10 college basketball players to watch this season
Ready or not, college basketball is on the horizon. Most fans, even basketball diehards, barely pay attention until nearly Thanksgiving. But this season, there are plenty of good reasons to turn your eyes away from football (even briefly) to check out some early-season hoops.
After all, we’re coming off one of the most exciting NCAA Tournaments ever, though that is true every year, it seems. This season, there is no FBI scandal hovering over the sport, Rick Pitino has ridden (not so quietly) into the sunset, and the NCAA has once again tweaked a few rules to make things smoother. Not to mention, there are exciting crops of players both returning to campuses and joining the college ranks as freshman. Let’s dig into ten of the biggest names with our players to watch this season.
10. Phil Booth, Villanova
Four Wildcats were drafted by NBA teams in June, leaving Booth as the only remaining Villanova player on the roster who has two championship rings. Last year was his first season averaging double-figure scoring, but he’s always been ready when given opportunities. Booth has three career 20-plus point games, including the 2016 National Championship Game. He’ll turn 23 years old in December, with 112 college games already under his belt. Booth will be among the most seasoned players in all of college basketball this season, and one of the country’s best perimeter defenders. For Villanova to continue its run of recent success, Booth needs to carry the torch once held by Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson.
9. Nick Ward, Michigan State
Last year’s Spartans suffered from a unique problem. Tom Izzo’s three best players were all best suited playing in or around the paint. Now though, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson are on NBA rosters. Ward returns to be the focal point of Tom Izzo’s offense. The burly big man will demand double teams all season long, while dominating the glass. He snagged offensive rebounds at the highest rate in all of college basketball. If he can reach a level of conditioning that allows him to play for longer stretches and stays out of foul trouble, Ward will be one of the most productive players in the nation. He has shown the footwork and touch to score consistently on post-ups and drew fouls at the fourth-highest rate in the nation. He’ll make a living at the free throw line and likely earn his way into the conversation for Big Ten Player of the Year.
8. Ky Bowman, Boston College
In his two years at BC, Bowman has been the brightest spot for a program desperate for positive change. Last season, the guard averaged over 17 points per game versus a tough ACC schedule. Bowman saw an uptick in scoring his sophomore season, despite shooting nearly 10 points worse from long range. If he can shoot more like he did in his freshman season, Bowman could be one of America’s deadliest scorers. With his former backcourt mate Jerome Robinson in the NBA, Bowman will be looked to for more of the offensive output. As a junior, he could earn All-ACC honors and BC’s first bid to the Big Dance since 2009.
7. Clayton Custer, Loyola Chicago
The Cinderella story of last March will return to college basketball this season. Custer, last season’s Missouri Valley Player of the Year, is back with two of his fellow starters from last year’s Ramblers. He led Loyola by surgically operating coach Porter Moser’s motion offense. Custer’s basketball IQ and knack for getting the ball where it needed to be made the Rambler offense hum efficiently all season. He returns with even more experience, the mojo of a Final Four run, and a chance to increase his offensive productivity. Last season, he was far and away the most efficient scorer in the MVC, pacing the conference in true shooting and effective field goal percentages. With more responsibility on his shoulders this year, Custer will shoot and create with more volume.
6. Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Any list of potential Player of the Year candidates is sure to feature Edwards. Fresh off the only 30-win season in school history, the Boilermakers lost several key rotation players. Dakota Mathias, Isaac Haas, and Vincent Edwards are gone, leaving much of the scoring and creating duties to Edwards. The shoot-first point guard showed himself capable last season. Edwards poured in 18.5 points per contest last season, shooting 32 percent of Purdue’s field goals when he was on the floor. Both of those numbers figure to increase this season.
With every opportunity to run the show, Edwards will be one of the most productive guards in the nation. He notched 30 points just once, in Purdue’s final game, a tournament loss to Texas Tech. Edwards can score enough to win any game for the Boilers, including a few in March.
