Every season, players from each conference take a massive step contributing to their team, going from a role-player to a star or bench depth the prior season to a vital role player. We’re still away from the season tipping off in the second week of November, but it’s never too early to figure out who could be in for a breakout season. The “requirements” to make a list is you cannot have been the team’s leading scorer last season and can’t have averaged double-digit points last season. Each of the 32 conferences will be featured in this piece:
Reece Beekman Guard, Virginia
Beekman averaged 4.7 points 3.0 assists during his freshman campaign — that’s not much of a surprise because of the lack of usage freshmen typically see at Virginia. During the entire Tony Bennett era in Charlottesville, the highest-scoring freshman player was De’Andre Hunter (9.2) back in 2017-18. Other players that blossomed into All-Americans, including Hunter, didn’t take a major step until year two. A player that took the most major step was former All-American Kyle Guy, who went from a seldom-used spot-up shooter during his freshman season to one of the ACC’s most feared scorers in the matter of a season. Beekman didn’t shoot more than eight times in any single game and was largely inefficient, shooting 38 percent from the field, 24 percent from three, but on a higher volume allowing correction for mistakes could go a long way for his Sophomore season. The 2021-22 Wahoos shape up to be eerily similar with the 2019-20 squad that struggled to score for large chunks of the season, making Beekman’s emergence ultra-valuable.
Mike Saunders Jr Guard, Cincinnati
The Wasatch Academy grad didn’t see substantial playing-time until later in the season but showed flashes of what’s to come in a tight loss to Memphis — where he scored a career-best 19 points. When watching Saunders, it’s easy to see why he’ll be a successful College Basketball player due to his electrifying quickness, burst off the dribble. Although he’s a smaller player at only 6′ foot, Saunders doesn’t let that hinder his game — one of his best attributes is scoring the ball over larger defenders, whether it’s a floater or finishing with a soft touch of the glass. The big question in terms of a true “breakout” likely is can the shooting come around? During his freshman season, Saunders shot only 5-23 from deep but shot 39 percent deep during his final high school season. In a larger sample, I believe that Saunders could be a capable shooter, even if that’s not the case though. New Head Coach Wes Miller is no stranger to finding ways to hide players’ limitations. At UNCG, Isaiah Miller earned 2x Southern Conference Player of the year honors despite shooting a dreadful 24 percent from three-point range in his four-season career in Greensboro. The opportunity will present itself for Saunders, likely coming into the game as the sparkplug sixth-man for the Bearcats next season or potentially playing aside to veteran guard David DeJulius.
Thomas Webley Forward, Hartford
Hartford lost their starting five-man Miroslav Stafl to Central Michigan, opening up the starting role for the sophomore from New Zealand Thomas Webley. During his freshman campaign, Webley posted a career-best 10 points against NJIT, in a loss where Miroslav Stafl suffered an injury in the first half. Webley, once he gets the ball down low, is tough to stop with his incredibly soft touch at the bucket but isn’t a perimeter threat the way Stafl had been. The Hawks look for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance after shocking the world by winning the America East tournament in 2020-21.
Drake Dobbs Guard, Liberty
Dobbs played a minimal role for the Flames last season behind an experienced backcourt duo of Chris Parker and ASUN POY Darius McGhee. Fast-forwarding, Parker opted to pursue a professional career leaving the reigns at the lead guard spot up for grabs. The guy I see sneaking into that role is sophomore guard Drake Dobbs, a player who can light it up from deep, which he showed in his High School days, but does have an unorthodox shooting form. Parker did a fantastic job setting the table for the Flames last season, leading the team with 3.4 assists. Having a guard that can play the slow-tempo pace, Richie McKay deploys while making decisions on a whim if needed is integral to what this offense does. Coach McKay constantly churns out teams in contention for the conference championship, 2021-22 will follow the trend.
