The dust has finally settled in college basketball.
The transfers have transferred. New coaches are in place now. Most freshmen are on campus. So we can take a serious look at the 2013-14 season and the most valuable players in the game as we prepare for another season with this week's Count 'Em Down series in the Nation blog.
Here’s my list of the top 10 most indispensable players in America. Not necessarily the best players. Simply the ones who are most important to the success of their team.
10. Mitch McGary (Michigan) -- Even without Trey Burke, Michigan has the tools to win the Big Ten and demand an extended stay in the NCAA tournament. Glenn Robinson III, in a more flexible offensive role in 2013-14, could be one of the best wings in America next season. Nik Stauskas is back, too. Plus, John Beilein’s nationally ranked recruiting class features four-star point guard Derrick Walton, who might be a worthy successor to Burke, last season's Wooden Award winner. But McGary has to carry a lot next season. He was vital in Michigan’s run to the national title game in April. In a league that just lost Cody Zeller, Derrick Nix, Jared Berggren and Trevor Mbakwe, life in the Big Ten should be easier for McGary now. And if he’s effective, he’ll clear space for Michigan’s skilled wings and make the Wolverines a more dominant program.
9. Davante Gardner (Marquette) -- Buzz Williams’ squad could win the first championship in the new Big East. Junior Cadougan, Trent Lockett and Vander Blue are all gone, but multiple veterans return and a strong recruiting class will be in the mix, too. It’s all there for the Golden Eagles. So much of this team’s fate, however, will depend on Davante Gardner. He’s a unique player. Few men his size can move the way he does. But Williams doesn’t need the sluggish big man of last season, who would score 15 points one night and five the next. Williams needs the guy who tore up two of the top frontcourts in the country when he scored 14 points (5-for-7) in a win over Miami in the Sweet 16 and 14 points (6-for-9) in a loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. If that guy shows up, Marquette could be one of the most complete teams in the Big East and beyond. With the other version of Gardner, Marquette might be in trouble in the season’s late stages.
8. Russ Smith (Louisville) -- Rick Pitino received great news when Smith announced his return. He flirted with the NBA but ultimately decided to rejoin his teammates and make a run at another national title. The Cardinals will enter the season as strong contenders to defend their crown. Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell all return for the defending champs. But I can’t see Louisville on the podium again unless Smith competes at an All-American level in 2013-14. “Russdiculous” has been criticized for his mishaps (2.7 turnovers per game). But the Cardinals wouldn’t be the champs without him. The most explosive guard in the country (18.7 PPG, 2.1 SPG) is a two-way catalyst for a team that’s capable of winning its second consecutive championship. Louisville needs him.
7. Alex Kirk (New Mexico) -- Craig Neal’s presence suggests that life without Steve Alford might not be so tough for the Lobos. The former associate head coach offers the program a sense of continuity that is important for any team that suddenly loses a head coach … 10 days after he agrees to a multiyear extension. Neal will have star guard Kendall Williams, but first-round draft pick Tony Snell is gone. A multitude of newcomers and young faces will attempt to fill the void, but their contributions will be less significant than Kirk’s output. The 7-footer is a force when he wants to be. The underrated center scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in his team’s opening-round loss to Harvard in the NCAA tourney. Team’s attack him early to get him into foul trouble because they know he’s essential for the Lobos. But he’s a matchup problem for most opponents. And he balances the floor and helps New Mexico’s wings roam. The big man could be the key to a Mountain West title run and/or a lengthier stay in the NCAA tournament for the Lobos.
6. Cleanthony Early (Wichita State) -- There’s a lot of justified hoopla surrounding another team in Kansas. But Wichita State did reach the Final Four a few months ago. It should not be forgotten. And the Shockers were a play or two away from ruining Louisville’s championship run. But the 2013-14 version of the Shockers will not be the same team that rallied to Atlanta. Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead are gone, but Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and multiple contributors from that team return. So this team still has a high ceiling entering next season, but only if Early fulfills his potential. Although his team lost a 72-68 war against Louisville in Atlanta, his performance (24 points, 10 rebounds, 2-for-4 from the 3-point line) put the country on alert. The 6-8 combo forward can hurt opponents many ways -- and if he does what he’s capable of doing in 2013-14, the Shockers could make another postseason run. If he’s the inconsistent player who never quite found a rhythm during last year’s regular season, the Shockers might go home early.
5. LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State) -- I initially had a different Ohio State player in this slot. Aaron Craft makes a lot of sense for many reasons. He’s the point guard on an Ohio State team that will demand his leadership. But my editor made me think twice. Right team, wrong player. Who will score for the Buckeyes next season if Ross doesn’t? The minimal draft buzz surrounding Deshaun Thomas made it easy to forget how good and important he was for the Buckeyes throughout his career. There’s a huge hole in the middle of the OSU attack that Ross could (must) fill. His explosion in the Big Dance (17 points against Iowa State in the third round, 17 points against Arizona in the Sweet 16, 19 points against Wichita State in the Elite Eight) proved as much. Thad Matta needs him to build off that effort and consistently provide that output for Ohio State in the future.
4. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) -- This one is simple, right? The best point guard in college basketball has to make this list. Yes, the Pokes suffered a messy opening-round exit against Oregon in the NCAA tournament. Without Smart, however, they would not have earned a 5-seed. And if Smart had decided to turn pro this summer, we wouldn’t be talking about Oklahoma State as the possible favorite to win the Big 12 championship. The stellar leader was the only college player who earned an invite to this week’s Team USA basketball minicamp. The core of last season’s Oklahoma State squad returns for 2013-14. And if Smart equals last season (15.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 3.0 SPG) or – gulp – tops it, then the Cowboys could play their way to Arlington next April.
3. Jahii Carson (Arizona State) -- Arizona State has quietly entered the preseason Top 25 conversation despite a 2012-13 campaign that concluded with four consecutive Pac-12 losses and a second-round exit in the NIT. But Jordan Bachynski is a legit center. And former Penn State standout Jermaine Marshall (15.3 PPG last season) will help the Sun Devils replace Evan Gordon, who transferred to Indiana. But Carson, an all-Pac 12 first-teamer last season, is the difference-maker for a program that will chase its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009. The speedy point guard averaged 18.5 PPG, 5.1 APG and 1.2 SPG last season. Those numbers might result in a preseason All-American nod for the sophomore. But he also averaged 3.5 turnovers per game on an Arizona State squad that was 91st in turnover percentage (18.5) last season per KenPom.com. Herb Sendek can’t afford those mistakes from a player who is vital to a team that has a chance to crash the Top 25 and make noise in the Pac-12 in 2013-14.
2. Doug McDermott (Creighton) -- McDermott is a perennial member of the All-Indispensable Team. I mean, what would Creighton be without him? Give coach Greg McDermott credit for putting the pieces around McDermott that have fueled his impressive run of success. Still, McDermott didn’t just elevate a program. He carried it to a new conference. The Bluejays were enticing to the new Big East because McDermott has made Creighton more nationally relevant over the last three years. Four of the team’s top five scorers from last season, including Grant Gibbs, return. With McDermott leading, Creighton could snatch the inaugural crown in the new Big East.
1. Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) -- Let me explain, OK? I know Kansas would be fine without the No. 1 recruit in America. Even if Wiggins had taken his talents to Lexington or Tallahassee, the Jayhawks would have still been relevant in the Big 12. They have Perry Ellis, Memphis transfer Tarik Black and a solid recruiting class. Plus, Bill Self has won nine consecutive conference titles. But the only reason we’re talking about Kansas as a potential national title contender, despite losing two pros (Jeff Withey, Ben McLemore) and three other starters (Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young), is because Wiggins is in Lawrence. No high school recruit has ever arrived with this much hype. He might not live up to it. If he does, however, it’ll be easy to see why he’s so indispensable.