College Basketball: 15 Players with Most to Prove in 2012-13

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJune 7, 2012

College Basketball: 15 Players with Most to Prove in 2012-13

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    Some of the nation's most noteworthy college basketball players will be bringing a little extra motivation into next season. Whether they’re trying to live up to potential they haven’t yet fulfilled or show that a great performance wasn’t a fluke, these hoops standouts will have a chip on their shoulders in 2012-13.

    Deshaun Thomas put in some brilliant performances for Ohio State last year, especially in the postseason, but the Buckeyes were always Jared Sullinger’s team. Now it’s Thomas’ turn to show that he can be The Guy and lead his team to equal (or greater) heights with Sullinger off to the NBA.

    Read on for more on Thomas’ task in Columbus and 14 more players who have a lot to play for in the coming season.

15. Nate Wolters, South Dakota State

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    For the last two years, Nate Wolters has been one of the most impressive — and most overlooked — point guards in the nation.

    After averaging 21.2 points, 5.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game, Wolters led South Dakota State to its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth, but the Jackrabbits came up short as a No. 14 seed against Baylor’s overwhelming size advantage.

    Wolters is one of four returning starters from the NCAA Tournament squad, and now is his chance to show that he and his team (which finished second to Oral Roberts in the Summit Conference in the regular season) are the real deal.

    With a strong showing next year, Wolters and company can earn a more manageable 13 or 12 seed and pull off the Cinderella run in 2013 that they couldn’t quite achieve in 2012.

14. Russ Smith, Louisville

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    SG Russ Smith was on the short list of the most devastating sixth men in the country in 2011-12.

    He averaged an absurd 2.2 steals per game off Louisville’s bench, helping him score 11.5 points a night in spite of his abysmal shooting (.306 from three point range, .356 overall).

    With starter Chris Smith gone from last year’s Final Four roster, Russ Smith now needs to demonstrate that he can be effective in a full-time role.

    An improved jump shot would go a long way toward achieving that goal, but even in the absence of that, he’ll have to figure out how to budget his energy for starter’s minutes without losing the effectiveness that his breakneck style gave him a season ago.

13. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State

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    Deshaun Thomas gave every indication last season of being the next big thing for Ohio State. Now he just has to follow through on that enormous promise.

    Thomas benefited immensely as a sophomore from the attention paid by defenses to All-America classmate Jared Sullinger.

    With his combination of inside muscle and outside shooting touch (.345 from long range), Thomas should be able to take over for the departed Sullinger and keep Ohio State near the top of the Big Ten, as long as he’s really as good as he looked in 2011-12.

12. Tarik Black, Memphis

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    All of Memphis’ returning players would love to prove that the team’s back-to-back postseason flops were a mirage. Tarik Black, though, has an added concern: showing that he can stay on the floor.

    Black fouled out of six games last season, including such dreadful performances as his four-point, two-rebound game in a loss to Southern Miss and a four-point, four-board showing in the NCAA Tournament defeat by St. Louis.

    He won’t be the only post threat for the Tigers next season—prize recruit Shaq Goodwin will be there to help—but if Memphis is going to succeed without Will Barton, Black needs to learn how to play without taking himself out of the game.

11. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State

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    Murray State won’t be sneaking up on anyone next season—last year’s 23-0 start made sure of that.

    If the Racers are going to convince anyone that they’re more than a fluke that benefited from a soft schedule, this is the year to do it, and Isaiah Canaan is the man to lead the charge.

    Canaan is one of just two returning starters, but he’s also a senior with proven leadership ability and the scoring touch to pour in 19 points a game (including .456 three-point shooting) last season.

    His presence will certainly make Murray State dangerous once again in the regular season, and he has a chance to make them a legitimate NCAA Tournament threat for the second year in a row.

10. Elias Harris, Gonzaga

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    For the third straight offseason, Elias Harris has had good reason to consider entering the NBA Draft, and for the third straight time, he’s opted to stay at Gonzaga.

    Now, in his final year of college ball, it’s time for Harris to put up or shut up where NBA scouts are concerned.

    Harris has posted three nearly-identical years, though he did average a career-best 8.5 rebounds per game in 2011-12 to go with his 13.1 points a night.

    He’s still not much of a perimeter threat as a 6’7” forward, so his best chance to impress the pros would be to lead one of Gonzaga’s famed NCAA Tournament runs after three straight Round of 32 exits.

9. Elijah Johnson, Kansas

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    In 2011-12, Kansas had lost three NBA draft picks from an Elite Eight squad, but returnees Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson took them all the way to the national title game.

    Now, Taylor and Robinson are off to the pros and the burden of keeping Kansas in contention belongs to last year’s supporting cast, especially Elijah Johnson.

    Taylor’s backcourt mate averaged 9.6 points and 3.8 assists per game in his first shot as a starter, but it’s an open question whether he can provide enough offense on the perimeter to carry a team that will be leaning heavily on promising freshmen for scoring.

    He’s already a solid defender (and with Jeff Withey’s help inside, defense won’t be a problem in Lawrence), but if Kansas is going to vie for yet another Big 12 title, Johnson must be at the forefront of that effort.

