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College Basketball Preview: Top 15 Juniors

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2012-13 Top 15 Juniors

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Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

With college basketball season around the corner, it is time for preseason prognostications. Freshmen seem to get all the attention this time of year because they are new and exciting. However, this piece will focus on the juniors who will have a big impact on their teams when the season finally tips off.

It is this class who often determines the national champion in April. Freshman and sophomores can help a team win, but sometimes it takes a third year to acquire enough experience to round out into a complete player. For example, Kemba Walker was a junior when he led his UConn Huskies to the title in 2011. Kyle Singler was a junior when Duke won it all in 2010. Ty Lawson was a junior when he helped North Carolina win one in 2009.

It would have been interesting to see players like Harrison Barnes, Jeremy Lamb and Jared Sullinger play a third year, but even with the early exits to the NBA, there is some top talent remaining in this year’s junior class who will look to take their squad to the final four and possibly move on to greener pastures in the NBA.

This list will rank the top 15 juniors from 15 to one based on who will be the best when the year is over. Undoubtedly, there will be some players like Thomas Robinson and Damian Lillard who flew under the radar and then exploded onto the scene once the games actually began, but here is the best guess at who will be the top dogs come March.

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15. C.J. Wilcox – Washington

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Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Plain and simple, C.J. Wilcox is a shooter. That is not such a bad thing considering how well he does it. Nearly half of his field goal attempts were three pointers last year. Despite the volume of threes, he still managed to shoot over 40 percent for the second straight season, which is quite impressive.

Wilcox averaged over 14 points per game as he helped the Huskies reach the NIT semifinals. Washington will probably not be as good this season, but Wilcox will be better. The top two scorers for the team last season are gone. Although Wilcox is not much of a shot creator himself, he has a point guard in Abdul Gaddy who should be able to find him for open shot attempts.

Wilcox is excellent at moving without the ball and can shoot even when he is not on balance. He is also very adept at pulling up off the dribble when the defense runs him off his spot. He also showed some ability to get to the rim, which should only improve like it did last season. He is not incredibly gifted athletically, but at 6-fot-5 possesses good size to get his shot off against most other guards.

Ultimately, Wilcox was not keyed on by the defense and was not the first option on offense, but still managed to put up very good numbers. A shooter of his caliber is guaranteed to know down shots. Continued progression in his overall game should allow him to put up big numbers in the upcoming season.

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14. Ray McCallum – Detroit

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Mike DiNovo-US PRESSWIRE

On a better team, Ray McCallum can play the role of facilitator and set up teammates in his more nature role. On mid-major Detroit, he has to do more of the scoring. We will soon see McCallum’s true point guard skills in the NBA, but for now he will have to be a scorer. He is talented enough to assume this duty.

The coach’s son averaged 15.4 points and four assists per game last season and led the Titans to a 20 win season, a conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth. He should improve upon his numbers and maybe his team’s success this upcoming season as a junior.

McCallum has very good size for a point guard and quickness that allows him to penetrate the defense and make plays. The knock on his game right now is his inability to shoot from range. He shot 24 percent from behind the arc last year and that is something that will need to be improved upon. It will be very important to do so in order to prevent his defender from playing off of him to prevent the drive. Because of his inability to shoot, he scores most of his points in transition where his athleticism is most effective. McCallum also turns the ball over at a much higher rate in the halfcourt, which is also a product of the team’s reliance on him as a playmaker.

The Titans should still be contenders in the Horizon League because of McCallum, but he has the ability to be a much more dominant player if he can improve his effectiveness in the halfcourt.

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13. Gorgui Dieng – Louisville

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Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

Gorgui Dieng really impressed at the Adidas Nations event in August. He is an NBA prospect at the center position, which cannot be said about any other player on this list. Dieng nearly averaged a double-double last season to go along with over three blocks per game. He will not score a ton and is still developing his skill level, but his presence at 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan is undeniable.

Dieng shoots a high percentage because he does not try to do too much offensively. He will get some offensive rebounds and is mobile enough to run the floor. He has good stamina for a big man and is not afraid to get physical in the paint. Even if he does not block every shot, he changes plenty and makes the opposition consider his existence every time he takes the ball to the hoop. He seems to be a hard worker who has improved his game considerably since coming to Louisville. That bodes well for his prospects in the 2012-13 season.

Dieng was a huge reason the Cardinals made the Final Four a year ago. The expectations are high again this season and Dieng will need to continue his development if Louisville wants to reach their goals. He will not be relied upon to do much offensively but catch and dunk. Solid guard play should allow for plenty of opportunities to do that. Dieng could use to improve some of his offensive skills to impress the NBA scouts who will undoubtedly be in attendance, but he will just have to do what he does best for Rick Pitino’s squad to be a contender in the Big East.

