The Seven College Players I’m Most Excited To Watch This Year

College basketball starts THIS WEEK. On Friday, sweet sweet Friday, we will finally have 351 teams vying to find a spot in March Madness.

After previewing the top teams in the country last week, let’s turn to the individual side. These are not the seven best players. They aren’t even my seven favorite players. But if I turn on my TV this month and I see one of these guys, I’m not changing the channel.

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Kansas

I’m as excited to watch Mykhailiuk as announcers across the nation are unexcited to try to pronounce his name. Yikes. That is a nightmare. Can’t wait for Charles Barkley to give it a go in March.

But I have, however, dedicated myself to learning how to pronounce and spell his name, because I foresee myself writing and talking about him a lot. (For reference, he’s a handy pronunciation guide. You’ll need to give it a few listens.).

So it’s no secret I’m excited to see more of Svi (the accepted nickname Stateside for the Ukranian), but why? Last year he averaged a mere 11 minutes per contest,  managing a measly 2.8 points per. Even per 40 minutes, he scored in the single digits. He shot only 31% from the field and 29% from beyond the arc.

Why then am I excited to see him? Two reasons. First, Svi was the youngest player in college basketball last season. He didn’t turn 18 years old until this past June. He was born in 1997. He was born two full years after the first Toy Story movie came out.

For a player that young to be able to accrue any minutes at a program as big and powerful as Kansas is already impressive. He took what easily could have been a learning year and turned it into a chance to familiarize himself with the college game and the Kansas program.

Now with year under his belt, he can exhibit his talents, which are immense. He’s a 6’8 guard with the ability to shoot, get to the rim, and use his long frame to get his shot.

As his body grows, along with his comfort level, confidence, and opportunities, he will be very difficult to guard. If all of those things come together, he’ll hear his name called at the NBA Draft next June, and he’ll still be only 18.

Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

It’s rare to see a player step forward during a season quite like Koenig did last year. Look at his stats, split before and after January 7.

Before Jan 7: 16 games, 15.3 min pg, 2.0 apg, 4.6 ppg

After Jan 7: 24 games, 34.8 min pg, 2.7 apg, 11.5 ppg

From year to year, it’s not uncommon to see a player step into a new role. For Koenig to convert from a backup to a player the Badgers relied on to win games is remarkable. This was more than just a guy taking advantage of his opportunity. Koenig ad 18 points and 9 assists in the Big Ten Tournament Championship game. This was a player rising to a new level.

Hayes, on the other hand, is stepping into a new role. He was great last season (he had 25 points in that same Big Ten title game), but there was no question as to who were the focal points of that Badgers offense. With Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker moving on, now Hayes becomes the go-to guy for Bo Ryan. I’m looking for him to come out strong early, tossing his name into national player of the year conversations.

Tyler Ulis, Kentucky

I already touched pretty heavily on Ulis and the guard situation at Kentucky in my last post, but consider this a warning shot in the battle between me and how often you think I can write about Tyler Ulis. YOU CAN’T STOP ME, IT’S HAPPENING.

An NBA scout recently was quoted as saying Ulis had a chance to be the best player in college basketball this season.

For that to be said about a guy who stands 5’9 and weighs 155 pounds, is absolutely bonkers. ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY FIVE POUNDS.

In classic John Calipari-“shaken Etch-a-Sketch” fashion, Ulis is essentially surrounded by an entirely new roster this season. The Cats go from a team with dominating size, to a team that still has great big men, but is fueled by their guards. Ulis will be at the forefront of this change and he’ll be a threat to drop ten dimes every time out this year.

Josh Perkins, Gonzaga

Who? A player on Gonzaga under 6’9?

Yeah, exactly. Perkins only played in four full games as a freshman before his year was ended by a Georgia player karate kicking him, breaking his jaw. (This was, for the record, not deemed a flagrant foul).

Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell have left Spokane, leaving a void in the Zags backcourt. Perkins was a highly touted recruit and showed flashes in his brief stint last season. With so much attention being paid to the Zags giant frontline, the young guard will have his chances to both score and dish to open teammates.

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State

Despite his 1907’s TV cop name, VanVleet has quietly been one of college basketball’s best over the last two years, full stop. While Wichita State has gotten press for the much louder and noticeable cast around Freddy, namely head coach Greg Marshall, boy band castoff Ron Baker, and current New York Knick Cleanthony Early, it’s been VanVleet stirring the drink for the Shockers.

He was a Naismith Award semifinalist as a sophomore, then saw his points and rebounds per game increase, with assists and steals remaining consistent.

Now he’s a senior and has a chance to put together a truly transcendent season.

Ben Simmons, LSU

As a college basketball purist, the influx of one and done players is challenging for me. For someone who covers and follows the sport extensively, I don’t pay much attention to the recruiting cycle. I know of most of the big names coming in, but I don’t scour the rankings or watch tons of AAU highlight tapes.

So when we start a new season each year, it takes time to acclimate to the new faces in college hoops. Last year that meant meeting Karl-Anthony Towns and realizing how to spell “Justise Winslow”.

This year, we meet Ben Simmons. And if everything we’ve heard about him is an indication, it won’t take long for him to make a name for himself. He’s listed at 6’10, but plays a fluid perimeter game. NCAA basketball hasn’t seen a player like this since Kevin Durant, who electrified every college gym he entered.

Simmons and the Bayou Bengals face Kentucky on January 5 and March 5.

Mark you calendars accordingly.

*

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com.

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