The Biggest X-Factor for Top College Basketball Teams in 2014-15 Season

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistAugust 21, 2014

The Biggest X-Factor for Top College Basketball Teams in 2014-15 Season

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    USA TODAY Sports

    A host of variables go into every college basketball team's performance over the course of a lengthy season. Any player's performance or mindset on any given night can radically change the course of an entire campaign. Subtle changes can turn a team from struggling bumblers to world-beaters virtually overnight. Right, Kentucky fans?

    These X-factors can take the form of a depth-chart move or improvements in a specific player's game, and they're hard to predict. They are, however, easy to note as factors to watch long before the season starts.

    For top teams like these 20, one key player or burning question can make the difference between a national championship and a quiet first-weekend NCAA exitor worse.

    These programs are the top 20 from the August 13 B/R Experts' Poll, so if your school isn't considered a "top" team here, take it up with Jason King, C.J. Moore or Kerry Miller. Or petition the editors to get me added to the poll as a voice of reason.

     

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20. Iowa: Aaron White

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    Aaron White has been a very good Big Ten player ever since he arrived at Iowa out of Strongsville, Ohio. What Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery needs him to be this season is a star.

    White has continually grown in importance to his team throughout his first three seasons, but last year was an oddity in his career. In a season that saw him average 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in establishing himself as capable support for top scorer Roy Devyn Marble, White actually took the fewest shots of his career.

    For some perspective, consider that sophomore combo guard Mike Gesell took 240 shots to White's 245 last season.

    White has no Marble to hide behind this year. Games like last December's 25-point, 17-rebound effort against Iowa State prove that he can take over on occasion. This year, he'll need to prove capable of doing something similar on any given night if Iowa is to get back to the NCAA tournament.

19. Michigan: Zak Irvin

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    In terms of college basketball experience, the 2014-15 Michigan Wolverines are a donut. By that, we mean that there's a lot of goodness on the outside but nothing in the middle.

    With very little proven post talent, UM needs all hands on deck from its talented group of perimeter returnees. Wing Caris LeVert and point guards Derrick Walton and Spike Albrecht have all proven capable of rising to the occasion, but sophomore shooting guard Zak Irvin may be the most important piece of all.

    Irvin's role as a freshman somewhat resembled predecessor Nik Stauskas' duties as a rookie. Both were frequently deployed as spot-up shooting specialists, although Stauskas at least showed some inclination to attack the rim. According to Hoop-Math.com, Stauskas attempted 55 shots at the rim during his rookie season, while Irvin took only 10 in his. Nearly 75 percent of Irvin's shots came from past the arc.

    As a sophomore, Stauskas displayed a much more versatile game, earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors and a first-round NBA draft selection for his efforts. Similar expectations for Irvin may be unreasonable, but the Wolverines will certainly be harder to defend if Irvin's showing off more than just his three-point stroke.

18. Kansas State: Stephen Hurt

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    Truthfully, two players could slot in here for Kansas State. Both shooting guard Justin Edwards and center Stephen Hurt are incoming transfers, joining a Big 12 program from lower-echelon schools. Considering that Edwards plays the same position as the Wildcats' leading scorer, Marcus Foster, however, his proving capable of competing at a higher level may be slightly less essential than Hurt's.

    Hurtpictured above battling Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein for a loose ballwon Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year honors at Lipscomb, and he may well have clinched the award before he ever played an A-Sun opponent. Hurt averaged 13.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in games against Ole Miss, Kentucky and Memphis.

    Remember, this was in late 2012, when the likes of Reginald Buckner, Murphy Holloway, Nerlens Noel, Cauley-Stein and Shaq Goodwin were charged with keeping Hurt off the glass in those three games.

    So, Hurt's shown he can occasionally battle against strong individual competition. Now his task is to prove that he can do it every night against players like Cliff Alexander, Cameron Ridley, Ryan Spangler and Rico Gathers.

    While K-State has some solid depth on this season's front line, Hurt can step to the front of the line if he backs up a statement he made to the school's athletic website.

    "I love crowds, they get me juiced," Hurt told Kelly McHugh of KStateSports.com. "I always play my best in front of big crowds, so it's going to be great." He'll see plenty of big crowds in Bramlage Coliseum and elsewhere around the Big 12.

17. Nebraska: Jake Hammond

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    Courtesy 247 Sports

    Is it concerning that Nebraska's most important variable is a 247Sports three-star prospect whose only other scholarship offer came from Texas Tech? It might be, depending on how you rate Jake Hammond's game.

    The 6'10", 230-pound Oklahoma native is a classic post player who enjoys battling on the glass and diving for the ones that get away, traits that will almost certainly and immediately endear him to the Nebrasketball faithful.

    Hammond was a redshirt candidate earlier in the summer, planning on a season spent living in the weight room to bulk up for Big Ten trench warfare. Then, senior Leslee Smith tore his ACL in July, costing the Huskers a valuable reserve who averaged 12.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per 40 minutes last season.

    Now, Hammond is the third post option behind junior Walter Pitchford and graduate transfer Moses Ayegba, who played a mere 10.7 minutes per gameand averaged 8.2 fouls per 40 minutesover three seasons at Georgetown. Redshirting Hammond now would be sheer lunacy.

    “We’ll still take it day by day. I have to work as hard as I can,” Hammond told Brian Rosenthal of the Lincoln Journal Star. “It’s kind of put a little bit more pressure on me, which is good. I feel like if I play this year, I’ll step up to the challenge, and we’ll be fine.”

    He may just have to.

16. SMU: Keith Frazier

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    The entire SMU basketball program took a punch to the gut when elite recruit Emmanuel Mudiay decided to skip college and sign a professional contract in China. But in all the hubbub over the prodigal McDonald's All-American, perhaps no one has been more neglected than SMU's first-ever All-American recruit, Texan guard Keith Frazier.

    Without Mudiay joining the team, Frazier has a much better chance to ascend to a starting role alongside steady point guard Nic Moore. But first, he needs to find a way to stop falling into coach Larry Brown's doghouse. Last season, Frazier had as many games of seven minutes or fewer as he had outings of 20-plus minutessix of each.

    No matter how few minutes he was granted, Frazier still shot 39.8 percent from three-point range last season, second on the team only to Moore. While the likes of Ryan Manuel, Sterling Brown and Xavier transfer Justin Martin are also contending for starting spots, Frazier's more consistent shooting should keep him on the courtif he stays.

    Remember, it wasn't that long ago that Bleacher Report's Jason King was hearing rumors about Frazier being disenchanted with his playing time. Another season of less than 15 minutes per game may be more bench time than a former All-American is willing to take.

15. Oklahoma: TaShawn Thomas and the NCAA

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    There are certain occasions in which time passes with agonizing slowness. Waiting in line at the DMV, sitting in a doctor's exam room and waiting for the NCAA to rule on a transfer's immediate eligibility have to top the list.

    Ex-Houston forward TaShawn Thomas chose to join the Oklahoma Sooners back in late May. It's now nearing late August, and no eligibility ruling appears imminent.

    Thomas was a potent force for the Cougars during his three seasons, starting all 96 games he played in and averaging 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks for his career. At Oklahoma, the 6'8", 240-pound senior would be a presence capable of taking pressure off Spangler, the team's leading rebounder.

    OU can certainly use some greater post depth to complement its supremely gifted backcourt. Immediate eligibility for Thomas would keep coach Lon Kruger from having to lean heavily on freshmen Khadeem Lattin and Jamuni McNeace.

    Without Thomas, the Sooners are still a very capable NCAA tournament team. With him, they're arguably a dark horse for the Big 12 title (although, to be honest, every school not named Kansas has to be considered a dark horse these days).

14. Gonzaga: Domantas Sabonis

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    Courtesy 247 Sports

    We spoke on the previous slide of Spangler, who started his career at Gonzaga before heading to Oklahoma. This season, Spangler's former team could certainly use some of his steel on the glass, as post depth is in even shorter supply in Spokane, Washington, than in Norman, Oklahoma.

    Lithuanian freshman Domantas Sabonis is hardly a bulldozer at 6'10" and 215 pounds, but he can still be an important interior piece for the Bulldogs. He competed against older, stronger professionals overseas, getting by on superb quickness and lengthy strides to cover ground in a hurry.

    The Zags' only current big men are center Przemek Karnowski, stretch power forward Kyle Wiltjer and seldom-used sophomore Ryan Edwards. There will be times when Sabonis will be allowed to show his wildly divergent skill set on the perimeter and in the open court, but he'll also need to pay his dues as a rebounder and interior scorer to take heat off Karnowski.

    A team with Gonzaga's array of perimeter talentKevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Byron Wesley should all be All-West Coast Conference performerswill have nights when the jumpers aren't falling, so rebounding will be key. A young stud who's spent his teenage years dueling with grown men in European pro leagues will be much more able to step in and compete than the typical freshman, especially in the WCC.

13. Iowa State: Monte Morris

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    Every year, Iowa State sends players off to whatever career awaits them, and their replacements frequently come from other Division I institutions. At least, the transfers are usually more scrutinized than the freshmen. But the 2014-15 Cyclones will take important cues from a player who did actually commit to ISU out of high school.

