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College Basketball Preview: Top 15 Sophomores

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College Basketball Preview: Top 15 Sophomores

AD, MKG
Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE

It seems every college basketball season, more and more attention is being paid to the freshmen class. Since the 2006 class of Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, when freshmen weren’t allowed to jump straight to the NBA from high school anymore, certain freshmen have taken the country by storm and have even been amongst the most important and impactful players in the country.

While the guys shown above were the talk of college hoops last season - and rightfully so - the freshman class of 2011 showcased a ton of talent. Fortunately, a good amount of that talent will be returning for their sophomore campaigns.

Enclosed is my ranking of the Top 15 Sophomores for the 2012-2013 season. While I’m sure I’m leaving some talented guys out (Quinn Cook, P.J. Hairston and Chane Behanan to name a few), these are the 15 guys whose names you need to know right now, and you’ll definitely be talking about throughout this season. We take trips from conference to conference, even hitting up the Sun Belt to show Tony Mitchell some love.

As good as a lot of these guys were (or weren’t) as freshmen, recent studs like Blake Griffin, Derrick Williams, and Dion Waiters have shown how much of an impact you can make in your second year. Some guys are solely returning to improve their draft stock, and some are back to try and take their programs to the next level, but one thing’s for sure, these will be some of the premier players in the country this season.

Without further ado, let’s check out Rant Sports Top 15 Sophomores for the 2012-2013 season.

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15. Kyle Wiltjer

Wiltjer
Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE

Let’s stick in Lexington for a bit and start with the one highly recruited freshman from last year’s National Champs – no offense to Ryan Harrow, Sam Malone and Brian Long - that decided to stay around and hone his game. While there always has to be a weak link in every team, Kyle Wiltjer was the prettiest girl at the bar to not get picked up last season. The 2011 McDonald’s All-American was recruited with the likes of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd Gilchrist for a reason, and we believe he’s ready to help another star-studded recruiting class get the Wildcats back to the depths of the postseason.

The number-18 ranked senior in the class of 2011 by ESPN, Wiltjer appeared in all 40 of Kentucky’s games last season, averaging 5 points in 11.6 minutes a game. At the end of one of the best 7-man rotations in college hoops history (really 6 but we’ll give Wiltjer the benefit of the doubt), the 6-10 big from Portland, Oregon plays like someone you’d create in a video game. With great size and post skills, Wiltjer is almost as deadly from deep as he is refined in the paint. With JJ Redick range, Wiltjer served as a perfect big off the bench being able to bang down low to give Player of the Year Anthony Davis a breather, as well as combine with him for one of the best two-headed monsters in the country.

The 2011 Mr. Basketball of Oregon, Wiltjer was second on the Wildcats in three-pointers made last season, and is unquestionably the teams top-returning shooter as well as post player. Having experienced a national championship already, Wiltjer will serve as a great mentor for number one overall recruit Nerlens Noel, and be a great in-between player for Noel and fellow top-recruits Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin with his diverse skill-set.

Kentucky has a chance to be the first team since Florida in 2006 and 2007 to repeat as national champions, and it seems this season Wiltjer will certainly be a bit more in the thick of things for the national powerhouse.

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14. Kendall Anthony

Anthony
Peter Casey-US PRESSWIRE

We like to spread the love here at Rant Sports, and look to the Atlantic 10 for our next top sophomore for the 2012-2013 season. After a 7-9 record in the A-10 last season, the days of Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson seem to be long gone for the Richmond Spiders. As disappointing as last season was however, one of the lone bright spots was unquestionably freshman guard Kendall Anthony.

While I wouldn’t advise you to call any D-1 basketball player “little man,” there’s a good chance you tower over Richmond’s scoring machine. Standing at 5-foot-8 and around 140 pounds, Anthony was second on the team in scoring last season (13 points per game), in the process winning the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year by a landslide. Anthony tied for the lead for the Spiders in three-pointers made, shooting a remarkable 42% from down-town on the season.

