College Basketball Recruiting: 10 Classes That Must Succeed Next Season

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2012

College Basketball Recruiting: 10 Classes That Must Succeed Next Season

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    When 6'10" forward Nerlens Noel (pictured) revealed a Kentucky logo carved into his famed flattop, he put the Wildcats recruiting class atop ESPN's rankings.

    If John Calipari has any intention of defending his first national championship, Noel and his fellow commits will need to live up to that ranking. Even more, the new crop of Kentucky freshmen may need to play on the same level as this season's dominant freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

    Some coaches recruit for the long-term growth of their program, but some are forced to bring in talent that must play integral roles immediately.

    These 10 recruiting classes feature players who have to grow up fast if their new schools want to make deep runs in March of 2013.

10. Xavier

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    Coach Chris Mack's program has lost one of its iconic figures in point guard Tu Holloway, but the replacement may be coming directly over the horizon.

    Xavier beat out the likes of Georgetown, Providence and hated crosstown rival Cincinnati for the signature of local point guard Semaj Christon (pictured). Christon, rated a top-40 prospect by Rivals, may step in for Holloway from Day 1, if he can beat out sophomore-to-be Dee Davis.

    Davis is a highly capable on-ball defender, and while Christon is no slouch in that area, he has a notable tendency to gamble for steals. That aggressiveness may lead him to the bench if he's unable to pick his spots early on.

    The major weakness for the Musketeers last season was the power forward position. Returnees Jeff Robinson and Travis Taylor both had their moments of brilliance and their long stretches of inactivity.

    A pair of incoming freshmen will battle for time there. Jalen Reynolds, a 6'9", 215-pound prep school teammate of Christon's, will be a transition nightmare for opponents every time he beats an opposing big downcourt for a dunk. He'll need a lot of time in the weight room to succeed as a halfcourt post player in the Atlantic 10, however.

    Similar sentiments are echoed when discussing James Farr, a 6'10", 200-pound native of Evanston, Illinois. Farr has a strong mid-range jumper well-suited for Xavier's pick-and-roll offense and grabs a lot of rebounds with his sheer length. Like Reynolds, he'll need to bulk up substantially if he's going to win any fights in the paint.

    Guard Myles Davis (6'2", 190, Jersey City, NJ) is a jump-shooting menace who is working to improve his ball-handling skills. If he proves capable in that area, he could serve as a replacement to Mark Lyons, much as Christon will work to replace Holloway.

9. Virginia

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    Virginia lost one of the nation's most efficient players with the graduation of forward Mike Scott. The Cavaliers already had problems finding scorers outside of Scott, so his loss looms even larger.

    While ESPNU top-50 prospect Justin Anderson (pictured) is a vastly different player, he could certainly be a scorer at the Division I level. Anderson is hard to stop when he's headed to the basket, and UVA has lacked a slasher of his skill.

    Returnee Joe Harris has the ability to stretch the court with his jump shot, but so does incoming freshman Evan Nolte. Nolte (6'7", 190, Alpharetta, GA) has legitimate 25-foot range and is a dangerous pull-up threat in transition.

    Both Nolte and Anderson can allow the Cavaliers to increase the tempo, as Virginia was one of the 10 slowest teams in America last season.

    Monroe, NY native Mike Tobey (6'11", 210) will need time to develop his post repertoire, but any contributions coach Tony Bennett can get from him will be a huge bonus. Virginia's primary post threat, 7-footer Assane Sene, saw his senior season end in dubious fashion with a suspension for violating team rules.

    The three ESPNU 100 prospects may not seem suited for Virginia's plodding style, but without Scott's steady contributions, Bennett may be forced to shake things up a bit if he seeks to contend in the ACC.

8. North Carolina

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    The Tar Heels' all-world front line of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes are all headed to the NBA, but the largest loss will be that of point guard Kendall Marshall. As seen during UNC's struggle to beat Ohio and its loss to Kansas in the NCAA tournament, Marshall was the heartbeat of the offense.

