With apologies to Tim Duncan, elite basketball players who stay in college for four years have been an anomaly for a long time. That may be great news for NBA fans, but for those who follow the college game, it makes for a lot of time spent wondering what might have been.
One of this year’s most striking examples of that problem is Texas, which lost three first-round draft picks from the talent-laden squad that bowed out against Arizona in the 2011 tournament. If Tristan Thompson and his cohorts had stayed in Austin, this year’s promising but raw squad would be converted into a top contender, even in the loaded Big 12.
Read on for an exercise in imagination: an updated version of the current Top 25 poll if all the players who jumped to the pros early had stayed in school instead.
Retained Players: Jordan Crawford (senior)
Obviously, there’s no telling how a different combination of personalities would’ve changed the events of Xavier’s season-altering brawl with Cincinnati.
On sheer talent, though, it’s hard to believe that keeping the versatile, high-scoring Crawford wouldn’t have let the Musketeers battle through the resulting adversity and stay in the Top 25.
Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons are a sensational backcourt already, and Crawford is big enough (at 6’4”) to play alongside them in place of unremarkable freshman Dezmine Wells.
As good as Xavier looked during its 8-0 start (including wins over Vanderbilt and Cincinnati), it’d be an even scarier offense with Crawford adding another senior star to the mix.
Retained Players: None
The Bears have struggled against teams that aren’t overwhelmed by their big front line, and this version of the Big 12 would have even more of them than its real-life counterpart does.
That said, Baylor’s unmistakable talent would be (as it has been this season) too much to be negated altogether by its questionable heart.
With Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy, the Bears are so big and so athletic that most of their opponents would still be overrun.
They certainly wouldn’t have had the Top Five start in the rankings that they enjoyed in real life, but the Bears would still have held on to a place in the Top 25.
Retained Players: Derrick Favors (junior), Iman Shumpert (senior)
As bad as the 10-18 Yellow Jackets have been in 2011-12, they actually have a couple of terrific individual players.
Glen Rice Jr. has been a more effective penetrator than his pedigree would suggest in scoring a team-high 13 points a night, and 6’11” sophomore Daniel Miller is a big-time shot-blocker (2.5 per game).
Here, Tech gets to add two NBA-caliber upperclassmen to that mix with a serious inside scoring presence from Favors and a shutdown perimeter defender in Shumpert.
Rice’s performance would almost certainly benefit from having some help on offense, and the net result would be a team that could put up a fight even against the powers of the ACC.
Retained Players: None
Even Isaiah Canaan, the best player on perhaps the best Murray State team ever, is a long shot to make it as a pro. Small wonder, then, that the Racers don’t benefit from regaining any early-entry stars.
Of course, that only makes this team slightly more of an underdog than it was already.
The Racers’ extraordinary 28-1 record would probably be 27-2 in this scenario—a four-point road win at Memphis erased by some returning Tigers—but that’s still impressive enough to earn a Top 25 nod.
Retained Players: Nikola Vucevic (senior), DeMar DeRozan (senior)
The loss of Jio Fontan to a preseason knee injury stripped the Trojans of their best player, relegating them to a disastrous 1-15 record thus far in Pac-12 play.
Even a terrific effort from 5'7" Maurice Jones (13.5 points, 3.4 assists and 1.7 steals per contest) hasn’t been enough to salvage a depleted roster.
With their underclassmen back, though, Jones would have plenty of help from seven-footer Vucevic underneath and high-flying DeRozan outside.
Sadly, this Trojans squad would have nearly as much talent as DeRozan’s real-life Raptors team, currently mired at 10-23 despite his 15.7 points a night.
Retained Players: None
One of the primary effects of keeping underclassmen on campus would be the presence of a lot more talented big men in the college game.
That situation would be a very real problem for the undersized Gators, as 6’9” Patric Young—tough though he is—would be severely outnumbered against the nation’s elite front lines.
On the perimeter, though, Florida would still be able to compete with anybody thanks to the talented trio of guards that’s carried it this season.
