Top Returning Players to Watch in Men's College Basketball for 2020-21 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 18, 2020

Top Returning Players to Watch in Men's College Basketball for 2020-21 Season

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    Iowa's Luka Garza
    Iowa's Luka GarzaCharlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    After Tuesday's list of the top freshmen to watch in this men's college basketball season, it's time to turn our focus to some more familiar faces: top returnees.

    Oftentimes, that phrase feels like an oxymoron, as the vast majority of top performers at the end of each season either graduate or depart for the NBA draft. And while it's true that we'll no longer have guys like Obi Toppin, Markus Howard or Udoka Azubuike around for nightly highlights, this year's crop of returning talent feels a little stronger than usual.

    Veteran talent is spread out all over the country. It's why Gonzaga, Baylor, Villanova, Virginia and Iowa occupy the top five spots in the preseason AP poll, despite signing a combined total of just one player (Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs) ranked by 247Sports' composite at No. 36 or better in the 2020 recruiting class.

    Frankly, it was difficult to limit this list to 25, as there are a lot of solid players who are back in hopes of actually playing in an NCAA tournament this March. (Fingers crossed and masks on!)

    Our top nine returning players are listed in alphabetical order, as is the subsequent tier of 16 other key returnees. That means this isn't a ranking of top players, but Iowa's Luka Garza would be the clear No. 1 if it was a ranking.

Garrison Brooks, North Carolina

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    Chris Seward/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 16.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2.0 APG

    There were a lot of no good, very disappointing things about North Carolina's disastrous 14-19 campaign last year, ranging from the ever-present injury bug (Christian Keeling was the only Tar Heel to appear in all 33 games) to guys simply not delivering on hype.

    Garrison Brooks was the exception to that rule.

    He did miss one game in late February, but for the most part, Brooks was out there, averaging 34.9 minutes per game. He was the one piece of tape trying to hold everything together. He racked up a dozen double-doubles and was impressive down the stretch, averaging 23.4 points over his final eight games.

    Of particular note in the final six games, Brooks channeled his inner Tyler Hansbrough for 10.2 free-throw attempts per game, which he converted at an 80.3 percent clip. Quite the adjustment from the first 26 games, in which he averaged 5.0 attempts and only made 56.5 percent of them.

    If he remains a legitimate threat from the charity stripe, the Tar Heels might be a sleeping giant at No. 16 in the preseason AP poll.

    It's also worth noting that Brooks is merely the main cog of what should be a frontcourt machine at UNC. The Tar Heels also bring back Armando Bacot, a 5-star recruit in last year's class. They signed two more 5-star centers in Walker Kessler and Day'Ron Sharpe. They also still have Sterling Manley, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, but who was an effective rebounder and shot-blocking presence in limited playing time in his first two seasons.

    As a result of that absurd depth, Brooks will probably play fewer minutes per game this season, but don't be surprised if he's more effective and aggressive with his time on the floor.

Jared Butler, Baylor

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 16.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.6 SPG, 38.1% 3PT

    Even as Baylor was putting together its 23-game winning streak, it felt like a lot of people never took the Bears seriously as a national championship contender. And I never quite understood that, because Jared Butler was the perfect candidate for a Kemba Walker type of run through the NCAA tournament.

    There were stretches of the season during which it felt like Baylor couldn't hit water in the ocean with a jump shot, though that was also true of that 2010-11 UConn team. For both, it was all about defense and hoping the lead guard leads the way.

    Heading into what should have been tournament season, there weren't many players hotter than Butler. Over his final seven games, he averaged 19.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.0 steals and made 43.1 percent of his three-point attempts. Had there been a tournament, Butler likely would have been one of the biggest stars and would be on his way to the NBA right now.

    He did test those draft waters for a long time and was one of the last players to withdraw from the early-entrant list in August. His late decision to return to Baylor all but ensured this team would get some first-place votes in the preseason AP poll.

    The big key for his junior year will be improving his consistency and cutting down on turnovers. He was red-hot late in the year, but he had quite a few offensive duds during Baylor's first 12 Big 12 games.

    Butler's backcourt running mates MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell also return, so Baylor should have one of the nation's best perimeter defenses once again.

Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

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    Holly Hart/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 16.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.3 APG

    Speaking of one-man wrecking balls who made a late decision to return for a junior season to hopefully improve in the shooting consistency and turnovers departments, Ayo Dosunmu is back for an Illinois team facing serious preseason expectations for the first time in a decade.

    The Illini haven't even been ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 since 2010. At No. 8, this is already the highest they have been ranked at any point since February 2006.

    But why not? With Dosunmu and big man Kofi Cockburn back, the sky's the limit for the Illini.

    Dosunmu is a bit of a modern-day anomaly because of his commitment to the mid-range game. For a lead guard who does a lot of driving, he rarely goes to the free-throw line, and he doesn't do much perimeter shooting.

    As a freshman, he shot 35.2 percent from three-point range and averaged 4.4 attempts per game. Last year, those numbers plummeted to 29.6 and 3.3, respectively, as he instead focused on pull-up jumpers. Per BartTorvik.com, Dosunmu attempted 164 two-point shots (5.5 per game) that weren't classified as dunks or "at the rim"and he made 39.0 percent of those lower-percentage shots.

    Guys with that type of game generally don't fare well in efficiency metrics like O-rating. Butler's Kamar Baldwin was the same way over the past four years. But last season, Dosunmu and Baldwin were the two obvious answers to the question: Who would you most want with the ball in his hands with the clock winding down and your team either tied or trailing by a bucket?

    You just expect this guy to come through in the clutchand to provide the necessary hustle plays in the first 39 minutes to carry the team to the brink of victory. His most memorable bucket last season was the last-second game-winner at Michigan, but there were about half a dozen other instances in which he drained a colossal shot in the final two minutes.

Marcus Garrett, Kansas

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 9.2 PPG, 4.6 APG, 4.5 RPG, 1.8 SPG

    Here are two reasons I'm all-in on Marcus Garrett as a first-team All-American this year: Tre Jones and Tyrese Haliburton.

    Both Jones and Haliburton averaged fewer than 10 points per game in 2018-19, but they provided a ton of value as ball distributors and as lock-down defenders. Then in 2019-20after the vast majority of their supporting cast either graduated or left early for the NBA—they started calling their own number much more often and emerged as two of the most impactful lead guards in the nation.

    Garrett might be on a similar trajectory.

    He was arguably the best defender in the country last season, and he had a rather remarkable assist rate when you consider Devon Dotson did most of the ball-handling for the Jayhawks. But Garrett didn't shoot much, averaging only 9.6 field-goal attempts per 40 minutes.

    With Dotson, Udoka Azubuike and Isaiah Moss now out of the picture, someone needs to do the scoring here.

    5-star freshman combo guard Bryce Thompson might immediately earn a starting job and could even be the Jayhawks' leading scorer this year, but I would expect Garrettwith 100 games of experience over the past three seasonsto be the primary point guard and a more frequent scorer than he was in the past.

    Averaging 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals per game seems like a reasonable expectation for Garrett. And, wouldn't you know it, the only player to hit all four of those marks last season was Haliburton. (I swear I didn't look that up until after I made the above comparisons.)

Luka Garza, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 23.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 35.8% 3PT

    Luka Garza finished at No. 1 in the KenPom Player of the Year standings last year, and he's the only player in the top 10 who is back for another season.

    Taking that one step further, in our end-of-season All-Americans article, we had a first team, a second team, a third team and an unofficial fourth team of five other guys who received a vote. Of those 20 players, only Garza (an obvious first-teamer) and Jared Butler (third team) are back this year.

    Anyone who doesn't have Garza as their preseason Player of the Year is trying way too hard to be cute.

    A similar thing happened four years ago when Villanova's Josh Hart finished in fifth place in the KP POY standings, was the only member of the top 10 to return and then finished at No. 1 the following year.

    The big question is: Could Garza have a similar junior-to-senior year bump in production from great to excellent?

    Garza already had an outlandish season, boasting a player efficiency rating of 34.4. Dating back to 2009-10, the only other major-conference players to log at least 500 minutes with a PER north of 34 were DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Frank Kaminsky, John Collins, Zion Williamson and Vernon Carey Jr.

    Kind of hard to improve upon being part of that club of names.

    But with Jordan Bohannon, Jack Nunge and Patrick McCaffery all returning from injuries that limited them to a combined total of 17 games played, Iowa should be much better as a whole. There's no doubt Garza will be at the epicenter of that improvement.

Collin Gillespie, Villanova

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 15.1 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.7 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 35.7% 3PT

    Remember when the New England Patriots went straight from Adam Vinatieri to Stephen Gostkowski and we were all like, "how you gonna have one of the best kickers in the NFL for 20 straight years?"

    That's basically what Villanova's point guard situation feels like these days.

    The Wildcats went from Ryan Arcidiacono to Jalen Brunson to Phil Booth to Collin Gillespie without skipping a beat; constantly boasting a lead guard capable of racking up either six assists or six made threes in any game.

    Gillespie has improved significantly with each passing season.

    During the 2018 national championship campaign, he missed a little over a month with a broken hand, but he was a nice source of three-pointers off the bench. The following year, he moved into the starting lineup and put up better than 10 points per game as a third wheel to the Phil Booth and Eric Paschall Show. Last year, he moved into a starring role alongside Saddiq Bey, blossoming into an All-Big East second-teamer.

    Now comes the final step: a Frank Mason-like senior-year leap into a more assertive and more consistent leader.

    We know Gillespie has the ability to average 20 points per game. His jumper is silky smooth, and he put up at least 24 points on five occasions last year. And with Bey gone and Bryan Antoine (shoulder) not expected to be available any time soon, Gillespie should have a permanent green light.

Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 13.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.1 APG, 43.8% 3PT

    It feels like Corey Kispert has been at Gonzaga forever, doesn't it?

    Two years ago, he was the "oh yeah, that fifth starter isn't too shabby either" guy in an outstanding Gonzaga offense led by Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Zach Norvell Jr. and Josh Perkins.

    After those other four starters left, Kispert became the second-leading scorer on a Zags team that would have been plenty capable of winning a national championship.

    And now, for the second straight year, he's one of the only well-established returnees for a team facing high expectations in spite of losing four double-digit scorers.

    What will he do in the encore to his encore?

    For starters, he's going to take and make a lot of three-pointers. He was one of 15 players to make at least 75 triples at a 43 percent or better clip last yearand he was just one of the seven mouths Gonzaga had to feed on a nightly basis. Don't be surprised if he averages at least three made threes per night in a higher-volume role.

    Kispert is more than just a three-point weapon, though. For his first two seasons, that was about all he did. But he expanded his game last year, more than doubling his rate of two-point attempts, free-throw attempts and assists from the previous season.

    He could easily be a 20-PPG guy, though I suspect he'll land closer to 16.5 because of the loaded rotation.

Remy Martin, Arizona State

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 19.1 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 33.5% 3PT

    For a guy who shares a name with a brand of cognac, Remy Martin has been more like a fine wine that gets better with age.

    Martin was a solid sixth man as a freshman, averaging 9.6 points per game while backing up senior guards Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice. When that trio graduated, Martin became the primary point guard, but still had to share the spotlight with Lu Dort and Zylan Cheatham. But after those two guys departed, Martin kicked into a higher gear, leading the Sun Devils in points, assists and steals as a junior.

    With Rob Edwards (best three-point shooter) and Romello White (only reliable big man) now gone, Martin might need to do even more as a senior.

    Good luck finding anyone who doesn't have Martin tabbed as the Pac-12 preseason player of the year. Only Oregon's Payton Pritchard did more scoring than Martin did last year, and that Duck ran out of eligibility. Unless one of the highly touted freshmenUSC's Evan Mobley, Stanford's Ziaire Williams or ASU's Josh Christopher—explodes onto the scene, it's almost a foregone conclusion that Martin will lead the league in scoring.

