Every Top-25 NCAA Basketball Team’s Most Likely Breakout Star
Every Top 25 NCAA Basketball Team's Most Likely Breakout Star
With March fast approaching, plenty of college basketball teams are jockeying for position in the Big Dance. Some teams know they're in and are trying to improve their seed, while others are just trying to get off the bubble. Whatever the case may be, each team will need players to step up down the stretch and then well into March if they want a shot at a national championship.
Teams in the AP Top 25 are especially in need of production from multiple members of their teams. Having a star is great, but the "second star" and role players are the guys that can make a difference in March. Every year, there are a couple of teams and a couple of players that nobody sees coming. Part of the excitement of March Madness is in the unpredictability; for a couple of days, any team and any player believe that they can compete with the best. That belief often leads to Cinderella stories and unlikely results from even more unlikely players.
In a season like this one where there are so many second-tier teams, it's even more essential for these programs to finish the season on a high note. After all, that's what gets you into the tournament and builds momentum once you're there. Undefeated teams like Syracuse and Wichita State seem destined for glory come March, but there are other teams like Arizona and Duke just waiting in the wings.
Somehow, teams like San Diego State and Creighton have managed to fly under the radar for the most part. When March rolls around, they won't be flying under the radar anymore. The same goes for the complimentary players on powerhouse teams. When the lights are on and every game is a win-or-go-home contest, everybody's performance is magnified. That pressure alone will help produce breakout stars on most teams.
As the season heads into its final month, players are going to have to step up all over the country. Here is one player on each team in the AP Top 25 that will be breakout stars down the stretch and come tournament time.
25. Gonzaga: Sam Dower
Dower is a big body that can finish inside with the best of them. He’s the perfect compliment to the very talented Kevin Pangos. Their inside-outside game could be big come tournament time as most teams don’t have players this talented in both the frontcourt and backcourt. Look for Dower to be efficient and play with an edge; this is his senior season, and he’s not going down without a fight.
24. Ohio State: Amir Williams
Williams isn't flashy and he’s not going to score a whole lot of points, but he provides something that is essential in March: size. At 6-foot-11, Williams will clean up the glass with the best of them and he’s also going to keep guys from the paint. He averages almost two blocks per game because he’s tall and long, and can make plays. If a game in the tournament comes down to getting one defensive stop, which it often does, look for Williams to be a difference-maker for the Buckeyes.
23. UCLA: Kyle Anderson
This sophomore isn't exactly an unknown talent in college by now. At 6-foot-9, his combination of size and athleticism makes him really dangerous. He averages just over 15 PPG while grabbing almost nine RPG as well. Anderson is the type of player that can take over games in the tournament and if he does, teams better beware of the UCLA Bruins.
22. Memphis: Shaq Goodwin
Goodwin is a man in every sense of the word, and his presence alone makes him a player to look out for. He’s 6-foot-9 and 242 pounds, which doesn't seem fun to step in front of when he's running down the lane. He is a presence inside and shoots over 60 percent from the field. If teams can’t keep him out of the paint, they’re going to run into trouble.
21. Connecticut: Ryan Boatright
He used to be somewhat of a go-to guy at UCONN until Shabazz Napier burst onto the scene, but he is still a key contributor for the Huskies. He’s averaging over 12 PPG and he plays a relatively error-free brand of basketball. Should Napier struggle, Boatright is going to be the guy to pick up the slack in March.
20. Michigan: Mitch McGary
After a great freshman season a year ago, especially in the tournament, McGary has been disappointing this year. He’s still rebounding the basketball at a relatively high clip, but he hasn't been the scoring presence that he showed he could be a year ago. Injuries have slowed him down, but his experience playing in big games last year will help him and the Wolverines in March in a season where he’s flown under the radar.
19. Texas: Cameron Ridley
An undersized center, Ridley makes up for his 6-foot-9 height with his 285-pound body. He pummels guys inside and fights for rebounds to give his team second-chance opportunities. In March, when every possession matters, those second chances could end up being huge. Ridley could even be converting those second chances himself as he can score at the rim as well.
18. Kentucky: Willie Cauley-Stein
While he’s a role player on a very good Kentucky team, Cauley-Stein is about as athletic a 7-footer as you'll see. He does play about 25 minutes per game and usually tries to either go inside or kick the ball to shooters outside. He’s effective at what he does and he’s capable of more. This is the type of guy who can go off in a tournament game when everyone least expects it.
17. Iowa State: DeAndre Kane
Iowa State has some of the best scorers in the country, and all of them are capable of going off at any time. Everyone is well aware of Melvin Ejim’s historic 48-point outing a couple of weeks ago, but the Cyclones have someone even more capable of leading the team in the tournament. Kane is the senior leader of this team, and his leadership and talent could push this team a long way in the tournament.
16. Wisconsin: Frank Kaminsky
For the first time in a while, the Badgers have some superstar-caliber talent to go along with their solid role players. One of those role players is Kaminsky, who fits the Wisconsin mold as a big man who can shoot from outside. Kaminsky attempts more than two 3-pointers per game and stretches the floor with his ability to score inside and out. In any given game, if he’s feeling it, he better be getting the rock.
15. Iowa: Aaron White
White is a prototypical big man that can go inside and get rebounds as well as score in the paint. He’s not a prolific scorer, but he will get his. His offensive output is often dictated by the tempo of the game. If the Hawkeyes are playing more in a halfcourt set, then White is primed for a solid game. The pressure in March often dictates that teams play more half-court offense than usual, which could turn White into an unexpected difference-maker in the tournament.
