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Keith Appling, Wayne Blackshear among potential difference-makers


Everyone who writes, talks or tweets about college basketball will -- or already has -- put together a list of this season's "Breakout Players".

Which talented youngsters were buried on the bench behind a slew of NBA draft picks? (Ahem, James Michael-McAdoo.) Who are last season's talented-but-inconsistent freshmen that are primed for monstrous sophomore campaigns? (LeBryan Nash, anyone?) Who has gotten into shape? (Josh Smith, finally?) Who is going to be healthy next year? (Looking at you, Adonis Thomas) Who fits into Luke Winn's formula?

Regardless of where you look, those lists are going to be made up of roughly the same 15 or 20 players. But what those lists don't factor in are team needs. Here, we've put together a list of 10 players (in alphabetical order) who could end up being the difference-makers for their teams with a big year:

Keith Appling, Michigan State: After what was a fairly disappointing freshman season, Appling actually ended up having a good sophomore campaign. His shooting percentages went down, but given the fact that he was transitioning to a new position -- full-time point guard -- and helped lead the Spartans to a share of the Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, it's probably unfair to nitpick too much. Next season, however, Appling's ability to be a creator offensively will be much more important. With Draymond Green graduating, Appling can no longer rely on the skilled big man to help him facilitate offensively. It will be Appling's show to run. He'll have talent around him -- Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne should be one of the better front lines in the league while Branden Dawson and Gary Forbes will be a nightmare for opposing perimeters to try and keep out of the paint -- but none of those players is known for being able to create his own shots. That responsibility falls on Appling's shoulders. Will he be ready for it?

Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: Blackshear is one of the guys that everyone is expecting to have a big year in 2012-13. After battling a shoulder injury for much of his freshman campaign, the former top 30 recruit rebounded and put together a couple of impressive performances once he returned -- 13 points in his debut against West Virginia, nine points in 14 minutes in the Final Four against Kentucky. Blackshear could end up being the difference between Louisville having a good year and Louisville being a national title favorite. The Cardinals are tough defensively, they have perimeter playmakers (Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Luke Hancock) and they have talent and size up front (Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan, Montrezl Harrell). What they don't have is a consistent, big-time scorer on the perimeter, a guy that can ensure the floor is spread with his ability to shoot. That's Blackshear when he's at his best.

Quinn Cook, Duke: The Blue Devils actually have a chance to be better than a lot of people are giving them credit for. Mason Plumlee -- who gets underrated because he is a Plumlee -- will anchor a front line that is fairly deep and talented. Rasheed Sulaimon and Seth Curry should provide enough fire-power on the wing that Duke will be able to survive the loss of sharpshooter Andre Dawkins. But Cook will be the most important piece to the puzzle because he is the only natural playmaker on the roster. He's the glue that will hold this Duke team together offensively. He had a promising freshman season -- including back-to-back games where he had 17 assists and no turnovers -- but didn't get a ton of playing time with Austin Rivers on the floor. Duke will be looking for Cook to follow in the footsteps of Nolan Smith.

Erik Copes, George Mason: The Patriots are coming off of a 24-9 season that saw them finish third in the Colonial while riding the coattails of Player of the Year Ryan Pearson. But with Pearson, and his frontcourt counterpart Mike Morrison, graduating, Mason's strength will shift to the backcourt, where a handful of young and talented players return. The frontcourt will now feature seldom-used reserves Jonathan Arledge, Johnny Williams and Seton Hall transfer Anali Okoloji, but the guy that Paul Hewitt will be counting on to anchor his lineup will be sophomore Erik Copes. Copes was a top 75 recruit who followed his uncle, Roland Houston, to Mason. And while he had a decent freshman season -- he averaged 3.3 points, 3.7 boards and an astounding 1.9 blocks in just 15 minutes -- Copes was banged up for much of the year. If he's healthy next season, the Patriots will be looking to him not only to protect the paint at the defensive end of the floor, but to become an offensive weapon on the interior to help keep defenses honest.

