Ranking the 10 Best College Basketball Players Returning for 2014 Season

C.J. MooreCollege Basketball National Lead WriterApril 29, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best College Basketball Players Returning for 2014 Season

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    This past college basketball season was lacking of stars—or at least, that's a narrative that was pushed. A well-known national columnist wrote that the two biggest stars in college basketball were Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins*.

    It's obvious that most of the best college-aged basketball players in America are already in the NBA, and that does occasionally have us searching for stars like that dancing show on ABC. Many of this past season's stars—or the guys we labeled as such—will be drafted in June, but several other marketable players will return. 

    *Maybe I live in a bubble, because when I first read that at the time, I had to look up who Skylar Diggins was. 

    With the April 28 deadline to apply for the NBA draft finally behind us, we know who is staying and we have a good idea who the preseason stars will be. 

    This is the best 10 college players who went against the grain and are coming back to school. 

10. P.J. Hairston

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    When Roy Williams finally decided to put one of his best players (P.J. Hairston) in the starting lineup in mid-February, North Carolina became relevant again. 

    With Hairston and James Michael McAdoo returning for their junior years, the Heels will rejoin the national conversation as one of the top 10 teams in the country. 

    Hairston is not the most recognizable name because of the fact that he only became a regular starter at the end of this past season. If the Heels are successful and he can duplicate the numbers he put up in that stretch—18.2 points over 13 games—he'll get plenty of love.

9. James Michael McAdoo

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    James Michael McAdoo is one of the few players in college basketball who has had the realistic option of declaring for the NBA draft twice and decided to come back to school twice. 

    McAdoo's return for his junior season makes sense because his sophomore year was a bit of a disappointment. He put up respectable numbers—14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game—but he did not take the giant leap forward that was expected. 

    McAdoo's main issue was settling for jumpers instead of using his great athleticism and body to get to the rim. His measureables are there and so are the occasional glimpses of his talent, but too often McAdoo was not in attacking mode. For instance, 66 percent of his field-goal attempts were jumpers (according to Hoop-Math.com), which explains his 44.5 percent field-goal percentage. 

    More so than many players on this list, McAdoo has something to prove. Combine that with tons of ability, and McAdoo could become a refreshing tale of a guy whose return to school benefited him down the road.

8. C.J. Fair

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    C.J. Fair was the best player on the floor for Syracuse against Michigan in the Final Four when he scored 22 points in the loss, and that performance alone put him on radar of even the casual fan. 

    Fair led the Orange in scoring last season at 14.5 points per game, but he's never put up eye-popping numbers—his season-high this past year was 25 points. Fair has always been willing to simply play a role in Syracuse's offense and taken his opportunities when they come.

    With the loss of Brandon Triche, James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams, Fair's touches and numbers should go up. He's a tough matchup at 6'8" on the wing, and he has the ability to be a high-volume shooter for an offense that will be lacking other proven scorers. 

7. Gary Harris

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    Big Ten fans know all about Gary Harris. He, not one of Michigan's star freshmen, was the Big Ten's freshman of the year. 

    Harris did this despite dealing with injuries to both of his shoulders. He would have likely been a first-round pick, but now that he'll be around for a second year, he could become a household name if Michigan State lives up to expectations. 

    Harris' return along with Adreian Payne make the Spartans a title contender, and they were No. 3 in our Super-Early Top 25

6. Glenn Robinson III

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    Glenn Robinson III's freshman production (11.0 points per game) is pretty amazing when you study how much of a limited role he had in Michigan's offense. Robinson used only 15.2 percent of Michigan's possessions when he was on the court, which is hardly what you expect from a guy who will play in the NBA one day. 

    The Wolverines didn't really run offense for Robinson as a freshman, but that will change next season as he's the obvious candidate to become the team's go-to scorer on the wing.

    The biggest challenge facing Robinson will be trying to score without the easy opportunities that Trey Burke delivered. Robinson's great efficiency was partly a result of Burke setting him up. But Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. also needed a lot of touches to get theirs.

    A lot of their touches will now become Robinson's. All-American numbers could follow. 

5. Adreian Payne

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    Adriean Payne was one of the last underclassmen to announce his decision to stay in school, doing so at a press conference on Sunday night. 

    Payne had plenty of reason to go. His ability—great athleticism, length and good range for a 6'10" four-man—would have landed him in the first round. Only his numbers as a junior (10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds) didn't exactly scream "star" or "first-round pick."

