Now that realignment is behind us, rosters are mostly finalized, and freshmen are getting used to living in dorm rooms (oh, to be reborn at summer orientation), we're spending the week looking ahead at some of the more interesting players and storylines we expect to track in 2013-14. Next up: players facing crucial senior seasons, both individually and for their teams.
(Important note: This is not a list of the best seniors, or even necessarily the most important or most indispensable). It is a list of seniors -- some who have underachieved to date -- that need to, once and for all, make good on their star potential in their final year in the college game. Make sense? Cool.)
10. C.J. Fair (Syracuse): Fair's career to this point has been characterized by admirable consistency. In his first two campaigns he maintained similarly promising offensive ratings (109.5 and 114.6) while averaging a 17.3 percent usage rate, while blending in quality defense, rebounding and stellar work on the offensive glass. Fair's usage jumped slightly as a junior (to 20.5 percent of available possessions), and he grew far more comfortable wielding his outside shot, but the rock-solid fundamentals of his game remained mostly the same. As a senior, even on a team with plenty of oncoming talent, Fair may yet be expected to do even more. If he can expand his game further on the perimeter and provide go-to scoring in the midrange without losing the things that have made him so solid for so long, the Orange should make a massive impression in their first year in the ACC, and Fair should do the same for NBA scouts.
9. Shabazz Napier (Connecticut): Napier has had one of the most up-and-down careers of any player in recent college hoops memory. You can make the argument that he got where he needed to be as a junior. Not only did he have his best year by far statistically (he posted a 115.3 offensive rating on 24.3 percent usage and a 54.4 effective field goal percentage, shot 39 percent from 3 and created plenty of steals) but also, under new coach Kevin Ollie, assumed the leadership role denied him by that apathetic 2011-12 team. The only problem? UConn was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. With a full batch of returning players and that APR-induced postseason ban behind the Huskies, Napier is in position to make his biggest impact since Kemba Walker was on campus.
8. Tim Frazier (Penn State): As promised above, some of the guys on this list have underachieved for most of their careers; it's not fair to lump Frazier into that group. There are two reasons he isn't already a household name: Penn State and injuries. When Frazier was healthy for his true junior season in 2011-12, he led the Big Ten in assists (and posted the nation's second-highest assist rate, higher than either Kendall Marshall or Scott Machado), averaged 18.2 points per game (second in the Big Ten), created four steals per 100 possessions and drew an average of six fouls per game, while playing 92.8 percent of his team's available minutes. Thanks to a medical hardship waiver -- the 2012-13 campaign was derailed by a brutal
ACL injury Achilles tear in just the fourth game of the season -- 2013-14 will provide Frazier with his last chance to earn the kind of individual national attention that gets scouts to raise an eyebrow. If he can also pull Penn State over the rebuilding hump, hey, all the better.
7. Aaron Craft (Ohio State): You couldn't say Craft has underachieved in his career. Quite the opposite. During his prep days, Craft was seen as a merely respectable but hardly a program-changing recruit, provided your head coach didn't lie to NCAA investigators about having him over for a barbecue. (Ba-dum-ksh.) Craft has long since exceeded those expectations. As a freshman, he seized a starting role in Thad Matta's very good veterans-plus-Jared Sullinger-led lineup, and he has maintained his spot by cementing the respect of teammates and coaches and, most noticeably, playing the best, peskiest perimeter defense in the country. That's his calling card, and it won't go anywhere, but one can't help wondering whether Craft still has more to pick up on the offensive end. Can he be a leading scorer? A more confident 3-point shooter off the dribble? Is that even possible, given the tireless work Craft does on the defensive end? (Related: Can Shannon Scott, who morphed into a deadly defender late last season, take on some of that burden?) Losing Deshaun Thomas means Ohio State has to replace a large chunk of scoring one way or the other; more incisive stuff at the point of attack would be a good place to start.
6. Cory Jefferson (Baylor): It is never wise to project too much based on the disproportionately weighted sample of a few postseason games in March. This is especially true when the postseason in question was the NIT. So yes, you can expect Jefferson's 21.2 points per game in the Bears' NIT title run -- which ended with a 74-54 vivisection of a very good Iowa defense -- to earn him his fair share of prospective love this fall. But Jefferson was good long before March. He posted a 128.1 offensive rating on 19.1 percent usage -- and shot 61.8 percent from inside the arc, leading the Big 12 in overall field goal percentage (61.0) in the process -- in 2012-13. Could he approximate that effort with more of a lead role as a senior? We'll see.
5. Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss): Here's another question: Did Henderson already max out his talent? After a season in which he took 394 3s (which is insane!) and made 35 percent of them (less insane, but pretty good), it's hard to imagine Henderson somehow finding a way to take more shots. It's even harder, given the volume involved, to picture him finding a way to improve that 113.5 offensive rating. According to Synergy scouting data, 38.2 percent of Henderson's possessions ended with off-ball screen action; no other play type came remotely close to that sort of frequency. (No. 2? Spot-ups, with 17.2 percent, trailed by transition offense and hand-off plays -- all of which screams "not allowed to put it on the floor.") With a less experienced frontcourt, there are only so many screens the Rebels can set. There are only so many shots Henderson can take.
So the premise for improvement is twofold. To dig an even better senior season out of his madcap heart, Henderson needs to become a better ball handler, distributor and scorer off the dribble -- less a gunner than a capable combo guard. He also, obviously, has to get to the court in the first place, which will be no small feat given the substance abuse issues that put his status at Ole Miss in jeopardy this month. Henderson appears to be taking that stuff seriously -- which he clearly wasn't at first -- and that's a good thing. It is also crucial for his career. If Henderson has any shot of making his NBA dreams a reality, he has to adjust his skill set and quell any and all concerns about his life away from basketball. It won't be easy.
