College Basketball's 12 Most Important Sophomore Classes

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2012

College Basketball's 12 Most Important Sophomore Classes

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    North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo (No. 43 pictured above) and P.J. Hairston (No. 15) didn't get a whole lot of run last season. That's not because they're not talented players, but more because they were playing behind four NBA first-round draft picks.

    This season, the team will be led by McAdoo, with Hairston playing an important supporting role. Still, there are teams that will be even more reliant on second-year players.

    In the one-and-done era, some players may see staying for a second year as an admission of failure, an indictment of their pro-caliber talents. Others take a more optimistic view that, like McAdoo, a season's apprenticeship may make them even more capable of being The Man the second time around.

    These 12 teams may have olderor youngercontributors, but most will only go as far as their sophomore talents will take them.

12. Gonzaga

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    Gonzaga returns nearly everyone from the team that beat West Virginia in the NCAA tournament. Guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. may not be the biggest names on the roster, but they will provide invaluable support for star forward Elias Harris as he tries to close his career with a bang.

    Pangos introduced himself with authority when he dropped 33 on Washington State in his second collegiate game. He would follow that with four more games of 20-plus, including 30 against BYU in a West Coast Conference tournament semifinal.

    Pangos should be a preseason All-WCC selection, returning from a season in which he ranked ninth or better in assists, steals, free throw percentage and three-point percentage.

    Bell was one of the WCC's most efficient scorers last season, finishing second in effective FG percentage and third in true shooting percentage. If he sees more looks, he could up his scoring average from 10.4 to around 13 or 14.

    An encouraging sign is that Bell showed the ability to shrug off shaky nights, like his five-turnover debut against mighty Eastern Washington or his 2-for-11 shooting night against Arizona. His 18 points, four rebounds and five assists in the tournament loss to Ohio State could be more the rule than the exception this season.

11. Michigan State

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    Michigan State fans hope that this picture of a grimacing Branden Dawson is not their final look at him on a basketball court in the 2012 calendar year.

    An uber-athletic forward, Dawson's ACL injury could threaten to rob him of some of the explosiveness that made him a Big Ten All-Freshman team member. If he returns healthy, he could lead the Spartans in scoring and rebounding.

    Dawson's classmates may not join him in the starting lineup, but Travis Trice, Brandan Kearney and Russell Byrd will still play roles in Sparty's 2012-13 success.

    Trice will at least caddy for Keith Appling, and at most start alongside him early on, if freshman Gary Harris isn't ready to leap into the starting five immediately. Trice will also be relied on as a primary perimeter shooting option.

    Kearney and Byrd can also provide shooting off the bench. Both are capable of giving Tom Izzo flexibility with his matchups, as well. The 6'5" Kearney and the 6'7" Byrd can both play multiple positions. Kearney contributed well on the defensive end, and Byrd could grow into an effective rebounder.

    It all comes back to Dawson, however. If he can't be the same player he was at his best last season, other Spartans like Keith Appling, Derrick Nix and Gary Harris will face even more pressure to succeed in a post-Draymond Green era.

10. North Carolina

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    North Carolina sophomore-to-be James Michael McAdoo is a trendy pick to become an NBA lottery pick, if not a collegiate All-American. Classmate P.J. Hairston could be a trendy pick to shoot 300 three-pointers this season.

    Either way, both will need to prove their ability to play strong basketball for 25 to 35 minutes a night if UNC wants to equal last season's Elite Eight finish.

    McAdoo returns as the most experienced member of the Tar Heel frontcourt, and that immediately makes him an indispensable piece of the team's puzzle. He'll definitely need to improve on his 43-percent shooting from last season, a low figure for a player who didn't take a single three-point shot.

    There were two things that McAdoo did really well last season, considering his limited minutes. He averaged nearly a steal per game, recording more thefts than John Henson or Reggie Bullock, both of whom played about 400 more minutes than McAdoo.

    Also, McAdoo's rebounding percentages both ranked in the ACC's top 21, so with 30 minutes a night, he could easily card eight or nine boards per game.

    Hairston is likely to remain on the bench as veteran guards Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald stand ahead of him, with freshman point man Marcus Paige also joining the roster.