8. Lorenzo Brown, North Carolina State

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    The NC State Wolfpack barely even made the 2012 NCAA Tournament, sneaking in as an 11th seed before pulling off an impressive Sweet 16 run.

    The whole team will carry the burden of proving their success wasn’t a late-season fluke, but no one will feel it more than standout point guard Lorenzo Brown.

    In the Wolfpack’s two March Madness upset wins, Brown combined for 29 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists.

    When he was merely ordinary against Kansas (10 points, seven rebounds but just three assists) his team lost a heartbreaker, so if NC State is to make good on its potential ACC-favorite status, Brown will have to stand tall next season.

7. Brady Heslip, Baylor

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    One of the nation’s most impressive long-range shooters in 2011-12, Brady Heslip got so few attempts in Baylor’s deep offense that he averaged a mere 9.6 points a game.

    He got his star turn in the NCAA Tournament, though, shelling Colorado for 27 points on 9-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc (and 0-for-1 shooting on two-pointers).

    Is Heslip a one-trick Bear? He’ll have a chance to show otherwise next year, when he and backcourt mate Pierre Jackson will be the leaders of a young team and he’ll have to do more than stand out at the three-point line and wait for the ball.

6. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina

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    Forty years ago, Bob McAdoo spent one season as a Tar Heel before embarking on a Hall of Fame NBA career. In 2012-13 a distant relative of his, rising UNC sophomore James Michael McAdoo, will get the chance to live up to his attention-grabbing name.

    The 6’9”, 220-lb McAdoo is a phenomenal athlete, but he had few opportunities to get on the floor while playing behind the country’s best and deepest frontcourt as a freshman.

    Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes are all NBA-bound now, though, and the Tar Heels will put themselves in the hands of their sophomore star-in-the-making—who’s a safe bet to more than double the 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game that he averaged in limited minutes last season.

5. Mark Lyons, Arizona

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    After two seasons as Tu Holloway’s sidekick at Xavier, Mark Lyons is transferring to Arizona for his senior season.

    He’ll be able to play in 2012-13 (he’s transferring as a graduate student), so he has only this offseason to prepare for the major image transformation he’s hoping to undergo.

    In the first place, erstwhile 2-guard Lyons is looking to demonstrate that he’s a viable NBA point guard, and on an Arizona team that will have plenty of weapons, he’ll have only himself to blame if his assist numbers don’t measure up.

    Just as importantly, he’ll be looked to as a voice of maturity on a team relying on several star freshmen, a role some Xavier fans will question considering his part in last year’s brawl with Cincinnati and general lack of demonstrable leadership skills to this point.

4. Trey Burke, Michigan

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    Michigan, Duke and Missouri all endured NCAA Tournament disasters in 2012, but only the Wolverines return their star player for a shot at redemption.

    Trey Burke led John Beilein’s team with 14.8 points and 4.6 assists a night, but got toasted by Ohio’s D.J. Cooper in what turned out to be a second-round pratfall for the fourth-seeded Maize and Blue.

    Burke would like nothing better than to erase that memory next March, and he’ll have no excuse for failure this time around.

    With stud freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III (son of the former NBA star) joining Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. (ditto), Michigan is a bona fide Final Four contender as long as Burke does his job running the floor.

3. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse

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    In a season that saw some of the top Big East newcomers transfer out after mere weeks at their new programs—Khem Birch at Pitt, Nurideen Lindsey at St. John’s—Jim Boeheim managed a bit of a coup by hanging on to Michael Carter-Williams.

    The freshman guard came in as a McDonald’s All-American, but stuck out a season in which he played just 10.3 minutes per game for the Orange (and rarely more than couple of minutes in Big East action).

    The 6’5” Carter-Williams is likely to take over the point guard duties from the graduated Scoop Jardine as a sophomore, and he should be well-equipped to handle the role.

    Even in limited action, Carter-Williams averaged 2.1 assists per game as a freshman—a figure that, if extrapolated to 25 minutes a night, would eclipse even the 4.7 assists Jardine averaged in his senior season.

2. Derrick Nix, Michigan State

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    Derrick Nix has some impossible shoes to fill: he’s expected to step into the starting spot vacated by graduated All-American Draymond Green, Michigan State’s leading scorer and the Big Ten’s leading rebounder from a year ago.

    As such, Nix had more than enough to worry about without creating problems for himself.

    The rising senior forward will be performing community service after pleading guilty to impaired driving last month (he had been charged with marijuana possession as well, though that was dropped).

    As long as Nix can put those issues in his past, though, he’s got the potential and the muscle (at 6’9”, 270 lbs) to be a terrific Big Ten power forward in his final season in East Lansing.

1. Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky

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    If you’re reading this article, you already know that Kentucky is losing every member of John Calipari’s youth-heavy six-man rotation from the 2012 national champs. However, Calipari’s 2011 recruiting class isn’t done making noise in Lexington.

    Kyle Wiltjer didn’t see much playing time behind heralded classmates such as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but the 6’9” PF was ESPNU’s 19th-ranked recruit in the nation entering last season.

    As another wave of elite freshmen joins him on the Kentucky roster, look for Wiltjer to step up and show that he was overlooked but not overrated coming out of high school.