Who says no one stays in college basketball for four years anymore? This season features a strong crop of seniors looking to end their careers on a high note. Scott Phillips from NBC Sports joined me to talk about a few of our favorites on a new podcast, with blurbs on our top five below. Previously:
SG Caris LeVert - Michigan
Michigan's season was off to a disastrous start even before LeVert suffered a season-ending fracture in his left foot on Jan. 17. The Wolverines had already lost back-to-back home games to NJIT (the biggest upset of the season) and Eastern Michigan, and were careening toward a disappointing .500 season after four straight years of progress that had made the program nationally relevant.
For as doomed as last year often must have felt for Michigan, there's enough talent here to bounce back this season. That starts with LeVert's somewhat surprising decision to return for his senior season despite speculation he could have been a first round draft pick even with the injury. If he's healthy, he's likely the top senior NBA prospect in college hoops this year and one of the game's most effortless scorers.
LeVert, at 6'7, 205 pounds, is the perfect cog for John Beilein's prolific offense: he can shoot threes (above 40 percent shooting each of the last two years), is a willing passer (3.7 assists per game as a junior) and can function as a one-on-one scorer. Put shooters like Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and Aubrey Dawkins around him, and it's going to be tough to stop Michigan with the offense running through LeVert.
Two areas of improvement for LeVert to focus on this season: hitting mid-range jumpers (he's been under 32 percent on two-point jumpers the last two years, per Hoop-Math) and getting to the rim more frequently. If LeVert stays healthy, Michigan's offense should look a lot closer to the one that finished No. 1 in efficiency in 2014 instead of the unit that placed No. 66 last year.
PF Kyle Wiltjer - Gonzaga
(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
The best front court in college basketball resides in Spokane, Wash., where Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis make Mark Few the envy of every coach in the country. Each brings something different to the table, be it rebounding (Sabonis), a soft touch inside (Karnowski) or shooting (Wiltjer). Wiltjer may actually be the worst long-term prospect of the three, but he's set up to post huge numbers this season as a senior in the WCC.
Last year, all Wiltjer did in his first year at Gonzaga was finish with a top 10 offensive rating, place top 40 in the country in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage while rarely turning the ball over. He also made 46.5 percent of the 3.8 attempts he took from three-point range per game, placing him No. 14 in the country among qualified shooters, per KenPom.
At 6'10, 240 pounds, there aren't many opposing power forwards in the WCC able to contest Wiljter's shot. His athletic limitations are always going to affect his ability to defend, but Few can rely on Sabonis and Karnowski when the matchups call for it. In the meantime, Wiltjer's experience, size, skill and the level of competition he faces might give him the most impressive numbers of any scorer in college hoops this season. That 45-point game against Pacific was no accident.
SG Buddy Hield - Oklahoma
"Gunner" is often used as a pejorative among enlightened hoops fans, but don't mistake the label as a criticism of Buddy Hield. When he's on, the Oklahoma guard is one of the most entertaining players and top perimeter scorers in the country. He opened last season by going 7-for-7 from three-point range against SE Louisiana, and ended it by finishing third in three-point attempts among players from power conferences.
Hield has attempted more than seven threes per game each of the last two seasons, and he's likely to carry an even bigger offensive burden as a senior due to the departure of power forward TaShawn Thomas. Still, with Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard returning in the back court and big man Ryan Spangler controlling the glass up front, the Sooners have enough talent to build on last season's No. 3 seed and run to the Sweet 16.
It's also worth a point that out, while Hield will always be known as a volume scorer, his most memorable play of last season came on the defensive end. Dayton's Darrell Davis still hasn't forgotten it.
SF Georges Niang - Iowa State
(Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa State made its mark under Fred Hoiberg by cranking up the tempo and giving its best athletes room to make plays, but the guy holding it together was often slowest player on the court. Niang's self-described "old man game" stood in opposition to Hoiberg's core principles, but his feel for the game, versatility and high skill level made the Cyclones tick.
Hoiberg is off to the NBA, but Niang returns to Ames as the veteran leader for a team with enough depth and experience to make the NCAA Tournament run Iowa State never could under their old coach. Niang still projects as the hub of the offense as a stat-sheet stuffer capable of acting as the primary scorer, lead facilitator and everything in between.
There were only nine other players in the country to hit Niang's statistical bench marks of 15.4 points. 5.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, but the way last season ended (with Niang shooting 4-of-15 for 11 points in a disastrous round of 64 loss to UAB) was a sour note for everyone around Ames. He has one more chance make things right.
PG Fred VanVleet and SG Ron Baker - Wichita State
(Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)
Fans who romanticize the way college basketball used to be before one-and-dones and shoe company influence probably wish the sport had more players like Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. The problem with that sentiment is it may cheapen just how singularly incredible the careers of Wichita State's starting backcourt has been.
As freshmen, Baker and VanVleet were part of a team that went on one of the most unlikely Final Four runs ever. As sophomores, they were undefeated entering the NCAA Tournament before falling to a loaded Kentucky team in arguably the best game of the season. As juniors, they knocked off rival Kansas in the round of 32. Now they're back for one more year, and so is coach Gregg Marshall thanks to a huge investment by Charles Koch.
Baker and VanVleet are tremendous three-point shooters, take great care of the ball and can each defend their position. Great guards always make a difference in the NCAA Tournament, and Wichita State has two of them with more experience than any other contender. It's been a great story already for Baker and VanVleet, and they still get to write their own ending.
Six other names to watch:
- SF Jake Layman - Maryland
- SF Taurean Prince - Baylor
- PG Tyrone Wallace - Cal
- PG Marcus Paige - North Carolina
- SG Denzel Valentine - Michigan State
- C A.J. Hammons - Purdue