up returning lettermen just fine.
Well, I think it's Miller time. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer will get their playing time. But don't expect Miller to sit idly by. In the DDMO, Miller provides flexibility. While the 3 is his primary position, he can swivel to the 2 and even possibly the 4 against smaller opponents. At each position, he provides matchup nightmares for his defender.
And you know, he was pretty good last year to boot. Miller increased his 3-point shooting percentage from 33.6% as a sophomore to 44.3% as a junior. He's also a smart interior shooter and hits his free throws, giving him an excellent true shooting percentage of 60.2%. Oh, and did you know he contributes across the board? Check out where his totals rank on the team: 43 blocks (3rd), 32 steals (4th), 66 assists (3rd), and 51 offensive rebounds (3rd). I bet those ranks surprise you just a little bit.
Here's to senior Darius Miller ending his Kentucky career with a bang. He's got the skills, size, and talent to make it to the NBA. Now he just needs to prove he has the confidence and the production. Make it happen, Darius. We believe.