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12. Tim Hardaway Jr. – Michigan

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Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE

Tim Hardaway Jr. struggled during the middle portion of last season’s schedule. Sometimes the lull of the college basketball season can cause players to lose focus and underperform. He did manage to rebound and finish the season fairly strong, but he will be the first person to tell you that last year’s production was a disappointment.

Hardaway averaged 14.6 points per game while leading the Michigan Wolverines to a 24-10 record and a NCAA tournament berth. Those accomplishments sound pretty good, but it could have been much better had Hardaway shot the ball better.

That brings us to the reason why Hardaway belongs on this list. He is a much better shooter than the 28 percent he put up from behind the arc a season ago. It would be very surprising to see him shoot that poorly again. That percentage is considerably worse than the 37 percent he shot from three point land the previous year, which is more appropriate for a shooter of Hardaway’s caliber.

If Hardaway can shoot the ball the way he is capable of, his number will improve and he has the potential to be one of the best juniors in the country. The fact that he still managed to produce as much as he did without hitting the three ball goes to show how talented of a scorer he is. He is a superb shot creator who is excellent pulling up off the dribble. It is not an exaggeration to say Hardaway could be the best player in the Big 10 and lead the Wolverines to a conference championship.

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11. Andre Roberson – Colorado

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Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

Another guy who has impressed NBA scouts, Andre Roberson is a super-athletic forward who was a top five rebounder in the nation last season. Roberson averaged 11 and 11 last year while blocking nearly two shots per game. Because of his efforts, Colorado won a game in the NCAA tournament.

He scores most of his points thanks to his high activity level and work on the offensive glass. He does not take it upon himself to make too many plays off the dribble. He scores mostly around the hoop, which is why he shoots a high percentage from the field. Roberson seems to have the ability to add more creativity to his game. He is often the most influential player on the floor, but lacks confidence in his skill set to make it apparent in the scoring column. He actually made 19 three pointers last year and shot 38 percent.

With some time in the gym, Roberson can certainly improve his confidence from behind the arc and score on a few more attempts. He would also be wise to take it upon himself to use his considerable talent to make a few offensive moves. The increase in scoring will be counted on as Roberson will be the leading returning scorer.

It would not hurt if Roberson would improve his foul shooting either. He shot 61 percent last year. It is possible that improved confidence at the free throw line will translate into more aggressiveness on offense. Even if that is not the case, Roberson will still score some and rebound plenty for Colorado in the upcoming season.

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10. Travis McKie – Wake Forest

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Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

There are bigger names on this list for sure. It is puzzling how such a good player from the ACC can go under the radar like Travis McKie has, but this kid is a very good player. The reason no one wants to talk about him is he has played on Wake Forest teams that have not been very successful. However, McKie has garnered attention from NBA scouts, so he should have yours by the end of the 2012-13 season.

He is a pure scorer who averaged over 16 points per game last year. He is 6-foot-7, very athletic and an excellent shooter as he proved during the Adidas Nations event in August. 16 points per game may not seem that high considering he did it for a bad team, but he was the second option on the Demon Deacons. Despite his low usage rate, he was incredibly efficient and managed to put up good numbers without taking too many shots. After the graduation of C.J. Harris, McKie should see plenty more opportunities to showcase what he can do.

McKie shoots a high percentage from the three point line, but prefers to attack the basket. This has worked well for him his first two season as he has managed to shoot a high percentage while limiting turnovers and getting to the foul line at a high rate. He does pretty much everything on offense very efficiently, which means he has earned more time with the ball in his hands. Most college basketball fans will not rank McKie as high on this list, but he is a true sleeper who shows promise to have a breakout season.

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9. Aaron Craft – Ohio State

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Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

Aaron Craft impacts the game on defense more than any perimeter player in the country. He averaged 2.5 steals per game a season ago and can be totally disruptive to an opposing team’s offense at times. He has proven to be a winner at http://www.rantsports.com/ncaa-basketball/teams/ohio-state/ and has been a part of a Sweet 16 team and a Final Four team. That may have had more to do with Sullinger, but Craft is a gritty winner who knows his role and has perfected it. His role will not change this season as he will feed the ball to DeShaun Thomas and Lenzelle Smith Jr. all season.

Despite all of his great attributes, Craft is not capable of dominating on the offensive end of the floor like most of the other players on this list. He could definitely stand to become a better shooter. There are times when he is simply ineffective on offense because the defense does not have to guard him. He has never scored 20 points in a game and most of his assists come from making the correct play rather than the spectacular one.

However, he is a stabilizing force on the offensive end, which works because of the talent that surrounds him. Craft also tends to play his best basketball during the biggest games. His highest scoring output and assist output last season came in the NCAA tournament.

This season he should be able to put up a double digit scoring average to go with five assists per game, but everyone knows the stats do not really define a player like Craft.

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8. Mike Moser – UNLV

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Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

Expectations are extremely high for UNLV this season and Mike Moser is the main offensive weapon. He is big, athletic and can really stroke it from deep. Moser transferred from UCLA after getting very few minutes and burst onto the scene as a sophomore with the Rebels. He put his name out there with a 16 point, 18 rebound performance against North Carolina early in the season and maintained his success as UNLV reached the NCAA tournament. Moser led the Rebels with 14 points per game and proved to be one of the best rebounders in the country as he averaged 10.5 per game.

Moser should continue to score and rebound at a high rate in 2012-13. Despite his 6-foot-8 frame, Moser prefers the perimeter. This is evident by his low amount of free throw attempts last season. Because of this and newcomers occupying some of the frontcourt positions, Moser will move to small forward this season. This may give him a matchup advantage against smaller defenders, but it also means Moser will likely resort to perimeter shooting more often than not. As a result, expect his three point attempts to be higher than the 3.8 he attempted last year. This may result in a bigger scoring output, but also could mean a lower shooting percentage. With his athleticism and size, it would be nice to see him function in the paint more often.

Regardless, Moser will be relied on to score for the Rebels and the high rate at which he rebounds will undoubtedly continue to be an asset for a squad with high aspirations.

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7. Reggie Bullock – North Carolina

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Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

North Carolina was not short of scorers a season ago, which meant that Reggie Bullock’s skill set was a luxury for the Tar Heeels. This season, Bullock will be asked to shoulder more of the offensive load and should lead an ACC contender in scoring in 2012-13.

He is the classic case of a top talent getting recruited to a national powerhouse and having to wait his turn on the bench when he could have been putting up big numbers for a lesser school. However, Bullock will be better for it because he is now more than ready to take over. He has excellent size for a wing, plenty of athleticism, one of the best shooting strokes in the country and a scorer’s mentality.

Thomas Robinson was also a top talent who had to sit behind older players before getting his turn. Bullock is in a similar position. There is no need to look at last season’s numbers because his role will be completely different this season. Bullock was not asked to be a shot creator, just a spot up shooter with all of North Carolina’s options a season ago. As a result, the public has yet to see what a dynamic score this kid can be.

Bullock is great at running off screens and knocking down jumpers, but he is also a smooth slasher who is very capable of pulling up and hitting a shot from the midrange. His defense is also a strength and makes him a complete player. It is a cliché, but the Tar Heels do not rebuild, they reload. Roy Williams will have his team competing for the ACC crown and Bullock will be his leading man.

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6. Phil Pressey – Missouri

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Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

Phil Pressey did not put up jaw dropping numbers is his sophomore campaign, but he impacted the game as much as anyone. He is a tiny guard who compensates for his lack of size with quickness and true point guard skills. His speed in the open court often dictates the pace and provides scoring opportunities for his teammates.

His scoring average was less than stellar, but he often demurred to his senior teammates Marcus Denmon and Kim English. This season, Pressey will be counted on to shoulder much more of the offensive burden. He is more than capable because there may not be a guard in the country who can slow him down. Defensively, Pressey is a pest and can turn defense into offense. He thrives in transition, but a developing jump shot will make it harder for opponents to guard him in the halfcourt.

Although the Tigers disappointed with a first round loss to Norfolk State, it was to no fault of Pressey’s. He scored 20 points to go along with eight assists in the game. He also played extremely well down the stretch in leading Missouri to the Big 12 championship.

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5. C.J. Leslie – NC State

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Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

This Junior nearly led his team to the Elite Eight, but ran into the eventual national runner-up in Kansas. C.J. Leslie’s second half of the season was much better than his first, leading many to believe he is ready to make good on the high expectations set for him as a freshman. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds in the ACC tournament against North Carolina and averaged 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in total last season.

The Wolfpack are primed for a final four run this season and Leslie is a big reason why. He is arguably the most athletic post in the country and runs the floor very well. His lack of focus and consistency has drawn criticism in his first two years, but he seems to have improved upon that as his career has gone on. He has an advantage against almost all competitors when he faces up to the basket and his strong supporting cast this season should prevent defenses from keying in on him. He has range out to about 15 feet. If he can improve on that, he will be a nightmare matchup with his ability to drive past defenders and finish at the rim. Leslie should also benefit from strong guard play and will get plenty of opportunities to catch and finish with a dunk, which is his strength considering his athleticism.

The ACC will be unforgiving if Leslie does not continue to improve on his consistency, but he should be a big reason NC State competes with North Carolina and Duke for conference supremacy in 2012-13.

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4. Lorenzo Brown – NC State

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Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

Leslie’s teammate should be one of the best point guards in the country in the upcoming season. Last year he averaged 12.7 points and 6.3 assists per game, but like his teammate, improved significantly as the season progressed. If Lorenzo Brown’s improvement from freshman to sophomore year is any indication, expect big improvement from this talented NBA prospect.

