With early NBA departures the rule rather than the exception, impact seniors have become a rare breed in college basketball. In 2013-14, though, an unusually talented crop of fourth-year stars has a great chance to buck that trend.
For the third year in a row, Ohio State’s Aaron Craft is going to be the most explosive perimeter defender in the college game. Of course, if his late-game heroics in the 2013 postseason are any indication, he’s also in for a pretty impressive year on the offensive end of the floor.
Read on for more on the Buckeyes floor leader and 19 more of the most impressive members of next year’s senior class, ranked according to potential as well as performance.
Tony Bennett's Virginia teams have earned a reputation for winning with defense, but the Cavaliers have to get their offense from somewhere. In 2013-14, they'll have the luxury of being able to get it from one of the ACC's top seniors, Joe Harris.
Harris is a phenomenal three-point shooter who hit 42.5 percent of his long-range tries while averaging 16.3 points a game last year.
At 6'6", he's also a solid contributor to the team's gritty D, and he placed second on the roster with 4.0 rebounds per contest last season.
Thanks in part to the privilege of setting up Pac-12 scoring leader Allen Crabbe, Justin Cobbs dished out 4.8 assists a game last season. He also shared the team lead in steals with his backcourt mate at 1.1 per contest.
Where Cobbs has been the most dangerous, though, is in creating his own shots, as he averaged 15.1 points a night last season. With Crabbe gone, Cobbs’ share of the Golden Bears offense will only get bigger next season.
After a season playing sidekick to Michael Carter-Williams, C.J. Fair will be the main man in Syracuse next year.
The 6’8” forward specializes in momentum-swinging dunks, such as the one he threw down over Georgetown’s Otto Porter Jr. in overtime in the Big East tournament.
Fair’s 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game led the Orange during their Final Four run. His long arms were also a key factor in the dominance of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, with Fair personally accounting for 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest.
For the second time in three seasons, a Providence guard led the Big East in scoring last year. Unlike MarShon Brooks, though, Bryce Cotton has another year with the Friars to try to top his 19.7 point-per-game effort.
In his second year as a starter, the 6’1” scoring machine also stepped up his rebounding, grabbing 3.6 boards a night.
His biggest challenge next season (besides weathering the loss of PG Vincent Council) may be improving his shaky .364 three-point accuracy without cutting down on the 98 shots he buried from beyond the arc.
Having run the offense for two consecutive Mountain West champs, Kendall Williams is back to try for three in a row.
The 6’4” PG made headlines last season by demolishing Colorado State with one of the year’s biggest scoring outbursts, a 46-point showcase (including 10 three-pointers) in Fort Collins.
For the year, Williams paced the Lobos with 13.3 points per game to go with his 4.9 assists a night.
Don’t be surprised if he sets another career high in the latter category next year, behind a steady diet of passes into the post for rising-star center Alex Kirk.
Stuck behind Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, Cory Jefferson rarely made it off the bench in his first two years in Waco. He made up for lost time as a junior, averaging 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
Even with Isaiah Austin dominating the paint for Baylor, Jefferson also blocked 1.9 shots per contest on the season. The 6’9” PF performed heroically in the Bears’ NIT title run, averaging 21.2 points a night in the tournament.
Jack Cooley’s graduation leaves the fate of the Fighting Irish in the hands of an experienced and versatile backcourt. The best of Mike Brey’s many perimeter weapons is 6’2” PG Eric Atkins.
Atkins split the team lead in assists with Jerian Grant (5.5 a night) while standing alone at the top with 1.4 steals per game. Just as important, he was also the third-leading scorer on the roster (11.2 points per contest) and one of its best three-point shooters (.415).
Marshall Henderson took a winding path to Ole Miss, but he proved to be worth waiting for in Oxford. In his first season as a Rebel, the brash sharpshooter led the SEC with 20.1 points per game.
Henderson made nearly as many headlines with his outsized celebrations as with his 138 three-pointers, but he did lead Ole Miss to its first NCAA tournament win in a dozen years.
He even managed to play a little defense, grabbing 1.3 steals a night to go with all the scoring.
Even at the college level, 6’5” is awfully small for a power forward, but you’d never know it from Dwayne Evans’ performance.
The leader of the bruising St. Louis defense—pictured challenging New Mexico State's 7'5" Sim Bhullar—hauled in 7.7 rebounds a night as a junior.
Evans also keyed the offense for the Atlantic 10 champs, scoring a team-high 14 points per contest. He doesn’t have the length to block many shots, but his hard work on the defensive end helped him add 1.3 steals per game to the Billikens’ total.
Cleanthony Early turned out to be one of the most valuable JUCO transfers in college hoops history when he led Wichita State to a surprise Final Four berth. Now, he gets a chance to prove last year’s Shockers were no fluke.