    Point guard Monte Morris spent his freshman year in the shadow of Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane, but he posted some very solid games of his own in the process. Over the month of February, Morris posted averages of 6.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists in his first eight collegiate starts.

    Preseason excitement over the Cyclones backcourt has mostly swirled around another transferring combo guard, that being ex-USC and UNLV player Bryce Dejean-Jones. Dejean-Jones, however, has made his name much more effectively as a scorer than a distributor.

    If Morris is free to run the offense, he'll make it much easier for not only Dejean-Jones but potential All-American Georges Niang to get their buckets.

12. Villanova: Competition Level

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    A highly promising season came to a screeching halt when Villanova was bounced in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and the third round of the NCAA tournament, despite being the top seed in the former and a No. 2 in the latter.

    Only six of the Wildcats' 16 Big East wins came by seven points or fewer, demonstrating just how far ahead of its competition VU ranCreighton notwithstanding, of course.

    This season, however, Creighton has lost a great deal of production, both from Doug McDermott and others. Providence must replace the explosive scoring of Bryce Cotton. Xavier lost star guard Semaj Christon and veteran forwards Isaiah Philmore and Justin Martin.

    Xavier and Georgetown can still be Nova's top competition this year, but both need their talented freshman classes to hit the ground running. Villanova will still be led by veterans Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, among others. No one in the league has a substantial advantage over Nova in talent or experience.

    It all adds up to a Big East run that could be even more dominant than last year's. Coach Jay Wright must keep his charges from complacency, reminding them how last season's crash and burn felt lest they repeat it.

11. Texas: Can Anyone Shoot Straight?

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    As a team, the Texas Longhorns shot a sickly 43.2 percent from the floor last season. That ranked 228th in the nation, according to Sports-Reference.com.

    Ken Pomeroy's advanced figures were even uglier. The Horns could only manage a 47.4 effective field-goal percentage, which ranked 262nd nationally. In conference play, Texas slumped to a 46.5 eFG%, ninth in the Big 12. Only the 0-18 TCU Horned Frogs shot worse in Big 12 action.

    As has been frequently discussed, Texas brings back every player from last year's crew. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on how much you like the players UT had last season.

    Shooting guard Javan Felix (pictured) and reserves Connor Lammert and Martez Walker were the only players to make more than 33.3 percent from deep on more than 20 attempts last season. Elite recruit Myles Turner is known for impressive shooting range, but he's only one man, who may see a mere 20 minutes per game. The other 180 combined minutes have to be given to players who can sink their shots.

    In adding Turner to returning bigs Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes, Prince Ibeh and Lammert, coach Rick Barnes appears ready to double down on last year's rebounds-and-blocks recipe for success. Still, that setup couldn't get the Horns past the NCAA tournament's first weekend, falling to a Michigan team capable of heating up from long range.

    Good perimeter teams will once again victimize Texas unless Barnes' squad can become more consistent in shooting the rock itself. Another team that brings slingshots to a gun fight won't get much farther than last year's.

10. Louisville: Montrezl Harrell's Post Support

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    Getting forward Montrezl Harrell back for his junior season was a welcome, albeit surprising, development for Louisville basketball. Now, coach Rick Pitino must find his star some help inside, something that was frequently lacking last season.

    Redshirt sophomore Mangok Mathiang and true soph Akoy Agau join three freshmen in the post for the Cardinals, and someone has to seize a sizable chunk of the available minutes.

    To the returnees' credit, Pitino claims they've been putting in the work.

    “The two biggest improvements on the team without question are Akoy Agau and Mangok Mathiang," Pitino said, according to Inside the Ville's Mike Hughes. "Akoy is a different person physically, emotionally, mentally. That’s a great thing for us because we need that position desperately. Mangok has gotten much bigger physically. He’s almost muscle-bound right now. He is cut. Those two guys really stick out."

    The Cardinals may only go as far as Harrell can carry them in their debut ACC season. He's a genuine Naismith Award candidate, but not if he's facing triple-teams every night. 

    Agau and/or Mathiang don't need to be All-ACC selectionsyetbut they must be able to keep defenses honest.

9. Virginia: Justin Anderson

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    Virginia must replace fan-favorites Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris if it is to duplicate last season's dual ACC championships. While Mitchell's workload on defense and the glass will fall to the likes of Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and perhaps freshman Isaiah Wilkins, it's not quite clear who can replace Harris as an offensive threat.

    First dibs likely go to junior Justin Anderson, who's spent two seasons as a super-sub and established himself as one of the most explosive athletes in the ACC.

    Anderson tried to establish himself as an outside shooter last season, taking 102 of his 236 shots from behind the arc. The problem was that those shots often refused to fall. He sank only 30, good for a 29.4 success rate.

