Returning Players in Men's College Basketball You Need to Be Watching

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 22, 2019

Returning Players in Men's College Basketball You Need to Be Watching

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    Michigan State PG Cassius Winston
    Michigan State PG Cassius WinstonCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Freshmen get most of the national attention in men's college basketball because they're new and exciting and the best ones will be off to the NBA in about four months, but the veteran, returning talent is what most endears this sport to its throngs of fans.

    Aside from the whole battling the NFL, the NBA and college football for viewership dilemma, the hardest part about getting people excited about college hoops in November is the lack of familiarity with the players. There's so much roster turnover every year that unless you obsessively follow the sport throughout the offseason, you probably spend the first few weeks of each season thinking, "I don't remember any of these people."

    It's not just because the offseason is more than seven months long and you've forgotten everyone. It's because the stars rarely come back for another year.

    Of last year's 17 players who received at least one first-, second- or third-team All-American vote from either the Associated Press, the United States Basketball Writers Association, the National Association of Basketball Coaches or Sporting News, only three were seniors. And yet, only two of those 17 playersCassius Winston and Markus Howardcame back.

    Naturally, those two guys were pretty much unanimous preseason first-team All-Americans, but who are the other returnees to keep an eye on as we dive headlong into the wall-to-wall action that is the neutral-site tournaments portion of the nonconference season?

    Players are presented in alphabetical order by last name.

    Statistics current through the start of play on Thursday, Nov. 21.

Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State

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    Tyrese Haliburton
    Tyrese HaliburtonCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Last Season: 6.8 PPG, 3.6 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 0.8 Turnovers, 43.4% 3PT

    This Season: 10.8 PPG, 10.3 APG, 4.8 RPG, 3.5 SPG, 1.8 Turnovers, 29.4% 3PT

    Iowa State was basically stripped and sold for parts this offseason. Marial Shayok and Nick Weiler-Babb both graduated. Lindell Wigginton, Talen Horton-Tucker and Cameron Lard all left to play professionally. That left the Cyclones with rising sophomore point guard Tyrese Haliburton, senior power forward Michael Jacobson and a whole host of questions.

    They snagged a couple of key transfers (Rasir Bolton and Prentiss Nixon), but Haliburton's transformation into the Greek god of assists and steals has been quite the development.

    Iowa State lost its only game thus far against a KenPom Top 150 opponent (at Oregon State), but it wasn't his fault. Haliburton racked up 15 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds and a pair of steals without committing a single turnover against the Beavers.

    In his 39-game career, Haliburton has a very Monte Morris-like assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.74. Morrisone of the most efficient point guards in recent college basketball historyconcluded his four-year run with the Cyclones with a 4.65 ratio. And just like with Morris, the big unknown with Haliburton was whether he'd be able to maintain that efficiency while transitioning from a freshman to a sophomore and shouldering a much heavier workload.

    So far, so good. Haliburton is leading the nation in assists per game. We'll see if he's able to keep that up as the schedule intensifies, but we see no reason to anticipate a significant dip in production. The Cyclones probably won't be much of a factor in the Big 12 race this year, but they still expect Haliburton to be an All-Conference first-team guard who occasionally wills his team to a big upset.

Markus Howard, Marquette

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    Markus Howard
    Markus HowardDylan Buell/Getty Images

    Last Season: 25.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 40.3% 3PT

    This Season: 24.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 50.0% 3PT

    When a player at a major-conference program goes from 13.2 points per game as a freshman to 20.4 points as a sophomore and 25.0 points as a junior, there isn't ever a senior season. Heck, the idea of a sophomore averaging more than 20 and coming back for a junior year is practically a foreign concept. Shamorie Ponds and Grayson Allen appear to be the only exceptions to that rule in the past decade.

    As a result, Markus Howard (health permitting) could end up ranked in the top 20 in the NCAA's all-time points leaderboard. He entered this season at 1,955 after scoring 851 last year. A repeat performancehis scoring average is virtually the same through three gameswould bring him to 2,806. That would be good for 18th place, narrowly edging out Kevin Bradshaw (2,804) and Allan Houston (2,801).

