CBB Players Returning from Injury Who'll Have a Big Impact in 2017-18
Connecticut just endured its worst men's college basketball season of the past 30 years, but the Huskies could be back in business with Alterique Gilbert, Terry Larrier and Mamadou Diarra all returning from injuries.
Those coming back from injury-shortened seasons—or seasons lost entirely to injury—are crucial to college basketball. Just look at last year's national championship game. North Carolina's Theo Pinson came back from a broken foot and had six points and nine rebounds. Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski missed most of the 2015-16 season after undergoing back surgery, and he had nine of each in the title game.
They aren't talked about nearly as often as highly touted recruits or noteworthy transfers, but these are the players who could make a huge impact if they return to full health.
For this exercise, we are only considering those who missed the end (or all) of last season. While offseason injuries such as Wichita State's Landry Shamet and Arizona's Rawle Alkins' broken feet are critical, they aren't the situations we're seeking.
Players are ranked in ascending order of a combination of importance to their team and expected national relevance of their squad.
Kerry Blackshear Jr., Virginia Tech
Zach LeDay graduated. Seth LeDay and Johnny Hamilton transferred. Khadim Sy unexpectedly withdrew from Virginia Tech last month. As a result, the Hokies only have one player taller than 6'6" with any D-I experience, and Blackshear (6'10") missed the entire 2016-17 season due to a stress fracture in his leg. Whether he'll be a star remains to be seen, but there aren't many players in the country more indispensable than Blackshear.
Jermaine Bishop, Saint Louis
The Billikens are serious breakout candidates. In addition to sat-a-year transfers Javon Bess (Michigan State), D.J. Foreman (Rutgers) and Adonys Henriquez (UCF), they're getting back Bishop from an ankle injury. The sophomore averaged 11.6 points, 4.7 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals in nine games last season. The second year of Travis Ford's run as head coach should be entertaining.
Kenny Williams, North Carolina
Getting Pinson back from injury was a huge part of UNC's title run, partially because the Tar Heels needed him after Williams went down for the count with a knee injury in February. This figures to be an unusually perimeter-oriented North Carolina rotation, and Williams will be an important piece if he's fully healthy.
Michal Cekovsky, Maryland
"Check-O" has had trouble getting and staying on the floor during his tenure with the Terrapins, but he was averaging 22.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per 40 minutes in eight games prior to his first lower-body injury. A fractured ankle then ended his season after 17 games. If the healthy Cekovsky shows up alongside Justin Jackson for 30-plus games, watch out for Maryland.
Josh Brown, Temple
Brown only lasted five games into last season before throwing in the towel on his attempt to recover from a torn Achilles. The previous year, though, he averaged 8.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game. The fifth-year senior will be a crucial piece for a team predominantly led by freshmen last season.
Jalan West, Northwestern State
Due to multiple major knee injuries, West has only played in one game since March 2015. But he was well on his way to more than 2,000 career points until those torn ACLs. If he can regain that pre-injury form, he could contend for the scoring title.
Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, Michigan State
Both big men missed the entire 2016-17 season due to leg injuries. They will be key pieces if the Spartans plan on contending for a national championship. Nick Ward and Jaren Jackson Jr. should be the starters, but Schilling and Carter will provide much-needed veteran leadership off the bench.
9. Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
Stats: 9.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 1.3 APG in 9 games
Injury: Stress fracture in leg
When Chris Holtmann first became a head coach at Butler three years ago, he had to rebuild following a difficult 14-17 season for a program that typically fares well. He also had to do so while incorporating a key player who was returning from injury (Roosevelt Jones). The result was a resounding success, as the Bulldogs improved by nine wins and came oh so close to reaching the Sweet 16.
Can he work the same magic with the Ohio State Buckeyes and Keita Bates-Diop?
Bates-Diop suffered a stress fracture in his left leg before the season began. He tried to fight through it, but a high-ankle sprain in his right leg forced him to miss five games in late November and early December. He came back and played six more games before the soreness from the stress fracture became too much to bear.
Somehow, in spite of those injuries, it was his most effective season to date in terms of per-40 averages (16.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.3 apg).
He might need to be extra special to save this team, though. From a roster that went 17-15, the Buckeyes lost Marc Loving, JaQuan Lyle and Trevor Thompson, leaving them with limited depth and star power. It's a good thing Bates-Diop is so versatile, because he'll need to wear many hats this year.
8. Makai Mason, Yale
Stats: 16.0 PPG, 3.8 APG, 2.8 RPG, 35.7% 3PT in 2015-16
Injury: Broken foot
Two years ago, Makai Mason was the star of Yale's first run to the NCAA tournament in more than half a century. He was the only underclassman in a primary eight-man rotation otherwise consisting of five seniors and two juniors, but the sophomore point guard led the Bulldogs in both points and assists.
One season removed from Yale's late meltdown to miss the NCAA tournament in 2015, Mason made sure that didn't happen again. He had 22 points and three steals in the final game of the regular season to secure a berth, and he proceeded to explode for a career-high 31 points, six rebounds and four assists in a shocking first-round upset.