Jamir Watkins Forward, VCU
The Rams made the NCAA Tournament last season but never appeared in the NCAA Tournament because of a positive COVID-Test DQ’ing the Rams from the tournament. The two most valuable players from last year won’t be playing next season in the Siegel Center. Bones Hyland is off to the pros, while Ace Baldwin suffered a torn Achilles last month, halting his season. Mike Rhoades will have to shuffle the cards around to find scoring next season. That’ll come with sophomore combo forward Jamir Watkins — last season, Watkins had an up-and-down first year, but the talent is there. At worst, you’re getting a supreme athlete that displays high-end defensive versatility. At best, Watkins could lead the Rams in scoring, which will be possible if he improves his three-point percentage above the 28 percent mark from last season. Last season, Vince Williams Jr made significant strides shooting-wise, going from a 20 percent shooter as a sophomore to 41 percent during his junior season. VCU should be a top-four team in the A10 next season, but that could change if Watkins enjoys a breakout season.
Andre Jackson Wing, UConn
The Huskies lose James Bouknight, who will be a top-ten pick in next month’s NBA draft. How do they replace his scoring load? One place to look is with sophomore super-athlete Andre Jackson. The former top-50 recruit didn’t get into the mix often last season due to a knee injury. The question with Jackson is, can he be a polished player on the offensive end? Jackson’s a pure elite athlete with unbelievable hops but isn’t much of a shooter, and he’ll be able to score based on his athletic ability alone. Still, he becomes an All-Conference player if there’s a jumper in the toolbag. The Huskies will be in opposing teams’ nightmares due to the defense and athleticism, which Jackson will contribute.
Jonathan Davis Guard, Wisconsin
Davis came into the 2020-21 season labeled as the 164th ranked recruit in the Class of 2020, but quickly we realized he was far more gifted than that number would indicate. Davis finished out his freshman season scoring seven points per contest — next season, tremendous opportunity awaits. Last season, Wisconsin was the country’s oldest team, now graduating D’Mitrik Trice, Aleem Ford, who took a fair amount of shots from the perimeter. Davis’s exquisite ability to knock down tough mid-range shots is his calling card, which is unique in today’s basketball, where taking a mid-range jumper is an ancient art. However, if you can knock them down the way Davis can, that’s not a worry. Davis only attempted 36 three’s making 14 of them on the season, but expect him to attempt more shots from beyond the arc this season. With Davis back for his Sophomore season, Brad Davison utilizing his extra-season of eligibility, the Badgers look poised for another NCAA Tournament bid in 2021-22.
Matthew Mayer Forward, Baylor
Mayer closed out the season on an impressive note, hoisting the National Championship trophy in the Bears’ remarkable rout of Gonzaga in Indy. Mayer, however, didn’t play a significant role in the title game scoring only two points in sixteen minutes of game action. Shortly after the season concluded, Mayer tested the NBA Draft Waters, later deciding it’s wise to spend one final season at Baylor, where he’s poised to be in contention for conference player of the year. In only 15.7 minutes per game, Mayer scored 8.2 points in these minutes. If you extrapolate those minutes out to double last season’s number (31.4), also doubling Mayer’s point average catapults to 16.4 points. Without the starting foursome of Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague, Mark Vital, it’s reasonable to assume the senior forward plays over 30 minutes. The Bears will enter the season a top-ten team on the prowl for another Final Four.
Silas Mason forward, UNC Asheville
Last season the top-recruit in Bulldog history only played 120 minutes, which isn’t surprising because of the bizarre year it was for incoming freshmen. No off-season practices or training program, no real opportunity to build continuity with teammates, especially on an Asheville team who returned a vast majority of their roster. Heading into this season, Mason should play a substantial role, where he’ll show off ACC-level athleticism in the Big South. Mason’s a legitimate human highlight reel with authority on the dunks he throws down. There’s versatility there on the defensive end due to his 6’7 frame, athleticism, but will Mason be able to hit an open three if the defense leaves him open? That’s the big question. Even if he’s a complete liability shooting-wise, he’ll score purely off his athletic ability. Mike Morrell’s crew beat Winthrop last season, something none of the other teams in the conference could accomplish. This season, UNCA should be a top-two team in the conference led by superstar scorer Taijon Jones.