With scoring from Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal, plus Erving Walker’s leadership and ball-handling prowess, the Gators would still have their share of bite.
Retained Players: Derrick Williams (junior)
After a shaky start, Arizona has rebounded to win seven of eight in conference play. Still, with freshman Josiah Turner not yet ready for prime time, the Wildcats are a strong supporting cast in search of a star.
Of course, that problem would have been solved if Williams had stayed in Tucson.
The agile, versatile forward would let role players like Kyle Fogg and Solomon Hill focus on what they do best while taking over as the team’s focal point on both ends of the floor.
Retained Players: Tyler Honeycutt (junior), Malcolm Lee (senior), Jrue Holiday (senior)
Yes, the Bruins have been atrocious for most of the actual 2011-12 season, and no amount of returning veterans would likely have salvaged Reeves Nelson’s ill-fated college career.
Still, the Wear twins and Lazeric Jones would all be worthwhile secondary players if they weren’t being asked to carry the team.
With three A+ athletes returning on the wings, they wouldn’t have to.
Honeycutt and Lee are exactly the kind of terrific perimeter defenders that this team has lacked, while Holiday (who averaged 6.5 assists a game as a 76er last year) would be a game-breaking point guard at the college level.
Retained Players: None
Marquette did suffer a major loss in last year’s draft, but Jimmy Butler was already a senior. With him gone, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder have become a two-man gang (and a very good one) supported by a first-class defense.
That defense would have a few more scorers to contend with here, though the Big East isn’t getting nearly as much talent back as some other conferences.
Still, Buzz Williams’ squad has shown the toughness to compete with deeper opposition, and it’d do it well enough here to hang around in the Top 25.
Retained Players: Shelvin Mack (senior), Gordon Hayward (senior)
The talent well has finally run dry for Brad Stevens and Butler this year, with veteran guard Ronnie Nored the last core player remaining from the Bulldogs’ back-to-back Final Four squads.
Nored has put up a great fight (5.3 assists and 1.9 steals a game), but there just isn't enough point production here for Butler to be a viable contender.
Of course, bringing back the two best scorers from the last couple of years would be a very easy way to fix that particular problem.
Hayward and Mack were a dynamic inside-outside combo in 2009-10, and as seniors they’d be a sure bet to make Butler a national contender once again.
Retained Players: Kemba Walker (senior)
It’s been a rough road for the defending national champs, who have endured a 3-8 slump in Big East play.
The individual talent is clearly there—Jeremy Lamb is scoring 17.9 points a game, and mammoth frosh Andre Drummond is averaging 7.8 boards and 2.6 blocks a night—but the net result has been far less than the sum of its parts.
That description is the exact opposite of the magic that took UConn to the title last spring, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if many of those problems were fixed by holding on to superstar floor leader Kemba Walker.
The Huskies weren’t a flawless team in the regular season last year either, but they’d be a fearsome postseason foe (and have a better seed from which to make their run) with Walker at the helm once again.
Retained Players: Kawhi Leonard (junior)
2011-12 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Aztecs, who lost most of the core of the winningest team in school history.
Nevertheless, Steve Fisher’s squad has spent much of the season in the Top 25 behind brilliant guard play from Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley (a combined 31.7 points a game).
That being the case, San Diego State goes from good to outstanding with the return of dynamic forward Leonard, whose defensive artistry has made him an immediate hit with the Spurs.
Leonard would also provide another skilled rebounder for a team lacking a serious post presence (albeit another undersized rebounder at 6’7”).
Retained Players: Elliot Williams (senior), Tyreke Evans (senior)
Last year’s inexperienced Memphis team returned a slew of sophomores, leading to high expectations for 2011-12.
Instead, a sensational effort from SG Will Barton (18.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals per contest) has gone largely to waste for lack of consistent help.
As big a star as Barton has been, though, he would be reduced a secondary option if the peerless Evans was back for his senior year.
