A year ago at this time the early-season spotlight shining on Andrew Nicholson at St. Bonaventure's inspired me to come up with a shortlist of obscure big men who had profiles suggesting they could break through like he did. The list was built on the premise that we don't often hear about players like Nicholson at the national level until after their breakout campaigns, rather than during them.
With that in mind, I looked for a group of mid-major frontcourt players who made significant production jumps from their freshman to sophomore seasons, with the potential to do more as juniors. To limit the available pool even further, I only included players who were not preseason favorites for first-team honors in their respective conferences entering their junior years.
Out of the five players I wrote about last year, three ended up as first-team performers in their conferences: Tennessee State's Robert Covington, The Citadel's Mike Groselle, and Loyola MD's Erik Etherly. Of those three, Covington enters his senior season firmly in the national spotlight. In addition to leading a team that will be in the mix for an Ohio Valley title, Covington is ranked as the No. 23 senior in Division I by Draft Express. While he's not being talked about as an NBA pick in the same manner as Nicholson last year, Covington has nonetheless made a similar leap in terms of his national profile.
Using the same general criteria as last year's post, I attempted to come up with five junior forwards/centers who are poised to breakout this season, but who have not yet been identified by voters in their conferences for preseason honors. By March 2013, these players could very well be first-team performers, and perhaps one of them will find himself in the national spotlight like Nicholson and Covington by the time his senior season begins in November 2013.
One of this season's most intriguing conference races should be between Mercer and USC Upstate in the Atlantic Sun. That's a stunning reality for the latter program, because prior to last year's 21-win campaign, the Spartans had not won more than nine games in any of the preceding four seasons. A significant contributor in the turnaround has been 6-8 forward Ricardo Glenn. As a sophomore, Glenn made 53 percent of his twos and was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. His playing time will likely see another boost in 2012-13, which will boost his counting stats, but it'll also be worth monitoring whether he can maintain his lofty offensive rating (112) with increased opportunities. One way for him to sustain or improve upon that rate is at the free throw line. He was a frequent visitor to the charity stripe in 2011-12 but shot just 57 percent while there. Glenn will be an important piece for coach Eddie Payne this season, but even a breakthrough season may not be enough to steal the spotlight on a team that features the reigning A-Sun Player of the Year in Torrey Craig and last year's conference Rookie of the Year, Ty Greene. Even with so many perimeter weapons, Glenn still projects to have a great season, though most of his touches may have to come from offensive rebounds.
If there's one certainty about Brandon Brekke, it's that he's going to make an overwhelming amount of his two-point attempts. As a sophomore, he nailed 116 of 170 attempts (68 percent) inside the arc. Going forward, the 6-8 junior can go from a reliable generator of easy buckets to an elite threat by increasing his time on the floor. Fouls have troubled Brekke in the past, as he committed 5.5 per 40 minutes in 2011-12, which was the highest mark in the North Dakota rotation. If he's on the court for longer periods of time, UND will benefit from a slight reallocation of shots among Troy Huff and Brekke. Huff was firmly the go-to guy last season (30 percent usage rate), but he had an effective FG percentage of just 43 in that role. If Brekke's on the court, a more even usage distribution between the two players may go a long way toward improving the team's overall offensive efficiency. If that occurs, look for Brekke to be among the most productive frontcourt options in the Big Sky.
William and Mary
On a team full of inaccurate shooters and turnover-prone ballhandlers, the efficient Rusthoven was a bit of an outlier for William and Mary in 2011-12. Aside from one rarely used player, Rusthoven was the only player on the team to break the 50 percent mark for two-point accuracy, and he was essentially the only guy crashing the offensive glass. He ended the year with the team's third-highest usage rate behind two guards, Brandon Britt and Marcus Thornton, who each had an offensive rating of 84. Something is amiss when a team's two least efficient players are carrying the heaviest load. Rusthoven could help in that regard with an increased role this season. While there may be a trade-off between efficiency and usage for him, he'd still be the better option for the Tribe even with a slight drop in efficiency. Expect the 6-9 forward to continue to increase his rebounding rates on his way to becoming one of the best rebounders in the CAA.
Ryan Nicholas shares a lot in common with the aforementioned Tim Rusthoven. In 2011-12, his team really struggled on offense, due in large part to young and inefficient guards leading the charge. Nicholas, like Rusthoven, provided a steadying presence in the frontcourt and, when properly utilized, was his team's most efficient offensive option. Nicholas' ceiling is higher, though, for two reasons: 1) he ably introduced the three-pointer to his scoring repertoire last season, and 2) his turnover rate and rebounding rates actually improved even as he expanded his game to the perimeter. Nicholas has the potential to be much more than a dependable big man; he could be a go-to guy for the Pilots. When paired with promising sophomore center Thomas van der Mars -- who may just be on this list next season -- Portland's frontcourt looks solid for the next couple years. If Eric Reveno's squad experiences a positive swing in its win-loss record this season, a breakout season from Nicholas will be a major reason why.
It was only two seasons ago that Hampton was in the NCAA tournament thanks in large part to wings Darrion Pellum and Kwame Morgan. The Pirates were anticipating a return in 2011-12, but that was before Morgan broke his leg and missed all of last season. His appeal for a sixth year so he could play this season was denied, and Pellum has since graduated. Thus, a new era begins for Hampton in 2012-13, one that will feature no fewer than 10 newcomers. The lone returning starter is junior David Bruce, a 6-10 center who was among the top rebounders in the MEAC a year ago. Bruce's counting stats may be very impressive this season because he's going to be on the floor a lot and will serve as the team's focal point. By MEAC standards, Bruce was fairly efficient as a sophomore, but expect that to drop in 2012-13 as he takes on a larger share of possessions and as opponents game plan against him. If some of his newcomer teammates are able to make an immediate impact, however, Bruce will benefit on his way to becoming an elite talent in the MEAC.
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