Ranking the Most Important Senior Classes in NCAA Basketball's 2013-14 Season

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2013

Ranking the Most Important Senior Classes in NCAA Basketball's 2013-14 Season

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    An experienced roster, led by a talented senior class, can occasionally be overrated in college basketball.

    Look at these happy lads from Louisville, for instance. It's easy to forget that the national champions lost only one impact senior, that being point guard Peyton Siva.

    This season's Cardinals, thanks to the NBA defection of fearsome center Gorgui Dieng, are likewise a fairly young bunch with only three seniors on scholarship.

    How do the Cards' trio of seniors stack up against some of the other groups of veterans dotting the college hoop landscape? Answering that question involves weighing both quantity and quality: how many seniors are on hand and how large a part of the team's success will that group be?

    These 10 teams will need huge contributions from their senior class if they hope to live up to preseason expectations.

10. Cincinnati Bearcats

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    The Cincinnati Bearcats were a stout defensive team last season, ranking 14th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive rankings. Offensively, though, the team was highly unreliable.

    UC ranked 305th in America in field goal percentage at just 40.3 percent.

    Neither end of the court was helped by the graduations of guards Cashmere Wright and JaQuon Parker and center Cheikh Mbodj. Mbodj and Wright sparked the defense, and Wright may have been the team's most efficient scorer. Considering he produced only a .498 effective field goal percentage (eFG%), that is a low bar indeed.

    This season's senior class will rise and fall along with shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick.

    Kilpatrick's scoring rose to 17 points per game thanks to his becoming a major volume shooter. He ranked in the top 25 nationally in both field goal attempts and three-point tries, but he shot less than 40 percent from the floor and 31 percent from long range.

    Classmates Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles are both capable rebounders, and Jackson is a highly athletic shot blocker. Neither, however, demonstrated consistent scoring ability, something both will need to do this season. Rubles will need to show particular improvement after shooting 34 percent last season.

    The three seniors are the most proven players on a Cincinnati roster sporting five freshmen. Barring the rookies breaking out immediately, all three Bearcat seniorsnot just Kilpatrickhave to step up as leaders, if not stars.

9. UConn Huskies

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    UConn guard Shabazz Napier's credentials are well-established. He's evolved from key reserve on the 2011 national championship team to skilled leader of a squad ineligible for last season's NCAA tournament.

    Now that Napier's final season has arrived, he has a stiff challenge on his hands in trying to continue the improvement he's made from his freshman year to his junior. He improved both his eFG% and true shooting percentage (TS%) by nearly 10 percent in his two seasons while remaining one of the Big East's most effective distributors.

    He'll be among one of the early favorites for preseason player of the year in the new American Athletic Conference but he has three fellow seniors who'll need to show themselves as leading performers for the Huskies.

    Forwards Niels Giffey (6'7") and Tyler Olander (6'9") have to play up to their size and stop being out-rebounded by 6'1" guards like Napier. Olander is a superb screen-setter who created many open looks for Napier and his backcourt mate Ryan Boatright, but he needs to capitalize on the looks he gets when the defense over-corrects.

    A potential X-factor for UConn this season is graduate transfer Lasan Kromah, formerly of George Washington. The 6'5" Kromah was a double-figure scorer in all three of his active seasons at GW and he shot a solid 55 percent on two-point attempts last year. He'll provide a bench spark behind Napier and Boatright.

8. Louisville Cardinals

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    Louisville returns with the Big East's second-leading scorer and the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. Russ Smith and Luke Hancock are without doubt two of the American's leading stars, and they would rank much higher on this list if they were surrounded by more senior talent.

    "Russdiculous" toyed with the idea of heading to the NBA but his return gives coach Rick Pitino an experienced scorer to take pressure off backcourt newcomers like Chris Jones, Terry Rozier and Anton Gill.

    The biggest question surrounding Smith is whether he will continue as one of the nation's most aggressive volume-shooters or show the pro scouts he can perform as a point guard.

