The 2012-2013 college basketball season has opened with a bang. Several competitive matchups highlight the returning strength of college basketball in spite of the massive wave of defections following the 2012 NBA Draft. With much of the headline talent from a year ago opting to play professional basketball, other players need to step in and fill the void left by their peers. The following is a list of the projected breakout players for the major conferences.
Alex Len, Maryland- The departure of high volume scorer Terrell Stoglin should be a blessing in disguise for 7-foot returning big man Alex Len. He has added weight in the offseason and appears to be more physically imposing in 2012-2013. Much unlike McAdoo, Len was efficient in his first season of play, posting a 55.3% eFG%, despite not being a focal point of Maryland's attack. He was also a very good defensive rebounder during his time on the floor, posting a 20.0 Defensive Rebounding %. (which would have been top 10 in the ACC) While it is known that Len can run the floor and score utilizing his solid length and athleticism, he must assert himself in the halfcourt. He must improve his go-to post move and counter and really use his size to obtain favorable position on the floor. While it was difficult for him to hold post position due to his weaker lower body strength, he may be able to assert himself more often this year. Len also has potential as a shot blocker, and should become one of the more difficult players to guard in the ACC. In order to actualize his potential, however, he must stay on the floor. His 4.6 fouls committed per 40 minutes is not going to help his cause. He must become smarter on the defensive end so that he can impose his will offensively. All in all, I expect him to have a tremendous year and to help Maryland surprise a few people.
CJ Fair, Syracuse- Fellow Big East wing CJ Fair served as an important complimentary player for Syracuse's deep squad a year ago. He was aggressive attacking the basket and as a result, got to the line frequently relative to his field goal attempts. In his time at Syracuse, Fair has done most of his damage off of the ball, either from cleaning up offensive rebounds or by cutting hard to the rim. While his handle is decent enough to allow him to maneuver to the hoop, he is not an efficient pull up jump shooter and instead likes to go all the way to the rim. CJ Fair would have to play the Small Forward position in the NBA, and thus would be best served improving both his midrange pullup jump shot as well as his 3 point shooting ability. Last year, he connected on a paltry 25.0% of his attempts from behind the arc. Because he is taking on a bigger role in Syracuse's offense this year, he will be expected to diversify his game and look to score from the wing. I expect him to enjoy some success in this area, although he may be overplayed due to his poor outside shooting. Fair is dynamic on the offensive glass and posted the 22nd best Offensive Rebounding %, despite playing alongside Fab Melo and other big bodies. Defensively, Fair is aggressive and utilizes his length to poke the ball away, stepping in passing lanes and demonstrating good awareness.
Talib Zanna, Pittsburgh- Zanna is poised for a breakout year after making significant strides each of his last two seasons. This developing big man has the athleticism to finish inside amongst the trees and the aggression and awareness to grab rebounds against virtually any squad at this level of play. Zanna is extremely strong and has the upper and lower body to assert himself on the block, despite his lack of an extensive post repertoire. Zanna functions predominantly as a faceup player at this stage and has a developing mid range game. He can finish attacking the basket, and has the quickness to score past opposing forwards. Zanna was remarkably efficient last season, posting the 4th best Offensive Rating in the Big East. He typically scored at the rim and finished dunk attempts out in transition, but did show that he can occasionally step out and hit jumpers. I expect him to assert himself more in this regard in 2012-2013. Zanna was also difficult to contain on the glass, posting the 4th best Offensive Rebounding % and the 5th best Defensive Rebounding % in the Big East. He is strong with the ball in his hands and rarely turns it over. On the defensive end, Zanna plays solid fundamental post defense and works to chest his man out of the paint. With increased playing time, I expect him to be more of a factor blocking shots this season than he had been in the past. Overall, look for Zanna to have a breakout year and for Pittsburgh to reestablish themselves nationally as a contender.
Rodney Williams, Minnesota- After a magnificent performance in the NIT, I expect Rodney Williams to establish himself as one of the more prolific, athletic wings in college basketball this season. While he has looked timid in the past and not really asserted himself against top competition, I fully expect Rodney Williams to be as aggressive as ever this year. Williams is as explosive of a run-jump athlete as you are going to find at the college basketball level. He finishes strong around the rim and is physical getting to the basket. As a result, he scores efficiently and was the 17th best in the Big Ten in terms of Offensive Rating a year ago. He ranked 5th in the Big Ten in terms of his 59.0% eFG% due to his penchant for scoring inside. Aside from demonstrating a renewed aggression attacking the rim, Williams must also show that he is capable of keeping defenses honest both from the mid range and from beyond the arc. His perimeter shooting stroke leaves a lot to be desired, particularly his 30.9% 3 point %. But, he was able to shoot more efficiently from the mid range in the NIT and used this to supplement his rim-attack game. I expect this to continue this season, and hopefully he has improved his shooting touch enough to really move up the NBA draft boards. On the defensive end, Williams is not an elite defender, but has the physical tools to develop into one down the road. He combines great length and athleticism with solid footspeed. Last season he was able to use his tools to collect 2.0 steals and tally 1.0 blocks per game. Overall, I believe that Minnesota will surprise people this season and that Williams is a lock for the first round in next year's draft (barring a return to his old tendencies).
