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5 sophomores ready to become stars in college basketball

Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland and Duke will each be counting on big contributions from sophomores this season.

Evan Pike-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Scott Phillips and I looked at five potential impact freshmen. Today: we're talking about the sophomores. Here's a new podcast plus more on each player discussed below.

PG Melo Trimble - Maryland

It's tragic that the best sophomore guard in the country might not even remember how his freshman season ended. Trimble was knocked out of the final nine minutes of Maryland's Round of 32 loss to West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament after taking two serious blows to the head minutes apart. It isn't any easier to watch that vicious screen from WVU's Nathan Adrian five months later.

Trimble would have been a borderline first-round pick had he decided to go pro, but his decision to return to the school is the biggest reason why the Terrapins will be in the mix for No. 1 in the preseason polls. With a loaded starting lineup around him, Trimble enters the year in position to be one of the best guards in the country.

The only freshmen to top Trimble's 16.2 points per game in his debut season were D'Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor, the No. 2 and No. 3 picks in June's NBA Draft. In fact, Trimble's per-40 minute numbers stack up to Russell's pretty well as first-year point guards in the same conference.


Trimble will need to cut down on his turnovers and become a better facilitator in his sophomore season (as a freshman: 106 assists to 86 turnovers), but his ability to get to the foul line and rain three-pointers makes him stand out among returning point guards. Don't be surprised if his decision to return to school helps him make a lot of money after this season.

C Jakob Poeltl - Utah


(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

A year ago, Poeltl entered college basketball as a mystery man from a country (Austria) that has never produced an NBA player. By the first game of the season he had won a starting job over senior in Dallin Bachynski and started generating talk as a possible one-and-done. By the end of the year, he was going toe-to-toe with Duke's Okafor in the Sweet 16 where he held the future No. 3 pick to his lowest scoring game of the season.

Sweet 16 matchup Field goals Free throws Rebounds Blocks Assists Steals Turnovers Fouls Points
Jahlil Okafor 3-6 0-1 8 2 0 0 4 3 6
Jakob Poeltl 5-10 0-2 8 3 1 0 2 1 10

Holding Okafor to six points in 32 minutes and doing so while only picking up one foul? If you're looking for a reason as to why Poeltl was higher than any other returning player in our initial 2016 mock draft, this is good place to start.

With star guard Delon Wright now in the NBA, Poeltl will be asked to carry a bigger scoring load as a sophomore. That should be good thing: Poeltl finished fourth in D1 by shooting over 68 percent from the floor as a freshman. With Jordan Loveridge, Brandon Taylor and Brekkott Chapman around him, Utah will have enough shooting threats to space things out for their star big man in the post.

On the other side of the ball, Poeltl should be one of the most feared rim protectors in the country after ranking No. 51 in the nation in block rate as a freshman. If he can improve that 44.4 percent free throw percentage, even better.

SF Justin Jackson - North Carolina

North Carolina's biggest strength this season is going to be its experience and continuity: the Tar Heels return everyone but swingman J.P. Tokoto from a Sweet 16 team a year ago. With 89 percent of its scoring back, UNC is banking on internal improvement to justify its preseason status as one of the top two teams in the country.

In Jackson, North Carolina may have its best hope to take a major leap. Carolina pulled three McDonald's All-Americans out of the class of 2014, but Jackson was the only one to play major minutes. He was a consistent threat to score in double-figures by the end of the season, doing so in 11 of his final 12 games.

Jackson is likely to see a bigger role offensively as a sophomore, but an increase in volume isn't exactly what Carolina is looking for. In particular, the Tar Heels need someone other than Marcus Paige to be able to stretch the floor with outside shooting. Jackson, who hit 30.4 percent of the 2.4 three-pointers he attempted per game as a freshman, could do quite a bit to help improving his efficiency from deep.

If Jackson or fellow sophomore wing Theo Pinson develop into quality shooters, the Tar Heels will be tough to keep out of the Final Four.

SG Grayson Allen - Duke

Allen had his coming out party on the biggest possible stage when he scored 16 points against Wisconsin to help Duke clinch the national championship. Now he has to prove he's more than a one-game wonder. With the Blue Devils losing their top four scorers from last season, Allen is about to make the jump from rarely used reserve to primary offensive option.

It's going to be a huge transition for a player who averaged less than 10 minutes per game as a freshman, but Allen has the skill set and pedigree (as a McDonald's All-American) to pull it off. He projects as a quality three-point shooter, stout perimeter defender and relentless attacker when he gets the ball. It was easy to think he'd be the token Duke player opposing fans irrationally hate even before he enrolled in school.

Hopefully that last sentiment doesn't obscure the fact that, when he's on, Allen is one of the most entertaining players in the country to watch.  How can you hate on the guy who ushered in one of the best basketball Vines of the last year?

Duke moreover the offseason than anyone but Kentucky, but Allen and incoming freshman Brandon Ingram should make for a fun team to watch this season even if it doesn't go all the way for another national title.

PG Tyler Ulis - Kentucky


(Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

When Tyler Ulis came to Kentucky, he stood out as much for what he wasn't as what he was. As a 5'9 guard on a team that started two 7-footers and no one under 6'6, Ulis looked cartoonishly undersized as a freshman. Still, it didn't take John Calipari long to learn Kentucky just looked better with Ulis on the floor, and by the end of the season he was often finishing games even if he wasn't starting them.

Kentucky, of course, lost the top seven scorers from its historic team last season, making Ulis one of three veterans expected to play major minutes for Calipari this year. Kentucky is bringing in two more five-star freshmen point guards this season in Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray, and the way Calipari handles that glut of talent at one position will be one of the season's most interesting subplots.

It's easy to envision Kentucky using all three players together and getting back to Calipari's signature dribble-drive motion offense. Ulis' careful hand with the ball (135 assists to 38 turnovers as a freshman) and knockdown three-point shooting ability (42.9 percent from three last season) makes him the perfect player to direct the show.

Just because Ulis returned to school instead of joining the majority of his teammates by declaring for the draft doesn't mean he lacks what it takes to be one of the top floor generals in the country this year. He's in the unique position of being entrenched at a place that typically doesn't see major contributors stick around. His teammates might change, but Kentucky can count on Ulis to provide high-level point guard play every year he's at school.