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The Most Important Players in America in 2016-17

November 11, 2016 Columns No Comments

There’s every reason to expect that freshmen will dominate the college basketball landscape in 2016-17. The incoming group of freshmen may be the best we have seen in several years, and after a relatively lackluster group a year ago, it will shine by comparison. Even as that is the case, veterans still matter in college basketball, and that will be the case this season even for teams that are stacked with talented freshmen.

In that vein, we give you Isaiah Briscoe, the most important player in America.

Briscoe was highly-touted at a young age in high school, but he continued to grow into a better player and then a big-time winner. He entered Kentucky as many players do – with the weight of expectations. At times he looked the part, at other times not so much. After considering a jump to the NBA Draft, he opted to return, and now he will be as much a barometer of the Wildcats’ season as anyone.

Kentucky has a tremendous group of freshmen coming in, a quartet that should make them competitive for a national championship. Plenty has been said about the likes of Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Wenyen Gabriel, along with Sasha Killeya-Jones. But perhaps most important of all will be what this team gets from Briscoe, especially from an intangible standpoint.

When Kentucky won a national championship in 2012 headlined by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, it wasn’t just freshmen who made a difference. That team had a key senior in Darius Miller. When Duke won in 2015, freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow headlined (with Grayson Allen having a coming-out party in the title game), but senior Quinn Cook was a big part of that team as well. Teams that win with lots of freshmen talent need experienced teammates as well. On this young Kentucky team, Briscoe is a grizzled veteran as only Derek Willis plays significant minutes among the three seniors.

Here are nine other players who are in the same boat as Briscoe – players whose performance will have an outsize impact on their team’s fate this season.

Joel Berry II, Jr. G, North Carolina  There is plenty of talent and experience in the Tar Heel frontcourt, leaving no questions there. Berry is now the man on the perimeter, and it’s up to him to be something like what Marcus Paige was to this team if they are to make another run.

Jabari Bird, Sr. G, California  He’s been a solid complementary player over his career, and he still won’t necessarily become the first option. But the Golden Bears need him to do more this year, especially with the surprise transfer of Jordan Mathews.

Shakir Brown, Sr. G, James Madison  If the Dukes are to contend under first-year head coach Louis Rowe, Brown has to be the go-to guy. There were some games last year where he was their best player, so he’s capable.

Noah Dickerson, So. F, Washington  Markelle Fultz is very good, but won’t be able to do it alone, or with just David Crisp alongside him. Dickerson could give them important production up front to keep defenses honest.

Amile Jefferson, Sr. F, Duke  Like Kentucky, the Blue Devils are loaded with talented freshmen. Jefferson was missed greatly last year for his inside presence, but he’s back healthy now.

JeQuan Lewis, Sr. G, VCU  It’s up to him and Mo Alie-Cox to lead the way if this Rams team is to contend in the Atlantic 10. He’s certainly talented enough to do it.

Josh Perkins, So. G, Gonzaga  There’s never been a doubt about his talent, but an injury ended his true freshman season early and last year he was good, but a far cry from the star guards they had before. The Bulldogs have plenty of talent this time around, and how he develops will have something to do with how far they go.

Darryl Reynolds,  Sr. F, Villanova  He was already set to be a key player for this team, but with Omari Spellman being declared academically ineligible by the NCAA, he becomes that much more important.

Landry Shamet, Fr. G, Wichita State  The Shockers had hoped to have him for depth last year, as well as some early development, but he got hurt. With the dynamic backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker gone, he now has to lead the way on the perimeter complementing the likes of Markis McDuffie.

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