Trent Lockett, Marquette- Lockett transferred from Arizona St. and will likely take some time to adjust to Buzz Williams' system. With that said, Lockett is one of the more prolific slashing guards and has the athleticism to thrive against top level competition. Lockett is very efficient getting to the rim, and is strong enough to finish through contact. He does a nice job of hanging in the air and has the explosive run-jump athleticism to finish over bigger players. As a result of his superior quickness off the dribble and athleticism finishing at the rim, he posted a 53.4% eFG% in 2010-2011. He also got to the line very often, resulting in 5.0 fouls drawn per 40 minutes. (11th best in the Pac-10 at the time) He also was capable hitting shots off the dribble, but must look to extend his range if he hopes to play at the next level. He shot a paltry 32.3% from beyond the arc two seasons ago, and must improve on this percentage this season. Lockett is capable shooting the basketball though, as evinced by his near 70% free throw percentage. In terms of his ability on the glass, Lockett was one of the better rebounding guards, finishing in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive rebounding %. Lockett is also an underrated passer and really orchestrated the Arizona St. offense during his time there. One concern is that Lockett must learn to play off the ball effectively, as Buzz Williams relies heavily on Junior Cadougan to distribute and run team sets. If he can learn to function without the ball in his hands, Lockett will thrive in Marquette's system. Defensively, Lockett has excellent lateral quickness and the hands to steal the ball. Overall, I expect Lockett to be one of the more surprising transfers in the country and to make an immediate impact.
Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky- While Wiltjer took a backseat to some of the extraordinary freshmen UK used to earn a national title, he did have an efficient first season offensively. Wiltjer thrives as a shooter, and posted a 54.6% eFG% despite rarely driving to the basket. Wiltjer was prolific from behind the arc, connecting on 43.2% of his attempts and making his impact felt at crucial moments. He also was effective from the free throw line as most good shooters are, hitting 81.5% of his attempts. Wiltjer is also fairly unselfish, but was not able to really demonstrate this facet of his game playing behind more experienced weapons in the frontcourt. Despite these notable strengths, Wiltjer must do a better job rebounding the ball if he hopes to become a faceup 4 at the next level. He must assert himself on the glass with Noel gambling to block shots fairly frequently. Otherwise, UK will struggle on the defensive glass. Wiltjer is also a poor defender and must improve his footspeed so that he can stick with power forwards at the college level. This will likely always be a weakness, but he can work to minimize it by playing intelligently on this end. Wiltjer will likely start this season, and I expect his offensive output to increase considerably, as his strengths and weaknesses will be in clear view this year.
Travis Taylor, Xavier- Taylor was a backup a season ago and did not contribute much in terms of his overall production. However, with the mass exodus that Xavier experienced in the offseason, Taylor may very well be a go-to guy in 2012-2013. In terms of his game, Taylor is an undersized energy post player with a quick leaping ability and the faceup game to attack the basket with reckless abandon. In his limited minutes at Xavier last year, Taylor was not noticeably efficient, posting a very poor 44.9% eFG%. This was largely due to his limited touches, but Taylor often tried to force the action when he did receive minutes. This is evinced by the fact that he shot 17.6% of his team's shots when he was on the floor, despite not being a focal point offensively. He often rushed himself in the post and this led to some very difficult shots. Taylor does do a very nice job drawing fouls, as he drew 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes last season and 5.8 fouls/40 mins a season before that at Monmouth. With increased usage, I expect him to return to his pre-Xavier days. When he gets to the line, however, he must improve on his near 60% free throw percentage. In terms of his prowess on the glass, Taylor is a good rebounder, and finished in the top 10 in the Atlantic 10 in terms of Offensive Rebounding % and in the top 20 in terms of Defensive Rebounding %. Defensively, Taylor struggled against stronger post players, but has the length and athleticism to block shots. Look for him to play an inspired senior season and for Xavier to surprise many people.
(Image Sources: SB Nation, Newsday, AP Photo via Feature.rr, masslive.com, and comptonmagic.net)