Josh Bannan Forward, Montana
The former Australian professional basketball player averaged 8.6 points, 5.9 rebounds during his freshman season for the Grizz. There’s a lot of untapped potential with Bannan, a smooth 6’9 lefty with the capability of drilling shots from deep. Last season Bannan only attempted 34 three-pointers, of which he made eight. There’s a three-point shot in his arsenal and he is a good foul-shooter hitting over 80 percent of his shots from the charity stripe. Bannan’s one of the more physically gifted players in the Big Sky next season, and his game should flourish in year two.
Josh Pierre-Louis Guard, UCSB
The Gauchos capped off an impressive run in 2020-21 by making the NCAA Tournament, nearly winning a game, but an Amadou Sow layup while time elapsed bounced off the rim. Joe Pasternack loses his team leader JaQuori McLaughlin to the NBA — his best defender returns for another season, Josh Pierre-Louis, younger brother of former Temple defensive anchor Nate. Similar to his elder brother, Josh is a superb athlete, however, struggles shooting-wise hindered his overall game last season. UCSB needs to replace the scoring load of McLaughlin, and electric guard Josh Pierre-Louis aims to up his scoring average from 6.4 points.
Jordan Ivy-Curry Guard, UTSA
The guard duo of Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace proved to be one of the nation’s best last season, combining for 35 points-per-gam, but both depart for the professional ranks leaving an obvious question mark in the backcourt. The answer is sophomore Jordan Ivy-Curry, last season, and he waited in the wings behind the two scoring guards — Ivy-Curry was impressive in his own right scoring 7.2 points in addition to shooting 37.5 percent from outside. The sophomore guard will see an uptick in both scoring and assists, and he’s a natural playmaker. The role reversal from sixth-man to lead guard won’t be a detriment. Winning games hasn’t been the easiest of tasks for the Roadrunners the past few seasons, but Ivy-Curry is a winning basketball player that’ll change UTSA’s outlook in the next three seasons.
Terrell Strickland Guard, James Madison
The Dukes stunned the world by winning the conference regular-season title but fell short in the conference tournament. During that conference tourney, Conference player of the year Matt Lewis fell with a season-ending injury — now Lewis departs for the league, priming Terrell Strickland for an increased role on top of his 5.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.9 assist freshman season. If the last name Strickland rings a bell in the Basketball circles, it’s likely because of Terrell’s father, Rod, a 15 year NBA veteran. The bloodlines run well for the Dukes’ defensive anchor. Mark Byington had a busy offseason hauling in the commitments of three other guards — including Tyree Ihenacho from North Dakota. I don’t see those additions impacting the overall impact of Strickland next season. Given the versatility of the incoming players, overall, James Madison is a clear-contender in a conference that is a battle every night.
Donavan Newby Guard, Milwaukee
If you’re a Panthers fan, odds are you’re ecstatic, counting the days until we finally get to November to watch Patrick Baldwin Jr don a Panthers jersey for the first time. That’s going to be an exhilarating experience, but there’s a resounding question mark when breaking down this roster as a result of Te’Jon Lucas’s transfer to BYU. Who picks up the slack at the point? Sophomore Donavan Newby, a steady four-point-per-game, two assists per-game freshman season, looks to replicate Lucas’s success last season. If the Panthers become the hottest team in the Horizon entering the latter half of the season, figuring out the point guard play is paramount, Newby will have ample opportunity.
Ethan Wright Guard, Princeton
It’s tough figuring out the Ivy League at the moment. Outside of a few notable returnees, most of the conference departed for greener pastures once the Ivy axed the 2020-21 season, becoming the lone conference to cancel the season. Princeton suffered a few blows in the portal, one being sharpshooting guard Ryan Schweiger, who’s off to Loyola Chicago — that’ll open up a spot for Ethan Wright to be a nice jump-shooting option on the perimeter, where he excelled back in 2019-20 shooting 36.3 percent from deep. The Tigers are poised to be contenders in the Ivy, but finding a secondary scorer aside from conference player of the year contender Jaeilyn Llewellyn. Wright showed that potential on numerous occasions during the Tigers’ most recent season, scoring double-figures on different games.
