College Basketball: Hidden Gem on Every Top 25 Team
For all the preseason hype surrounding new stars like Nerlens Noel and returning ones like Cody Zeller, there are other players who aren’t getting their due. Whichever team cuts down the nets next March, it’s a sure bet that they’ll get critical contributions from players who aren’t grabbing the spotlight this summer.
One of next year’s most talked-about teams will be defending champion Kentucky, which has reloaded with a No. 1-ranked recruiting class. However, the buzz around the incoming freshmen in Lexington shouldn’t obscure the potential of rising sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, who’s set to show why he was one of the top-ranked recruits in the nation at this time last year.
Read on for more on Wiltjer and his fellow overlooked standouts on each of ESPN’s preseason Top 25 squads.
25. Minnesota: Andre Hollins
None of Minnesota’s returning guards is coming off an especially good year, but Andre Hollins has one distinct advantage over his peers.
Hollins is a rising sophomore, and the biggest jump in a college player’s performance frequently happens between his freshman and sophomore seasons (see Leonard, Meyers).
Hollins also has the benefit of postseason experience, having started for the Gophers in their run to the NIT championship game.
If the 20 points he dropped on Washington in the NIT semis are any indication, Hollins is a good bet to greatly exceed the 7.8 points and 1.7 assists he averaged as a freshman.
24. Missouri: Laurence Bowers
With transfers and freshmen arriving by the bushel in Columbia, the new face who could prove to be the most valuable is actually an old face.
Laurence Bowers, who missed the entirety of the Tigers’ 30-5 season with a knee injury, returns to step into Ricardo Ratliffe’s role as the designated interior scorer.
Bowers has credentials for that job in spades, having outscored Ratliffe in 2010-11 with an average of 11.6 points a night.
Bowers also shot an impressive .529 from the field that season, and if he doesn’t match Ratliffe’s ludicrous .693 shooting from last season, he should at least make a decent run at it.
23. UNLV: Katin Reinhardt
The big news in Vegas is the addition of three starting-caliber forwards: transfers Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith along with 5-star freshman Anthony Bennett.
That influx of talent has overshadowed the fact that one of Bennett’s classmates is set to make a substantial splash in the backcourt.
Katin Reinhardt is a 6’5” shooting guard with terrific range, and while he’s not as highly regarded as Bennett, he’s still in the top 50 nationally according to ESPNU, Rivals.com and Scout.com.
With the Rebels losing three-point gunners Chace Stanback and Oscar Bellfield, Reinhardt will have a chance to step in right away to help returning PG Anthony Marshall on the outside.
22. Wisconsin: Ryan Evans
Bo Ryan has turned Wisconsin into a perennial power despite some largely anonymous rosters.
The 2012-13 Badgers will have plenty of Ryan’s typical hard-nosed, defense-first big bodies (Jared Berggren, the wonderfully named Mike Bruesewitz)…and one notable exception who could take over as the face of the team.
Combo forward Ryan Evans was Wisconsin’s second-leading scorer behind Jordan Taylor with 11 points per game last season, and unlike many Badgers, Evans gets his points by attacking the basket rather than lofting treys.
The 6’6” Evans knows how to play around the rim (a team-high 6.8 rebounds a night), and his change-of-pace game could be just what Wisconsin needs to replace Taylor’s lost production on offense.
21. Texas: Sheldon McClellan
Under other circumstances, you’d expect Sheldon McClellan to get a lot more buzz as the leading returning scorer on a highly-regarded Longhorns team.
In actuality, though, McClellan has been seriously overshadowed, both by superlative backcourt mate Myck Kabongo and by a recruiting class loaded with talented big men.
With J’Covan Brown gone, McClellan should see an appreciable spike in his shot attempts…and his 11.3 point-per-game average.
The rising sophomore will be an even bigger weapon if he spends the offseason honing his long-range game after shooting a disappointing .310 from beyond the arc last season.
20. Gonzaga: Sam Dower
Gonzaga’s biggest loss from last year’s 26-7 squad was seven-foot center (and Lakers draftee) Robert Sacre. Fortunately for the Zags, they have an awfully good understudy ready to step into Sacre’s starting job.
Sam Dower doesn’t quite have Sacre’s length, but at 6’9”, 248 lbs, he has more than enough size to control the paint in the West Coast Conference.
He’s seen very limited minutes in two seasons so far, but he still managed to average 8.3 points and 3.7 rebounds a night while backing up Sacre a year ago.
19. Notre Dame: Eric Atkins
Notre Dame power forward Jack Cooley’s breakout 2011-12 season will put him at the forefront of his team’s efforts to improve on a 22-12 finish. Cooley, however, wasn’t the only newly minted star on the Irish roster last year.
Jerian Grant is the more celebrated of Notre Dame’s guards, but rising junior Eric Atkins will play just as big a role in keeping the ND offense clicking next year.
Atkins finished just behind Grant with 12.1 points and 4.1 assists per game a season ago, and his .375 three-point percentage was the best for any Notre Dame regular.