The runner-up for Mr. Basketball in Tennessee in 2011, Anthony had a heralded high-school career averaging 28.3 points as a senior while leading his Liberty Technology Magnet High School to a state championship. The former McDonald’s All-American nominee didn’t waste any time making a name for himself last season, scoring 17 or more points in three of his first four games as a collegiate athlete.

Although Richmond may not be able to repeat its success from a couple of seasons ago, Anthony was unstoppable at times as a freshman, and like fellow short guys Isaiah Thomas and Nate Robinson, can really fill it up. It’ll be fun watching him go to work again this season, and don’t be surprised to see him near the top of the scoring leaders in the very near future.

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13. Kevin Pangos

Pangos
Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

As disappointing as the Gonzaga Bulldogs have been the past few seasons – by the standards they’ve recently set for themselves that is – you can’t deny they’ve been able to find some real gems in their recruiting classes. From Jeremy Pargo and Stephen Grey, to Robert Sacre and Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos really seems to be the next in line of Bulldogs to do their thing while flying under the radar.

As a freshman, Pangos lead Gonzaga in scoring, assists, steals, and minutes per game, and showed he wasn’t your typical rookie after going for 33 points on 9 three’s in the second game of the season in a thrilling win against Washington State. Although distributing the ball wasn’t Pangos’ strong point last season, he took over the point guard position and was a frequent leader on a team with proven veteran seniors like Sacre and Harris.

Pangos was impressive enough to be named to the West Coast Conference All Conference Team, he was also selected as the WCC Newcomer of the Year (needless to say he made the All Freshman Team).

Despite being one of Canada’s best high school basketball players, Pangos was relatively unheralded out of high school. The Canadian point guard (out of Newmarket, Ontario) chose the Zags over Michigan, and finished his high school career with a 26-point performance in his state championship game. Pangos other claim to fame has been his scoring prowess in FIBA competition, going for 18.6 points per game in the Under-16 Championships in 2009, 15.8 in the Under-17 Championships in 2010, and 13.5 in the Under-19 Championships in 2011.

Pangos is looking forward to future endeavors with the Canadian National Team, hoping to team with one of his role models and a player who he admittedly models his game after, Steve Nash.

Gonzaga may be in for another challenging season having lost some of its best players from last season, but one way or another, you’ll be hearing a lot about Pangos this season.

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12. Ladontae Henton

Henton
Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Few things are more impressive than coming into the Big East and averaging 14.3 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. I mean, those numbers are on par with – if not better than – legendary conference bigs Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Derrick Coleman.

Although he’s not as tall as the previously mentioned Big East greats, standing at only 6-foot-6, LaDontaeHenton’s game is big, as his tenacity in the paint led to him being named to the Big East All-Rookie Team. Henton’s post prowess, teamed with the high scoring backcourt duo of Vincent Council and Bryce Cotton, has Providence set to be one of the Big East’s biggest sleeper teams for this coming season.

As a senior at Lansing Eastern High School (Michigan), Henton became just the fourth player in Mid-Michigan history to score at least 2,000 points, joining Zane Gay, Marcus Taylor, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The runner-up for Mr. Basketball Michigan in 2011, Henton was selected as Michigan’s Class A Player of the Year.

Despite having a legendary high school career, Henton wasn’t a top-100 recruit, and clearly played with a chip on his shoulder as a freshman. With a skill-set containing everything from great athleticism and agility, to interior toughness and a real nose for the ball, to a great touch from outside (he knocked down four 3-pointers in his career-high 33-point effort against South Florida), Henton’s dangerous in every facet of the game.

If by some chance freshman guards Ricky Ledo (ineligible) and Kris Dunn (injured) get to play for the Friars this season you can expect to see more of Henton in the limelight, but based on where Henton finished last season (15.2 ppg in Big East competition, as well as the third returning rebounder in the conference), and how he takes leaps and bounds to improve every year, don’t be surprised to see his name on all conference lists at the end of this season.