    The Cavaliers return only two shooters who hit threes at a clip better than 33.3 percent last season, those being starting guards London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon. If Anderson can prove himself as a shooter and force defenders to play up, it can only aid his highlight-factory slashing game, something that last season's leading scorer Brogdon lacks.

    While the story in Charlottesville is always the defense, the offense sorely needs a complementary threat to take pressure off Brogdon. If Anderson can marry his inside and outside games, he can easily join Brogdon on a host of All-ACC ballots.

8. Wichita State: Who's in the Paint?

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    There are about a half dozen candidates for post minutes on the Wichita State roster this season. Only onesenior Darius Carter (pictured)has played a single minute of Division I basketball.

    While All-American forward Cleanthony Early will be hard to replace, coach Gregg Marshall's biggest difficulty may lie in filling the minutes left by graduated bigs Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby. Those two, plus Carter, constituted a dangerous rotation that allowed Early to pursue his shots wherever he needed.

    Carter, who averaged 7.9 points (fifth on the team) and 4.5 rebounds (third) last season, is certainly penciled into a starting role. Beyond him, though, two junior college transfers, two true freshmen and a redshirt frosh will fight for minutes.

    JUCO center Bush Wamukota (7'0", 230) and redshirt Shaq Morris (6'8", 262) provide the most size, while 6'10" Estonian Rauno Nurger could replace Early's perimeter touch. Tevin Glass, a 6'8" forward from Northwest Florida JC, is a capable low-post scorer but needs weight room time to add bulk to his 206-pound frame.

    It may take a village to fill the available minutes, but expect Marshall to find ways to maximize each player's strengths. If he can't, then the elitists waiting for the Wichita State hype to quiet down could finally have their way.

7. Florida: Chris Walker

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    With Kentucky's front line becoming absolutely enormous this season, the rest of the SEC has to bulk up or get flattened. Last season's kingpins, the Florida Gators, are no exception as they try to replace four key seniors.

    Forward Chris Walker was left behind during an NCAA-imposed enrollment delay that kept him off the university's rolls until December. By then, the skinny, 6'10" athlete, who barely broke 200 pounds when he first set foot on the practice court, was totally unequipped to handle battles with SEC big men.

    This season, he has to be. Florida beat writer Kevin Brockway of The Gainesville Sun reports that Walker has bulked up to a legitimate 220 pounds with room to grow further. As long as Walker doesn't sacrifice the athleticism and quickness that made him a 247 Sports top-10 prospect in the first place, that added bulk will be invaluable to Florida's efforts at capturing a fifth straight Elite Eight berth

    The arrival of 250-pound graduate transfer Jon Horford from Michigan means that Walker will likely get to play the power forward role rather than be stuck at center.

    That may not seem like a huge distinction, but which group of players would you rather face: LSU's Elbert Robinson, Kentucky's Dakari Johnson and Vanderbilt's Damian Jones (average weight 265 pounds) or Jordan Mickey, Karl-Anthony Towns and James Siakam (average 223 pounds)?

    Walker will be much more able to hold his ground against forwards than centers, and his production will be essential to a Gator team that won't be as able to simply let him watch from the bench.

6. Duke: The Freshman Class

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    Jahlil Okafor
    Jahlil OkaforAssociated Press

    Duke basketball has frequently relied on veterans to lead its greatest teams. More recent one-and-done stars like Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker have led squads that flamed out once the NCAA tournament arrived.

    So, what to make of this year's Blue Devil team, which could start three freshmen, two of whom could be potential 2015 NBA draft picks themselves?

    Center Jahlil Okafor's low-post scoring ability, point guard Tyus Jones' efficient handling of offenses and wing Justise Winslow's defensive prowess are the primary causes of excitement for Duke fans heading into the 2014-15 campaign. If any of the three struggle to live up to the hype, where does that leave the Blue Devils in the national picture?

    Jones has a dogfight on his hands with senior guard Quinn Cook for a starting role, despite Cook's longstanding habit of seeking his own shot rather than running the offense. Ditto Winslow, who may be the odd man out if coach Mike Krzyzewski elects to deploy Jones, Cook and junior Rasheed Sulaimon in a three-guard attack. The Devils have the perimeter depth to survive if those two need time to adjust.

    Okafor, on the other hand, is essential to the cause. If he struggles, Coach K is left to turn to junior Amile Jeffersonwho is certainly no centeror redshirt junior Marshall Plumlee, who has shown only brief flashes of potential during his two active seasons.

    The Blue Devils have the top-ranked recruiting class on the 247Sports composite list, but if the Big Three can't perform on the level expected of them, Final Four aspirations may be little more than that, just as they were with Rivers and Parker.

5. North Carolina: Brice Johnson's Foul Trouble

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