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Freshmen, not seniors, will rule the roost in 2016-17

November 7, 2016 Columns No Comments

Every season of college basketball has its own themes and patterns. Some seasons have similar ones to prior seasons, though it’s rare for two seasons in a row to be the same. 2015-16 was the Year of the Senior, a season in which seniors featured as prominently in the college game as they have in a long time. This year, we should have no expectation of a repeat. If you like seniors in college basketball, hopefully you enjoyed last season while it was here.

2016-17 should see freshmen return to the center of attention. And it probably won’t even be close.

The incoming class of freshmen is much better this time around than a year ago. It is more talented, but also deeper, with more who are ready to make an impact and, if you ask NBA scouts, more who are likely to only be on campus for a season. Two early mock drafts – naturally, without regard to who will select in each draft slot since we have no way of knowing that now – have incoming freshmen comprising the first five overall selections in the 2017 NBA Draft and the first seven American college players selected (with an international player mixed in).

Look at many of the teams projected to contend for a national title this year, and most of them are full of talented freshmen. To be sure, veteran players will play a key role on many teams, but in all they are dwarfed by the freshmen in terms of numbers and expectations.

Let’s just go down a list to start:

  • Duke is expected to contend largely on account of what we expect the freshman quartet of Harry Giles (if healthy), Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden.
  • Kentucky should rule the SEC once again and be a national title contender largely on account of what Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones will give them.
  • Kansas is expected to win another Big 12 title behind the likes of super freshman Josh Jackson, with a lot of help from big man Udoka Azubuike.
  • Michigan State should be more talented, though younger, spearheaded by freshmen Miles Bridges, Cassius Winston and Josh Langford.

But you don’t have to look only to teams who could play during the final weekend to see the impact that is expected. They will be difference-makers elsewhere, too.

  • Auburn welcomes a heralded class led by Mustapha Heron, and that will have the Tigers attempting to surge toward the top half of an SEC.
  • Alterique Gilbert will immediately be a key part of a very talented backcourt at UConn.
  • Zach Collins is expected to add nicely to Gonzaga’s already-big front line.
  • Miami’s rebuilding will get plenty of help from freshmen Dewan Huell, their first McDonald’s All-American since Darius Rice, and Bruce Brown, who won many games in high school and closed out with a prep school title.
  • Ben Howland continues to rebuild Mississippi State behind a class led by Mario Kegler and Eli Wright.
  • Dennis Smith is technically a redshirt freshman since he enrolled for the second semester last year at NC State, but he is a freshman all the same (and graduated high school early) and will make a big impact for the Wolfpack.
  • Jaylen Fisher should be a key piece right away as Jamie Dixon tries to rebuild TCU.
  • Jarrett Allen will give Texas a big boost in Shaka Smart’s second season.
  • Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf lead a cast that hopes to help UCLA move back up in the Pac-12 standings after a disappointing finish last year.
  • Markelle Fultz should make a big impact right away for Washington, who could get in the top half of the Pac-12 if the supporting cast gets better.

That doesn’t cover it all, but it gives you the idea. Freshmen will be at the center of so much of what happens this season.

Many other freshmen will play important but reduced roles alongside veterans, essentially waiting their turn. That happens often, including last year. This time around, though, we should see more freshmen being the driving force of their teams, and that includes leading some of the best teams. While this also makes each team a bit high-risk, we know they can also be high-reward teams as well, as recent national champion teams from Kentucky and Duke that were driven by freshmen showed us.

If you like veteran players and especially seniors, hopefully you enjoyed last season. This season is going to be a little different.

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