Despite losing those five seniors and playing without Mason because of a broken foot, Yale won 18 games last year. The Bulldogs went straight from one of the oldest teams in the country to one of the youngest, and they still made it to the Ivy League championship game. With Mason back in the fold, they just might go dancing a second time in three years.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Mason's situation, though, is he has already announced his intention to graduate and transfer to Baylor after this season. Because the Ivy League does not accommodate redshirts and only allows athletes four calendar years to play their four seasons, he won't be able to play at Yale in 2018-19, even though he still has a year of eligibility remaining.
It's a weird situation made even weirder by the fact that Baylor is the team he helped eliminate from the 2016 NCAA tournament.
7. John Egbunu, Florida
Stats: 7.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.5 BPG in 24 games
Injury: Torn ACL
A torn ACL prematurely ended John Egbunu's 2016-17 season, but that wasn't the only lower-body problem he had. Egbunu also dealt with a hamstring issue that caused him to miss two games in December—after which he wasn't quite the same.
Prior to the hamstring injury, he averaged 9.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. In 14 contests after returning, those numbers were 7.0, 5.8 and 0.9, respectively. He also committed fouls and turnovers at an elevated rate and generally wasn't the imposing interior force that he had been in his first season-plus with the Gators.
Because the ACL injury occurred so late in the campaign (Feb. 14), Egbunu won't be ready for the start of the regular season. According to Gatorsports.com's Kevin Brockway, he's on track to return in January.
As long as they don't rush him back and he's able to return to pre-injury form, that could be a midseason "addition" that shakes up the national hierarchy. Kevarrius Hayes and Gorjok Gak should provide more than enough in the paint for the Gators to tread water until Egbunu returns, and they could be borderline unstoppable when he does.
6. Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
Stats: 20.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 2.2 SPG in six games
Injury: Broken wrist
No team crashed and burned more spectacularly last season than Oregon State. Fresh off their first NCAA tournament appearance in more than a quarter-century, the Beavers went 5-27 with home losses to Lamar and Savannah State.
Without a doubt, health played a huge part in their struggles. Stephen Thompson Jr. missed six of the first seven games of the season due to a foot injury, and by the time he returned, Tres Tinkle was already out for the year.
Tinkle can't seem to get things to go his way. The broken wrist came after he spent the offseason coming back from a broken foot that cost him the final five games of his freshman season. But he has been quite effective when he can stay on the floor, averaging 19.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals per 40 minutes in his career.
Heck, in the final game before he broke his wrist, Tinkle had 31 points, 10 rebounds and six steals. Despite his struggle to find his three-point stroke, he was on track to become one of the biggest sophomore sensations of the season. Instead, he'll just have to do it this year as a redshirt sophomore.
5. Shavar Newkirk, Saint Joseph's
Stats: 20.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 39.6% 3PT in 12 games
Injury: Torn ACL
Saint Joseph's lost a bunch of key players from the 2015-16 team, forcing Shavar Newkirk into a much bigger role than he had played in either of his previous two seasons.
The incredible thing is that while his usage went through the roof, so did his efficiency. Newkirk's true-shooting percentage soared from 49.3 to 59.7 as his rate of points scored per 40 minutes nearly doubled for the second consecutive season. (6.6 as a freshman; 13.6 as a sophomore; 24.1 as a junior.) He scored at least 17 points in 10 of 12 games and just about single-handedly carried the Hawks to a 7-5 start.
They went 4-15 after his torn ACL, as they desperately missed his leadership on both ends of the floor. They weren't terrible—nine of those 15 losses came by a margin of eight points or fewer—but he was noticeably absent in those moments where a clutch bucket or defensive stop could have made all the difference.
In what was likely always going to be a lost season, Newkirk's injury—as well as the games that Lamarr Kimble (broken foot) and James Demery (broken foot) missed—may have been a blessing in disguise. Their time off the floor meant young guys Chris Clover, Markell Lodge, Charlie Brown and Nick Robinson were given ample opportunity to develop on the fly. In particular, the two sophomores (Clover and Lodge) showed a lot of improvement over the second half of the season and appear poised to be major assets this year as juniors.
It all comes down to Newkirk, though. If he can play a full season while putting up numbers like he did for seven weeks last year, the Hawks should bounce back from an 11-20 campaign to reach the NCAA tournament.
4. DJ Hogg, Texas A&M
Stats: 12.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 36.7% 3PT in 22 games
Injury: Foot/Ankle injury
DJ Hogg was one of the most versatile players in the country last year. With few options on the roster for a point guard, Texas A&M turned to its 6'9" wing-forward as one of its primary ball-handlers. He doled out more than twice as many assists as the previous season and became a slightly more efficient three-point shooter—while also upping his block total from 0.1 to 1.0 per game.
Though he wasn't as dominant a scorer or anywhere near as good at getting to and converting from the free-throw line, there were elements of Hogg's game that resembled those of South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell and Pittsburgh's Michael Young.
