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Making the most of opportunity

Nick Johnson's leadership and improved scoring are key reasons Arizona is ranked No. 1. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

I was recently enjoying breakfast at a First Watch restaurant in Florida when I struck up a conversation with a Syracuse fan.

We were talking about the importance of Trevor Cooney in the backcourt. The fan told me that it was amazing to see how much he has improved this season. I reminded him that players often take advantage of the opportunity when playing time is afforded to them.

Our conversation led me to think of several guys who have climbed the ranks to stardom during this college hoops campaign. Here is my All-Rising Star team.

Let's start with Cooney. Here is a guy who averaged fewer than four points per game last season, but he didn't have a great chance to earn minutes with Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche ahead of him in the Orange backcourt. When Cooney got a chance to play, it would be for a few minutes off the bench. Now that he is getting more than 30 minutes a game, his production has gone through the roof -- he's averaging 13.6 points per game and has hit double figures in 15 of the Orange's 18 wins. He's one reason Syracuse has been so impressive.

Down in Florida, Casey Prather has made a major impact for the Gators along the baseline. Last season, he averaged 6.2 PPG as a role player. He got more minutes right from the start of this season and the results have been tremendous. He entered Thursday's game against Alabama averaging 17.3 PPG while shooting 64 percent from the field. He had 27-plus points in two of his first three games, lifting his confidence. Even though he missed a couple of games due to injury, he has blossomed into a vital cog for Billy Donovan's squad.

Nick Johnson was a good player for Arizona last season. He has raised his level of play and is a legitimate All-Solid Gold candidate. Johnson is scoring 16.3 points per game -- that's nearly five points per game more than last season -- and is the leading scorer for the unbeaten No. 1 team in the country. His leadership has also stood out as an upperclassman on a team with freshmen and sophomores playing key roles.

Pittsburgh's Lamar Patterson can do it all -- score, rebound, pass. He was a good player last season, averaging 10 PPG. Now he is a star, baby, scoring almost 18 per contest while leading the Panthers to early success in the ACC. He has improved his shooting and his assists have risen. How many of you had Patterson listed as a key performer prior to this season?

Markel Brown of Oklahoma State often gets overshadowed by teammate Marcus Smart. But Brown, a senior guard, is having a very good season, as his scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and assists per game have all gone up. He's averaging 16.6 points per game and poured in 27 against Texas. Keep an eye on his importance for Travis Ford's team.

There you have it, my All-Rising Star team!