Mark Sears Guard, Ohio
Ohio won an NCAA Tournament game in 2020-21 led by potential first-round pick Jason Preston, who just announced his intentions to stay in the NBA Draft; that doesn’t mean it’s doomsday for the Bobcats. That’s because Sophomore point guard Mark Sears showed his potential stardom, evident by his 18 points, eight assist game in a victory over Ball State. The main area of improvement is becoming a reliable shooter from the outside, which is possible due to an impressive 85 percent free-throw shooting percentage, a good barometer to use indicating whether there’s shooting potential. On the season, Sears finished out averaging 8.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists. His numbers will skyrocket without Preston in the Bobcats pursuit of another MAC Championship.
Aidan Carpenter Guard, Siena
All MAAC teams played a truncated season due to rampant COVID spread among the programs, which resulted in Siena not playing a non-conference slate. The season was even shorter for Hamden, CT native Aidan Carpenter, only competing in 12 contests during his freshman season, averaging 5.7 points in those 12 games. The Saints got the top seed in the MAAC Tournament last season. Still, they lost their top three scorers, Manny Camper opting to pursue a professional career and Jalen Pickett, Jordan King deciding to transfer to other programs. Looking ahead, Carpenter should thrive using his strength getting to the basket this season. Improving his overall shooting numbers would be a difference-maker. After shooting 27 percent from deep, 53 percent on free throws last season, that’ll open up the driving lanes far more if opponents respect the jumper. Carpenter has a golden opportunity in 2021-22.
Mike Sixsmith Guard, Sacred Heart
The soon-to-be sophomore for Sacred Heart is oozing with star potential after an impressive run as a freshman, where he averaged 8 points but was phenomenal efficiency-wise, sporing an unheard-of slash line of 56-54-90. The efficiency numbers are a bit skewed because of the low number of shots, but drilling 32 of 59 three-pointers is impressive. SHU already has two fantastic returnees, with NEC Player of the year contender Tyler Thomas back and fellow backcourt mate Aaron Clarke, but that could open up more opportunities for Sixsmith to make noise as attention will be divided. The shooting of Sixsmith will make him a high-level player in the Northeast.
Tyrese Jenkins, Norfolk State
Last season’s top scorer DeVante Carter departed for Nicholls State, leaving a spot open for a third scoring option next to Jalen Hawkins and Joe Bryant. That player could be 6’6 wing Tyrese Jenkins — last season, Jenkins only averaged three points in limited minutes but erupted for 21 points, 19 points respectively, in two tightly-contested wins over a dreadful Delaware State squad. Jenkins’s shooting ability could catapult him into a prominent role next season.
Missouri Valley Conference:
Howard Fleming Jr Point Guard, Illinois State
Illinois State finished last in the Valley last season, finishing a disastrous 7-18 — to make the bad get worse, Illinois State lost a duo of transfers to the PAC-12, D.J. Horne (Arizona State), Dusan Mahorcic (Utah.) However, you can always find good in bad situations, and that’s what Dan Muller is looking at here with gifted sophomore Howard Fleming. You won’t find many points guards in the country who load up the stat-sheet in the manner Fleming does — during last season; Fleming brought down 7+ rebounds in eight games. Fleming’s scoring wasn’t overly inspiring the previous season, only 3.9 points on 3.6 shots per game, but his role wasn’t to score the basketball last season. Illinois State had two established scorers in the form of Antonio Reeves and D.J. Horne. Looking ahead to the 2021-22 season, as previously mentioned, Horne is off to Tempe, which naturally opens more scoring opportunities for Fleming to get involved, but improving his 22 percent from three is paramount to his potential breakout season.
Lamont Butler Guard, San Diego State
Butler played a significant role on the defensive end during his freshman season for the Aztecs — sporting a team-best 3.5 dBPM (defensive box-plus-minus) per SportsReference. That statistic backs up what you see when watching Butler play on the court, a pesky defense-first guard, which fits the Brian Dutcher schematically like a glove. The question is: Can Butler provide more on the offensive end? I think yes, with added playing time, Butler will be able to establish more of a role in the offense, whether that’s setting the table for others or driving to the basket for a bucket. It’ll be a two-man-tandem at the point between Trey Pulliam, and Butler, without Terrell Gomez in the picture. Dutcher’s found a way to make San Diego State a perennial tournament team despite the roster configuration. This season will be no exception, and defensive anchor Lamont Butler will be a vital part of it.
