In five months, the 2013-14 college basketball season will begin.
It’s always tough to make projections in the weeks following any season. But the dust has settled.
The following list highlights sophomores who will be asked to carry more weight next season. Some of these young men might have to carry an entire team.
Javan Felix (Texas) – Felix entered 2012-13 as a freshman who expected to play minimal minutes in Rick Barnes’ rotation. Then Myck Kabongo was suddenly suspended for receiving impermissible benefits and lying to the NCAA about it. Enter Felix, who started 23 games at point guard (6.8 PPG, 4.1 APG) for the Longhorns. Barnes lost his top three scorers from a team that failed to make the NCAA tournament, so Felix will assume a leadership role again. This time, however, he’ll guide an even younger and more inexperienced bunch than last season’s crew. But his invitation to this summer’s USA Basketball U19 training camp is a testament to his performance under pressure last year.
Sam Dekker (Wisconsin) – Few question Dekker’s ceiling. His 116.7 offensive rating was fifth in the Big Ten per KenPom.com (among players who’d used at least 20 percent of their team’s possessions). In a reserve role (22.3 MPG), the freshman averaged 9.6 PPG and 3.4 RPG. He also shot 39 percent from the 3-point line. It was an impressive debut. He certainly seems capable of handling more next year for Bo Ryan. He doesn’t have a choice. Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans are gone. Josh Gasser will return from an ACL injury, so Dekker won’t have to lead alone. But he’ll have to help in more ways.
Siyani Chambers (Harvard) – Tommy Amaker had a roster that was fully capable of retaining its Ivy League crown as the 2012-13 campaign approached. Then top performers Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry abruptly left the program before the season amid an academic scandal. So Amaker turned to this freshman who had few Division I offers. Chambers embraced his new responsibilities as the starting point guard for Harvard, averaging 12.4 PPG, 5.7 APG and 1.5 SPG. He also hit 81 percent of his free throws and 42 percent of his 3-point shots. The Crimson return the heart of a squad that upset New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament in March, so this team will be favored to win the Ivy League again. Amaker knows he has a point guard he can trust.
Yogi Ferrell (Indiana) – The Hoosiers are the most mysterious team in the Big Ten, perhaps America. Yes, they’ve lost Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. But Tom Crean signed another stellar recruiting class, led by Noah Vonleh. Then there’s Hanner Mosquera-Perea & Co., part of Indiana’s previous recruiting crew that collectively provided inconsistent production. Ferrell (7.6 PPG. 4.1 APG), who ended last season as the apparent leader of the future, will be the key to the new chemistry in Bloomington. He walked into a fortified situation his freshman season. It’s not exactly clear what sort of situation he’ll encounter this fall. But it won’t work without him.
Georges Niang (Iowa State) – Fred Hoiberg wanted to win on Day 1. He couldn’t wait for young players to blossom two or three years down the road. He needed guys who could play immediately. So he signed a bunch of Division I transfers and junior college prospects in his first few seasons on the job. The results? Back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. But Hoiberg can build in the coming years around Niang, a 6-foot-7 wing with the tools to mature into a high-level talent in 2013-14. He averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG last season and made 39 percent of his 3-point attempts. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last year’s squad. Next season’s squad, which will feature four new junior college transfers, will be one of the most inexperienced teams in Hoiberg’s tenure. So Niang has to improve on last year’s production and prove that he’s a go-to guy in the locker room too.
Perry Ellis (Kansas) – Well, a lot has changed in recent weeks for Kansas. The Jayhawks ended last season with question marks. They’d lost all five starters once Ben McLemore declared for the NBA draft. So perhaps the Big 12 title streak – nine in a row – would be in jeopardy entering the 2013-14 season? That was then. Andrew Wiggins signed with Bill Self’s program and squashed all doubts. The addition of Tarik Black certainly helps too. But Kansas has historically benefited most from depth. And they have that inside now. Ellis is in a great position as the projected starter at power forward. He’s surrounded by playmakers, so he just has to continue to be the efficient threat he was in 2012-13 (5.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 48 percent from the floor, 13.6 MPG). Kansas has suddenly become a national title contender again. Self’s freshman class is uncanny now, and Black is an instant boost for the program. If Ellis is as potent as his prep accolades suggested he’d be at this level, KU will be in a position to reach Arlington next April.
Montrezl Harrell (Louisville) – Kentucky might be favored to win the national crown next season. But Louisville deserves consideration too. The Cardinals lost Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. But Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear return. Harrell could have an expanded role in Rick Pitino’s system too. Louisville lost size when Dieng decided to turn pro. But now the Cardinals have a bunch of versatile forwards who will continue to cause matchup problems for opponents. Harrell fits that formula. The 6-8 North Carolina native had his moments last season, including a 4-for-4 performance against Wichita State in the Final Four. He averaged 5.7 PPG last season, and he’s capable of more in 2013-14.
Kyle Anderson (UCLA) – Welcome to the Steve Alford Era. It begins a year after Ben Howland signed the nation’s top recruiting class, a class that -- without an injured Jordan Adams -- was dismissed from the second round of the NCAA tournament by Minnesota. But with the exception of Shabazz Muhammad, that heralded class will return. Adams must regain his strength after suffering a season-ending foot injury. Tony Parker’s minutes will increase if he’s in better shape and more focused. Anderson is as critical as any returnee on the roster. The 6-9 athlete averaged 9.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.5 APG and 1.8 SPG. Anderson entered 2012-13 as a lengthy point guard with a unique skill set. By the end of the season, however, we really weren’t sure what position he played for the Bruins. That’s what Alford must decide. Anderson can pass and handle the ball. His shooting must improve (21 percent from the 3-point line). But he’s usually a mismatch. Still, he needs a position.
Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State) – Gregg Marshall’s squad will enter next season as the clear favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference. Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early and Van Vleet return to a program that surprised the nation with a run to the Final Four in April. With point guard Malcolm Armstead gone, Van Vleet steps into his slot as starting point guard. Van Vleet (4.3 PPG, 2.3 APG) flourished in spurts last season. But his effort against Ohio State in the Elite Eight (4-for-8, 12 points, 2 steals, 3 rebounds and 2 assists) provided evidence that the young guard will not be intimidated with a more significant role next season. His postseason experience made him more confident. The latter is crucial, especially for a young point guard.
Chris Obekpa (St. John’s) – On Dec. 8, Obekpa recorded a school-record 11 blocks against Fordham. He’s a true rim protector. He was second in the nation with 4.1 BPG, and he led the nation with a 15.8 block percentage, per KenPom.com. He’s the defensive anchor for a young St. John’s squad, and the 6-9 big man was also a solid rebounder (6.2 RPG). Now … the other things about his game. His offense was limited to dunks and garbage points. He’s a phenomenal athlete, so he has the potential to make strides on that end of the floor. And if that happens, watch out. With improved shooting and a better post game, Obekpa could evolve into one of the nation’s most complete players.