The 2012-13 college basketball tip-off is upon us as the action gets underway on Friday. There’s a long way to go before the madness of March, but here are the five most important and influential players to watch this season:
1. Christian Watford — Indiana Hoosiers
The 6-foot-9 wing forward is not a typical wing forward because his size is more consistent with a power forward. However, Watford is a player who has great range with his perimeter jump shot. He beats defenses not by pounding them, but by shooting against them. Watford plays a face-up game instead of employing a back-to-the-basket game.
Watford is the player to watch on Indiana, the preseason No. 1 team in the United States, because most of the attention will flow to super sophomore Cody Zeller in the paint. Watford needs to flourish on the wing so that Zeller won’t be double-teamed as much. Indiana needs to have strong second and third scorers to help Zeller manage the team’s offensive workload. If Watford comes and goes and is not a particularly consistent player, Indiana won’t make the Final Four and deliver on its considerable talent.
2. Gorgui Dieng — Louisville Cardinals
The player who receives more national attention on Louisville than anyone else is point guard Peyton Siva. However, the man who really made the Cardinals click last year and powered them to the Final Four was Dieng, an awkward center who refused to take a 15-foot jump shot on many occasions and did not give his team much of any value at the offensive end of the floor. How could a player like this be the main engine of a Final Four run? Simple — Dieng was one of the three best shot-blocking defenders in the country alongside Jeff Withey of Kansas and the national player of the year, Anthony Davis of Kentucky. Dieng was such a shot-blocking monster in the paint for Louisville that opposing offenses refused to take the ball to the rim. If he plays the same level of defense this year and adds that 13- to 15-foot jumper, Louisville will be very tough to beat.
3. Nerlens Noel — Kentucky
It’s another season in which a Kentucky team crafted by master recruiter John Calipari will try to build around a freshman big man. Noel will try to do what Davis did last year: burst onto the scene in major college basketball, lead his team to a national championship and then go to the NBA after one year. Maybe Noel won’t be good enough to pull off the feat, but the point is that if he is good enough to do so, Kentucky will likely make the Final Four and contend for a repeat championship. Kentucky needs Noel to shine if the Wildcats are going to become the first repeat champion in college hoops since Florida in 2007.
4. Will Yeguete — Florida Gators
Florida reached the Elite Eight last season even though Yeguete, a crafty rebounding forward, was sidelined with an injury for the entirety of the postseason. Yeguete is back in action this year, and if his body can withstand the strain of a full season, Florida will have the ruggedness near the rim that it will need if it wants to get to the Final Four, a destination the team barely missed out on last season after blowing a big lead to Louisville in the West Regional final.
5. Lorenzo Brown — North Carolina State Wolfpack
The North Carolina State Wolfpack are being tabbed by most college basketball outlets and experts to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. This is rarefied air for N.C. State, a program that has largely underachieved over the past two decades despite a rich college basketball tradition and a presence in the basketball-mad state of North Carolina. The competition for N.C. State is certainly fierce, with the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils occupying the same neighborhood. However, if Brown — a 6-foot-4 point guard with a good handle and a better shot — can deliver the goods, the Wolfpack’s offense can really sing. Brown is the man who will be able to unlock the full potential of his team’s offense in 2012 and 2013.