12 College Basketball Teams Returning the Most Talent
Kentucky’s 2012 national title made sure that the spotlight will be on incoming freshmen next season, but the returning stars of college hoops will have a lot to say about who cuts down the nets in 2013. Although national finalists Kentucky and Kansas were gutted by the NBA draft, many of the other top teams in the country have some big-time ballplayers returning for another year of college ball.
One of the most impressive groups of returnees comes from another Final Four squad, the Louisville Cardinals. Rick Pitino’s team did lose a pair of seniors from the starting lineup, but among the players who came back are elite point guard Peyton Siva and shot-blocking whiz Gorgui Dieng.
Herein, a closer look at Louisville and the rest of the dozen teams with the best collections of players coming back for next year.
12. North Carolina
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The Tar Heels are a bit of a special case in this group, because virtually none of their talent has had the slightest opportunity to prove itself.
However, just because a quartet of top-20 NBA draft picks kept so many good players stuck on the bench doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a tremendous pool of athletes on Roy Williams’ roster.
The main man will be 6’9” James Michael McAdoo in the post, an absurdly mobile PF who should be one of the ACC’s highest-scoring bigs.
Add in two more stars-in-waiting (SG Leslie McDonald and swingman P.J. Hairston) along with skilled role players such as Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock, and even UNC’s extensive draft departures won’t leave them bereft in 2012-13.
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The entire roster is back from last year’s NIT runners-up, with the exception of center Ralph Sampson III (who missed the Gophers' postseason run with a knee injury anyway).
Although the return of nondescript (and unrelated) guards Austin and Andre Hollins isn’t particular cause for celebration, the Gophers bring back as dangerous a pair of forwards as any team in the country can boast.
SF Rodney Williams finally started to convert his exceptional athleticism into production last year, anchoring the roster with 12.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
Williams is also a terrific defender, a trait he shares with fellow rising senior Trevor Mbakwe, who returns from a knee injury to defend his 2010-11 Big Ten rebounding title.
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Much of the preseason buzz for the Rebels surrounds their new arrivals—understandable when two Big East transfers and a 5-star recruit join the frontcourt simultaneously.
Still, the Rebels also bring back two of the leading lights from what was already a 26-9 team in 2011-12.
It all starts with rising junior Mike Moser, the rebounding machine who became an instant star with team highs of 14 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.
With Moser at PF and Anthony Marshall (12.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game) returning to anchor the backcourt, UNLV will hardly be hurting for veteran leadership.
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It’s all well and good that Creighton is returning standout players like Gregory Echenique and Grant Gibbs—bringing back a hulking (6’9”, 270 lbs) center and a terrific young PG (7.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists a night), respectively, has its merits.
That said, Creighton is on this list for one reason and one reason only.
The Blue Jays also bring back Doug McDermott, the only first-team All-American returning from last season and a staggering offensive weapon who averaged 22.9 points per game.
With McDermott back as a rising junior, there’s no question that Creighton’s offense will be among the nation’s best once again in 2012-13.
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The bad news for the Gators is that two of last year’s top three scorers, star guards Bradley Beal and Erving Walker, are departing. The good news is that those are the only two players lost from a team that made the Elite Eight a season ago.
The returnees will be led by Kenny Boynton, a rising senior who led the squad with 16.3 points and 110 three-pointers last season.
While Boynton climbs the school’s career scoring charts—he’s already in seventh place—hard-nosed forwards Patric Young and Erik Murphy (20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game combined) will hold down the middle.
7. San Diego State
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Losing most of the key players from 2010-11’s Sweet 16 squad didn’t stop San Diego State from finishing 26-8 last season. Now, imagine what Steve Fisher can do when he has four starters back.
That group includes do-everything swingman Jamaal Franklin, the team’s leading scorer (17.2 points per game) and rebounder (7.9 boards a night) a season ago.
With a backcourt that also features Chase Tapley and Xavier Thames (25.9 points and 6.4 assists per game combined), the Aztec offense will be a fearsome unit in 2012-13.
