Here are seven of the most valuable players in the country. Quick note: this doesn’t always mean the best players, but stars qualify. Trae Young is on this list, because what would Oklahoma be without him?
With that said, the main point here was to identify players whose skillsets are completely unique to their own teams. Here we go.
*Carsen Edwards, Purdue
P.J. Thompson is a steady point guard, but his shot-creating ability is nowhere near that of Edwards. Purdue has great shooters, but standstill snipers are only effective if someone can create looks for them. Edwards gets shots for himself, and others. He’s the biggest reason why the Boilermakers have the No. 6 offense.
Edwards is likely a four-year player. He’s all-Big Ten worthy right now. As a senior, he could be a Naismith candidate.
*Devonte' Graham, Kansas
Graham may fall under the ‘duh’ category, but this statement won’t: Graham is more valuable to Kansas this year than Frank Mason was last year. Why? Because Graham doesn’t have a sidekick like, well, himself. He carries a massive burden for the Jayhawks as a senior.
Malik Newman was supposed to step into the secondary scoring role, but he’s struggled and has been benched by Bill Self (Newman was great against Iowa State, so perhaps he can perk up). Graham is keeping Kansas afloat. He’s averaging a career-high 18.1 points while shooting 43.2 percent from 3. His usage rate (23.8) has skyrocketed; he never posted a number higher than 18.3 before now.
Graham is playing 35.6 minutes per game, and those are hard minutes, considering he doesn’t have a true backup point guard. Newman and LaGerald Vick are off-ball threats.
Kansas hasn’t been as good as we expected, but without Graham, they might not even make the NCAA tournament.
*Trae Young, Oklahoma
Of course Young is on here. He’s the leading scorer and assist man in college basketball, while Oklahoma scores 93 points per game. The Sooners won 11 games last year; they’re already at 13 in early January and Young is the biggest difference between rosters. No need to bleed ink on the best player in the country — he’s a star, and Oklahoma wouldn’t sniff the top 10 without him.
*Romello White, Arizona State
Bobby Hurley uses a turbo-charged small lineup with White as the nominal big, and he’s held up nicely. The Arizona State defense still struggles; the Sun Devils rank 109th on that end. But Hurley’s three-guard lineup helps juice the offense, where ASU ranks fourth. It’s a tradeoff he’ll take, but White is the reason why Arizona State isn’t totally dreadful on defense.
White is averaging 20.2 points and 13 rebounds per 40 minutes on 65 percent shooting. He’s a 6-8, 220-pounder playing center — a natural four playing out of position for the team’s benefit. Arizona State’s other big men — De’Quon Lake and Mickey Mitchell — are solid defenders, but don’t provide the type of offensive value White does. He’s a two-way player on a team full of offensive gunners.
The Sun Devils would look a lot different with White out of the lineup.
*Rawle Alkins, Arizona
We’ve seen proof of this. When Alkins was sidelined with a broken foot, Arizona finished last in the Battle 4 Atlantis with losses to N.C. State, SMU and Purdue. Since Alkins’ return, the Wildcats are 6-1.
Alkins is Arizona’s best perimeter defender by a mile. The Wildcats’ defense has struggled, but Alkins has propped it up as much as he can; he’s a 6-5, 220-pound wing who can guard four positions. Allonzo Trier is a scorer, not a defender. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is skilled, but tiny. The Wildcats lack depth. Without Alkins, their perimeter defense is bad — we saw it in the Bahamas.
Alkins has been great offensively, too — he’s averaging 15.6 points on 50 percent shooting. It would be nice if he was a more reliable 3-point shooter — Alkins is shooting 33 percent from range — but he’s a good secondary creator who serves as a nice outlet for Trier and DeAndre Ayton. Alkins is averaging 2.3 assists, which is solid for a small forward.
He’s given Arizona the toughness it lacked during his injury.
*Khyri Thomas, Creighton
Thomas does everything well. He’s first on Creighton in assists and steals, second in points, and third in rebounds. He’s also the Bluejays’ best perimeter defender, and Greg McDermott knows it. McDermott slotted the 6-3 Thomas on Butler’s best player, 6-7 Kelan Martin, on Tuesday. Martin finished 5-of-12 for 10 points.
And McDermott had to go out of his way to create that matchup. Martin starts at the four for the Bulldogs, so McDermott put 6-10 power forward Toby Hegner on Aaron Thompson, Butler’s point guard. That was an extreme example — Thompson is a non-shooter — but the point is, Thomas is such an elite defender that his coach will do seemingly crazy things in order to slot him on the opponent’s best scorer.
Thomas is the kind of guy who profiles as an exquisite role player on a national champion; if he’s your third-best player, you have a great chance to win it all. He’s No. 25 Creighton’s best player, and the Bluejays could land in the top 20 of next week’s poll. He’s a superstar glue guy, covering up for his teammates’ mishaps on a regular basis.
*Cassius Winston, Michigan State
Winston isn’t a big name in comparison to his teammates, but he’s arguably the most important player on the team.
Why? Position redundancy. In some order, Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward (he may seem out of place here, but his per-40 stats are absurd) are the Spartans’ three best players. But using all of them at the same time can make for a clunky fit, so with one on the bench, Michigan State wouldn’t lose all that much.
Winston is the best shooter on the team — he’s canning 53 percent of his triples, and plays a position of need for the Spartans. Tum-Tum Nairn is a nice player, but he clogs up the offense. He can’t shoot, and because Tom Izzo uses Bridges, Jackson and Ward together, shooting is absolutely paramount for the Michigan State backcourt.
Winston is also a dynamite passer — he’s averaging 7.1 dimes. His performance varied as a freshman, but he’s having a superb sophomore year.