I was recently sitting and talking with a fan about Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky, who is coming back from a foot injury suffered late last season. He will make a difference on a loaded Kentucky squad in 2014-15.
That discussion got me thinking about a list of five returning players who will have the biggest impact on their respective teams. I did not include any transfers because that is a different topic for another day. There are simply so many that my All-Marco Polo team will be difficult to cut down.
Let's start at South Bend, Indiana. Jerian Grant, the son of former NBA player Harvey Grant, had academic issues which sidelined him from late December through the rest of the season. At the time he left the Irish, he was averaging 19 PPG and playing very well. Notre Dame was not the same team without him. Coach Mike Brey is thrilled to have Grant back and Notre Dame will be a solid squad with Grant in the lineup.
Iowa State had Final Four potential last season. Then came a major blow in the team's first NCAA tournament game against NC Central. Georges Niang, one of the squad's valuable players, suffered a broken foot and was lost for the rest of the postseason. The Cyclones lost in the tournament to eventual national champions UConn. Niang, who averaged 16.7 PPG last season, has been working out and is expected to play basketball again later this summer. Coach Fred Hoiberg is thrilled to have this veteran coming back.
Pittsburgh was a different team after wing Durand Johnson, an outstanding shooter, suffered a torn ACL. The absence of Johnson put more pressure on other Panthers such as Lamar Patterson last season. Johnson is a 3-point threat who has been working out. He is expected back for the start of the season, and that's a positive for coach Jamie Dixon.
Arizona was No. 1 in the nation when Brandon Ashley suffered a foot injury in a loss to California. Ashley was a vital cog for the Wildcats, showing his versatility as a scorer and rebounder. His absence changed the dynamic of the team and forced several players to log more minutes. That may have taken a toll later in the season. Ashley has been lifting weights and working to return to 100 percent for the upcoming season. Arizona will be solid up front if Ashley is healthy, as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Kaleb Tarczewski and newcomer Stanley Johnson are also available for coach Sean Miller.
Michael Cobbins of Oklahoma State suffered a torn Achilles and his loss took away a defensive stopper. He has been going through rehab and should be ready for the 2014-15 campaign. He may not post incredible stats, but he is a factor who was clearly missed last season. Oklahoma State's record was 12-1 after the game in which Cobbins suffered the injury. Oklahoma State went 9-12 after that. Keep an eye on these five guys in the upcoming season. Cauley-Stein will also be back, helping the Wildcats.