The 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year would be a Wooden Award front-runner even in this heightened competition, and paired with Barton, he’d give the Tigers a pair of hyper-athletic 6’6” guards that few opponents could stand against.
Retained Players: Chris Singleton (senior), Solomon Alabi (senior)
After putting on a defensive show for the ages last year, Florida State has finally found an offense in 2011-12.
Three-point shooting exhibitions from Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys have helped the Seminoles upset Duke and North Carolina and stay in the thick of the ACC race for nearly the entire season.
That guard-focused attack would become quite a bit scarier with more frontcourt help for senior Bernard James, and the return of classmates Singleton and Alabi would fit the bill nicely.
Singleton, the ringleader of last season’s overpowering defense, could step back into his starring role, while the 7’1” Alabi (an NBA bust in Toronto so far) would pair with the 6’10” James on an intimidating front line.
Retained Players: Darius Morris (junior)
After last season’s promising but inconsistent showing, the Wolverines have been leading contenders in this year’s Big Ten with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Even with a collection of journeymen for a frontcourt, the perimeter combination of freshman Trey Burke and sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr. has been enough to keep the Wolverines entrenched in the national rankings.
That backcourt combo would be even more dangerous with the return of expert floor leader Morris, who ranked fifth in the nation in assists (6.7 a night) as a sophomore.
Hardaway’s 6’6” frame would help the Wolverines keep extra guards on the floor, as they’ve done in the real season anyway, and John Beilein’s high-precision offense would become even tougher to contain.
Retained Players: B.J. Mullens (senior)
Much as the Buckeyes would wish to get three-point gunners Jon Diebler and David Lighty back, those standout seniors would have left after last year in any scenario.
Even so, star forward Jared Sullinger and a solid backcourt tandem (William Buford and Aaron Craft) has kept OSU in the Top 10 throughout 2011-12.
It would maintain that status—if just barely—against this tougher competition, thanks to the return of seven-footer B.J. (aka Byron) Mullens in the middle.
With another big body to punish defenses that swarm Sullinger (and compensate for Sullinger’s iffy shot-blocking on the other end), the Buckeyes would be a tough frontcourt to beat.
Retained Players: None
After a disappointing 2010-11 (and an ugly pair of losses to North Carolina and Duke to open 2011-12), Michigan State has become the surprise conference champion of the year.
With a two-game lead and two games remaining on the Big Ten schedule, Tom Izzo’s squad is guaranteed at least a share of the regular-season crown and has become a leading contender for a top seed in March Madness.
Even without any additions to the roster, Draymond Green and his mates are too tough to fall very far in the national rankings.
With Keith Appling providing the backcourt support Green lacked a season ago, Michigan State would still be in a great position to take home the Big Ten title.
Retained Players: None
The departure of head coach Mike Anderson prompted a flurry of speculation that some of Missouri’s many top-notch juniors would jump ship rather than play their final college seasons under a new coach.
Instead, the entire squad returned, turning the Tigers into a national title contender loaded with veteran stars.
Though the roster doesn’t get any fortification against a tougher league (and no conference would be deeper than the revised Big 12), Mizzou’s flotilla of three-point shooters would still make it a fearsome opponent.
Even without any size to speak of, offensive stars like Marcus Denmon and Ricardo Ratliffe would keep Missouri very much in contention on a national level.
Retained Players: Ed Davis (senior)
North Carolina may not be the prohibitive national championship favorite it appeared to be at the start of the season, but the Tar Heels are still a serious contender for the top spot.
With future pros such as Harrison Barnes and John Henson leading the charge, North Carolina has the scariest offense in the country this year.
Even in that collection of elite athletes, the high-flying Davis would be a welcome addition.
Frontcourt depth is hardly a UNC long suit this season, so even if Davis (still a better athlete than a basketball player) played a backup role behind the more fluid Henson, he’d make Roy Williams’ team even better than it is already.
Retained Players: None
Even the graduation of star center Rick Jackson hasn’t stopped Syracuse from becoming one of the most consistently excellent teams in the nation in 2011-12.
