Each championship team is defined not just by impact freshmen, potential NBA draft picks and senior leaders but by “step-up” performers, players who emerge out of the shadows into making big contributions to their squad. Here are some of the “other guys” that must ascend to cut down the nets this April.
Michigan State's Branden Dawson will be counted on to ascend the Spartans this season.
Russell Smith, Louisville 6-0 JR Guard
The New York City product takes the Cardinals to a different gear with his electric ability. He is a catalyst on both ends causing disruptions defensively and instant offense to the level of Vinny “Microwave” Johnson for the great Pistons teams. There is no one more determined than Smith, who has battled doubters for years, even though he was the biggest thing out of Archbishop Molloy since Kenny Anderson. Russell Smith had to spend a fifth year in prep school to land at a high major school. Now he must improve on his shooting (.306 3PT percentage and .356 field goal percentage) and assist numbers (less than two per game) in order for Louisville to return to the Final Four. The Cards Achilles heel is outside shooting and the best candidate to provide it is Russell Smith.
Branden Dawson, Michigan State 6-6 SO SF
The former McDonald’s All-American saw his freshman campaign cut short with a devastating ACL injury. It was a significant loss to the Spartans who saw their season end at the Sweet 16.
Is there life after Draymond Green for Michigan State? Replacing his double-double production and nearly four assists per game will not be easy. Dawson is the guy who can impact the game defensively and emerge offensively. The Spartans will be formidable in the post with Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix and their guard play will be explosive with Keith Appling, the key will be consistency. To win the B1G and capture a top seed in the NCAA tournament, Branden Dawson must ascend to be the next superstar in East Lansing.
Will Yeguete, Florida 6-7 JR Forward
The expectations are high in Gainesville after back-to-back Elite Eight finishes and the pressure to keep up with Big Blue Nation. Florida returns preseason All-SEC first teamers, Kenny Boynton and Patric Young – a duo who is as good of an inside-out punch there is in the conference. On February 21 of last season, Will Yeguete broke his foot and the Gators limped into the NCAA tournament losers of four of their last five contests. Quietly, Yeguete developed into one of the team’s best offensive rebounders and perimeter defender and his loss was definitely felt. Florida’s need to replace Bradley Beal’s contributions make the versatile Yeguete a very important player for the Gators. The SEC is a deep conference and Florida must improve upon it’s defensive efficiency which was No. 71 in the nation last year. Yeguete can guard three positions, he can limit the opponent’s best player, cleaning up the glass and developing into the valuable third/fourth option necessary to win big games.
Tim Hardaway JR, Michigan 6-6 JR Guard
There is a lot of excitement in Ann Arbor with the Wolverines projected as a top five team this season. Hardaway burst on the scene two years ago and went beyond expectations as a freshman shooting over 36 percent from beyond the arc and an effective field goal percentage of 52 percent and limiting his turnover rate to 11.1 percent; additionally he was a strong rebounder and defender as well. Last season, the sophomore slump hit hard for Hardaway. It started with shooting a woeful 28 percent from three-point range. His turnover percentage was up, his effective field goal percentage was down, he regressed in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage and his steals were down. Most importantly, there was concern in the air about a rift between Hardaway and star point guard, Trey Burke and Michigan’s season fell short despite sharing the top spot in the B1G conference without an NCAA tournament victory. Hardaway must return to form for the Wolverines to go far. There are all the ingredients for success with quality post presence, talented freshmen and an NBA caliber point guard but Michigan will only go as far as Hardaway can take them as a leader, a team player, an outside scoring threat and most importantly a consistent force.
Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse 6-6 SO PG
Last season, Michael was stuck behind the Philly tandem of Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine in the guard rotation. They are gone and the torch is passed to senior Brandon Triche and sophomore, Michael Carter-Williams who averaged just over 10 minutes a game as a freshman for the Orange. There is a lot to like with Carter-William as he has good size, he is a good passer, he can be an impact defender and he showed the ability to score despite limited minutes )such as his 13 point outburst in 17 minutes against St John’s last year). Replacing Waiters, who was the most efficient player in the Big East on the offensive end (in a minimum of 24 percent of possessions used) will be a challenge. Carter-Williams must improve upon his assist to turnover ratio and develop into a perimeter threat. The talent in the frontcourt for Syracuse is formidable, it’s the ability of the backcourt and specifically Carter-Williams that will determine how far the Orange will go in the Big East and beyond.