Puerto Rico Tip-Off: Eight to Watch
Class: Senior | Position: Forward
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 210
Hometown: Elm City, N.C.
2011-12 Averages: 11.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG
Career Averages: 11.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG
UNC Asheville may be two-time Big South Conference champions, who gave top-seeded Syracuse fits in last year's NCAA Tournament but for the Bulldogs to continue their run of success they'll need to replace four starters, three of whom are 1,000-point scorers, as well as find a new leader on offense. To that end, they'll be relying heavily on forward Jeremy Atkinson. A Second-Team All-Big South selection last season, Atkinson was chosen to the Preseason All-Big South Second Team for this season representing an Asheville team predicted to finish third in the conference's South Division. While Atkinson wasn't among the leaders in scoring in the conference or on the Bulldogs in 2011-12 (he finished fourth), he became a force on the boards, leading the team in rebounding (6.6 RPG). The transfer from Louisburg Junior College, which he led to the NJCAA National Tournament in the '10-11 season, also was lethal at the rim, shooting nearly 55 percent (.546). At 74 percent from the free line, Atkinson is respectable there and is a respectable three-point shooter, converting at .341.
Key Stat: 69
In addition to his ability to score in the paint, Atkinson's 69 offensive rebounds led Asheville last season.
Did You Know: Atkinson was a four-year All-Conference selection at Fike High School in Wilson County, North Carolina, and was a three-time letter winner in tennis. As a senior, he lettered in football and track.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off
The 2012 Puerto Rico Tip-Off features teams like NC State, Tennessee and Providence battling for an early-season title. ESPN.com Topics has full coverage. Topics page »
School: Penn State
Class: Senior | Position: Guard
Height: 6-1 | Weight: 170
Hometown: Houston, Texas
2011-12 Averages: 18.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 6.2 APG, 2.4 SPG
Career Averages: 10.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.4 SPG
Penn State looks to bounce back from a tough 2011-12 season (12-20, 4-14) when it finished last in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions were picked for 10th in preseason polls, but can be dangerous with senior point guard Tim Frazier leading the attack. Frazier plays at high speed, has a 34-inch vertical, makes smart decisions and can score at the rim and behind the arc. An All-Big Ten First-Team selection last season, only the sixth in school history, Frazier was the only player in all of Division I to score at least 17 points with six assists. He finished second in the Big Ten in scoring in conference play (19.6 points per game), led the conference in assists (5.6 APG) -- the first Nittany Lion to do so -- and steals (2.4 SPG), was runner-up in minutes (38.0 mpg) and third in free throw percentage (.874). Frazier was also solid on the defensive end, earning a Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection. He has plenty to play for as a senior, needing only 30 points to reach 1,000, and 157 assists to get to 600 career dimes, which would set a school record.
Key Stat: 58 percent
Frazier had a hand in 406 of Penn State's 695 field goals last season, a nation-leading 58 percent. He had 208 made field goals, including 159 of the team's 386 three-pointers (41 percent) and assisted on 198 more scores.
Did You Know: When Frazier isn't passing the ball to teammates, he's passing legislation as Penn State basketball's representative on the Penn State Student Athlete Advisory Board. He's also been active with the school's Athletic Director's Leadership Institute the past three years.
Class: Sophomore | Position: Forward
Height: 6-6 | Weight: 215
Hometown: Lansing, Mich.
2011-12 Averages: 14.3 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.0 BPG, 1.0 SPG
With the hamstring injury limiting senior guard Vincent Council, Henton will be a focal point offensively for the Friars. Fortunately, that's something the sophomore forward is used to. He tied for second on the team in scoring last season, led the team in three-point shooting (.393) and had a team-high-tying nine double-doubles (tied with Council), including a 24-point, 15-rebound effort at DePaul last Feb. 25 and an 18-12 double-double at Notre Dame six days later. In addition to scoring, he topped the team in rebounding and offensive rebounding (his 88 ORs were 33 more than his nearest teammate). The Lansing, Mich., native started all 31 games in his debut season and was only the 16th player in Providence history to start his first game as a true freshman. Among Big East freshmen, he ranked third in scoring (14.3 PPG), was second in rebounding and seventh overall (8.6 RPG). Henton showed just how devastating he could be offensively against South Florida on Jan. 29, when he scored a career-high 33 points to break the school single-game scoring record set by Ryan Gomes on Jan. 19, 2002 on 10-of-14 shooting, 4-of-5 from three and 9-of-11 from the foul line. (Gomes scored 31 points but also had the benefit of overtime.)