5. Killian Tillie, Gonzaga
The Zags looked destined for a run deep into March when the brackets were unveiled, yet exited the tournament seemingly with barely a whimper. Mark Few and company were bounced by Florida State, by 15 points, in one of the tourney’s most forgettable games. The Zags’ Final Four chances evaporated away seemingly before tip-off, when Killian Tillie was ruled out with an injury. The former volleyball-playing Frenchman did everything for Gonzaga and figures to pick up where he left off last season. Tillie averaged 1.0 blocks per game while also shooting 48 percent from 3-point land. He won’t lead Gonzaga in scoring, or even likely be top three on his team in that category, but Tillie will be the engine that makes the Zags go.
Rui Hachimura will attract looks from NBA scouts. Josh Perkins will operate the offense. Zach Norvell will flash in his second year as a scoring wing. But as we saw in last year’s tournament, things crumble without Tillie’s contributions. He quietly commands the paint, makes open shots when he needs to, and flies around the court making hustle plays.
4. Mike Daum, South Dakota State
I’ve spent the last three years trying to get the casual basketball fans in the world to learn about and embrace Mike Daum. After all, for the last three seasons, he’s been absolutely dominant. Daum is a 6-foot-9, 245 pound scoring machine, hitting shots from every inch of the court. In the first three years of his career, Daum has averaged 21.5 points and 8.1 rebounds, with 43 percent shooting from outside the arc. His play hasn’t attracted much national media attention yet, but not for lack of trying. In three years as a Jackrabbit, Daum has 24 games of 30 or more points, including a 51 point, 15 rebound outburst last season.
Daum did, however, attract the attention of major conference programs across the nation. Coaches, like Nebraska’s Tim Miles, hoped Daum would choose to graduate early, transfer to a big program, and make a run for NCAA Tournament glory. Daum passed, choosing to head back to a South Dakota State team that made the Big Dance last year and returns three other starters. They may not be televised often, but keep an eye on the Jackrabbits when you can this season. Daum is poised to have a special season.
3. Luke Maye, UNC
Two years ago, as a slow-moving former walk-on, Luke Maye improbably swished a buzzer-beater to lead the Tar Heels to a tournament victory over Kentucky. That came towards the end of a season in which Maye averaged 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds. Then last season, Maye transformed into an absolute star. He averaged a double-double, posting 16.9 points and 10.1 boards per game. Maye shot 43 percent from outside the arc and looked like an entirely new person all season long. Now he’s a senior with a chance to make another leap. If he can produce at an even higher level, he’ll dominate, even against the Heels’ tough ACC slate.
2. De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
Everyone in America with a cable subscription or internet access is well aware of what happened the last time the Virginia men’s basketball team took the court. Not only did Tony Bennett’s team become the first top seed to lose in the first round, but they were routed and embarrassed. What you may have forgotten in the months since that game, is that Virginia was without the services of its most athletic and arguably most talented player. Hunter suffered an injury just before tournament play, forcing him to watch from the sidelines as his team was historically upset. When Hunter did play last year, he provided an electricity on the court rarely seen for Virginia. The freshman led the Hoos in usage rate and free throw rate, as he aggressively attacked both the paint and the rim.
If Virginia’s loss taught us anything, we saw that players like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are severely flawed when their shots from outside aren’t falling. Hunter gives Virginia a different way to attack and should be an even bigger factor this year.
1. The Duke Freshmen
It’s unfair to clump three of the sports brightest stars into one entry, but it would be malpractice to ignore any of Coach K’s new trio. The Blue Devils made headlines by attracting the top three recruits in the nation according to nearly every scouting service out there. Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett, and Zion Williamson may be the most buzzed about freshman class since the Fab Five.
Each brings something unique to campus. Williamson is the household name in the group, famous for his rim rocking dunks. Weighing nearly 300 pounds, yet soaring through the air, Williamson’s game looks like Charles Barkley with trampolines for shoes. Your average college basketball team will have absolutely no idea how to cover Williamson.
Reddish is a lanky 6-foot-8 forward with a knack for creating for others in addition to piling up his own points. Barrett is a Canadian import and surely the most skilled of the three, featuring a silky smooth jump shot.
Early season college basketball can be ugly at times and feature blowouts. Fear not, Duke’s freshman class will give you plenty of reasons to tune in this fall.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.