    Hancock recovered from the death of his father over the summer to participate in the World University Games.

    In the USA's loss to Canada, he picked up right where he left off in the Final Four with a strong 27-point game. He'll resume his role as the team's primary long-range sniper, taking whatever opportunities Smith sees fit to allow.

    The only other senior on the Cardinal roster is center Stephan Van Treese, who went from transferring out last offseason to averaging three rebounds per game in the NCAA tournament. He'll provide rebounding and defensive support in relief of Chane Behanan and Montrezl Harrell.

7. Marquette Golden Eagles

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    Marquette's senior class was supposed to be even more potent than it is. The unexpected loss of Vander Blue, however, tilts the Golden Eagles' balance of power toward the frontcourt.

    Big East Sixth Man of the Year Davante Gardner is now the go-to scorer on a team that often struggled to get points even with Blue on the roster. Gardner was one of the nation's top 10 true shooters at 66.8 percent, thanks to his skill at the foul line (83.5 percent).

    That shooting touch makes him a problem for teams that would rather just hack a big man.

    Gardner's low-post wingman will be 6'11" sixth-year senior Chris Otule. Otule is nowhere near the free throw threat that Gardner is, but he's a capable offensive rebounder and finisher around the basket. More minutes and touches could establish Otule as a double-double threat.

    Forward Jamil Wilson has never quite lived up to his top-40 RSCI ranking back in 2009 but he did establish himself as a double-figure scoring threat last season. Wilson scored 10 or more in 13 of the Eagles' final 15 games.

    Marquette's final senior is former walk-on guard/South Dakota transfer Jake Thomas. Thomas can be a three-point threat when he gets looks, having made 34 percent in two years at South Dakota.

6. Stanford Cardinal

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    It may be time for Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins to show out or get out. Entering his sixth season in Palo Alto, Dawkins has yet to put the Cardinal in the NCAA tournament. This season, inexperience will certainly not be a problem. Three regular starters and two key reserves are entering their final seasons on the Farm.

    Stanford's lead dogs toil inside, as 6'10" Dwight Powell and 6'7" Josh Huestis form one of the Pac-12's most skilled post duos.

    Powell was one of America's most improved players last season, nearly doubling both his scoring and rebounding averages from his sophomore year. The All-Pac-12 first-team selection has established himself as a low-post threat while also developing a sneaky jump shot. Powell made 15 of 33 three-point attempts last season.

    Huestis likewise saw his numbers spike last season, finishing at 10.5 points and a team-high nine rebounds per game. The athletic forward was also one of the conference's top five shot blockers (2.1 per game) and drained 34 percent from beyond the arc.

    Guard Aaron Bright took a step back as a junior, seeing both his eFG% and TS% drop more than 10 points from 2011-12. Similar to UConn's Napier and Boatright, Stanford can roll out a two-point guard attack with Bright and junior Chasson Randle. Both duos, however, work best when neither spends an entire season mired in a vicious shooting slump. Bright's shooting will be a major key for the Cardinal.

    Off the bench, forwards John Gage and Anthony Brown will provide quality depth. Even at 6'10", Gage made as many threes as Bright last season in less than half the minutes. Not a proven banger or rebounder, Gage's job is to pull opposing bigs away from the rim, and he'll do it well if he can make 45 percent of his long balls again.

    Brown went down with a season-ending hip injury in November, but he was a capable shooter in part-time starter's minutes over his first two seasons. The 6'6" Brown has made 35 percent from long range over his career to date.

5. Florida Gators

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    Florida can extend its three-year streak of Elite Eight appearances if its senior class plays up to reputation. The hope in Gainesville, however, is that injuries and discipline issues don't handicap the group before a ball is even tipped.

    After spending three seasons surrounded by shot-happy guards like Erving Walker, Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton, it's time for bruising forward Patric Young to dominate. Young made more plays on defense last season, doubling his steal and block percentages from their sophomore levels.

    On offense and as a rebounder, however, he's still somewhat of an underachiever.