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11. B.J. Young

Young
Beth Hall-US PRESSWIRE

As we’ve already mentioned, SEC freshmen had a hard time garnering much attention last season with the kings of Kentucky hogging all the limelight, but that probably motivated Arkansas wing B.J. Young even more.

The number 16-overall recruit according to ESPN’s Top 100 of 2011, Young led the Razorbacks in scoring (15.3 ppg), field goal percentage and free throws made. His rookie campaign was impressive enough to land him on the All SEC Freshman team, as well as the Second Team All-SEC.

The bigger the stage, the better Young looked last season. Averaging 20 points per game against ranked teams, his two best performances came against number 10 (at the time) Connecticut – who he dropped 28 points and 5 rebounds on – and against number 12 Florida, where he poured in a career-high 31 points.

It’s not often that a freshman leads their team in scoring, it’s even more unique when they do it as a reserve. Young started only 7 of the 32 games he played in last season, providing a major spark for coach Mike Anderson. While I say he provided a spark in a figurative sense, Young played at full-speed when he got into the game, using his athleticism and high motor as his two biggest weapons. Combine his physical gifts with his impressive jumper, from both mid-range and deep, and one of the quickest first steps in the country, and it’s not too farfetched to compare Young to Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook.

As profound of a scorer as Young has proven to be, the only question about his game is if he can run the point and handle the responsibility of getting his teammates more involved in the years to come. It’s slightly alarming that Young finished the season with one fewer assist than turnover, but with so much pressure to provide so much for a team that struggled, especially in conference play, you have to take the good with the bad.

Expect a lot more of the good from Young, and watch out for him to take over the SEC in season number two.

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10. Rakeem Christmas

Christmas
Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

You may not know much about Rakeem Christmas from the limited playing time he saw as a freshman for Syracuse, but if you watched what he was able to do when given extended minutes, you’d know he’s a bad, bad dude. Although he got the starting nod in 35 of the teams 37 games, Christmas only averaged slightly over 11 minutes a game, struggling at times to stay out of foul trouble.

With that said, we saw Christmas look great in some big spots, most notably against Kansas State in the National Tournament, when he went for 8 points, 11 boards, and 3 blocks in a career-best 34 minute effort. Under pressure, Christmas also scored 6 points and added 2 blocks in just 16 minutes against a very good Ohio State team.

Jim Boeheim doesn’t typically play inexperienced bigs, but with some great experience last season, as well as a major opening in playing time in the front court, Christmas is due to break out in his sophomore campaign.

A top-20 recruit, Christmas was rated either the best, or second best center in the class of 2011 by most major outlets. And while it wouldn’t be the first time that a big man didn’t live up to his hype (looking at you Josh Smith, Renardo Sidney, even Derrick Caracter of years ago), Boeheim has groomed bigs like Arinze Onuaku, Rick Jackson, and most recently Fab Melo, and with DaJuan Coleman and Jerami Grant coming to Syracuse, it looks like it’ll be another stellar season for the big men in orange.

Look out for Christmas to make a big impact on the Big East, and make people forget about the amount of talent that Syracuse lost after last season.

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9. Nick Johnson

Johnson
Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona landed two gems in the 2011 recruiting class in guards Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner. While Turner got himself in some trouble off the court, leading to him not returning to the program for his sophomore year, Johnson seems to be the gift that keeps on giving.


Although he only averaged 8.9 points and 2.4 assists per game, Johnson provided consistency and great effort for an Arizona team that surprised many by winning 23 games (12 in Pac-12 competition). Seamlessly rotating from point guard to shooting guard – after playing shooting guard his entire high school career - Johnson showed as a freshman that he’s a do-it-all combo guard who’s as smooth as he is athletic, and judging by his 39-inch vertical jump you can hopefully understand just how in control of a player he is.

Johnson’s the type of player who thrives on being depended on, and with his experience playing at national powerhouse Findlay Prep (Nevada), he’s shown that there isn’t a stage too big for his game. Thrown into the starting lineup for 28 of the Wildcats 35 games, (he was named to the Pac-12 Conference All-Freshman Team) Johnson was most impressive going for 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists on the road against Washington when star players Solomon Hill and Kyle Fogg couldn’t get going.