Early led the team with 13.9 points per game while also grabbing 5.4 rebounds a night. The combo forward did hit 47 treys, but on this sniper-heavy roster, his .318 accuracy from long range has plenty of room for improvement.
Fuquan Edwin is the best defensive player most fans have never heard of. The Seton Hall star has averaged 2.7 steals per game over the last two seasons thanks to his 6’6” frame and incomparable instincts.
In 2012-13, Edwin added “primary scorer” to his list of accomplishments, leading the Pirates with 16.5 points a night (including .412 three-point shooting).
He’s also a fine rebounder from the perimeter, grabbing a combined 6.0 boards per contest in his sophomore and junior campaigns.
UConn is flying well under the radar after being banned from postseason play in 2013, but the Huskies will be back on the national scene in a big way next year.
Kevin Ollie’s explosive backcourt will feature sophomore Omar Calhoun, junior Ryan Boatright and—most crucially—senior leader Shabazz Napier to tie it all together.
In spite of last year’s work-in-progress frontcourt, Napier averaged 4.6 assists to go with his team-leading 17.1 points per game.
The hard-nosed guard—who understudied Kemba Walker on the 2011 national champs—also grabbed a career-best 2.0 steals per contest last year.
Granted a sixth year of eligibility after blowing out his Achilles last season, Tim Frazier immediately becomes one of the biggest stars in the Big Ten.
The multitalented point guard averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists a night in his last full season, and he'll have a much better lineup around him in 2013-14.
Frazier is also a top-tier defender whose 2.4 steals a game paced the 2011-12 Nittany Lions. He’s extraordinarily physical at 6’1”, having pulled in 4.7 rebounds per contest as a junior.
Patric Young was the heart of Florida’s stifling defense a season ago, leading the Gators with 1.6 blocks per game. The 6’9”, 245-lb brawler also paced the team with 6.3 rebounds a night.
Young hasn’t been asked to carry much of the scoring load, but he was among four Gators who averaged double digits at 10.1 points per contest last season.
With half-court standouts Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton gone, look for Young to get more touches on the low block next season.
Now that backcourt mate Cashmere Wright’s career is done, Sean Kilpatrick is the difference between making the NCAA tournament and missing it for Cincinnati.
The 6’4” guard has raised his scoring average from 9.7 points per game as a freshman to a team-leading 17 a night last year.
Kilpatrick is coming off a rough year as a three-point shooter, but if he can rediscover the .376 form of 2011-12, he’ll be an unstoppable offensive weapon.
He’s not too shabby in the other areas of his game, either, posting 5.2 rebounds (second on the team) and 1.2 steals per contest last year.
Even in the physical Big East, a 6'8", 290-lb forward makes a big impression. As Marquette looks to challenge for the title again in a revamped conference, Davante Gardner will be the primary weapon for the Golden Eagles on both ends of the floor.
Gardner’s soft hands and quick feet helped him score 11.5 points off of Buzz Williams’ bench last season.
He also led the team with 4.8 boards a night as a reserve, and his shooting percentages (.585 from the floor, .835 from the charity stripe) bode well for his production in an expanded role.
One of the most pleasant surprises in East Lansing last season was Adreian Payne’s sudden development as a perimeter weapon.
Payne’s mobility and newfound jump-shooting prowess at PF made an ideal complement for hulking Derrick Nix down low.
With Nix graduated, Payne will likely spend more time in a traditional post-up role, but don’t expect him to stop taking opposing big men out to the wings.
He already averaged 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds a night while sharing the spotlight with Nix, and his NBA-caliber athleticism will give him a great chance to improve on both those career highs in his final season as a Spartan.
No defender in college basketball forces opponents to account for him like Aaron Craft. The ball-hawking PG’s impact on opposing guards goes far beyond the 2.1 steals per game that show up in the box score.
Craft is also a fine distributor whose assist average of 4.6 a night has held steady throughout his Buckeyes career.
After recording a personal best of 10 points per game last year, he’ll need to call his own number more often with Deshaun Thomas off to the NBA.
Doug McDermott is the toughest defensive assignment in the country, and has been for the past two seasons.
At 6’8”, he’s too tall for wing players to contain, but his lethal perimeter game (.490 from beyond the arc) makes him an untenable matchup for big men.
McDermott ranked second in the country with 23.2 points a game last year and could easily top the scoring charts as a senior.
Twice a first-team All-American and Wooden Award finalist, he’s also a terrific rebounder who grabbed 7.7 boards per contest a season ago.
Even when the entire opposing defense knows Russ Smith is trying to get to the rim, he does anyway. The leader of the defending national champs is unparalleled in the college game in his ability to slither through defenses and find openings to score.
Smith’s 18.7 points per game led the Cardinals, while his 2.1 steals a night were second only to Peyton Siva. The two stats aren’t unrelated, as many of the 6’1” SG’s points came on lightning-quick fast breaks set up by turnovers he created himself.