    Regardless of where he ultimately lands in the record books, this dude is just fun to watch. He's a career 43.5 percent three-point shooter as well as a 90.4 percent free-throw shooter. He's lethal from anywhere on the court, and he knows it.

    In the season opener against Loyola-Maryland, Howard went off for 38 points in just 26 minutes. It was similar to when a Heisman contender throws for 300 yards and five touchdowns in one half against an overmatched foe and then just watches the second half from the sideline.

    Howard couldn't find the mark against Wisconsin, shooting 6-of-21 in what turned into a 16-point loss to the Badgers. And therein lies Marquette's boom-or-bust potential for this season. On nights when he's hot, the Golden Eagles are going to win far more often than not. But when Howard finishes with more field-goal attempts than points, there's not much of a Plan B.

    Howard probably won't be a strong contender for the Wooden Award, if only because Marquette won't consistently win enough games to be that relevant. However, you're not going to find a player more imperative to his team's success.

Jay Huff, Virginia

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    Jay Huff
    Jay HuffRyan M. Kelly/Getty Images

    Last Season: 9.3 MPG, 4.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 45.2% 3PT

    This Season: 26.8 MPG, 11.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 SPG

    Through his first three seasons in Charlottesville (one redshirted), Jay Huff was like a secret weapon that Tony Bennett was hesitant to unleash. A 7'1" forward with legitimate three-point range and a propensity for blocking shots, Huff always had the skills and the physical attributes to be a difference-maker. And his per-40 numbers certainly looked the part, too.

    Now he's finally getting a chance to prove he belongs.

    Virginia's three leading scorers and its starting center for most of last season (Jack Salt) all left, leaving Bennett with little choice but to set Huff loose this year and see what happens.

    Huff seized the opportunity, putting together his first career double-double (11 points, 12 rebounds) in the season opener against Syracuse. He didn't have any blocks in that game, but his length in the post was a big part of Syracuse making just 30.8 percent of its two-point attempts and finishing with 34 points.

    In Saturday's game against Columbia, Huff racked up 13 points, six rebounds, five blocks, two assists and two steals in just 19 minutes of action. And with Kody Stattmann dealing with an illness this week, Huff made his first career start in the win over Vermont and practically shut out Catamounts big man Daniel Giddens.

    The career 63.3 field-goal percentage and rebounding numbers are impressive, but the blocks are what will really make Huff stand out.

    For as synonymous as Virginia has become with defense, the Cavaliers have never had an elite shot-blocker during the Bennett regime. Isaiah Wilkins and Darion Atkins were OK in that department and Mamadi Diakite emerged as an impressive rim protector over the second half of last season, but they've never had a one-man eraser anchoring the pack-line defense. Between Huff's presence down low and the extended three-point line, Virginia is even tougher to score against than usual.

Tre Jones, Duke

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    Tre Jones
    Tre JonesBen McKeown/Associated Press

    Last Season: 9.4 PPG, 5.3 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.9 SPG

    This Season*: 20.3 PPG, 7.0 APG, 4.3 RPG, 2.3 SPG

    *excluding game against Central Arkansas, in which he only played nine minutes due to a head injury.

    On last year's star-studded roster, Tre Jones was predominantly a facilitator and a defender. He did a fair amount of scoring, but there's no question he was the fourth option behind Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish. Jones' job in the offense was to set those guys up for buckets and to convert his own shots when the opposing team frequently left him open.

    This year, though, he has taken on more of a senior-year Nolan Smith type of role, serving as the primary scorer while still dishing out a significant helping of assists.

    That may change as the season progresses and the freshmen become more reliable. Big man Vernon Carey Jr. is arguably already there, but Matthew Hurt has been inconsistent and Wendell Moore Jr. has been nothing close to what was advertised. As a result, Jones has scored at least 15 points and led the Blue Devils in field-goal attempts in each of his three injury-free games.

    His three-point stroke26.2 percent last year, 29.4 percent this yearstill leaves much to be desired. But Jones' ability to create in the paint, either for himself or for others, will ensure he remains Duke's leader in most categories.

    He's nowhere near the rim-rattling dunker or contact absorber that Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox was, but they are similar in regard to driving, dishing, defense and the collective grimace from fans when teeing up a three-pointer.

Sam Merrill, Utah State

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    Sam Merrill
    Sam MerrillEli Lucero/Associated Press

    Last Season: 20.9 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.9 RPG, 37.6% 3PT

    This Season: 17.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 4.4 APG, 54.5% 3PT

    The end of Sam Merrill's junior year was a major disappointment. After scoring at least 16 points in 20 out of 22 games leading up to the NCAA tournamentincluding five in a row with at least 22 to open the month of MarchMerrill had a dud in a 78-61 loss to Washington. He finished with 10 points, six turnovers and four fouls, never getting into the flow of the game against that Huskies 2-3 zone.

    Had things gone differently, perhaps he would have gone pro. Instead, he came back with a chip on his shoulder, and he did so as the leader of a Utah State team ranked in the preseason AP poll for the first time since 1970.

    No need to worry about that slight early decrease in scoring, though. It's no continuation of that frustrating finish. Rather, it's a product of Utah State opening the season with five home games against teams outside the KenPom Top 200, defeating four of them by a margin of at least 27 points. In those blowouts, the Aggies have had the luxury of spreading the ball around and trying to figure out who else might be able to rise to the occasion when the games get tougher.

    In the lone game thus far that didn't get too ugly, Merrill scored 28 points17 from the free-throw linein the season-opening win over Montana State. There's no question he's still their go-to guy and the top candidate for Mountain West Player of the Year.

    And while the first few games weren't worth trying to watch, business is about to pick up in a hurry. The Aggies play a neutral-site game against LSU this Friday and a road game against Saint Mary's next Friday, and then they have three straight neutral-site games against BYU, South Florida and Florida in mid-December. There isn't much NCAA tournament-level talent in the Mountain West this season, but those five games could serve as a preview of what Merrill is going to bring to the table for his final trip to the Big Dance.

Jordan Nwora, Louisville

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    Jordan Nwora
    Jordan NworaAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    Last Season: 17.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.9 SPG, 37.4% 3PT

    This Season: 22.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.8 SPG, 52.2% 3PT

    Jordan Nwora's decision to stay at Louisville was arguably the biggest development of the first two months of the offseason.

    The Cardinals were already evaluated as a borderline Top 20 team while Nwora was expected to leave for the NBA, but they became a serious candidate to win the national championship when he decided at just about the last possible minute to pull out of the draft pool and return to school.

    Thus far, there's no good reason to change those expectations. Louisville has won all five games by at least a 13-point margin. That includes Wednesday night's minor scare against USC Upstate, in which the Cardinals trailed 43-40 early in the second half before finishing the game on a 36-7 run.

    Nwora had a season-high 28 points in that one, leading the team in scoring for the fifth consecutive time.

    He was already Louisville's leading scorer by a wide margin last year, but he has discovered a whole new scoring gear this year. He put up 21.3 points per 40 minutes in 2018-19, and he has increased that rate by nearly 50 percent to 31.7 through his first five games. He is averaging 1.55 points per field-goal attempt, which is an astounding ratio for a volume scorer who doesn't go to the free-throw line all that often.

    It's way too early to be putting much stock in Player of the Year metrics, but it does seem worth mentioning that Nwora is No. 1 in the KenPom POY rankings, leading the likes of Cole Anthony, Cassius Winston and Markus Howard by a rather significant margin.

Myles Powell, Seton Hall

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    Myles Powell
    Myles PowellJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Last Season: 23.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 2.0 SPG, 36.3% 3PT

    This Season*: 30.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 41.2% 3PT

    *excluding game against Stony Brook, in which he only played four minutes due to an ankle injury.

    Few players are capable of catching fire and staying hot for weeks quite like Myles Powell.

    Seton Hall's veteran leader finished last season on a streak of 14 consecutive games scoring at least 17 points, including five with at least 30. Georgetown must have been disheartened when it heard that Powell was coming back, as he scored 30, 31 and 35 in the three games against the Hoyas last year.

    So far this year, Powell has scored at least 26 points in games where he didn't suffer an ankle injury that initially looked like it might keep him out of action for weeks. Five days after that sprain, though, he put up a near-career-high 37 points against the preseason favorite to win it all (Michigan State).

    It wasn't quite enough to get the Pirates the win in a 76-73 game, but it was the type of individual performance that won't be forgotten any time soonon par with that time Malik Monk exploded for 47 points in a December game against North Carolina, but with the caveat that we weren't sure if he'd be healthy enough to play until he was actually on the floor for the opening tip.

    Powell is going to be this year's version of Carsen Edwardsthe undisputed leader of a team that defends well, is surprisingly efficient on offense for having just one go-to scorer and beats a lot of quality opponents along the way. Maybe Powell won't average 34.8 points per NCAA tournament game while leading his team to the Elite Eight, but if anyone is going to replicate what Purdue's star did, you're looking at him.

Payton Pritchard, Oregon

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    Payton Pritchard
    Payton PritchardSteve Dykes/Getty Images

    Last Season: 12.9 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG

    This Season: 20.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.3 SPG

    Of all the players on this list, it feels like Payton Pritchard has been around the longest. But that always seems to be the perception when a guy starts 35 games as a freshman for a team that reaches the Final Four and then sticks around through his senior year.

    That "How does this guy still have eligibility?!" notion isn't helped by the fact that this is the third time Pritchard has been basically the only noteworthy returnee on Oregon's roster.

    After the aforementioned Final Four run, the Ducks lost all five leading scorers: Tyler Dorsey, Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell, Dylan Ennis and Chris Boucher. Following the 2017-18 season, double-digit scorers Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh and Troy Brown left. And of last year's eight top-scoring Ducks, only Pritchard and Will Richardson (6.0 PPG) are back.

    Through it all, Pritchard remains, and the senior point guard is doubling down on the assertiveness that he displayed late in his junior season.

    Out of seemingly nowhere in March, Pritchard starting calling his own number more than usual. From the second round of the Pac-12 tournament through the second round of the NCAA tournament, he scored at least 18 points in five straight games and attempted at least 11 two-point field goals in four of those five conteststhis after beginning his career with 107 consecutive games without ever attempting 11 twos.

    Then in the season opener against Fresno State, Pritchard set a career high with 12 free-throw attempts en route to 24 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

    He used to just be a perimeter player who rarely drew contact, but now he's a slasher who does most of his damage in the paint and who isn't afraid to mix it up on the defensive glass. We're not quite on a nightly triple-double watch with Pritchard, but it's much more of a possibility than it used to be. With him playing like this and with the three new transfers (Shakur Juiston, Anthony Mathis and Chris Duarte) all thriving, Oregon has the potential for a deep NCAA tournament run.

Cassius Winston, Michigan State

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    Cassius Winston
    Cassius WinstonRey Del Rio/Getty Images

    Last Season: 18.8 PPG, 7.5 APG, 3.0 RPG, 39.8% 3PT

    This Season: 17.5 PPG, 6.8 APG, 2.5 RPG, 37.0% 3PT

    It may look like Cassius Winston's numbers are a little worse than last season, but that's because his average playing time has dipped from 33.5 minutes per game to 27.8. On a per-40 basis, his points and assists are both up by about 10 percent and his rebound rate hasn't changed.

    Consider, also, that two of his four games were against Kentucky and Seton Hall, so it would be a little silly to express concern about a slight dip in per-game numbers even if the playing time was the same. Plus, he had a team-high 21 points against both the Wildcats and Pirates, so it's clear he can still take over a game when necessary.

    Of course, the big unknown for Michigan State remains who else will rise to the occasion. No other Spartan finished in double figures against Kentucky, which explains Winston's four assists and Michigan State's loss in that one. And were it not for Malik Hall unexpectedly exploding for 17 points in the final 15 minutes against Seton Hall, Sparty would've dropped that game, too.

    But that's just a reminder of how incredibly talented Winston is.

    Xavier Tillman is supposed to be the second-best player on this roster, but he was a complete ghost in both of those marquee games. Winston still did enough for the Spartans to win the road game and to keep things interesting against UK in spite of Tyrese Maxey's herculean performance.

    Expect more of the same over the course of the next four months. For Michigan State's sake, hopefully someone else steps up to at least help keep Winston fresh for March. Maybe Joshua Langford (foot) comes back in January and instantly becomes that much-needed second fiddle. But until that time, Winston should be more than enough to keep the pundits from starting to wonder if Michigan State has what it takes to win it all.

10 More You'll Want to Know

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    Mamadi Diakite (25) and Anthony Lamb (3)
    Mamadi Diakite (25) and Anthony Lamb (3)Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

    Kamar Baldwin, Butler: A bit of an overshadowed star with Myles Powell and Markus Howard in the same conference, but Baldwin is back for one final season as Butler's scoring machine. He had 27 against Minnesota followed by 23 against Wofford, putting him well on his way toward reaching the career 2,000-point plateau.

    Garrison Brooks, North Carolina: Freshman Cole Anthony is going to get all of the attention, but Brooks is a huge piece of Carolina's puzzle, too, both figuratively and literally. The 6'9" power forward is the only returnee who started a game for the Tar Heels last year, and he has already taken on a much more substantial role than he held the previous two seasons.

    Anthony Cowan Jr., Maryland: Consistency, thy name is Cowan. The senior point guard only has two double-doubles in his career, but he has accumulated 1,400 points, 400 assists and 400 rebounds by consistently putting up around 14 points, five assists and four rebounds. Through four games this season, he has gone for at least 11, five and three, respectively, in each game.

    Antoine Davis, Detroit: Davis hasn't found his shooting stroke yet6-of-33 from three-point range through three games—but you best believe he's going to keep searching for it. Despite the early inaccuracy, he managed to score 28 at NC State and 26 at Clemson. He ranked third in points per game last year at 26.1 and he's a strong candidate to lead the nation this season.

    Mamadi Diakite, Virginia: Clearly Virginia's go-to guy on offense, Diakite is averaging 15.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per gamewhich is more like 20 and 10 given UVA's pace of play, right? He's a huge part of the defense, too. His breakout began during last year's national championship run, and he might be a contender for the Wooden Award if he keeps this up.

    Matt Haarms, Purdue: Fitting that Diakite and Haarms show up side by side, as they both have distinctive hair styles/traits bringing additional attention to impressive play. Believe it or not, Haarms is only a junior, so we may get two more seasons of his swatting shots into the fifth row of the bleachers before flipping his hair back into place.

    Anthony Lamb, Vermont: In case you weren't already aware of one of the best mid-major players in the nation, Lamb dropped 30 points on Virginia as Vermont nearly upset the Cavaliers. Considering Syracuse and James Madison each managed just 34 as an entire team against Virginia, that's incredible.

    Jordan Roland, Northeastern: Roland has tapered off a little bit since pouring in 39 and 42 points in his first two games, but he's still leading the nation at 30.4 points per game. Similar to Marcus Keene at Central Michigan a few years ago, Roland seems to have a permanent green light, and he's having fun with it.

    Kyle Young, Ohio State: One name that definitely would not have been on this list in the preseason, Young has been an early breakout star in the Buckeyes frontcourt. The junior power forward had 14 points and 13 rebounds in the season opener against Cincinnati. He's shooting 82.6 percent from the field, and it might not be that much of a sample-size anomaly, considering he made 70 percent of his 110 two-point attempts last year.

    To Be Determined Kansas Jayhawk: Devon Dotson, Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji all have the potential to become the Big 12 Player of the Year, but the jury is still out on who becomes this year's brightest star in Lawrence. All four struggled to some extent in the Champions Classic loss to Duke. Perhaps the Maui Invitational will help solve this mystery.