This year, sharing the backcourt with Xavier transfer Mark Lyons, Johnson should have a better feel for the talent around him. He’ll also be joined be three top-16 (according to ESPN) recruits in big man Caleb Tarczewski (#4), forward Grant Jerrett (#9), and another Findlay Prep alum in Brandon Ashley (#16). Expectations have to be high for Johnson and Arizona, but knowing how the 6-foot-3 guard operates, he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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8. Myck Kabongo

Kabongo
Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Based on last season alone, Myck Kabongo doesn’t deserve to be listed as a top-15 sophomore for 2012. However, I do believe that Kabongo will have a major bounce-back this season, to the extent that if you were to look back at this list at any point during the season, I’d look dumb for leaving him out.

While Kabongo didn’t necessarily flourish, I blame a lot of that on his team struggling as a whole. It’s been a rough couple of seasons in Austin, and while the Texas Longhorns program is used to really competing with the top tier teams of the Big 12, they were left out of the discussion with Kansas, Baylor, and Missouri, and found themselves in the bottom half of the conference last season. As disappointing as Texas was, their highly touted freshman – who played in both the McDonald’s All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic - winded up leading the team in assists and steals, and finished third on the team in scoring.

Kabongo had an up-and-down season sharing the backcourt with the now departed J’Covan Brown, who played at a similar frenetic pace as Kabongo likes to, but often needed the ball in his hands to be most effective. This season, with a top-five recruiting class coming in for Rick Barnes, Kabongo should be able to do what he does best, be a pass-first point guard and get his teammates a bit more involved.

Coming out of high-school as the number 11 overall recruit, Kabongo still made the Big 12 All-Rookie Team, and was All Big 12 Honorable Mention, and really has tremendous upside for this season. Though it’s not his strong-point, he scored in double-digits in 19 of the 34 games he played in (he started them all), and if Barnes past two top-five recruiting classes shape up to what they were expected to be, Kabongo and Texas could look real good again as soon as this season.

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7. D'Angelo Harrison

Harrison
Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

Is this the year St. John’s gets into the postseason and makes a run? We’re entering year three of the Steve Lavin experience, and while he hasn’t necessarily been able to live up to the expectations he set for himself after getting the Red Storm back to the NCAA Tournament in his first season, he’s done a heck of a job recruiting. D’Angelo Harrison might be the greatest testament to that.

A combo guard who’s slated to get more run at the point his sophomore season, Harrison and current Orlando Magic forward Moe Harkless carried the scoring load for the Johnnies last season. While Harkless won Big East Rookie of the Year, Harrison led the team in scoring, averaging an astonishing 16.8 points per game (7th in the Big East), getting buckets as he mercilessly attacked the basket and drained the long ball with similar ease. Harrison was also a pest on the defensive end, hounding opposing point and shooting guards to the tune of 1.6 steals per game.

Harrison’s weak point was his low shooting percentage, but as I previously mentioned, it was a whole lot of him and Harkless and not much else in Jamaica, Queens last season. Harkless will be joined by another robust recruiting class this year, and with Lavin cancer-free and ready to resume full-time basketball duties, a lot is expected out of St. John’s and their star player.

Harrison was one of the Big East’s best players last season, this year, he may be one of the best in all of the nation.

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6. Adonis Thomas

Thomas
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

Memphis forward Adonis Thomas is one of the most interesting players in the country. After missing 15 games from mid-January through early-March, Thomas returned from an ankle injury just in time for his Tigers squad to win the Conference-USA Tournament, but be upset by Saint Louis in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Thomas contributed very little down the stretch, but scored 15 or more points in 5 of the first 16 games of his collegiate career before being sidelined.

The number 9 overall recruit in the class of 2011, Thomas was named the state of Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year, and was listed in and participated in any and all illustrious teams and events as a senior in high school. Thomas then bulked up from a 205 pound kid to a 222 pound freshman, and came into training camp even stronger this season. Memphis coach Josh Pastner has made comparisons to LeBron James when referring to Thomas’s build and athleticism, and that although he’s gotten increasingly stronger, he may be getting quicker also.