    Look for Hairston to occasionally step into the frontcourt as Roy Williams tries to find a spot for his instant offense off the bench. He will need to improve on his 27 percent shooting from deep and his 39 percent from inside the arc.

9. Houston

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    Houston had four players average better than 10 points per game last season. Two of them left the team, leaving rising sophomores TaShawn Thomas and Joe Young to carry the load themselves.

    Luckily for Cougar fans, the Conference USA All-Freshman selections are capable of doing just that.

    The 6'8", 215-pound Thomas was the closest thing UH had to a post threat last season, and the grind of defending other teams' big men wore on him by season's end. He still led Houston in rebounding at eight per game, upping that average to 9.8 per game over the Cougars' last six.

    This season, an influx of big players both veteran (Pitt transfer J.J. Richardson) and youthful (freshman Valentine Izundu) should free Thomas to operate farther from the basket.

    Young, son of Phi Slamma Jamma member Michael Young, had an up-and-down season shooting the ball, making 41 percent of his attempts. He did, however, improve as the season wore on, making 44 percent in Conference USA play. Young has the ability to play either guard position and could improve to All-CUSA levels next season.

    Young and Thomas will get capable support from top-100 freshmen Danuel House and Danrad "Chicken" Knowles, but it's the sophomores who will lead Houston wherever they ultimately go this season.

8. LSU

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    Diminutive point guard Anthony Hickey and big man Johnny O'Bryant are two of only three returning LSU Tigers who played more than 10 minutes per game last season. New head coach Johnny Jones will have to lean heavily on this inside-outside duo if the Tigers hope for even a return to the NIT.

    Hickey is a highly inconsistent scorer, shooting 38 percent from the floor and 31 percent from deep. What he does do well is distribute the ball and harass his opponents. Hickey ranked seventh in the SEC in assists, carded a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and led the league with 2.1 steals per game.

    O'Bryant will no longer have Justin Hamilton around to deflect defensive attention inside, and that will make life very difficult as he attempts to improve on last season's sub-40 percent shooting effort. He should get more easy looks if he can once again top the SEC in offensive rebounding percentage.

    O'Bryant only started 17 of the Tigers' 33 games last season, but his minutes rose steadily as the season wore on. His consistency will need to improve, as illustrated from last season's SEC finale and tournament.

    He scored 18 points and ripped 11 rebounds in the tournament against Arkansas, but that game was bookended by a pair in which he scored a total of five points on 2-of-14 shooting. More games like that from O'Bryant will doom the Bayou Bengals to being mere speed bumps on conference opponents' schedules.

7. Denver

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    Denver bailed on the Sun Belt, a conference in which it made little geographic sense, to the more travel-friendly Western Athletic Conference just in time to watch the WAC struggle through some serious membership juggling. It's an appropriate pairing, since the Pioneers are about to do a little roster juggling.

    Three regular starters and a man who produced like a starter return, but little else. Rising sophomores Brett Olson and Royce O'Neale will play leading roles as Denver tries to assert itself in the retooled WAC.

    O'Neale is a 6'5", 200-pound forward who occasionally rebounds like a man six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. O'Neale's defensive rebounding percentage was tops in the Sun Belt last season and among the top 60 in America. His overall 5.8 boards per game ranked 14th in the Sun Belt as well.

    In addition, O'Neale fell only a basket shy of averaging 10 points per game on the season, with effective FG and true shooting percentages that both ranked second in the Sun Belt. His 64.8 true percentage was 24th in America according to StatSheet.com.

    Guard Brett Olson played most of the season with a nagging shoulder injury, yet still made nearly 50 percent of his shots, both overall and from deep. He dished two assists per game in a Princeton-style offense that saw no player average more than 2.6.

    At 6'5" and 170 pounds, Olson represents a difficult matchup for any team with a small point guard.

    Wherever the two sophomores line up, they will provide highly capable support for WAC player of the year candidate Chris Udofia.

6. Arkansas

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    The Arkansas Razorbacks return 77 percent of their scoring and 73 percent of their rebounding in preparation for their second season under coach Mike Anderson. A sizable chunk of that production is tied up in sophomores B.J. Young, Hunter Mickelson and Rashad Madden.

    Young finished sixth in the SEC in scoring at just over 15 points per game, doing it in an efficient manner to boot. His true shooting percentage came in at better than 60 percent, ninth in the conference.