Key Stat: .393
Henton led Providence in three-point shooting last season, hitting at .393 from behind the arc. His 44 three-point field goals were second on a Friars team that had only six players make a three and only three of them make more than five.
Did You Know: Last season Henton became the first Friar freshman ever to be named to the Big East All-Rookie Team.
School: North Carolina State
Class: Junior | Position: Forward
Height: 6-9 | Weight: 200
Hometown: Holly Springs, N.C.
2011-12 Averages: 14.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 1.1 APG, 1.1 SPG
Career Averages: 13.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 1.0 APG, .9 SPG
It's been a while -- since the 1974-75 season, to be exact -- that the expectations for North Carolina State basketball have been as high as they are this year. State started the season as the favorite to win the ACC as per the preseason coaches' poll and was ranked sixth nationally. With C.J. Leslie doing the heavy lifting, the Wolfpack have a rock-solid delivery man to make those expectations reality. The Preseason pick for ACC Player of the Year, Leslie bypassed the NBA to come back for his senior year. He's coming off a 2011-12 season that saw him earn Second-Team All-ACC honors while ranking in the top 10 in scoring (14.7 PPG, ninth), rebounds (7.3 RPG, eighth) and field goal percentage (.525, third). In the postseason, Leslie came up even bigger, scoring 16.5 points, grabbing 8.2 boards and shooting .571 and was a big part in the 'Pack reaching the Sweet 16. That success was extra sweet for the native of Holly Springs, who grew up in the shadows of the State campus. With Leslie, the only returning player to rank in the conference's top 10 in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage, and three other starters returning, it's little wonder they're getting the victory cigars ready in the Raleigh section of Tobacco Road.
Key Stat: 54/36
Leslie's 54 rejections more than doubled any other NC State player, while his 36 steals ranked fourth on the squad. He was the only ACC player in the 30-30 club of blocked shots and steals.
Did You Know: C.J. (short for Calvin, Jr.) was a high school teammate of John Wall, the overall No. 1 first pick in the 2010 NBA Draft at Word of God in Raleigh.
Class: Senior | Position: Center
Height: 7-0 | Weight: 235
Hometown: McKeesport, Pa.
2011-12 Averages: 10.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.8 BPG
Career Averages: 8.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG
It's always a block party when Akron center Zeke Marshall is around. The defending MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Marshall led the Zips to their sixth straight MAC Tournament Championship Game last year, swatting away 95 shots, an average of 2.8 per game, both team- and conference-highs. He became only the eighth player in the history of the conference to record 200 career blocks, and needs only 56 rejections to pass Ball State's Lonnie Jones for the all-time career-high in blocks. While Marshall primarily changes the course of games on the defensive end, he proved last season that he could do some damage on the offensive end as well. He averaged a career-best 10.4 points per game, led the Zips in scoring on eight occasions and had a team-high 20 double-figure scoring games, including a team-best two 20-plus-point games. Marshall led the team with a .542 shooting percentage and was solid at the foul line, where he shot a shade over 70 percent. With Marshall in the middle, the Zips have a realistic shot at making it seven straight MAC Tournament Championship Games.
Key Stat: .706
As a freshman, Marshall missed more free throws than he made -- 39 to 34. As a junior, he shot north of 70 percent (108-of-153), a 240-point increase. (By the way, since his freshman season, Marshall has raised his field goal percentage 70 points from .471 to .542.)
Did You Know: Marshall was the first top-100 recruit to sign with Akron since Rivals.com began its ranking system in 2003. His being ranked that high is amazing considering he didn't start playing basketball until the eighth grade.
School: Oklahoma State
Class: Sophomore | Position: Guard/Forward
Height: 6-7 | Weight: 230
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
2011-12 Averages: 13.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.5 APG
Nash isn't one to sit on his laurels. After earning co-Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors from Big 12 coaches (he was the sole choice of AP), a spot on the Big 12 All-Rookie Team and Honorable Mention to the All-Big 12 team, the talented sophomore forward is ready to go back to work. A Preseason All-Big 12 pick, Nash is the leading returning scorer for the Cowboys, who were ranked third by Big 12 coaches in their preseason poll. The last OSU player to be named Preseason All-Big 12 was James Anderson prior to 2009-10, and he'd be that year's Big 12 Player of the Year. Nash scored 372 points last season, the fourth-most ever by an OSU freshman, and his 13.3 PPG were second all-time among Cowboy first-year players. He showed he could light it up, like on Jan. 25 against No. 2 Missouri, when he scored a season-high 27 on 12-for-18, 3-for-4 from three, with four rebounds, four assists and a block, but also had times when he showed he was still a freshman, like Jan. 14 against Baylor, when he managed six points on 2-for-12 shooting, while committing six turnovers. Being a year older and more mature should help him find that consistency. OSU's success in '12-13 will ride largely on Nash finding it.