The biggest improvement Brown made in his second year was with his outside shooting. Brown became much more competent behind the three point line, but still has room for improvement. If he can stretch the defense, his ability to get to the rim will become that much more dangerous. Hopefully, he gained some muscle in the offseason because his thin frame prevented him from finishing at the rim often times. His jump shot and strength are tools that can be easily improved upon in the offseason, so expectations are that Brown will continue his uptick into the elite category of guards in the ACC.

Many believed he was the reason Ryan Harrow transferred. Harrow may have seen the writing on the wall that Brown was going to be the future star point guard for the Wolfpack. With North Carolina and Duke’s inexperience at the point guard position, this is one area where NC State could have a significant advantage over the competition in 2012-13. Last season, Kendall Marshall outplayed Brown. However, Brown’s blend of size, athleticism and playmaking ability should see no match in the upcoming season. Expect Brown to be the engine in a Wolfpack attack that will do big things this year and expect him to be a first round pick in the 2013 NBA draft.

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3. DeShaun Thomas – Ohio State

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Michael Ivins-US PRESSWIRE

Thomas likes to shoot a lot. He is a scorer in the truest sense of the word and does not do much else on the court. With that said, he is one of the best in the country at putting the ball in the basket. Sullinger and William Buford really cramped Thomas’ style last year because Thomas had to accept a complimentary role and could not hunt down his points like he would like to.

However, Thomas still averaged 15.9 points per game. The real scary stat is that he put up those points on 52 percent shooting. Such a high shooting percentage for a high volume scorer means Thomas could put up even bigger numbers without forcing his own shot too often.

There is little doubt Thomas can put the ball in the hoop, but the big improvement Thomas made in his sophomore season came with his jump shot. He falls in love with that jumper too often, but he has shot a high enough percentage to warrant him taking deep shots. He has a complete offensive arsenal and a scorer’s mentality. He does not do much as far as defense or rebounding, but all that means is he has more time and energy to put forth on putting the ball in the basket.

Without Sullinger, Thomas will be the focal point of the Buckeye offense and that means big number for the junior. Expect him to put up some big scoring games and maybe he will grab a few boards now that Sully will not be there to steal them all anymore.

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2. Jamaal Franklin – San Diego State

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Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

Jamaal Franklin may not be a household name yet, but he certainly had an impressive sophomore year. He averaged nearly eight rebounds to go with 17.4 points per game. He went from a bench warmer his freshman season to the unquestioned go-to player on a NCAA tournament team. Like many players on this list he improved as the season went on. He was not the unquestioned scoring leader coming into the year, but as the season went on he took that role and ran with it. He averaged 23 points per game in his last seven, which included 23 points against NC State in the tournament. As a result, he will be the first option coming into the 2012-13 season, which means fans can expect 20-plus points per contest this year.

Franklin is extremely athletic and uses that athleticism to get to the rim and get fouled. He averaged five made free throws per game. He also showed a proclivity to shoot the three, although with some time in the gym he can become a more reliable option, which is scary considering his ability to score in other ways.

He is the complete package offensively and should be one of the best scorers in college basketball when the season opens up. The Mountain West player of the year is the favorite to take home the award once again and should have his sights set on first team All-American, if not the Naismith Award. Often overlooked playing out west in a smaller conference, Franklin will give Head Coach Steve Fisher a shot to make a run in the NCAA tournament.

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1. Doug McDermott - Creighton

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Marvin Gentry-US PRESSWIRE

Doug McDermott was the third highest scorer in the country last season and was the highest scorer in his class. He will have a real shot at leading the country in scoring this season and could even throw his hat in the ring for player of the year.

The 6-foot-7 forward scored 20 points against his high school teammate Harrison Barnes in the third round of the NCAA tournament and had his Bluejays in the top 25 most of the season. Creighton went 29-6 with McDermott at the helm and he should have his team atop the Missouri Valley Conference once again in 2012-13.

McDermott is a rare breed as he is a shooter, but also a fiery competitor who can mix it up inside. As the coach’s son, McDermott makes the most of his ability and has a good feel for the game to go with his skillset. The biggest difference between his freshman and sophomore campaign was the development of an inside game to go with his sweet stroke from behind the three point line.

It will be tough to top his 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, but if he can add the ability to put the ball on the deck and get to the hoop, he will have a more complete offensive game. As is, he scores much of his points off of catch and shoot opportunities and offensive rebounds. His off the ball movement is stellar, but more athletic defenders will be able to stop him once the level of competition rises. A matchup to look forward to is when Creighton hosts Tony Mitchell and North Texas. These will likely be two of the top forwards in the country, so if you are a fan of great individual matchups, mark your calendar for November, 9.