Mainly a wing and perimeter player up to this point of his career – he made over 40% of his three-point attempts last season – Thomas will likely play both forward spots this season for the matchup nightmares he creates with his skill-set and physical attributes. Thomas has an NBA game and an NBA body, and after making up for an injury-plagued, disappointing freshman season, expect him to take the nation by storm and be an NBA player a year from now.

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5. LeBryan Nash

Nash
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

As if Oklahoma State wasn’t lucky enough landing top-10 recruit LeBryan Nash, they got lucky again last Spring when Nash decided he’d return for his sophomore season. In a conference loaded with talented freshmen, Nash was named the Big 12 Freshman of the Year by the Associated Press, and was as impressive as any freshman the Cowboys have seen…maybe ever. Leading all Big 12 freshmen in points and rebounds per game, this was the first time a player from Oklahoma State ever won the award.

Finishing the season in the top three in minutes, points, and rebounds for his team, Nash carried the scoring load for Oklahoma State at times last season, including a career-high 27 points in a huge upset win over #2 Missouri. The 27-point outburst was the first of 9-straight games of double-digit scoring before Nash hurt his non-shooting hand, forcing him to miss the team’s last five games.

After being one of the most-heralded high school players in the country, Nash has publicly said that he was disappointed in himself last season, and is returning to Stillwater to at least improve his NBA draft stock. Nash is unhappy that for the first time in his basketball career he faced ups and downs, and it showed in both his game and his body language. With that said, I’m expecting the freshman who averaged 13.3 points per game and was upset about it to really step up his game as a sophomore, and be one of the country’s most prolific scorers.

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4. Trey Burke

Burke
Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE

Basketball is back in Ann Arbor and Trey Burke’s the conductor of the bandwagon! While the Wolverines have been climbing back to relevancy since John Beilein took over in the spring of 2007, Trey Burke is an elite point guard and was utterly brilliant at times during his freshman season. The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year (media) was also named to the All-Big Ten Second Team, and is ready to be the unquestioned leader on a team that lost two seniors last season in Zack Novak and Stu Douglass.

With per game averages of 14.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.6 assists, Burke was Michigan’s most efficient player last season, and after leading the team in scoring, assists, three-pointers made, and steals, you can argue he was/is the best the team has to offer. Burke led the team by scoring and running the offense as well as any point guard in the country last season, having big games against tough competition like 17 points and 9 assists against Duke, a near triple-double against Indiana, and 17 points and 5 assists in an upset win over Ohio State.

With Ohio State losing Jared Sullinger, and Michigan State losing Draymond Green, this could be the season that Michigan makes its way back to the top of the Big 10. Burke will have backcourt mate Tim Hardaway Jr. back for another season, as well as highly coveted freshmen Glenn Robinson Jr. and Mitch McGary. Michigan may have tied for the Big 10 title last season, but it was the first time they were claimed champs in 26 years!

Expect big things again this year, as their leader is about as good as anyone’s leader.

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3. Tony Mitchell

Mitchell
Andrew Fielding-US PRESSWIRE

I don’t care if you’ve heard of him or not, Tony Mitchell is a bonafide superstar. For those of you unfamiliar, Mitchell averaged 14.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3 blocks per game, winning the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year and being named to the First-Team All-Sun Belt conference. Take a look beyond the numbers and Mitchell is a freakish athlete, standing 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and a 41-inch vertical jump. WHEN Mitchell decides to leave North Texas, he’ll be the first player from the school to play in the NBA since the 1970’s!

As the only freshman in the nation to average a double-double, Mitchell was a top-25 recruit in the Class of 2010 out of Pinkston High School (Texas), and was ruled academically ineligible to attend Missouri coming out of high school. After being named the Dallas Morning News 2010 Player of the Year, the year was worth the wait for both Mitchell and North Texas, as the super athletic big broke onto the scene in the Sun Belt last season. Mitchell had a huge summer, taking up invites to both the LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire Skills Academy, and plans to come out even better this season.