Key Stat: .394/.235
Nash's Achilles' heel can be his shooting, as he shot below 40 percent and below 25 percent from three as a freshman.
Did You Know: Nash was Oklahoma's Mr. Basketball for 2010-11, according to the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches coming out of Lincoln High School in Dallas and is the first Cowboy to earn Big 12 Freshman of the Year accolades.
Class: Sophomore | Position: Forward
Height: 6-8 | Weight: 270
Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.
2011-12 Averages: 9.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG, .9 SPG
Big things are expected from Jarnell Stokes, who was named Preseason All-SEC Second Team -- he was named to the media's All-SEC First Team and received three Player of the Year votes. Stokes gave Volunteer fans a taste of his talents in the half-season he played last year after enrolling mid-season following his early graduation from high school. In 18 games, 17 starts, Stokes averaged 25.6 minutes, scored 9.6 points and grabbed 7.4 rebounds while shooting .534. His rebounding and shooting percentage ranked second on the Vols and he finished third in scoring. It was good enough to earn him a place on the SEC All-Freshman Team. Stokes' contributions will go a long way in keeping Tennessee in the upper echelon of the SEC. They were picked to finish fourth in the coaches' preseason media poll. Of course, last season the Vols were picked to finish 11th in preseason and finished second. Stokes got his sophomore campaign off to a great start, setting career-highs for assists (5) and steals (5), while swatting away three shots in the season-opener.
Key Stat: 1.35
Stokes blocked 23 shots in 18 games to start last season, including a career-best five against Vanderbilt on March 3. His 23 blocks were three off the team lead, set by Jordan McRae, who played in twice as many games. He had a pair of three-block games and led the team in blocked shots nine times.
Did You Know: Stokes played a key role in the U.S. Team's gold medal win at the 2012 FIBA Americas U18 Championships held over the summer in Sao Sebastiao do Paraiso, Brazil. He averaged 14 points and 5.6 rebounds in 20 minutes of play, while shooting a sizzling .689. Jarnell joins Allan Houston, Tennessee's all-time leading scorer, as the only other Vol to help the U.S. earn gold at that event.
Class: Junior | Position: Guard
Height: 5-9 | Weight: 175
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
2011-12 Averages: 16.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 6.2 APG, 2.2 SPG
Career Averages: 16.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 6.2 APG, 2.2 SPG
Despite Massachusetts returning four starters from last year's team, which won 26 games and reached the semifinal of the NIT before losing to eventual champion Stanford, the addition of Butler and VCU may force the Minutemen to battle just to equal last season's fifth-place A-10 finish. (They were picked fifth in both coaches and the media preseason polls.) Fortunately for coach Derek Kellogg he returns junior point guard Chaz Williams. The Brooklyn native, an All-A-10 First Team pick last season, led the conference in assists last season (6.2 APG) and ranked in the top ten in scoring (16.9 PPG, seventh), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8, fifth), steals (2.2 SPG, fourth) and three-point shooting (.419, fifth). Williams, who sat out the 2010-11 season after transferring from Hofstra, did everything to UMass in his debut season. He led the team in scoring, assists, three-pointers made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, 20-point games, 10-assist games and double-doubles. He set sophomore records for assists and steals, recorded four of the team's top six scoring games, led the Minutemen in scoring 18 times, including eight of last 10 games, and all four NIT games. The later it got, the better Williams got, as he scored at least 20 points in five of the Minutemen's seven postseason games, hitting at a .467 clip, .500 from three and .815 at the line.
Key Stat: .419
Williams shot nearly 42 percent from behind the arc in his first season in Amherst, making 62 of 148 attempts. His .419 percentage was better than his overall field goal percentage (.410) and was the 10th-best three-point-shooting season in UMass history.
Did You Know: Williams needed only two games in a UMass uniform to record his first double-double. He matched his college-career-highs for points and assists, recording 20 points and 10 assists in an 83-67 win over Northeastern.
University of Maryland alum Jon Cooper is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.