    Coach Billy Donovan should hope that more touches will put Young among the SEC's scoring leaders. Only Young, however, can exercise the effort he'll need to rebound as well as his burly 6'9", 250-pound frame suggests he should.

    Fellow seniors Will Yeguete and Casey Prather return to support Young in the frontcourt. Yeguete is a formidable defensive presence who led the team in steal percentage and defensive rebounding percentage (per StatSheet.com) in his 21 minutes per game last season. He could crack the starting lineup full-time, especially if star freshman forward Chris Walker is ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA.

    Prather was second among the team's regulars in eFG% last season at a cool 62.9 percent. He joined Young and Yeguete as a 10-plus percent offensive rebounder last season and is a versatile defender.

    Point guard Scottie Wilbekin is a proven two-way playmaker who can end his career with a flourish if he's allowed to get on the court. He's currently suspended indefinitely for violating team rules and it's not his first stay in Donovan's doghouse, either.

    McDonald's All-American Kasey Hill doesn't quite make Wilbekin expendable but, if the freshman starts fast, the senior could see limited minutes even if he does return.

    South Carolina transfer Damontre Harris is now eligible, and he'll provide capable post support for Young and Yeguete. Harris, like Young, is a strong shot-blocker, able-if-unspectacular rebounder and underutilized low-post scorer.

4. Memphis Tigers

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    If you're looking for a skilled, experienced backcourt, go walking in Memphis.

    Seniors Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford were already the engine making the Tigers go last season and they've lost a lot of able support. A talented freshman class and a couple of other senior transfers arrive to help but the Memphis trio is still in charge.

    Jackson put up an eFG% (57.7) and TS% (61.3) that were spectacular for post players, let alone a 6'1" guard. He managed that while also finishing fifth in Conference USA in assists.

    Now in the American, he'll challenge Shabazz Napier for a first-team all-conference spot, if not the inaugural player of the year trophy.

    Johnson balanced great games with disappearing acts as he acclimated to Division I from junior college ball. He put up 25 points, eight boards, seven assists and four steals vs. Southern Miss, but only after a rough night of zero points and four fouls in 12 minutes against Marshall.

    Greater consistency out of him may be the biggest key to UM challenging Louisville for the American crown.

    Crawford shot almost exactly 50 percent in C-USA play last season. Now, he needs to prove he can be as efficient against UConn and Louisville as he was against Tulsa and Tulane.

    Senior transfers Michael Dixon (ex-Missouri) and David Pellom (ex-George Washington) will give coach Josh Pastner tremendous flexibility in his substitution patterns.

    Dixon was a 13-PPG scorer at Mizzou in 2011-12 without starting a game. If he's content to be a sixth man once more, the Tigers should be able to come at opponents in waves. Dixon can perform ably at both guard positions.

    Pellom, a 6'8", 220-pound forward, will pick up after the departed Tarik Black, who transferred to Kansas. Despite being outweighed by 40 pounds, Pellom has been every bit Black's equal on the glass and is a career 60-percent shooter from the field. He's an ugly 50-percent foul shooter, but Black's 55 percent was no bargain, either.

3. Saint Louis Billikens

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    Saint Louis lost a couple of strong team leaders, but experience is still a Billiken strength. Four seniors return, three of whom started every game last season.

    Atlantic 10 Player of the Year candidate Dwayne Evans broke out in mid-January, scoring 11 or more points in each of SLU's final 18 games. He's led Saint Louis in rebounding each of his first three seasons, recording 18 career double-doubles. Evans has steadily improved each season. Doing so one more time could make him a dark horse All-America pick.

    Guards Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. anchor the Billikens' fierce perimeter defense. McCall is SLU's top returning shooting threat, but struggled through the A-10 and NCAA tournaments, missing 12 of his 14 three-point attempts.

    Jett improved his shooting efficiency last season, but he will now be the sole option at point guard. With Kwamain Mitchell's graduation, Jett's numbers should increase. His main task will be to ensure that he can keep turnovers in check.