    That's the dilemma with Payne. Is he simply an extremely gifted player waiting to break out? Or is he an extremely gifted player who just doesn't have that "star" aggressiveness? 

    Late in the season, it at least appeared that he wanted to the guy willing to dominate with his amazing ability. In Michigan State's final nine games, Payne had double-digit field-goal attempts in six of those games. He had taken double-digit attempts only four times in his career before that. 

    If Payne is aggressive, he could dominate college basketball. Odd to place a guy who will be a senior in this spot in these sort of rankings because of potential, but that's exactly why Payne is here. This is a bet that his ability will finally produce big numbers next season. 

4. Russ Smith

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    Only three players on national championship teams dating back to 2003 have taken more than 30 percent of their team's shots when they were on the floor: Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, Kemba Walker at Connecticut and Russ Smith at Louisville. 

    Smith is the only player on that list who decided to come back to school, and Smith's value to his championship squad, unlike the other two, was almost underappreciated because of his propensity to chuck. (I even questioned whether his shot selection would keep Louisville from winning a title.)

    But Smith was a star for most of the NCAA tournament, averaging 25 points per game through Louisville's first five tourney games. His unspectacular performance in the title game—nine points on 3-of-16 shooting—might be what is remembered, but it should not be that way. 

    We should appreciate the season Smith had as both a volume scorer and pestering defender. He should have been at least a second-team All-American—he made the Associated Press' third team. Advanced statistics said he was better than that; Ken Pomeroy's ratings had Smith as the player of the year. 

    At the very least, Smith has what some of the 2012-13 stars lacked. The average college basketball fan knows who he is and he's the best player returning on a team capable of repeating as champions. Hopefully if he produces at a 2013-like pace, he will be appreciated. 

3. Mitch McGary

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    In mid-March, Mitch McGary was a reserve big man for Michigan who was likely to see an increased role as a sophomore when he would likely become a starter.

    Over the next few weeks, he would play so unbelievably well that choosing to stay in school or go to the NBA became a realistic dilemma and now that's he's staying, expect McGary to be a preseason All-American. 

    Dominant big men—and that's what McGary developed into during the NCAA tournament—do not stay in school. That's why the expectations should be that he'll be dynamite as a sophomore.

    Similar to Glenn Robinson III, the challenge for McGary will be whether he can produce without the easy opportunities that Trey Burke created for him. McGary was great for Michigan because of his ability to finish what Burke set up.

    The next step is to be able to score with his back to the basket. If McGary can do that, his NBA draft stock will soar as will his stardom on the college level. 

2. Doug McDermott

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    Creighton's Doug McDermott has spent the last two seasons putting up huge numbers that earned him a spot each year as a first-team All-American. If he makes it again next season, he'll become the first player since Patrick Ewing (1983-1985) to make the first team three times. 

    Because he plays at Creighton, however, McDermott's POY-worthy numbers have yet to earn him national player of the year. 

    That's why it's so cool that he's returning for his senior season, because that all could change. Creighton is joining the new Big East, and McDermott will go from great player in a smaller conference that does not get a lot of national play to great player in a conference that will receive a ton of national play. 

    His game should have no problem making the transition. He scored 30 points against Wisconsin and 27 against Cincinnati this past season. Even when he struggled in the round of 32 loss against Duke, he still managed to put up 21 points. 

    More McDermott on nationally TV as a senior will be one of the best gifts of the 2013-14 season. 

1. Marcus Smart

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    If anyone wants to make the argument that the NBA has once again taken all of college basketball's stars, the retort is simple: Marcus Smart. 

    Smart would have been one of the first names called in the 2013 NBA draft, but he decided to stay in school and college basketball is better for it.

    The pressure for Smart to perform and prove he made the right decision will be the challenge in front of him in 2013-14. All eyes will be on him. Whether he justifies his decision by playing well, he should not be criticized. As I wrote when Smart made his choice, he made a decision that he felt was best for him. 

    It just so happens to be great for college basketball too. Smart has an amazing story and he's a great talent who has made Oklahoma State relevant again in basketball. He gives Oklahoma State a realistic chance at ending KU's streak of nine straight Big 12 titles. 

    If you thought the hype machine was already pushing Smart last year, you haven't seen anything yet. That shouldn't bug anyone. It's much better than hearing "there are no stars in college basketball."