Kentucky’s national title win ensures that freshmen will be squarely in the spotlight next season, but the country’s talented upperclassmen shouldn't be overlooked. For all the future NBA stars who may be arriving on college campuses in 2012-13, there are some big-time players who have stayed long enough to be heading into their junior years.
Two of the best can be found on the Ohio State roster, as Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas soldier on even after the departure of All-American classmate Jared Sullinger. Between Thomas’ offense and Craft’s defense, the Buckeyes will have a real shot to return to the Final Four even without Sullinger’s help.
Read on for a closer look at Craft, Thomas and 18 more of the best rising juniors from across the country.
Maurice Jones was the lone bright spot in a disastrous season for USC. Even in losing 17 of 18 Pac-12 games, the Trojans could count on their 5’7” point guard to provide a few highlights.
Jones’ phenomenal quickness allowed him to average 13 points and 1.8 steals per game.
He also led USC in assists, and if his average in that category (3.5 a night) is a bit low, that says a lot more about his dismal collection of teammates than about Jones himself.
When Cincinnati shifted to a four-guard offense early in the 2011-12 season, it put a premium on guards who could handle bigger opponents. One Bearcat who filled that role in spades was 6’4” Sean Kilpatrick.
Kilpatrick grabbed 4.6 rebounds per game while leading Cincy in scoring with 14.3 points a night. He also did his part on defense, racking up 1.3 steals per contest.
The qualifications for a college power forward don’t usually include “ability to sprint up and down the court all night.”
That’s why it takes a particular breed of post player to thrive in Shaka Smart’s suffocating press, and Juvonte Reddic has shown that he’s the right man for the job.
The 6’9” Reddic averaged 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds a game last season, but defense is where he really makes his mark.
His combination of 1.2 blocks and 1.3 steals per contest makes him a key stabilizing force in middle of the Rams’ frenetic D.
The biggest difference between Michigan State’s 19-15 season in 2010-11 and its 29-8 effort last year was the play of point guard Keith Appling.
The 6’1” sophomore dished out 3.9 assists a game while finishing second on the team in scoring (11.3 points per contest).
Appling’s leadership will be vital as Michigan State tries to weather the loss of All-American Draymond Green next season. Look for him to play an especially big role in the development of incoming freshman (and scoring machine) Gary Harris.
Perhaps the most remarkable tribute to Tim Hardaway Jr.’s talents is that he can thrive under three point-loving coach John Beilein without being an effective long-range shooter (.283 last season).
The 6’6” Hardaway used his mid-range game and enviable finishing ability to pour in 14.6 points per game in 2011-12.
Backcourt mate Trey Burke returns, and the addition of some top-notch freshmen (Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III) will make Michigan one of the nation’s deepest offenses.
Even with all that talent around him, though, don’t expect Hardaway’s numbers to drop off any in his third year in Ann Arbor.
In a wretched year for the Pac-12, the Golden Bears of Cal were the league’s only team to earn an at-large berth in the Big Dance. One of the keys to that effort was physical 2-guard Allen Crabbe.
The 6’6” Crabbe averaged a team-high 15.3 points and a remarkable 5.7 rebounds per game last season. With senior Jorge Gutierrez gone, Crabbe has a good chance to put up even more impressive numbers in 2012-13.
Patric Young didn’t make many headlines last year, but his toughness inside was a crucial factor in Florida’s Elite Eight run.
Young guarded big men ranging from Jared Sullinger to Anthony Davis, doing the dirty work in the middle that let Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal shine on the perimeter.
Young put up some solid numbers in the process, averaging 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds a night. Look for him to take another step forward (especially on offense) with Beal and Erving Walker gone next season.
One of the oddities of the 2011-12 Big East was that two of the most valuable players in the conference didn’t even start.
Dion Waiters (Syracuse’s second-leading scorer) is off to the NBA, but Louisville’s Russ Smith (also second on his team) is back for an encore at the college level.
Smith is one of the highest-energy players you’ll ever see, and though he’s not much of a shot (.276 from beyond the arc and a wretched .359 overall), he created enough scoring chances on hustle and quickness that he still piled up 11.4 points per game.
Many of those scores came on fast breaks triggered by his outstanding defense (2.2 steals per game), a trend that’s likely to continue as he moves into the starting lineup as a junior.
C.J. Leslie’s debut season had provided the silver lining to a woeful 5-11 ACC showing for NC State’s 2010-11 squad. He stood even taller last year, averaging 14.6 points a game to lead the Wolfpack in scoring as a key part of the team's trip to the Sweet 16.
The 6’8” Leslie is also a terrific rebounder who’s topped seven boards a game in each of his first two seasons. Throw in his solid shot-blocking performance (1.6 a night) and you have the makings of one of the best all-around forwards in the college game.
NC State proved to be one of the season’s more pleasant surprises, going from a sub-.500 record the previous year to a No. 11 seed and a spot in the Sweet 16. One of the key factors in that turnaround was the maturation of point guard Lorenzo Brown.
Brown had been respectable even as a freshman, but last year he rocketed up to 6.4 assists per game, the 12th-best figure in the country.
