Twelve months ago, Google News searches for "Jamaal Franklin" and "Russ Smith" would have produced nothing but stories about how Franklin would be stepping into a larger role at San Diego State and how there had been rumors that Smith was looking to leave Louisville. The former wound up being named Mountain West Player of the Year while the latter was the second-leading scorer on a team that was two wins away from a national championship.
College basketball is a very unpredictable sport. That's pretty much the point I'm driving at.
There's no question that this season, like all before it, there are going to be a handful of players who take that most surprising of leaps from relative obscurity to stardom.
Here's my best guess at who the ten biggest breakout stars of 2012-13 will be (freshmen excluded).
1. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State
Sure, Thomas was a standout for the Buckeyes a season ago, but the presence of Jared Sullinger in Columbus ensured that he would always be playing second-fiddle as far as the national spotlight was concerned. Still, it was probably Thomas who was the Buckeyes' best player during their run to the Final Four. In five NCAA Tournament games, the sophomore averaged a team-best 19.2 points per game, including a 31-point, 12-rebound performance against Loyola (Md.) in the round of 64. With Sullinger off to the league, Thomas has a tremendous opportunity to pull a Thomas Robinson and emerge as OSU's unquestioned star and solidify a spot in the 2013 lottery.
2. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
Probably the easiest "drastic increase in production" player to predict in college basketball for the upcoming season. McAdoo's talent has never been at issue, it's just difficult to get proper court time when you're sharing a position with John Henson and Tyler Zeller. The former McDonald's All-American averaged 6.1 points, 3.9 boards and 19.0 minutes per game last season, which projects out to 15.5 points and 9.9 boards over 40 minutes. He gave UNC fans a glimpse at he future when he stepped into a starter's role and performed admirably after Henson went down with a wrist injury during the ACC tournament.
3. Wayne Blackshear, Louisville
Blackshear was expected to arrive on campus and be one of Rick Pitino's main scoring threats from day one. Instead, a pair of shoulder injuries allowed him to see limited minutes in just 15 games for the Cards during his freshman season. Still, his potential was on full display when he finished a pair of electrifying dunks and at times looked like the only Louisville player on par with eventual national champion Kentucky during U of L's Final Four loss to their arch-rivals. Blackshear is that player with lottery pick potential that Pitino has been lacking since the graduations of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark. If the Cardinals want to win a national championship, Blackshear is going to have to emerge as a star in his sophomore season.
4. Sam Dower, Gonzaga
Dower struggled to find minutes last season in a loaded Gonzaga frontcourt also occupied by Elias Harris and Robert Sacre. That will change this year now that Sacre has moved on and the lefty big man will finally get to show NBA scouts what he's capable of when handed starter's minutes. In the 11 contests where Dower was given 20 or more minutes of playing time last season, he averaged 14 points and 6 rebounds, including a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound performance against Xavier. He's also comfortable outside the 3-point line, where he buried 8-of-20 attempts in 2011-12.
5. C.J. Aiken, Saint Joseph's
Though he's far from a household name, Aiken is the top NBA prospect in the Atlantic 10 and the main reason Phil Martelli might be fielding his best team since the days of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West this season. The 2012 A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, Aiken led the conference and finished fifth in the nation with 3.53 blocks per game in his sophomore season. His offensive game improved dramatically as the year went along, as he made opposing power forwards respect his ability to score both in the paint and outside of it. If he makes similar offensive stride this season, then he will have signed his first professional contract by this time next year.
6. Dezmine Wells, Xavier
Despite playing on a team featuring Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, the stocky Wells still managed to average 10.2 points per game as a freshman in 2011-12. Expect that number to go up as he becomes Chris Mack's feature attraction this season. Even if he fails to establish himself as a more legitimate outside threat, there are few defenders in the Atlantic 10 - or anywhere, really - capable of keeping Wells from getting to, and finishing around the basket.
7. Khem Birch, UNLV
Birch, a five-star recruit coming out of high school, never found his place at Pittsburgh and left the program last season after playing just 10 games. Dave Rice's system is a much better fit for his skill set, and even though the Rebs are loaded inside, Birch will have a chance to become the team's starting center when he becomes eligible in December. It's worth noting that the last 6-foot-9 Montreal native to play at UNLV - Joel Anthony - left the school ranked second in career blocked shots and just wrapped up his fifth season in the NBA.
8. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse
It's rare for a McDonald's All-American to average just minutes of court time during his freshman season these days, especially when that player is a guard. That's the situation Michael Carter-Williams, who did not play a minute in the NCAA Tournament, found himself in with Syracuse in 2011-12. Now Scoop Jardine and Don Waiters are both gone, which means the Orange backcourt is Carter-Williams' to run.
9. Cory Jefferson, Baylor
The 6-9 forward scored in double figures four times last season during the period when Perry Jones III was ineligible. With Jones, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy all being paid to play the game now, Jefferson will have to emerge as Scott Drew's main inside threat. He should receive plenty of scoring opportunities in the paint, as opposing defenses will be forced to respect the outside threats that Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip pose.
10. Adonis Thomas, Memphis
Thomas put up respectable numbers (9.0 points/3.3 rebounds) during a freshman campaign that was hampered by an ankle injury, but he was largely overshadowed by do-everything senior Will Barton. He toyed briefly with the idea of making the jump to the NBA before wisely deciding to come back to Memphis and play a full season. He'll be asked to do many of the things Barton did for the Tigers, including being the team's top inside-outside threat and helping to lead Josh Pastner's transition attack.