Ohio Valley Conference
Trae Hannibal Guard, Murray State
I tried to limit the number of transfers I include on the list, which will be the lone transfer out of all 32 players. Hannibal averaged six points on four shots for the Gamecocks last season, but his explosiveness flashes off the screen when watching him play. That ability will benefit him greatly in the Ohio Valley. Aside from his stellar driving ability, Hannibal drained seven of his 13 shots from the perimeter last season, showing signs of a potential-jump shot becoming a staple of Hannibal’s repertoire in the future. The Racers changed their offensive philosophy last season, taking three-pointers on 40 percent of their possessions up from 31.8 percent the prior season — in turn, the number of times Murray State got to the charity stripe drastically dropped. Hannibal will help even those splits out next season, alongside fellow guards Tevin Brown, Carter Collins, and potential conference player of the year contender K.J. Williams. Matt McMahon’s squad is a contender to make the NCAA Tournament next season; undoubtedly, Hannibal will be a significant piece of the equation.
Kyle Jenkins Forward, Lafayette
The Leopards have a tall task of replacing Justin Jaworski and E.J. Stephens, who combined for 37.9 points last season — All-Patriot league freshman Kyle Jenkins could be the next star for Coach O’Hanlon. The past few seasons, Lafayette changed their style in search of finding a way to get Justin Jaworski the ball, often going to a lot of high-entry dribble-handoff situations from the big’s. I’d envision we’ll witness a shift stylistically without the two prestigious guards back in the fold to when Matt Klinewski led the team in scoring. The beneficiary of that? Kyle Jenkins, a floor-stretching big-man capable of drilling shots from the perimeter to the tune of 38.9 percent during his freshman campaign. The scoring will have to come from somewhere, and I’m banking on a sophomore jump from Jenkins.
Dailin Smith, Alabama A&M
The Bulldogs were one of the nation’s youngest teams last season, averaging 0.72 years of experience (per KenPom), contributing to the overall struggles on offense. One player looking for an improvement as a sophomore is Dailin Smith — the 6’6 wing struggled shooting 28.6 percent overall, 26 percent from deep. However, that’s not indicative of Smith’s talent. His pure athleticism should allow him to find more consistency scoring next season, but the real key is hitting threes on a better percentage.
Garrett Hien Furman, Forward
Two of the Paladins starting forwards (Clay Mounce, Noah Gurley) move on from the program, not a worry, though, because Garrett Hien is ready for his time to shine. Hien averaged only four points during his freshman season, two rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench. When Hien got extended minutes on the floor, his oozing potential was on full display. Winthrop throttled the Paladins during a game, where Clay Mounce didn’t get into the game’s flow due to foul trouble, leading to Hien playing 26 minutes and scored 12 points on 5-5 shooting. Compared to Mounce’s freshman season averages (5 points, three rebounds, 12 minutes) to Hien’s from last season (4.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, 13 minutes), it’s feasible to see a massive jump when projecting out what Hien could accomplish for Bob Richey. Even without two vital pieces from last year, Furman should enter the season tabbed the favorites in the Southern Conference, returning Mike Bothwell, Jalen Slawson, Alex Hunter, in addition to Hien.
Drew Lutz Guard, Incarnate Word
Incarnate Word finished bottom 15 in KenPom’s rankings the past four seasons and now loses Keaston Willis, the lone double-digit scorer on the team last season from a team that only won eight games. Lutz averaged 8.1 points, 3.1 assists during his sophomore campaign, showing room for growth in his third season for ICW. Finding consistency shooting-wise and being more aggressive are the keys for Lutz to breakout next season.