14. Virginia: Malcolm Brogdon
The Virginia Cavaliers have been one of the most surprising teams of the year and that’s thanks in large part to Brogdon. He’s only a sophomore and he’s probably the team’s most well-rounded player. He can pass, rebound and score. Someone like that who can facilitate on offense in the half-court is valuable in the tournament.
13. Michigan State: Adreian Payne
Before getting injured, Payne was having a great season. He can clearly bounce back from that and provide the Spartans with a much-needed boost come tournament time. His unusual ability to shoot threes as a 6-foot-10 big man is a major advantage as it also helps with his ability to drive since defenders have to stay honest on the outside shot. As long as he can stay healthy going into March, he could be a major playmaker on one of the country’s most complete teams.
12. Creighton: Ethan Wragge
Everyone knows about Creighton star Doug McDermott, but nobody seems to know much about his sidekick. Wragge is a senior forward that scores 11 PPG and perfectly compliments McDermott’s insane scoring output. Even with his size, he’s somewhat of a 3-point specialist as he averages a little less than seven attempts per game and makes them at a 48 percent clip. Hot shooting like that grouped with McDermott’s ability to put the ball in the bucket make the Bluejays a scary team come tournament time.
11. Louisville: Montrezl Harrell
Louisville has been up and down this year, but Harrell has been as steady as they come in his sophomore season. He contributes in multiple ways as he scores almost 13 PPG and grabs over eight boards per contest as well. His multi-faceted game makes him dangerous, especially when teams lock in on guys like Russ Smith and forget about him down low.
10. Saint Louis: Jordair Jett
Not only does Jett have one of the coolest names in all of college basketball, but he also plays a key role on one of its best programs as well. He’s as athletic a guard as you’ll find, and that’s what makes him such a good all-around player. He scores over 13 points per game while grabbing over four boards and averaging almost five assists per game as well. If Saint Louis makes noise in the tournament, it will be in large part because of no. 5.
9. Villanova: JayVaughn Pinkston
This junior can hurt people inside, but has also developed a decent mid-range game. He shoots over 52 percent from the field and is an efficient scorer. Villanova has shown flashes of both good and bad this season, and the type of performance that they get form Pinkston down the stretch could go a long way towards determining the outcome of the Wildcats’ season.
8. Kansas: Joel Embiid
It’s crazy how players who first picked up a basketball a few years ago can develop into projected lottery picks in the NBA draft, but that’s exactly what Embiid has done. The 7-footer from Cameroon has caught the attention of the nation by being a premiere presence down low. He averages double-digit points and almost eight rebounds per game. On top of that, he averages 2.5 blocks per game. Don't expect a lot of points in the paint for the Jayhawks' opponents come tournament time.
7. Cincinnati: Justin Jackson
Yet another athletic forward, Jackson can score and rebound consistently. He’s 6-foot-8 and the senior vocal leader of a somewhat surprising Cincinnati team. Rallying behind his inspiring play, the Bearcats know that the sky's the limit for them in March.
6. San Diego State: Xavier Thames
To this point in the season, San Diego State has managed to fly under the radar. Now they're the no. 6-ranked team in the country and can’t exactly avoid the spotlight. As it stands right now, they would likely be a two-seed in the tournament and with that seeding comes big expectations. The Aztecs are lead by Thames, a senior guard. He carries the scoring load for them, pouring in over 17 points per game. He may need to go above and beyond in the tournament in order to prove that his team is for real.
5. Duke: Rodney Hood
With the arrival of Jabari Parker, Hood hasn't had as much notoriety this season. He’s still likely the second-best player on the team behind Parker and he’s played like it this year. He could stand to improve his rebounding skills before tournament time, but for now, the Blue Devils will gladly take the 16.2 PPG he’s giving them.
4. Arizona: Aaron Gordon
Gordon was supposed to be a freshman phenom this year and he’s lived up to the billing so far. He’s a big body and he can score and clean up the glass with the best that the Pac-12 has to offer. He shoots quite a bit, but he also plays over 31 minutes per game, so it’s to be expected. If he can improve his game in the post before tournament time, then the Wildcats have as good a chance as anybody to win a national championship.
3. Wichita State: Fred VanVleet
After the Shockers went on an unlikely Final Four run last season, few probably expected them to be in the position they are now. They haven’t lost since falling in the Final Four as they've started this season 27-0. Sophomore guard VanVleet has been a big part of that as he dishes the ball well and scores when he needs to. He doesn't shoot a ton for a guard, but his role as a facilitator is defined and he’s very good at it. VanVleet will try to pick apart opposing defenses in March.
2. Florida: Chris Walker
He was suspended for a good majority of the season, but Walker has now he’s gotten some experience under his belt. To this point, he hasn't gotten a whole lot of playing time, but coach Billy Donovan could ramp that up as the tournament approaches. There are plenty of solid role players already on the Gators, so there’s a chance that Donovan could decide not to slide Walker into a big part of the rotation. However, he’s a five-star talent for a reason and if he gets to play in March, he could be a big difference-maker.
1. Syracuse: Trevor Cooney
Playing for the undefeated Syracuse Orange, Cooney is a pure shooter. He is a 3-point specialist that can turn close games into blowouts in the blink of an eye. He shoots 45 percent from three and if he gets hot in any game, there’s almost no way to beat Syracuse. With their suffocating zone and other players like C.J. Fair, hot shooting games for Cooney almost automatically mean a victory for the Orangemen.