    Freshman Marcus Paige will need to fill Marshall's shoes quickly. Paige, of Marion, Iowa, is rated as the top point guard in the nation by ESPNU, drawing comparisons to former Duke star and current Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins.

    While the backcourt cupboard isn't bare, with players like Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Dexter Strickland returning, the frontcourt is lacking in experience outside of James Michael McAdoo, who briefly flirted with leaving school himself.

    Roy Williams acted decisively in filling the void left by his starters, adding ESPNU's No. 8 power forward, Brice Johnson (6'9", 210, Cordova, SC), No. 15 center Joel James (6'10", 260, Fort Lauderdale, FL) and No. 20 small forward J.P. Tokoto (6'6", 195, Menomonee Falls, WI).

    Williams compared Tokoto to Vince Carter on his radio show in January, but Tokoto will have the hardest time seeing minutes, since Bullock or Hairston could easily play the three.

    The bigger men, Johnson and James, could see immediate action, since McAdoo and fellow rising sophomore Desmond Hubert are the only returnees taller than 6'7".

    Johnson has a Henson-like frame and could blossom into a similar shot-blocking threat.

    James only started playing basketball as a sophomore in high school and has recently slimmed from 330 pounds down to 260. He'll need further conditioning improvement and work on avoiding foul trouble.

7. Providence

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    Providence coach Ed Cooley still faces an uphill battle in stocking his roster with Big East-caliber talent.

    Even as he adds ESPNU 100 prospect (and Providence native) Ricardo Ledo and McDonald's All-American Kris Dunn, Cooley faces player attrition in the form of a transfer exodus.

    While seldom-used bench players like Bilal Dixon and Ron Giplaye won't be missed, guard Gerard Coleman might be. Coleman averaged 13 points per game last season.

    Still, the 6'6" Ledo gives Providence an infusion of size in the backcourt. He has the kind of length that may allow Cooley to use a four-guard lineup with Ledo and Dunn joining guards Vincent Council and Bryce Cotton and freshman All-America forward LaDontae Henton.

    The addition of talented scorers like Dunn and Ledo may give Council more freedom to concentrate on being a playmaker and less on being a scorer. Council's 39 percent shooting led to a lot of empty possessions, even for a team that ranked in the top 50 nationwide in offensive rebounding.

    If Dunn and Ledo can't find their points against Big East competition, Council and Cotton may seize the opportunity to rain more ill-advised shots from the perimeter.

    To further bolster the backcourt depth, Cooley also signed 3-star shooting guard Josh Fortune (Hampton, VA) and is working to secure Washington, DC point guard Ian Baker.

    The Friars may not be done, either. Several scouts like Providence's chances to add ESPNU top-20 center Christopher Obekpa (6'8", 225, Centereach, NY).

6. Iowa

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    While Iowa signed one prospect who stands nearly 7' tall, their biggest signee may stand only 6'1".

    Point guard Mike Gesell (6'1", 185, Sioux City, NE) appears to have already been handed the keys to the Hawkeyes' offense next season, according to Hawk Central. Gesell is a daring penetrator who relishes contact, but will need some time to adapt to setting up others. He'll also need work as an on-ball defender.

    Center Adam Woodbury (6'11", 225, Sioux City, IA) is ranked as one of America's top 10 centers by ESPNU. His height will aid an Iowa team whose leading rebounder pulled only 5.7 per game last season. He's also a highly capable passer, which could result in him setting up a lot of open shots for shooters like Devyn Marble or Josh Oglesby.

    Indianapolis shooting guard Patrick Ingram (6'3", 180) could see early court time for his excellent defensive skills.

5. Purdue

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    While arch-rival Indiana's fans continue to bask in the glow of a Sweet 16 appearance and an elite recruiting class of their own, coach Matt Painter's Purdue Boilermakers face a crossroad season.

    With Robbie Hummel's eligibility finally exhausted, the Boilers enter what appears to be a rebuilding mode. Swingman D.J. Byrd is the closest thing Purdue has to a scoring threat and a senior leader. Still, Painter has not been slouching in recruiting himself, bringing in a top-20 class that rivals Indiana's in depth, if not star power.

