By Andrew Kahn
As conference play gets underway, here are five players to keep an eye on. Come March, they could become household names you’ll want to be familiar with.
Note: All stats and records reflect games played through Tuesday, Dec. 27.
Marcus Foster, Creighton
This is a name you may have forgotten, as Marcus Foster sat out last season after transferring from Kansas State, where he led the Wildcats in scoring his two years there. He’s doing the same so far (19.1 points per game) for the undefeated Bluejays, ranked ninth in the AP Poll.
A player sitting out his team’s games can work harder during the season because he doesn’t have to save his legs for real competition. Last year, Foster improved his individual skills and cut his body fat in half. The 6’ 3” guard has always been a talented offensive player who can shoot off the catch or dribble as well as drive to the hoop. He has improved his shot selection this season and is shooting 51 percent from the field, including 41 percent from deep.
“Marcus is one of those players that has the ability to make some tough shots,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. “As a coach you have to live with a little bit more of that than you do from some other players because he’s shown the ability over his career to make difficult shots. The challenge for Marcus and what we’ve tried to explain to him is when’s a good time for those. If you’re in the middle of a run and you’re trying to throw the knockout punch and you’ve hit three or four shots in a row, maybe that’s OK. But if you’ve gone four or five possessions without scoring, we need to try to get the best shot we possibly can. As the season has gone on, Marcus’ understanding of that has improved.”
Foster’s shot making has helped Creighton top the country in three-point shooting (45 percent) and place second in effective field goal percentage. Improving on the defensive end —McDermott thinks Foster can be one of the best two-way players in the country — and could take the team to even greater heights come Tournament time.
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
The pipeline from Australia to Moraga, California, is as strong as ever. Saint Mary’s, the program known for Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, has seven Australians on its roster this season. The best of the bunch is 6’ 11”, 255-pound center Jock Landale. The junior is averaging 17.9 points and 9.5 rebounds for the 10-1 Gaels, ranked 19th in the latest polls. He’s shooting 64 percent from the field and is 40 of 50 (80 percent) from the foul line.
Landale did not start last season and never reached double digits scoring after January. Conditioning was his biggest problem. “His efficiency was good last year, but he just couldn’t sustain the effort,” said associate head coach Marty Clarke. He’s been a different player this season. Landale is an elite offensive rebounder and has good touch around the rim. He’s made 3 of 9 three-pointers this year and Clarke said that is an evolving part of his game that Landale will showcase more in the future. Saint Mary’s was snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee last season and is hungry to get back for the first time since 2013.
Tacko Fall, Central Florida
Tacko Fall should be a household name based on his name alone. Plus, at 7’ 6”, he’s the tallest player in college basketball. As a freshman last season, he played 17 minutes a game, averaging seven points and six rebounds. His numbers are way up this season: 15.9 points and 12.3 rebounds (third in country) in nearly 28 minutes. Like Landale, conditioning is a big reason.
“A lot of it was mental fatigue last year,” said UCF assistant coach Jamill Jones. “He wasn’t able to push through those walls when he felt discomfort. Now he understands, ‘I can give a little more.’” Jones said there are still times when Fall slows down a bit, but at least he’s not completely shutting down.
Nearly all of Fall’s shots come right at the rim, many on dunks, and he is shooting 84 percent from the field (83 of 99), best in the country. In fact, the NCAA record for a single season is 75 percent. He scored 20 points against Villanova earlier this season on 10 of 10 shooting. Foul shooting is a trouble spot (25 of 58; 43 percent), but Fall made a tweak to his mechanics a few weeks into the season and has shot much better since.
UCF has the No. 1 effective field goal percentage defense in the country, in large part due to Fall’s presence. “Tacko can shrink the court unlike anyone in the country,” Jones said. “When he gets in his stance and puts his arms out, he literally can go lane line to lane line.” No team can fully prepare for him because no team can replicate his size in practice. Fall blocks 2.6 shots per game and alters many more.
UCF is 9-3 without any signature non-conference wins and was picked eighth out of 11 American Athletic Conference teams in the preseason poll. With Fall’s continued development, he and the Knights could be a scary matchup in March.
Amile Jefferson, Duke
Amile Jefferson began his senior season with a bang, starting all nine games and averaging a double-double with points and rebounds. Duke was 8-1 and ranked seventh in the country. Then, Jefferson broke his foot and missed the rest of the year. The Blue Devils didn’t exactly go into a tailspin—they earned a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament—but their defense and rebounding were significantly compromised. Jefferson was granted a fifth year and has picked up where he left off, averaging a double-double (14.2 points and 10.8 rebounds) for the one-loss, fifth-ranked Blue Devils.
Jefferson has never been the star in Durham. Even when he started, he was overshadowed by future first-round picks Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Brandon Ingram. This year, Duke boasts Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, and a handful of highly-touted freshmen.
Don’t forget about Jefferson. The 6’ 9” forward is a vocal leader who sets solid screens, plays good interior defense, and rebounds at both ends. He has looked for his own shot more this year and is shooting 65 percent. Jefferson is important, and it shouldn’t take an injury for people to realize that.
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
When Bryce Drew left Valparaiso for Vanderbilt, there was widespread speculation that Alec Peters would leave too, perhaps to follow his coach. Peters, a senior, stayed, hoping to get Valpo back to the NCAA Tournament.
The versatile 6’ 9” forward is second in the nation in scoring at 26.4 points per game. His shooting percentages are down this year but he’s getting to the line a lot more and has made 84 of 90 foul shots (93 percent).
Like Fall, he’s a risky choice for this list. When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, the Horizon is a one-bid league. Valpo was left out last year despite an impressive resume and had to settle for runner-up in the NIT. But Peters, who can beat opponents inside and out, would be a dangerous matchup. The Crusaders made the Big Dance two years ago and lost to Maryland by three; Peters led all scorers with 18. Watch out for Peters, in March or in the NBA.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and covers the Michigan basketball team for UMHoops.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn