These are the “locker room guys.” Some of them fill up the stat sheets. Others don’t. But if you’re a coach, you want these guys on your roster because of their undeniable leadership skills.
1. Draymond Green (Michigan State) -- Last season, the Spartans lacked the continuity and toughness that fueled back-to-back Final Four runs in 2008-09 and 2009-10. This year, however, Green has demanded that style of play from a young roster. Tom Izzo’s team looks like his past Final Four squads because it’s playing the rugged basketball that he’s coached for years. He can get through to this team because Green has bought in, so the others don’t have a choice. When Green suffered an ankle injury toward the end of a recent loss to Illinois, he hopped on one leg to join his teammates during timeouts. Prior to this past weekend’s road win at Ohio State, he asked Izzo for a light practice. Izzo acquiesced to his request. That’s a leader who was looking out for the best interests of the program, not seeking a day off.
2. Ronald Nored (Butler) -- Nored might be in the wrong business. He talks like a Southern preacher (his father was a pastor). He’s an elementary education major at Butler but if that’s the path he ultimately chooses, he’ll end up running the district before long. And he’s a coach on the floor for the Bulldogs. Nored is a senior now. But during Butler’s back-to-back national title game appearances, he was as mature as any player on the floor, even though he was just a sophomore and junior, respectively. Butler hasn’t duplicated its success from the past two seasons. But Nored is leading a young roster (six freshmen, three sophomores) that’s four wins away from a 20-win season. And with Nored in charge, don’t dismiss the possibility that these Bulldogs will end up in the NCAA tournament again.
3. Scott Martin (Notre Dame) -- The Fighting Irish had every reason to make excuses. In November, the program lost its best player when Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL and was lost for the season. But as the team’s co-captain and only other senior, Martin stepped up to lead Notre Dame to a surprising stretch of success. The Fighting Irish are nationally ranked, despite losing five out of eight games from Nov. 21 to Dec. 17. Martin leads a balanced Notre Dame team that’s managed to climb the Big East standings with a feisty defense and an absence of egos. This crew could have fallen apart once it lost Abromaitis. But Martin has helped Mike Brey put the Fighting Irish in a position to make a lot of noise in March.
4. Bernard James (Florida State) -- Before the Seminoles destroyed North Carolina by 33 points Jan. 14, James commenced a dialogue among coaches and players that forced all involved to own up to their personal contributions in Florida State’s 20-point loss at Clemson a week prior. When James talks, even coaches listen. Yes, he’s one of the oldest players in college basketball (he’s 28). But the 6-10 forward has been a steadying force for Leonard Hamilton’s squad, one that’s still a legit contender for the ACC title. Three tours in Iraq certainly helped him develop the leadership qualities that he’s implemented in Tallahassee.
5. Jorge Gutierrez (California) -- His teammates say he’s quiet off the floor. But Gutierrez is one of the most expressive and emotional players in the Pac-12 when he’s on it. The guard has taken Cal to the top of the league standings with his game (13.7 ppg, 4.3 apg). But his on-court fire has rubbed off on his teammates, too. He never backs down. He can’t. He grew up in poverty. He lived with other adolescents in high school, all trying to fend for themselves without much adult supervision, after his parents returned to Mexico shortly after they’d brought him across the border. He’s also anemic, a condition only worsened by his financial challenges in high school. There’s no quit in Gutierrez. And the Bears are feeding off of that right now.
6. Darius Miller (Kentucky) -- He could be pouting right now. He could be whining about playing time. He could be tweeting about coming off the bench even though he’s a veteran. But that’s not Darius Miller. The senior has embraced his reserve role, as the most talented group of underclassmen in America have led the Wildcats to the top of the national rankings. When Miller played with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins two years ago, egos clashed as vets tried to mesh with newcomers. But this Kentucky team has avoided that season-killer. Miller has a lot to do with that. A lot of guys say, “I’ll do whatever coach wants me to do.” Miller is actually doing that. He’s the glue for this talented assembly.
7. Drew Gordon (New Mexico) -- After the senior transferred from UCLA and sat out two semesters prior to the 2010-11 season, he came off the bench in his first seven games. But he didn’t complain. This is a guy who earned a multitude of national honors in high school. He was one of UCLA’s top recruits. But Gordon accepted his position with his new team and didn’t demand anything. That’s why he’s a crucial piece on a New Mexico team that’s on top of the Mountain West right now. He’s also very active in the community. He’s leading by example.
8. Ramone Moore (Temple) -- He’s the leading scorer for Temple (18.8 ppg). But players and coaches call him selfless. That’s rare. Moore gets the points, but he produces within Fran Dunphy’s scheme. This season, he changed his number in memory of a young cousin who lost his life in a summer car crash. His teammates were not surprised. That’s just Ramone Moore, they say. His humility and leadership have helped the Owls snag first place in the Atlantic 10.
9. Thomas Robinson (Kansas) -- Most know his story. He lost his mother in the middle of last season. He had a little sister to care for. Robinson had every reason to go pro. But he returned to Lawrence, Kan., because he wanted to get better and go after a national title. He’s one of the top candidates for national player of the year honors and he’s displayed bravery and maturity that some people twice his age don’t have.
10. Tyler Zeller -- By now, it’s just The Shot. Austin Rivers. Over Zeller. Buzzer. Pileup. The senior was blamed when Rivers hit that game winner last week to seal Duke’s come-from-behind victory at rival North Carolina. But Zeller didn’t shy away from questions about his last-second defense. That’s what leaders do. They confront those tough moments. And they bounce back. In his next game, a Saturday victory over Virginia, Zeller scored 25 points and grabbed nine rebounds.