    Guard Rapheal Davis (No. 35 in white; 6'5", 200, Fort Wayne, IN), center A.J. Hammons (7'0", 275, Carmel, IN) and point guard Ronnie Johnson (5'10", 160, Indianapolis, IN) are all ESPNU 100 prospects and all ranked in the top 20 nationwide at their positions.

    Hammons and power forward Jay Simpson (6'9", 235, Champaign, IL) will need to hit the ground running in the Big Ten, as the Boilermakers had a negligible inside presence last season. Juniors-to-be Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius contributed sparingly and were frequently spotted on the bench as Hummel held down the pivot in a smaller lineup.

    Both Hammons and Simpson have made improvements in their conditioning, and will need to continue that work to see playing time for Painter.

    Johnson could step right into the point guard position, replacing All-Big Ten performer Lewis Jackson. Johnson will need to improve the consistency on his jump shot and become stronger to fight through Big Ten traffic. At the very least, Johnson will see solid minutes in relief of his brother Terone or junior-to-be Anthony Johnson (no relation) should one of them demonstrate the ability to start at the point.

    Davis could be an explosive scorer off the bench, giving the second unit a boost if he is willing to put in solid effort on defense. This is an area in which he has been questioned, and it's also a weakness that will anchor him to Matt Painter's bench if not remedied.

4. Kentucky

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    As long as John Calipari continues to recruit players who are only headed to college because David Stern says they have to, Kentucky will keep making this list every season.

    With the expected losses of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones, plus the possible NBA defections of Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague, every new Wildcat walks in knowing that he is a very likely starter.

    All four of Kentucky's incoming freshmen are ESPNU 100 prospects, but one finds that he has an enormous legacy to live up to.

    Nerlens Noel's high-top fade may become as iconic as Anthony Davis's unibrow, and some enterprising member of Big Blue Nation is surely beginning steps to mass-produce the wigs now. However, any time a freshman considered a carbon copy of the national player of the year has to replace said player, there is overwhelming pressure to succeed.

    Noel (6'10", 215, Everett, MA) is considered a dominant shot blocker and fearsome rebounder, much like Davis. He can also score down low in a variety of ways, but he lacks the mid-range and ball-handling gifts that made Davis so hard to stop.

    Forward Alex Poythress (pictured; 6'7", 215, Clarksville, TN) is a skilled defender and slasher who may invite physical comparisons to Kidd-Gilchrist, but it was MKG's team-first attitude that truly made Kentucky unstoppable last season. Poythress and his new teammates will need to play a similarly unselfish game next season to repeat.

    Guard Archie Goodwin (6'5", 181, Little Rock, AR) has drawn comparisons to Joe Johnson for his smooth offensive game, but he's not quite the deadly three-point threat that Lamb is. If he extends his shot beyond the arc, he'll make a lot of room for Noel to work inside.

    Center Willie Cauley (6'10", 215, Olathe, KS) appears to be this year's Kyle Wiltjer, a prospect who could have played for anyone in the country, but will instead come off the Kentucky bench. He'll get a season to add strength and bulk to maintain post position, and he could either star as a sophomore or take the Daniel Orton train straight to the NBA.

3. Houston

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    James Dickey's first two seasons at Houston have ended with records at or below .500, losing records in Conference USA and first-round exits in the C-USA tournament. Following this season, second-leading scorer Alandise Harris and reserve Kirk Van Slyke announced their intentions to transfer.

    Now for the bad news: The Cougars are moving to the Big East in 2013. This final C-USA recruiting class needed to be talented, and it is.

    Houston native Danrad "Chicken" Knowles (pictured; 6'9", 190) is one of the more skilled big men in the class of 2012, but his frame is gangly bordering on frail. He's not a physical player on either end, which may not greatly aid a team that was already lacking in defensive intensity last season.