That versatility didn't do A&M a whole lot of good last year. The Aggies were 10-8 when he first suffered his foot injury and they were 13-11 when they shut him down to prevent further damage.
But now that both he and projected starting shooting guard Admon Gilder have experience running an offense, it should pay big dividends this year with two actual point guards on the roster. The Aggies should finish in the top three in the SEC.
3. Phil Booth, Villanova
Stats: 5.7 PPG, 2.0 APG, 1.7 RPG in three games
Injury: Pain and swelling in surgically repaired knee
Oftentimes, the silver lining on an injury is that it forces other players into minutes they otherwise wouldn't have received. This turns the "replacement" player(s) into a better asset and makes the team stronger when the injured player returns.
Such is the case with Villanova, where Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges got a ton of playing time when Phil Booth sat out all but three games.
If you'll recall, Booth had the performance of the night in the 2016 national championship game. He came off the bench for a career-high 20 points, including a buzzer-beater at the end of the first half (that is barely even a footnote compared to the game-winning buzzer-beater Kris Jenkins drained). And the year before that, Booth shot 48.5 percent from three-point range and had a 70.1 true-shooting percentage as a freshman. Had he played enough minutes to qualify, it would've been the second-highest TS% in the nation.
Booth finally got the chance to become a full-time starter this past season, but his surgically repaired knee had other ideas. He only lasted one week and put up lackluster numbers due to the pain.
Whether he immediately returns to the starting lineup or becomes just the latest in a long line of sensational sixth men for the Wildcats, Booth will be an indispensable piece for a team seeking a fifth consecutive Big East regular-season title.
2. Udoka Azubuike, Kansas
Stats: 5.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.6 BPG in 11 games
Injury: Torn ligaments in wrist
It has been mentioned many times this offseason, but it bears repeating once more: The frontcourt plan for Kansas appears to be "Udoka Azubuike or bust."
That's a lot of pressure to put on a guy who has played just 142 minutes in his career, but options are limited. When necessary, the Jayhawks could go with freshman forward Billy Preston at the 5 and Svi Mykhailiuk as a small-ball 4. But that's the backup to the plan of giving Azubuike as many minutes at center as possible.
The good news is Azubuike was starting to show a ton of potential prior to the injury. In his first five games as a starter, he averaged 18.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 5.6 blocks per 40 minutes. All five of those contests were against teams with undersized centers and with overall talent nowhere close to what most of the teams in the Big 12 bring to the table, so we'll have to wait and see how those numbers translate when the difficulty level ramps up a notch or two.
The bad news is Azubuike shot 37.9 percent from the free-throw line in his 11-game season and committed far too many fouls (8.7 per 40) and turnovers (4.2 per 40). Much of that can be attributed to the freshman big man's simply being a freshman big man, but he'll need to show significant improvement in all three of those areas if he's going to play 25-30 minutes per night.
Kansas might be the biggest wild card in the country, and it all hinges on Azubuike. He doesn't need to be Joel Embiid or senior-year Jeff Withey for the Jayhawks to win a title, but he does need to effectively eat up a lot of minutes for them to avoid having their worst season since earning a No. 8 seed in 2000.
1. Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert, Connecticut
Terry Larrier: 13.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.8 APG in four games (Torn ACL)
Alterique Gilbert: 10.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 2.0 APG in three games (Torn labrum)
The first two weeks of Connecticut's 2016-17 season were disastrous. The Huskies lost their first two games to Wagner and Northeastern, darn near lost to Loyola Marymount and lost two of the four best players on the roster to season-ending injuries. The end result was the program's first sub-.500 record (16-17) in three decades.
Obviously, things were looking grim even before Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert got hurt, but there was at least hope that the Huskies could recover if those guys had stayed healthy.
Larrier was the best recruit in VCU history prior to his transfer to Connecticut. You wouldn't know it from his painfully inefficient freshman-year numbers, but big things were expected from him and he was ready to deliver in Storrs.
He scored at least 14 points in each of his first three games prior to the torn ACL. Provided he's back to full health, it's going to be fun to watch him play alongside fellow 6'8" forward Mamadou Diarra—who is also recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss the entirety of what would have been his freshman year.
Speaking of great one-two punches, Gilbert and Jalen Adams could be the best backcourt duo in the country. It took all of one game for Gilbert to play his way into the starting lineup, as he quickly proved worthy of being rated as 2016's No. 32 overall recruit by 247Sports. Unfortunately, it was less than a week before he tore the labrum in the same shoulder that he separated in the 2016 Jordan Brand Classic, necessitating a second shoulder surgery in the span of about six months.
If Gilbert comes back good as new, there's a hint of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright-like potential in this dual-combo guard lineup. Everyone seems to have Wichita State and Cincinnati cemented as the top teams in the AAC in one order or the other, but the Huskies are going to be a factor—provided the injury bug leaves them alone this year.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.