The Orange’s only loss of the year came on the road against a tough Notre Dame team while Jackson’s replacement, Fab Melo, was suspended.
Though Jim Boeheim’s squad doesn’t return any additional players here, Melo’s length in the middle of a top-notch 2-3 zone would be a dangerous weapon in any competition.
The versatile offense, led by seniors Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine, would (as it’s been this year) be just good enough to keep Syracuse among the nation’s top contenders.
Retained Players: Kyrie Irving (sophomore)
Duke has gotten an admirable effort from the assorted Plumlee brothers in the frontcourt this season, but the heart of these Blue Devils (as so often for Coach K) is on the perimeter.
Stud freshman Austin Rivers has stepped up to lead the team with clutch performances like his buzzer-beating trey to beat archrival North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Of course, Rivers would be even better if he had a top-tier point guard alongside him...like, say, the prize recruit from last year’s freshman class, Cavaliers star Kyrie Irving.
Although a toe injury kept Irving from showing much in his first season in Durham, his performance in Cleveland this year (18.1 points and 5.1 assists a game for a threadbare team) makes it hard to imagine he’d be anything short of a superstar if he had stayed in Durham.
Retained Players: Tristan Thompson (sophomore), Cory Joseph (sophomore), Jordan Hamilton (junior), Avery Bradley (junior)
Gutted by the NBA draft, the real 2011-12 Longhorns have consisted of junior J’Covan Brown leading a squad of callow (if talent-rich) freshmen like Myck Kabongo.
Even with a strong late-season push in Big 12 play, Texas is very much on the NCAA tournament bubble with the regular season rushing to a close.
The story would be a very different one, though, if Texas brought back its NBA-bound stars, led by frontcourt anchor Thompson.
The Longhorns would still be a relatively young team, but they’d have shot-blocking and post scoring from Thompson, perimeter defense and still more scoring from Hamilton and a wealth of depth at the point that very few teams could match.
Retained Players: Greg Monroe (senior)
Few teams have changed in style for 2011-12 quite as dramatically as Georgetown.
Last year’s backcourt-led squad has morphed (thanks to graduation losses) into a bigger, more physical group with frontcourt standouts Otto Porter, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims supporting senior scoring leader Jason Clark.
Of course, they’d be a great deal bigger and even more physical if current Pistons center Monroe was still on campus.
Pairing the hulking (6’11”, 253 lbs) Monroe with the 6’10” Sims would give John Thompson III a post tandem approaching the standard of his father’s best Hoya rosters.
Retained Players: Josh Selby (sophomore), Xavier Henry (senior), Marcus Morris (senior), Markieff Morris (senior)
Jeff Withey’s best efforts notwithstanding, Kansas has been very much a two-man team in 2011-12.
Of course, when the two men are as athletic and skilled as Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson, they can lead the Jayhawks back to the top of both the Big 12 standings and the national rankings.
Depth would be far from a problem, though, with the return of the Morris twins (Robinson’s low-post predecessors) and penetrating guards Selby and Henry.
Bill Self wouldn’t have an easy time finding minutes for all three of his elite big men, but that’s a worry any coach would love to have.
Retained Players: Brandon Knight (sophomore), John Wall (junior), DeMarcus Cousins (junior), Eric Bledsoe (junior), Daniel Orton (junior), DeAndre Liggins (senior)
The race for the No. 1 ranking isn’t even close.
Anthony Davis, a favorite for the real-life Wooden Award as a freshman, wouldn’t even be the best big man on his own team with the 6’11”, 270-lb Cousins back in the fold. The 6’10” Orton would join Terrence Jones as a supporting player in the frontcourt.
Liggins and Bledsoe would provide still more two-way standouts at the wing spots to go with Doron Lamb and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but the biggest change would come at the point guard spot.
Marquis Teague—the closest thing to a weak link for the Wildcats—would become a third-stringer behind the incomparable Wall and the brilliant Knight on a team that would have ranked among the best in collegiate history.