DeShang Weaver Forward, Oral Roberts
There was a time when Weaver looked primed for stardom in Oklahoma after a stellar freshman season averaging 9.8 points while shooting a dazzling 43 percent from deep, but injuries slowed him down in 2019-20. In 2020-21 Weaver played a valuable bench role, especially in the Summit League tournament, but he’ll need to show those flashes he did back in his freshman season without Kevin Obanor in the mix. There will be no shortage of attention on Max Abmas returning to ORU, including many good shooters in the mix, Issac McBride, Trey Phipps, Carlos Jurgens, Kareem Thompson, and Weaver. There’s no question the RS-Junior forward could thrive in a pick & pop situation similar to what Obanor did last season — If Weaver’s that guy, he could average double figures next season.
Kerr Kriisa Guard, Arizona
The Estonia-born guard only played eight games in 2020-21 due to eligibility issues. There was a lot of promise shown by Kriisa, shooting-wise; he shot 37 percent from deep in the games he appeared in, also showing off stellar playmaking ability dropping off 2.4 assists. The noticeable knock-on Kriisa being he didn’t score a single two-point field goal last season, on a terribly small 0-4 sample, but the starting point guard for the Wildcats adding more variety to his scoring would be a massive difference-maker for Tommy Lloyd’s crew.
Devo Davis Guard, Arkansas
Davis is known for his defensive prowess, which changed the trajectory of the NCAA Tournament game against Colgate. Davis’s energy forcing a turnover followed by a dazzling pass inside led to a massive run for the Razorbacks. That’s what Devo can bring to the table. Also, he showed offensive upside averaging 8.5 points sporting a lethal mid-range lefty jumper. If he can have a breakout sophomore season being more aggressive on drives getting him to the free-throw line could make him a dangerous offensive option — the real question is, can Davis show a respectable three-point jumper? He went 2-13 from deep all of last year, which isn’t a surprise considering the biggest knock on him coming into college was the three-point struggles. Arkansas is a legitimate contender in the SEC due to a stellar defensive unit led by David, Jaylin Williams, Trey Wade, and incoming transfer that’ll bolster the scoring, Chris Lykes, Stanley Umude, Au’Diese Toney.
Brayan Au Guard, Louisiana
Not many teams in the country had a more successful offseason than Bob Marlin’s Ragin Cajuns — adding an abundance of hometown players, Greg Williams, a proven scorer from St John’s, Jalen Dalcourt from San Jose, and program legacy Jordan Brown from Arizona. It was expected that Louisiana would return Cedric Russell, but before the July 1st deadline to receive immediate eligibility. One candidate to step in the shoes of Russell is from JUCO All-American Brayan Au, who showed off a 15-4-4 stat line for Ranger CC, including an impressive 41 percent from deep. In his first season at Louisiana, Au suffered an injury, forcing him to miss the season’s final two months. Louisiana’s roster is loaded with talent, but finding a steady point guard presence is the key to winning the conference title.
Jarren Cook Guard, Sam Houston State
The Bearkats turned heads with their performance in their final season in the Southland, winning 19 contests, including one over Abilene Christian, who ended up winning an NCAA Tournament game. Along with the move to the WAC in 2021-22, Sam Houston State lost reigning Southland player of the year Zach Nutall to SMU, also losing freshman guard Bryce Monroe to San Diego. Soon-to-be sophomore Jarren Cook could be an integral piece of what Sam Houston State does next season, an athletic wing with the ability to drill shots from long-range. Sam Houston’s top-two unquestionably will be Texas A&M transfer Savion Flagg, fifth-year senior DeMarkus Lampley, leaving an opening for Cook to emerge as the third scorer.
Leemet Bockler Wing, Saint Mary’s
The Gaels found a spot in the NIT after a disappointing season by their standards in a transition from losing Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts from the prior season. One of the bright spots was freshman sharpshooter Leemet Bockler, who averaged 5.5 points, on a phenomenal 42 percent from deep in 8 games before injury halted his season. The main struggle for SMC last season was the last of shooting — only shooting 29 percent as a team. If Bockler is healthy, he’ll assume a sizeable role because of his shooting ability. The Gaels didn’t add from the transfer portal, but getting both a healthy Bockler, and Alex Ducas back should resolve the shooting woes.