    It would be nice if he could cut down on the giveaways, though. After averaging better than 2.1 assists per turnover in each of his first two seasons, his more assertive style of play came with an increase in sloppiness and a drop to 1.3 assists per turnover. 

    But if that's the cost of having a guard who can completely take over a game during any given five-minute window, Arizona State will gladly pay it.

Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    2019-20 Stats: 16.1 PPG, 5.0 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 42.4% 3PT

    We never did get to see what Creighton would have looked like without Marcus Zegarowski, but when he suffered a torn meniscus during the final game of the regular season, it immediately knocked the Blue Jays from "title contender" to "might be this year's No. 2 seed that loses to a No. 15 seed."

    That's how much this versatile leader meant to that team, ranking either first or second on the roster in points, assists, steals and three-point percentage. And Zegarowski is about to become even more indispensable following the departure of his primary backcourt mate, Ty-Shon Alexander (16.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 39.9% 3PT).

    In early April, there were hopes that Alexander would return for another season, and/or that Davion Mintz (who redshirted because of ankle injuries) would be back. But Alexander turned pro and Mintz transferred to Kentucky. The Blue Jays tried to improve their backcourt depth by signing Georgia import Rati Andronikashvili in May, but he tore his ACL earlier this month.

    They do still have three-point assassin Mitch Ballock and sixth man Denzel Mahoney. Maybe Memphis transfer Antwann Jones will make a tangible impact. But if the Blue Jays are going to even come close to living up to the hype of being the No. 11 team in the AP poll, they need Zegarowski to be one of the 10 best players in the country.

    Good thing a lot of the national experts are projecting him as a first-team All-American. If he can maintain his efficiency while shouldering a heavier load, Zegarowski just might edge out Luka Garza for Player of the Year.

16 Words Each on 16 Other Guys

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    Tennessee's John Fulkerson
    Tennessee's John FulkersonJames Crisp/Associated Press

    (Sweet) 16 and (Top) 25 are special numbers in college hoops, so I thought it'd be fun to turn this list into a top 25 by allotting 16 words to each of 16 players on the second tier of noteworthy returnees.

    Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky: Former 5-star Hilltopper back for a third year after knee injury cut short his sophomore season.

    James Bouknight, Connecticut: Late bloomer in freshman season; scored at least 16 points in all nine games in February.

    Keion Brooks Jr., Kentucky: Wildcats added two key graduate transfers, but Brooks is the only returnee who scored any points.

    Kofi Cockburn, Illinois: Big man could be the most dominant force in the country if he becomes more consistent.

    Jalen Crutcher, Dayton: Obi Toppin is gone, but Flyers could still be a factor with Crutcher leading senior-heavy roster.

    John Fulkerson, Tennessee: With Grant Williams out of the picture, Fulkerson blossomed into an All-SEC phenom out of nowhere.

    Jacob Gilyard, Richmond: Remember Jevon Carter? Richmond's versatile star could eclipse his career marks in points, assists and steals.

    Sam Hauser, Virginia: Sans Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key, Marquette transfer might be most important player in the nation.

    Matthew Hurt, Duke: Wasn't quite the instant star Duke expected, but will be top returning scorer for Blue Devils.

    Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana: Old-school big man (no threes attempted) had 12 double-doubles and blocked 59 shots as a freshman.

    Keyontae Johnson, Florida: Do-it-all small forward was the most reliable asset on a young and otherwise inconsistent Gators roster.

    Carlik Jones, Louisville: Averaged 20 points, five rebounds and five assists last year with Radford; maybe Louisville's star player.

    Olivier Sarr, Kentucky: Wake Forest transfer waited forever for eligibility waiver; should immediately thrive as Kentucky's main big man.

    Drew Timme, Gonzaga: A reserve for most of his freshman year, Timme might be the nation's biggest breakout sensation.

    Oscar Tshiebwe, West Virginia: Led nation in offensive rebound percentage; just a perfect fit for West Virginia's style of play.

    McKinley Wright IV, Colorado: Metronome for the Buffaloes, averaging 14 points, five rebounds and five assists over past three seasons.