    Knowles does possess the ability to score from anywhere inside the arc. He's a quick athlete with good shot-blocking ability. While he may not be a gritty lunchpail player, he has the ability to crash a highlight reel at any time.

    Small forward Danuel House (6'6", 185, Sugar Land, TX) can also get to the basket at any time, but his jumpshot gets wobbly at 18 feet. He may be the defensive playmaker the Cougars need, possessing good instincts in the passing lanes.

    Center Valentine Izundu (6'10", 200, Katy, TX) is a skinny defensive specialist whose biggest strength is blocking shots. Between Knowles, Izundu and rising sophomore forward TaShawn Thomas (64 blocks last season), Houston could be a team that erases a ton of scoring opportunities for opponents.

    The Cougars have brought in athletes that could stir faint echoes of Phi Slamma Jamma, but returnees and newcomers alike have questions to answer about how they can succeed if they're not allowed to run wild.

2. Georgia Tech

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    Georgia Tech simply could not score last season. After booting forward Glen Rice Jr. off the team in March, the Yellow Jackets failed to break 40 points in two of their final six games. If a team ever needed new blood on the offensive end, it's this one.

    Power forward Robert Carter (pictured; 6'8", 250, Snellville, GA) is a wide body with a good touch inside, but can also step out to 18 feet and knock down a jumper. That strength does occasionally become a weakness, as he can fall in love with the outside finesse game, but if coach Brian Gregory can convince him to spend more time on the block, he'll be a load for any ACC opponent to handle.

    Another ESPNU 100 prospect, small forward Marcus Hunt (6'6", 215, Riverdale, GA) is a punishing penetrator who is likely to live at the free throw line. He needs some improvement on his jump shot, and if he makes that improvement, he could see time as a big shooting guard.

    Tech badly lacked three-point shooters last season, and that's where 3-star prospect Chris Bolden comes in. Bolden (6'3", 180, Norcross, GA) is a streaky shooter who can then take his man off the dribble if the defender shades up to guard that shot.

    Tech's three most prolific shooters from beyond the arc last season combined to make less than 30 percent of their attempts. All three of those players return, and they will need to make tremendous strides to hold off Bolden from vulturing some of their minutes.

1. UCLA

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    Any time a program that didn't make the NCAA tournament adds one of the top two prospects in the country, that team puts itself under pressure to succeed.

    That goes double for a program that had an absolute bomb dropped on it the month before with a scathing Sports Illustrated report.

    UCLA coach Ben Howland finds himself behind the eight ball, despite a run of three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008. He needed a major haul, and he got one. Now, the players who arrive in Westwood need to draw fans to Pauley Pavilion and get the Bruins back into the NCAA tournament.

    Shabazz Muhammad (pictured; 6'6", 215, Las Vegas) is either the best or second-best prospect in the Class of 2012, depending on which service is doing the ranking. He's a nearly unstoppable penetrator whose only real weakness appears to be an unwillingness to drive using his right hand.

    The real difficulty for Howland will come if Muhammad is rendered unable to even step on a college court. CBS Sports reported that Muhammad's family connections to a pair of financial advisers could put the player's amateur status in jeopardy.

    Kyle Anderson (6'7", 210, Fairview, NJ) is listed as a forward, but much of the excitement surrounding him centers around his passing skills. Scouts indicate that he could play point guard at the college level with a little bit of experience.

    Jordan Adams (6'5", 220, Lawrenceville, GA) is another small forward with the ability to attack the rim and make some mid-range shots.

    The issues surrounding Anderson and Adams mainly center on effort. Both are known to coast through a game on occasion. This could be dangerous for a UCLA team already relying heavily on a player whose work ethic is under serious question, that being center Joshua Smith.

    There are no knocks on Muhammad's work ethic, which draws comparisons to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's. Still, Howland faces a task putting these pieces together with chronic underachievers like Smith and the Wear twins to form a team capable of getting back to the Final Four.

    After all, even if he does get to suit up for the Bruins, Muhammad is surely already counting the days until he declares for the 2013 NBA draft.

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