Bryce Jones, UNLV: UNLV's front line is absolutely loaded next season, to the point that it's almost unnecessary. Mike Moser, Anthony Bennett, Khem Birch, Quintrell Thomas, Carlos Lopez and Demetris Morant will populate the paint for the Rebels this season. How talented and deep is that group? The addition of UConn transfer Roscoe Smith seemed like overkill and a guy who started his career at Kansas, Thomas, will struggle to see the floor. The question mark will be on the perimeter. Can Anthony Marshall be a point guard? And, perhaps more importantly, can Jones be a guy who effectively spreads the floor and knocks down shots from the perimeter? A talented front line doesn't mean much when a) there's no one on the perimeter to dump the ball inside and b) there aren't any shooters on the perimeter worthy of being respected.

Myck Kabongo, Texas: Kabongo was put into a tough situation as a freshman, coming in to lead a young team as a point guard with a top 10 national ranking and the gratuitous comparisons to Chris Paul. His numbers weren't terrible, but Kabongo clearly was working with a learning curve. It wasn't a major issue with J'Covan Brown joining him in the backcourt, but with Brown in the NBA, it will be Kabongo's show to run. And he won't be alone -- sophomores Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis looked promising on the wing last season while big men Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh headline another quality recruiting class. But this group will need a leader, and point guards tend to be the tie that binds on young teams. Is Kabongo ready to rise to the challenge?

Mark Lyons, Arizona: We all know what Mark Lyons is capable of on the offensive end of the floor. He averaged 15.1 points as a junior at Xavier despite sharing a backcourt with Tu Holloway. We know he can score. But points are not going to be his priority at Arizona this season. For the first time in his collegiate career, Lyons -- who was recruited to Xavier by Arizona head coach Sean Miller as a point guard -- will be asked to run the point. Arizona will surround him with plenty of (very) young talent, the question is whether or not Lyons has the leadership abilities to help that young talent mesh. In an ideal world, you probably won't see him produce more than the 15.1 points he averaged last season, but for the Wildcats to live up to some preseason expectations, Lyons is going to have to be a much better all-around point guard than he was at Xavier.

Ben McLemore, Kansas: I'll say it before you do: McLemore probably doesn't belong on this list because he's actually a freshman this season. Technicalities aside, Bill Self is going to need McLemore -- who was forced to sit out last season due to academic issues -- to become a go-to scorer because, frankly, his team will be lacking in that department next year. Elijah Johnson has the talent, but will he ever find the consistency? Will Perry Ellis or Andrew White be ready to carry a heavy scoring load as true freshmen? What do Naadir Tharpe and Travis Releford turn into with more shots? McLemore has the ability, and Kansas will need him to prove it next year.

Brad Waldow, St. Mary's: The Gaels should have one of the better backcourts in the country in 2012-13 as Matthew Dellavedova, Stephen Holt and Jorden Page all return. The question mark is going to be up front, where Rob Jones and Kenton Walker graduated. Mitchell Young returns for his senior season, but he regressed quite a bit during an injury-plagued junior season after averaging double-figures as a sophomore. That leaves Waldow, who was quite productive -- 8.1 points, 4.4 boards, 1.0 blocks, 66.7 percent shooting from the floor -- despite playing just over 18 minutes per game. With WCC contenders BYU and Gonzaga both featuring talented frontcourt stars, Randy Bennett is going to be relying on the 6-foot-9 Waldow to have a big sophomore campaign.

Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky: Wiltjer was the forgotten man in Kentucky's 2011 recruiting class, likely because he, as "only" a consensus top 25 recruit, was the black sheep of John Calipari's freshmen. Wiltjer also doesn't exactly fit the mold of the typical Coach Cal recruit. He's a baby-faced power forward whose athleticism is rivaled by some of the writers covering the Wildcats and whose forte is his ability to shoot the ball. He's the epitome of a face-up four playing for a team that produces physical freaks like John Wall, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. His value lies in the fact that he may end up being far and away the best shooter on that UK roster next season. Think about how much room there will be to penetrate if an opponent's four cannot leave Wiltjer and the center has to try to find a way to keep Nerlens Noel from receiving a lob.