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It would be easy to discount Memphis after Will Barton (the team’s leader in scoring, rebounding and steals over each of the past two seasons) jumped to the NBA.
Barton, however, was just one piece of a celebrated recruiting class that’s now a seasoned bunch of rising juniors ready to lead the Tigers.
Guards Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford both bring scoring, passing and defense (20.1 points, 7.7 assists and three steals a night between them), and Crawford is also a .392 three-point shooter.
They’ll get plenty of help from big man Tarik Black (10.7 points and 4.9 boards a night last season) and rising sophomore Adonis Thomas (8.8 points per game on .408 long-range shooting before an ankle injury felled him).
5. Notre Dame
Had Tim Abromaitis gotten an extra year of eligibility after last year’s torn ACL, the Irish might be even higher on this list. Even without the sharpshooting forward, though, Notre Dame’s four returning starters will be a formidable group in their own right.
Rising senior Jack Cooley had a breakout season in 2010-11, and he’ll be the key to ND’s success again after posting 12.4 points, nine rebounds and 1.6 blocks per contest last year.
He’ll be complemented by a talented backcourt, with rising juniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant back after combining for 24.4 points and 9.1 assists a night.
4. Ohio State
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In rising sophomore Amir Williams, Ohio State has what could be one of the best secret weapons in the country next season.
Extrapolating his numbers last year (when he played just 6.6 minutes per game) to a starter’s playing time, Williams’ performance could be in the neighborhood of eight rebounds and three blocks a night.
Of course, even if Williams doesn’t become a defensive star immediately, Ohio State has another one of those already on hand in Aaron Craft, the nation’s toughest stopper on the perimeter.
With Craft’s 2.5 steals a night on defense and inside-outside scorer Deshaun Thomas (15.9 points per game) on offense, Ohio State will still be a force in spite of Jared Sullinger’s departure.
3. NC State
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For all that NC State didn’t especially impress in the 2011-12 regular season—the Wolfpack managed just a No. 11 seed in March thanks to a 22-12 record—the team’s subsequent run to the Sweet 16 has expectations high in Raleigh.
A great recruiting class is part of the appeal, but the return of four starters from last year’s squad also has a lot to do with that excitement.
The best of that quartet is point guard Lorenzo Brown, who had a monster sophomore year with 12.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game.
Brown will have plenty of dangerous forwards to set up, with high-scoring C.J. Leslie (a team-high 14.7 points a night) and bruising Richard Howell (9.2 rebounds per game along with 10.8 points) returning to the front line.
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Losing two of the best jump shooters from an already scattershot roster—thanks to the graduations of Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith—will take its toll on Louisville.
Nevertheless, the Cardinals are going to be a scary, scary team with a year of Final Four experience to draw on.
The vacant starting spots are likely to be filled by Russ Smith (last year’s super-sub with the daunting 2.2 steal-per-game average) and high-flying Wayne Blackshear (recovered from the shoulder injury that cost him most of last year).
Better still, Rick Pitino gets to plug those two into a lineup that already includes a top-tier PG (Peyton Siva at 5.6 assists per game), a terrific shot-blocker (Gorgui Dieng and his 3.2 rejections a night) and a first-class rebounder (Chane Behanan with 7.5 boards per contest).
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Only two of last season’s Sweet 16 teams return their entire starting five: the 13th-seeded Cinderella squad from Ohio, and fourth-seeded Big Ten powerhouse Indiana.
The only major loss for the Hoosiers is PG Verdell Jones III, but even he spent most of last year as a reserve thanks to the depth in IU's backcourt.
Center Cody Zeller is a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate after averaging team highs of 15.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game as a freshman.
The highlights of his daunting supporting cast include Christian Watford (a 6’9” PF who ranked second to Zeller with 12.6 points and 5.8 boards a night) and sniper Jordan Hulls (.493 from beyond the arc last year).