    He may not see quite as many shots this season as 2011-12 preseason All-SEC forward Marshawn Powell returns from injury, but Young will be a preseason all-conference selection this season himself.

    Big man Mickelson didn't play extensive minutes, but he made the most of his time. His 2.2 blocks per game finished fourth in the SEC, an impressive feat for a 16.7-minute-per-game player. Mickelson's block percentage of 13.3 ranked eighth nationally and second in the SEC, only 0.4 behind defensive dynamo Anthony Davis.

    One thing that will need to improve from Mickelson will be his ability to draw contact. He attempted 159 field goals but only 31 free throws, a ridiculously low figure for a post player.

    The 6'5" Madden produced 6.6 points per game in just under 20 minutes a night, primarily held back only by his own shot selection. He shot 47 percent from inside the arc, but 24 percent outside.

    With these three joining Powell and junior gunner Mardracus Wade, Anderson will have plentiful options in his search for the Hogs' first NCAA berth in five years.

5. North Texas

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    North Texas basketball fans got a gift when Dallas native Tony Mitchell came to Denton after being ruled ineligible at Missouri. They got an even bigger one when he decided not to enter the 2012 NBA draft, turning down likely lottery pick money to try to get the Mean Green into only their fourth NCAA tournament ever.

    Mitchell, a 6'8", 235-pound forward, was named Sun Belt Freshman of the Year and first-team all-conference despite only appearing in 22 of UNT's 32 games. Had he played in two more, he would have led the league in blocks and rebounds per game as well as field goal percentage. He would have also been third in scoring.

    Mitchell alone would make UNT's sophomore class tremendous, but also returning are do-everything point guard Chris Jones and fellow guard Jordan Williams.

    Jones and Williams had highly promising seasons derailed by academic issues that cost them the second semester. They finished second and third on the team in scoring and third and fourth in rebounding, respectively.

    Jones would have finished second in the Sun Belt in steals and third in assists, as well. Expect him to be a preseason all-SBC selection.

    Williams shot 54 percent from inside the three-point arc but insisted on taking more than half his shots from outside. If he improves either his long jumper or his shot selection, he could give UNT three 15-PPG scorers.

    Returning nearly all of last season's major contributors, new Mean Green coach Tony Benford may not have to wait long to lead a team into the NCAA tournament.

4. Rutgers

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    Many teams that rely on three freshman guards suffer growing pains. Rutgers was no different in 2011-12. A team that beat NCAA tournament participants Florida, UConn, Cincinnati and Notre Dame somehow managed to lose to DePaul and Providence, plus twice to Villanova.

    As Myles Mack, Eli Carter and Jerome Seagears return for their sophomore seasons, however, Piscataway has a slight buzz about basketball for the first time in a long while.

    Carter was a top-20 scorer in the Big East, and he blasted Florida for 31 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the December 29 double-overtime upset. That was one of his five 20-point nights on the season.

    Seagears led the team in assists but impressively finished fifth on the team in turnovers. He gave up the ball only 2.4 times per 40 minutes and had only five games with more than three fumbles. While his 39 percent shooting needs work, that's about the only way Seagears has habitually given up the ball so far.

    Mack settled into a sixth man role despite being the team's second-leading scorer. He led the team at 1.4 steals per game and was the only Scarlet Knight with more thefts than fouls.

    The three guards will get able support from classmate Derrick Randall, a 6'8" 235-pounder who started 10 games last season. He shot 56 percent from the floor and recorded an offensive rebounding percentage of 11.3, which would have ranked 16th in the Big East.

    The Scarlet Knights are still a young club, capable of making the school's first NCAA tournament trip since 1991 by the time this group reaches its senior season.

3. Oklahoma State

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    When fan favorite and leading scorer Keiton Page exhausted his eligibility, the Oklahoma State Cowboys became Le'Bryan Nash's team, for better or worse. He and classmates Brian Williams, Mike Cobbins and Cezar Guerrero will determine OSU's direction in 2012-13.

    Nash was OSU's highest-rated recruit ever and at times showed why the hype was warranted. He carded 21 points and eight rebounds in a win over archrival Oklahoma, then followed up with 27 points in an upset win over Missouri.