18. Creighton: Grant Gibbs
Contrary to (understandable) popular belief, first-team All-American Doug McDermott isn’t the only weapon in Creighton’s arsenal. The high-powered Blue Jay offense features one of the most overlooked floor generals in the nation in rising senior Grant Gibbs.
Gibbs, a Gonzaga transfer, burst onto the scene last year with five assists per game (not to mention 4.5 rebounds a night) in his Creighton debut.
The Blue Jays haven’t lost much from last year’s devastating offense, and with McDermott returning to lead the charge, Gibbs should be in for even loftier numbers in his final college season.
17. Arizona: Solomon Hill
Bringing in the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation is a good way to get your upperclassmen ignored in the offseason. Fortunately for Arizona, Solomon Hill will be just as dangerous whether anyone pays him any attention or not.
The rising senior served as an undersized power forward last year, leading the Wildcats with 7.7 rebounds per game but also scoring 13 points a night and hitting 39.4 percent of his treys.
With Arizona adding a trio of towering freshmen, the mobile Hill will likely move to SF next season, but regardless of where he plays, his biggest contribution will be to provide a steadying hand and a dose of postseason experience for this young roster.
16. San Diego State: Winston Shepard
Few teams in the country bring back as much firepower in the backcourt as San Diego State.
The Aztecs’ trio of Xavier Thames, Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin tends to eclipse any other scorers on the roster, but that’s not to say that Winston Shepard isn’t going to be a serious threat in his own right.
Shepard, a 6’8” freshman forward, is a 4-star prospect who can attack the basket as well as anyone in the Mountain West.
Shepard’s rebounding will be a particular asset to the undersized Aztecs, but don’t overlook what he’ll be able to contribute as a scorer, even in this veteran offense.
15. Duke: Seth Curry
Seth Curry is never going to live up to the stardom of older brother Stephen, but he’s still going to be one of the most valuable players on Duke’s roster next season.
Curry’s experience alone—the rising senior was a key reserve on Duke’s 2011 Sweet 16 squad before earning a starting job last year—will make him a crucial factor in the Blue Devils’ bid to bounce back from last year’s March disaster.
Just like last year, Curry is likely to cede his natural SG position to a star freshman (Rasheed Sulaimon this time around), serving instead as the key man in a point-guard-by-committee approach.
He performed admirably in the role a year ago—13.2 points and 2.4 assists per game, .383 long-range accuracy—and he’s a safe bet to be even stronger as a senior now that he’s more familiar with his adopted position.
14. Memphis: Adonis Thomas
If swingman Adonis Thomas had stayed healthy, Memphis might have enjoyed a much better finish to 2011-12.
Instead, the foot injury that kept Thomas out of commission for half the year sparked a late-season Tiger slump that wrecked their conference record (from undefeated to 13-3 in a weak C-USA) and their NCAA tournament seed (a No. 8 spot that set up a loss to ninth-seeded St. Louis).
When Thomas was on the floor, he averaged 8.8 points and 3.2 rebounds a night while shooting a sparkling .405 on limited three-point attempts.
He’s the best pure athlete remaining on the Memphis roster, and with Will Barton’s starting spot available, he could easily take over Barton’s role as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder next year.
13. North Carolina: Marcus Paige
In a very real sense, any of North Carolina’s projected starters could qualify for this list. With four top-20 NBA draft picks departing the team, all of next year’s stars will be under-the-radar types, but none more so than Marcus Paige.
Paige, the centerpiece of Roy Williams’ incoming freshman class, is a 6’1” PG who’s ranked as the nation’s top incoming floor leader by ESPNU.
Even so, he hasn’t had the chance to provide the tantalizing glimpses of NBA athleticism that returning studs such as James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston have flashed at the college level—a fact that Paige makes a comparative dark horse even in a roster of newcomers.
12. Florida: Erik Murphy
A central theme of Florida’s 2011-12 season was the emergence of PF Patric Young as one of the SEC’s top big men. Less noted but also crucial was the performance of Young’s sidekick on the low block, 6’10” junior Erik Murphy.
Murphy, who had never played more than 10.8 minutes a game before last year, stepped into a starting job with aplomb, averaging 10.5 points (just ahead of Young’s 10.2) and 4.5 rebounds a night last season.
Expect both big men to get more touches on offense with Erving Walker and Bradley Beal gone—meaning that Murphy should have little trouble registering a career year in his final collegiate season.
11. Baylor: L.J. Rose
The storyline of Baylor’s 2012-13 season looks like a fairly simple one: veteran backcourt plus high-powered freshman forwards equals Big 12 title contender.
There’s a lot of truth to that premise, but it overlooks the fact that one of Baylor’s most promising recruits will be plying his trade on the perimeter.
L.J. Rose is a 4-star point guard who will provide badly needed depth behind Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip.
In addition to offering a bigger PG option to spell the 5’10” Jackson, the 6’3” Rose will provide some insurance if the one-dimensional Heslip struggles to expand from a pure catch-and-shoot player to a bigger offensive role.
10. Syracuse: Michael Carter-Williams
Like North Carolina, Syracuse has almost nothing but hidden gems after losing the four best players on the team to the NBA.
Of the Orange’s likely starters for next year, Michael Carter-Williams stands out because of how little opportunity he had to show what he could do as a freshman.