4. Kendall Williams (New Mexico): It is hardly fair to tie one's assessment of a player to one particularly bonkers scoring night, but I know what I saw, and what I saw was Williams score 46 points in 33 minutes against a good Colorado State team on the road. It's not like he had a bad season otherwise -- 13.3 points and 4.9 assists per game is perfectly respectable -- but it was impossible to watch him that night and not think there was something more below the surface. Truth is, Williams hasn't really improved statistically in his college career. He was a better passer and drew more fouls as a junior, but his freshman season remains his most efficient. His 3-point accuracy fell to 34.8 percent, down from the 42.6 percent mark he posted two years prior. Without newly minted Chicago Bull Tony Snell in the backcourt, it's fair to wonder whether the Lobos will have the same defensive chops that anchored their excellent 2012-13 season. Williams will have to work more efficiently alongside emerging star Alex Kirk to find another gear going forward.
3. Patric Young (Florida): Young has always felt a bit disappointing. That's rarely been his fault. During his first two seasons at Florida, he frequently languished on the low block while Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton fired away from 25 feet. As a junior, the calculus changed somewhat and Young began to get more genuine post touches in a strikingly balanced edition of the Gators' spread attack. Still, he remains the college game's greatest physical specimen for three years running; you can't look at him and not expect him to dominate everyone in his vicinity. He got closer on the defensive end last season. Overall, he still isn't there. This may be the year. Boynton, shot-magnet Mike Rosario and fellow four Erik Murphy are all gone. Scottie Wilbekin is not an aggressive attacker by nature. Freshman phenom Chris Walker's status remains up in the air. Odds are, Young may finally get the chance to go to work on the low block, even if by default. The question is whether he's ready.
2. Keith Appling (Michigan State): When Appling first popped up as a freshman at Michigan State, he was a breath of fresh air. That 2010-11 team was one of the few -- honestly, maybe the only -- in Tom Izzo's tenure to genuinely underachieve. Delvon Roe fought admirably through career-ending injuries, and a young Draymond Green pointed toward a bright future, but the team's three lead guards (Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Korie Lucious), so key in bright back-to-back Final Four runs, proved to be corrosive, selfish influences. Appling quickly provided a contrast. His offensive game was tentatively promising, and his tenacious defense earned him Izzo's immediate respect. Here was a young, willing guard coached by a guy who made a career out of turning the Keith Applings of the world into Spartan legends. He was as sure a bet as the sport had to offer.
Remind me not to start a career oddsmaking business. Three years on, Appling's offensive game hasn't really improved. As a junior, he averaged 46.4 percent from inside the arc and 32 percent outside it. Turnovers are not uncommon to Izzo's teams, but Appling's inability to get his turnover rate down -- it was still 18.6 percent in 2012-13, just two points lower than his 20.6 percent assist percentage -- has compounded the effects of mediocre shooting. Last season, he went whole games, even whole weeks, when he would either (A) disappear, or (B) play so poorly (or at best, so tentatively) that Spartans fans would wonder whether option A wasn't preferable.
Appling has never been bad, per se. His perimeter defense hasn't gone anywhere. He has battled injuries with characteristic toughness, battled his slumps with determined accountability. You never hear bad things about him; he's been a reliable, hardworking presence within the program. But he has also never developed into what his coach once so convincingly proclaimed he would be.
This season is his final chance. The Spartans will be loaded again, with the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris set for a monster sophomore season and forward Adreian Payne still blossoming into a devastating talent. Appling doesn't have to morph into a turnover-free replicate. He merely has to do what he does already and shoot the ball a bit better. If he does, there won't be many teams in the country capable of matching Michigan State man for man. If he doesn't, the Spartans will still be good -- but they, like Appling himself, risk leaving something on the table.
1. Joe Jackson (Memphis): Fortunately, Memphis won an NCAA tournament game in 2013. Getting that monkey off coach Josh Pastner's back meant knocking back at least some of the steadily growing "But can he actually coach?" talk in the Bluff City (and reinforcing a personal pet peeve about tournament sample size). It also meant less pressure on the player that has, for both better and worse, defined Pastner's tenure at the school.
Like many of the very best players Pastner has recruited in his tenure, Jackson is a local product, one of the first Pastner landed, who was unafraid to place his hometown's hopes -- and its uniquely provincial baggage -- on his back. He has also been emblematically frustrating. Hugely confident but too sensitive to criticism. Talented but too inconsistent. At times, he has been Memphis' best player. Just as often, he has moped his way to the bench.
Give Jackson credit for this much: He's still here. Many of Jackson's teammates have been fellow Memphis natives, and by many accounts the dynamic around the program has often resembled a youth team writ large, with whole neighborhoods and high school sets standing in for bickering parents arguing on behalf of one player or another. Rumors of intrasquad squabbles have been just as common. Jackson could have transferred, cordoned himself away from the local intensity, but despite all the struggles he remained. As a junior, he was much improved. His improved third season -- more unselfish and efficient than either of the two that preceded it -- built an excellent foundation for his senior campaign, but there is much more to be accomplished -- a deep tournament run chief among it.
When he arrived four years ago, Jackson embraced the unique pressure of his situation. As he told our own Dana O'Neil:
"I want to be remembered," Jackson said. "I want to be a legend. I want to be a hero. I want old people to see me on television and say, 'Look at that kid. He made it. He did it. That's who I want you to be like.'"
His performance has never quite matched that ambition. He has one more chance to close the gap.