    Forward Rob Loe is more of a stretch player than a post, despite his 6'10" frame. His shot-blocking and rebounding have steadily declined over his career, a trend that may need to reverse if Evans is to have any support.

    Fifth-year guard Jake Barnett should see more minutes this season, and he'll provide another shooting threat. He was a 37 percent three-point shooter as a freshman at Toledo.

    SLU has little experienced depth, with next to none on the perimeter. These seniors can lead their team on another great run in this postseason but, if the group stagnates, the A-10 still has contenders who can catch them for the championship.

2. Creighton Bluejays

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    Doug McDermott's return to Creighton would have ensured the Bluejays a spot on this list by itself. Combine that with the return of McDermott's favorite wingman, Grant Gibbs, for a sixth season of eligibility and Creighton is sitting on the cusp of favorite status in the new Big East.

    Simply put, McDermott is Bluejay basketball right now. One of the nation's top-10 most efficient scorers last seasonhis .671 TS% ranked seventh in Americathe coach's son was the only Creighton player to average in double figures. McDermott took 72 more shots than his next two teammates combined and, if anything should happen to him this season, the Jays will slump far behind their new rivals.

    Gibbs is the kind of teammate every superstar wants.

    The kind of player whose passing skills open lanes for scorers on the wing, Gibbs has led Creighton in assists in each of his two seasons in Omaha. He's not to be ignored when he looks for his shot, though. Even though Gibbs has yet to average 10 PPG in a season, he's a career 50-percent shooter, including almost 37 percent from long range.

    The Bluejays' true long-range weapon is another senior, 6'7" forward Ethan Wragge. All but 12 of his shots last season were behind the arc, and he hit them at a 44-percent clip. Wragge's not a rebounder or a big defensive playmaker. He's a true specialist, doing only one thing and doing it extremely well.

    With Gibbs often setting up the scorers, a point guard is usually only tasked with bringing the ball up in the Creighton offense and watching McDermott go to work. In as much as Creighton uses a point guard, it's usually senior Jahenns Manigat. Make no mistake, Manigat can score when asked. He was a 68-percent true shooter as a sophomore and put 16 on Wichita State in the Missouri Valley title game last season.

    Even so, Manigat, and the rest of his teammates for that matter, can often be like the rest of us: reduced to mere spectators at the Doug McDermott Show.

    Not that anyone's complaining.

1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Even if you don't subscribe to the argument that Notre Dame's senior backcourt is the best in America, it's hard to argue against their importance. Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins are supplemented by a pair of veteran big men who need to perform as the Irish seek to replace All-Big East center Jack Cooley.

    First, the guards.

    The evidence of their importance to coach Mike Brey's system is in black and white. Grant logged 36.3 minutes per game last season, a highly impressive average, but Atkins had himand every other player in Americabeat. Atkins' whopping 38.3 MPG led the nation.

    The Irish guards were the only pair in the nation to each average 5.5 or more assists per game, and Atkins dropped a solid 2.6 dimes for every turnover. With Cooley's post scoring ability gone, the two may have to work in more kickouts to each other and shooters like Pat Connaughton and Cameron Biedscheid.

    Speaking of the post, interior muscle will need to come from another senior duo, 6'10" Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman. Knight was more of a jump shooter last season, with almost two-thirds of his shots coming away from the rim according to Hoop-Math.com.

    He'll also need to get more accustomed to contact, as he took almost four shots for every free throw.

    Sherman was totally invisible in Big East play until he dropped 17 points in ND's five-overtime epic win over Louisville. He still had some slow nights, to be sure, but he would later score another 14 against the Cardinals and 16 against Marquette. Playing like that against the likes of Gorgui Dieng and Davante Gardner suggests that Sherman can certainly produce if put into a full-time role.

    Notre Dame will have a new cast of foes to battle in the ACC, but these four have given plenty of signs that they can keep the Irish competitive.

    For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. This week: ranking all 47 college coaching changes.