These aren’t necessarily the best players in the country, though some are in that discussion. But let’s take a look at some guys who would be extremely hard to replace if they had to miss time due to injury or foul trouble.
Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Spoiler alert: Edwards is the most accomplished player on this list, and the only realistic Naismith candidate. He figures to put up monster numbers for a solid team. We don’t know how much Edwards will improve between his sophomore and junior year, but even if he stays about the same, he’ll be much more important to the Boilermakers than he was last season. And he was crucial then.
Purdue loses Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, Isaac Haas and P.J. Thompson. That’s tough for a team that was kind of low on shot creation to begin with. Carsen Edwards used 28.7 percent of Purdue’s possessions last year, a top 100 individual mark. He could vault into the top 10 this year based on what the Boilermakers lost.
Nojel Eastern is an outstanding defender, but he’s raw offensively. Edwards is going to have to carry a heavy burden. The plus side? He’s awesome, so he’ll put up awesome numbers. The down side for Purdue? It’s hard to win at the highest level with one true shot creator.
Oshae Brissett, Syracuse
Tyus Battle scores most of the points and earns the accolades, and he’s a great player. But Brissett is a star defensively, and Syracuse ranked fifth on that end last season. He’s tailor-made to play in Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone; at 6-8 with long arms and great instincts, it’s unwise for foes to take challenge his size of the zone.
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He’s a work-in-progress offensively, but Brissett made great strides on that end last season. He averaged 14.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Part of the reason Brissett is so valuable is because of Syracuse’s roster construction. The Orange have nobody else who can do what he does; taking him out of the lineup means the defense is significantly worse and the offense loses one more guy who can create a shot.
Brissett struggled with efficiency last season, but if he can improve his shot selection, he can become an all-ACC caliber player.
Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
Texas Tech loses Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith, Niem Stevenson and Zach Smith off of last year’s team that surprised the country and earned a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament. Culver is easily the best returning player.
He was comfortable as a third offensive option last season, but much more will be asked of him in 2018-19. Culver averaged 11.2 points and 4.8 rebounds on 45.5 percent shooting while making 38.2 percent of his 3s.
The Red Raiders’ roster doesn’t look great on paper. But we didn’t expect them to win nearly as much as they did last season; Chris Beard is a heck of a coach, and while this team may struggle offensively, he’s one of the best defensive strategists in the sport. Texas Tech will be able to prevent people from scoring.
The Red Raiders just need guys who can put the ball in the basket, and that’s where Culver excels. We’ll see what he looks like with more responsibilities, but last season he demonstrated he could score from all three levels effectively. Look for him to break out.
Kamar Baldwin, Butler
Baldwin is quietly one of the best two-way players in the country, and last year, Butler relied heavily on him and Kelan Martin. Martin graduated, and Duke transfer Jordan Tucker hopes to replace him, but he won’t be eligible until second semester. Baldwin is going to get a ton of offensive work this season. Especially early on.
He averaged 15.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists last season on good percentages. Baldwin could crack 20 points per game as a junior, but keep an eye on his assist and turnover numbers. He’s a gifted playmaker who can get sloppy with the ball at times. Butler will thrive if the ball is in Baldwin’s hands and he makes good decisions with it.
We just talked a bunch about his offense, but Baldwin’s defense is his best skill. He made a made for himself by hounding the best perimeter players in the Big East as a freshman. Baldwin was still very good on that end as a sophomore, but perhaps didn’t make as many splash plays considering his offensive duties. He’ll only get busier on that end. Keep an eye on what kind of energy he brings on defense, but when he’s locked in, he’s a pest.
Sagaba Konate, West VirginiaKonate is the most powerful defensive player in the game, and although Press Virginia is fun to watch, Konate is the most tantalizing part of the scheme. He just wrecks dudes at the rim, and he’s the reason why West Virginia is able to get away with gambling for steals as much as it does. It’s easier to play with reckless abandon with a guy like Konate able to clean up mistakes. Konate averaged 3.2 rejections in just 25 minutes per game last year. Both numbers should rise in 2018-19. The Mountaineers have a bunch of feisty, athletic guards and wings, but no other bigs capable of impacting a game like Konate does.
West Virginia allowed 98.2 points per 100 possessions last season. With Konate in the game, that number dipped to 93.4. He and Jevon Carter were the only two Mountaineers with sub-100 numbers. Konate was the common denominator in all of West Virginia’s best defensive lineups.
Look for that trend to continue this season.
Tremont Waters, LSU
One of the niftiest ball-handlers in the game, Waters is an acrobat at the point guard position. He’s a speedster who can contort his body in the lane and finish over bigger guys. His 3-point shot must be accounted for, too. Waters is the primary reason why LSU is ranked 23rd in the preseason AP Top 25.
Waters is similar to Edwards but plays for a program that has less of track record of success. He’ll be the driving offensive force of a team that will likely hover around the top 25 all year. His defense shouldn’t go unnoticed, either. Waters averaged two steals per game last season. Steals aren’t everything, and Waters strays out of scheme a little too often. Perhaps he can reel it in as a sophomore. But those takeaways lead to easy baskets, and if LSU is as good as AP voters think, Waters is in for a huge season. Nobody else on LSU is capable of doing what he does.
Markus Howard, Marquette
It’s remarkable that a 5-11 point guard who’s not particularly athletic or fast can average 20.4 points per game in the Big East. But that’s Howard. With Andrew Rowsey gone, he could approach 25 points per game as a junior.
There’s an argument to be made that Howard is the best shooter in the country. He made 54.7 percent of his 3s as a freshman and while that number dipped to 40.4 percent as a sophomore, 40.4 is still, you know, awesome. Especially for a guy who takes as difficult of shots as Howard does. He’s no standstill shooter. A bunch of those are pull-up attempts with a hand in the grill.
Rowsey was able to prop up the Marquette offense when Howard rested last season. But this is completely Howard’s show now. He’s playing with some talented frontcourt players, but the Golden Eagles’ backcourt is pretty barren aside from him.
Look for him to light up Big East defenses on some nights.