    There were also debacles like 2-for-15 in a loss to New Mexico, 2-for-12 in a 41-point drubbing by Baylor and 3-for-15 in the return match with OU. Nash shot 39 percent on the season, a figure which must improve, since he'll be getting the lion's share of shots left behind by Page's exit.

    Nash's season was cut short by a fractured hand, so he should enter with a feeling of unfinished business.

    Williams was a more efficient scorer than Nash, if not as spectacular. He did, however, average 17.2 points and five boards per game after Nash went down in late February.

    As a redshirt freshman, Cobbins led the team in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage. He only scored five points per game, but his best nights seemed to come against better competition. Cobbins recorded three games of double-digit points and four of double-digit rebounds, with one of each coming against NCAA tournament teams Missouri, Texas and Iowa State.

    Guerrero caddied for Page, picking the team up with 29 points in a Preseason NIT matchup when Page was sidelined due to injury. From there, he saw more games with single-digit minutes (6) than double-digit points (3). His 35 percent shooting made Nash look like Reggie Miller by comparison.

    The Pokes are still waiting on an eligibility ruling for forward Jean-Paul Olukemi and guard Markel Brown returns, but these four sophomores will definitely be driving the herd for the Cowboys.

2. St. John's

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    St. John's employed a seven-man rotation for much of the 2011-12 season. Of the seven, only one was a Division I returnee and one was a junior college transfer. Big East Freshman of the Year Moe Harkless is gone, and his classmates will have to break in a new group of newcomers if the Red Storm are to compete.

    D'Angelo Harrison actually led St. John's in scoring, albeit at a less efficient clip than Harkless. Harrison was the Johnnies' only true perimeter threat, shooting nearly 37 percent from deep.

    Phil Greene became the de facto point guard after the departure of Nurideen Lindsey. Greene's three assists per game and 1.7 dimes per turnover both ranked in the Big East's top 20, but his 35 percent shooting was the worst on the team. On this team, that's saying a lot.

    The 6'5" Sir'Dominic Pointer finished third on the team in rebounds and assists, second in blocks and joined Harkless and Harrison in the 50-steal club. The fine all-around numbers made up for the fact that, despite his name, Pointer was not a point producer, averaging 6.6 in 30 minutes per night.

    Forward Amir Garrett averaged 7.3 points and four rebounds after becoming eligible in December. He cracked double-figure scoring in six of the Johnnies' final 13 games.

    St. John's will get another Christmas present this December when Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch becomes eligible. Branch was a top-50 recruit who dished out 28 assists in 11 games before leaving the Aggies last December.

    Branch is one of a whopping eight newcomers who will join the Red Storm this season, so the sophomores, along with senior God'sgift Achiuwa, will be grizzled veterans by comparison.

1. Texas

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    Of the eight Texas Longhorns to play 15 minutes per game last season, five were freshmen, two were seniors and the other was NBA-bound junior J'Covan Brown. Much like St. John's, the rising sophomores are the voices of experience in 2012-13.

    The scoring load will likely land on 6'4" guard Sheldon McClellan. McClellan dropped 11.3 points per game last season despite starting only nine games. He shot 54 percent inside the arc and 75 percent from the line, so if he attacks the basket aggressively, McClellan could approach 20 per game this season.

    Point guard Myck Kabongo ranked fourth in the Big 12 in assists and ninth in steals, showing the ability to stuff a box score like few others in America. A four-game stretch in December saw Kabongo average 14 points, four rebounds and seven assists. Kabongo shot .73 free throws for every field goal try, showing no fear of contact against bigger Big 12 opponents.

    Julien Lewis is the other returning guard, and he's also the Horns' top returning long-range shooter. At 32 percent, this is faint praise. He's also the leading returning rebounder among the guards.

    Forwards Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond each stand 6'7", so it's only appropriate that they are the team's top returning rebounders. Holmes averaged 7.1 PPG and shot 48 percent from the floor, partially thanks to his ability to hit the offensive glass. His offensive rebounding percentage ranked eighth in the Big 12.

    Bond had only six fewer rebounds than Holmes in 200 fewer minutes. His offensive and defensive board percentages were both in the Big 12's top four.

    The addition of three 6'10" top-100 recruits will lessen the interior pressure on Bond and Holmes, but look for everyone to have plenty of rebounding chances if the scattershot guards can't improve their success rates.