Mitchell has been listed as a pre-season All-American by CBS Sports and Basketball Times amongst others, and was ranked as the number 2 center in the country by Lindy’s. CBS Sports has him ranked as the number 7 player overall in the nation. His athleticism has been compared to that of guys (freaks) like Blake Griffin, Domonique Wilkins, and Shawn Marion, combined with his 43% three-point shooting, and it’s understandable why he’s such a hot pro prospect.

Mitchell’s game is still rather raw, but if he continues to progress and amaze like he did last season, it won’t be long before you’re talking about the Mean Green in the top-25, and Mitchell in the first round of the NBA Draft. Don’t sleep.

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2. James Michael Mcadoo

McAdoo
Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

From the lesser known to the gift that keeps on giving. While Tony Mitchell did everything in his power to make his name show up with the elite players in the game this season, North Carolina sophomore James Michael McAdoo wasn’t exactly impressing folks over in Chapel Hill. The number 6 overall prospect in the class of 2011, McAdoo averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in a reserve role behind recently drafted bigs Tyler Zeller and John Henson, but is ready to breakout in his second season.

As easy as it is to get lost in the shuffle in a prestigious program like North Carolina, McAdoo was patient last season and stepped up big when he got his chance. When John Henson injured his wrist near the end of the season, McAdoo was allowed to play 20-plus minutes in 6 of the teams final 8 games, averaging nearly 11 points over the teams last 7, including a 15 point effort against Kansas in the Elite 8.

McAdoo flashed signs of what he’s capable of, and with a starting spot locked up and a less loaded roster, he’s expected to be one of Roy Williams’ top guns this season. The youngest player ever to be named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year (2009), McAdoo has experienced much success on the FIBA level, and was named Gatorade Player of the Year in Virginia in both 2010 and 2011. His strength is his athleticism and quickness paired with his big body, allowing him to both bang and blow by opposing defenders.

The former McDonald’s All-American Co-MVP is slated to be the focus of the Tar Heels offense, and if history repeats itself, it’ll be an offense worth keeping an eye on. He may not be his uncle (NBA great Bob McAdoo), but he has great potential to be another terrific big man under the tutelage of Williams.

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1. Cody Zeller

Zeller
Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

We had to go with Cody Zeller as the number one sophomore this season because he may very well be the number one pick in the 2013 NBA Draft! Zeller was named Big 10 Freshman of the Year by the conference’s coaches (Trey Burke by the media), and led all freshman in the conference in scoring (15.6) and rebounding (6.6), but most importantly, led Indiana on a wild ride to the Sweet 16.

The Hoosier’s are one of the fastest rising basketball programs in the country, and a large part of their expected success this season is due to their man in the middle. The 14th overall prospect in the class of 2011, the former Mr. Basketball of Indiana, as well as McDonald’s All-American, continued his success immediately dropping a double-double in his college debut, and quickly picking up steam from there. The 7-footer led Indiana to 27 wins last season, giving them a 15-game turnaround from the season before, the largest turnaround in the country. The Hoosiers also defeated three top five ranked teams last season, the first time in the programs history that they’ve accomplished such a feat.

Zeller can’t be credited for all of Indiana’s success, but with such a diverse skill-set and great mobility, Zeller has to be the favorite to be named Naismith Player of the Year in 2013. He has great awareness on both ends of the floor, as well as a great touch, an arsenal of post moves, and the toughness that a big man needs to be able to finish in traffic.

Zeller didn’t do a little bit of everything, he did a lot of everything as a freshman. He blocks shots, he plays passing lanes well, he can knock down jumpers, and he can attack the basket. The only thing Zeller didn’t showcase was his shooting range, attempting not one three-point shot on the season. Proving that not only is he talented, but he’s very smart.

Look out for Zeller, and the rest of the sophomores on this list!