Carter-Williams played just 10.3 minutes a night, not to mention that he appeared in only 26 of the Orange’s 37 games.
Even in that limited action, though, the 6’5” combo guard flashed some of the talent that made him a McDonald’s All-American—and that could easily make him the most dangerous offensive weapon on Jim Boeheim’s roster next season.
9. Michigan State: Adreian Payne
Draymond Green made a valiant effort at leading Michigan State’s forwards in every single statistical category last year, but he didn’t quite get there.
One of the few areas where Green came out second-best was shot-blocking, where Adreian Payne recorded a team-leading 1.1 rejections per contest.
Payne also notched solid averages of seven points and 4.2 boards a night despite playing just 17.9 minutes per game. Expect the rising junior to take on more of an offensive role in Green’s absence in 2012-13.
8. Ohio State: Lenzelle Smith Jr.
There might not be a player in the country who’s better positioned to explode after a quiet season than Lenzelle Smith Jr.
The rising junior has watched his recruiting classmates jump to the NBA (Jared Sullinger) or develop into stars at the college level (Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas), and it looks like 2012-13 will be Smith’s time to blossom.
The 6’4” Smith is a physical 2-guard whose numbers have yet to match his athleticism.
If he slogs through another year of scoring 6.1 points a game, the Buckeyes are in trouble, but the bet here is that he’ll step up in Sullinger’s absence to become a legitimate backcourt complement to the high-scoring Thomas.
7. UCLA: Jordan Adams
The fourth-best recruit in any team's class, even one that ESPNU ranks as the nation’s best, is rarely going to be a major factor.
At UCLA, though, Jordan Adams takes a back seat only because Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker represent such an overpowering trio of freshmen.
Adams, a 6’5” SF as a high schooler, seems likely to slide over to SG and partner with Anderson in UCLA’s starting backcourt.
He’s a scorer first and foremost, a welcome sight for a Bruins squad that struggled to get points from anywhere, and especially from the guards, in 2011-12.
6. North Carolina State: Richard Howell
Thrust into a full-time starting role for the first time last season, Richard Howell acquitted himself impressively. The 6’8” PF used his 250 lbs to good effect in grabbing a team-high 9.2 rebounds per game.
Howell wasn’t a negligible factor on offense, either, scoring 10.8 points a night in a balanced attack that saw all five starters reach double figures.
With flashier teammates C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown back as well, Howell will probably remain both productive and anonymous in 2012-13.
5. Michigan: Jordan Morgan
Jordan Morgan is going to be the only Michigan starter who won’t scare opponents with his scoring. He’s also going to play an absolutely vital role in keeping the Wolverines competitive in conference play.
Morgan (at 6’8”, 250 lbs) is exactly the kind of physical post presence that the Big Ten requires—as evidenced by his career mark of 5.5 rebounds per game.
Now a rising junior, Morgan will make sure that freshman Mitch McGary doesn’t get worn out trying to control the paint by himself against bruising league foes.
4. Kansas: Travis Releford
With Kansas losing Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor to the NBA, the primary concerns in Lawrence revolve around replacing the enormous offensive contributions of those two stars.
Provided that freshmen Perry Ellis and Andrew White keep the offense from falling off a cliff, Kansas will be just fine next season…and that’s due, in surprisingly large measure, to Travis Releford.
The rising senior is the ultimate glue guy, doing a little of everything to help Kansas win. He’s especially valuable on defense, where his 6’6” frame helps him harass opposing shooters as well as make plays off the ball (1.2 steals a night).
3. Kentucky: Kyle Wiltjer
While his recruiting classmates were earning first-round spots in the NBA draft, Kyle Wiltjer was sitting patiently on the bench and waiting for his own shot.
Stuck behind Terrence Jones on last year’s national champs, Wiltjer played just 11.6 minutes a night—and still averaged five points per appearance.
With the bulk of the 2011 freshmen off to the pros, Wiltjer (who was ranked as the No. 19 recruit in the country last year by ESPNU) will get his chance to shine.
He’ll still be splitting time in the frontcourt with some of this year’s ballyhooed recruits, but the 6’9” Wiltjer is ready to make a statement as both a scorer and rebounder.
2. Louisville: Terry Rozier
Louisville’s lofty position in the preseason rankings says a lot about how many good players are back from the 2011 Final Four squad. It doesn’t hurt, however, that the Cardinals landed their top recruiting target before they even played a game last season.
In 4-star point guard Terry Rozier, Louisville gets a much-needed reserve for a backcourt that’s long on talent but not on numbers.
Rozier can also knock down jumpers in bunches, which will be a welcome change for a Cardinals team that shot just .425 from the field last season.
1. Indiana: Jeremy Hollowell
The Hoosiers have so much talent back that there’s little room for surprises in Bloomington. Star freshman Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell will be handling the point guard chores, but he’s not the only recruit to keep an eye on in Tom Crean’s terrific class.
The 6'7" SF Jeremy Hollowell will give IU yet another long, lean shooter on the perimeter. He’s a versatile offensive weapon who will help make Indiana’s bench as strong as any in the nation.