He’s one of four returning starters for coach Mark Gottfried, a group that will have every chance to contend for an ACC title in 2012-13.
Mike Moser won’t be sneaking up on anyone next season. The UCLA transfer had a breakout 2011-12 campaign, leading the Rebels in scoring (14.1 points per game) and rebounding (10.6 boards a night, 10th-best in the country).
Moser’s going to be getting loads of help around him next season, with touted 6'7" freshman Anthony Bennett and 6'9" Pitt transfer Khem Birch both arriving.
That trio will give UNLV one of the most dangerous frontcourts in the country, making the team a good bet to improve on its one-and-done NCAA Tournament showing from this March.
Aaron Craft is a fine distributor who set up Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas to the tune of 4.6 assists per game during last season’s Final Four run.
Craft’s offensive talents, however, are only a minor part of his contributions to the Buckeyes’ success.
Craft is the most dominant perimeter defender in college hoops, and he averaged an eye-opening 2.5 steals a game to lead the Big Ten.
Even if he doesn’t improve his lackluster scoring numbers, he’ll still be a vital contributor to an Ohio State team that will still be a leading Big Ten contender in spite of Sullinger’s departure.
Senior stars Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore got most of the accolades for a 21-win season that saw Seton Hall narrowly miss the NCAA Tournament.
With that duo gone, though, swingman Fuquan Edwin will have a chance to showcase his own considerable talents.
Had Edwin only put up the 12.5 points and 6.2 rebounds a game he averaged last season, he'd still merit consideration among the top juniors around.
His real expertise, though, was in forcing turnovers, and he ranked second in the country in 2011-12 with 2.9 steals per game.
UConn didn’t exactly sparkle in defending its 2011 national title, but Shabazz Napier isn’t the player to blame for it.
Napier turned in a valiant effort in replacing the departed Kemba Walker, dishing out 5.8 assists per game to place 24th in the nation.
Napier wasn’t a half-bad scoring option either, hitting 35.5 percent of his three-pointers and contributing 13 points per game (second-best on the roster).
It will be interesting to see if he jumps to the NBA after next year (when UConn is banned from the postseason due to academic woes) or stays for a potential NCAA Tournament run as a senior.
Coming off an 8-8 campaign in its final Big 12 season, Colorado wasn’t exactly weighted down with expectations for its Pac-12 debut.
That the Buffaloes earned a surprise conference tournament title and an NCAA Tournament upset over UNLV owed a great deal to the efforts of Andre Roberson.
The 6’7” forward averaged 11.1 rebounds per game last season, ranking fifth in the country. He also put in a terrific effort on defense, averaging 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals a night for a team that didn’t have much in the way of size.
At just 6’5”, Jamaal Franklin was San Diego State’s most dependable rebounder, averaging 7.9 boards a game. Of course, Franklin’s No. 1 job for the Aztecs was putting points on the scoreboard, and he came through with flying colors.
Franklin’s 17.2 points per game led all Mountain West scorers. With backcourt mate Chase Tapley also returning, Franklin will make sure San Diego State is in the thick of the conference title hunt for the third year in a row.
The loss of seven seniors is going to gut a Missouri roster that won 30 games before its ignominious second-round loss to Norfolk State in March. By far the most impressive weapon left on the team will be rising-star point guard Phil Pressey.
Pressey dished out 6.3 assists per game last season, tops in the Big 12.
He also has defensive instincts worthy of his father (Paul, a three-time All-Defensive pick with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks), making him a good bet to average at least two steals per game for the third straight season.
Matchup zones have rarely been Rick Pitino’s M.O. in his coaching career, but his overachieving Cardinals employed the scheme to great effect in last season’s NCAA Tournament.
One of the major reasons Louisville was able to force opponents into so many scoring droughts was the intimidating presence of 6’11” Gorgui Dieng in the middle.
Dieng blocked 3.2 shots per game (eighth-best nationally) and grabbed 9.1 rebounds a night to go with them.
If he can develop more of a back-to-the-basket game for next season and improve on his 9.4 points per contest, he’ll really become a nightmare matchup for opposing centers.
The more opponents adjusted their defenses to contain All-American Jared Sullinger, the more openings they provided for Deshaun Thomas.
The 6’7” combo forward exploded in his second season in Columbus, averaging 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds a game (both second to Sullinger on the Buckeye roster).
Thomas is versatile enough (.347 three-point shooting and a solid low-post scoring game) that he should have little trouble carrying the OSU offense with Sullinger gone. He’s an early contender for All-America honors in 2012-13.
Two years into his Creighton career, Doug McDermott already deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Paul Silas and Rodney Buford as one of the best players in program history.
He’s scored nearly 1,400 points in two seasons, posting the country’s third-highest average (23.2 points a night) last year.
The 6’7” McDermott also led the Blue Jays in rebounding with 8.2 boards per game, and he’s a good bet to pace the team in both categories again as a junior.
As the only returning member of the AP’s All-America first team, he has a real chance to become Creighton’s first-ever Naismith Award winner next year.