Steve Megargee Rivals.com College Basketball Staff Writer
About this time every year, we try to predict which returning players could have breakthrough seasons.
It's easier to make these types of predictions in college football than college basketball. Freshmen have such a major impact in basketball that it's hard to guess which returning players might make the leap from benchwarmer to key performer.
We make it particularly hard by putting limits on what players we could put on this list. Not just anyone could be considered.
Anyone who started at least half his team's games, averaged 10 points or played as much as 25 minutes per game last season wasn't eligible for consideration. We also didn't want to include freshmen or anyone who sat out the 2010-11 season with an injury. The only transfers we considered were the ones who already had played at least one full season for their new schools.
Those rules make it even tougher to determine which players are due to make the leap, but we managed to hit on a few of them last season. Our list of breakthrough players last summer included Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli and North Carolina's John Henson, who would go on to earn all-conference honors. The list also included Miami's Reggie Johnson, who nearly averaged a double-double (11.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per game).
Without further ado, here is our list of 12 potential breakout frontcourt players for the 2011-12 season. The players are listed alphabetically. We will provide our list of 12 potential breakout backcourt guys Thursday.
Wisconsin F Mike Bruesewitz: Although he is known as much for his changing hairstyles as his developing skills, this 6-foot-6 junior has matured into a key player for the Badgers. Bruesewitz averaged 4.6 points, 3.1 minutes and 19.9 minutes last season while starting 13 of Wisconsin's 34 games. He made a name for himself with a 12-point performance in the Badgers' victory over Ohio State, which was ranked first in the nation at the time. Wisconsin fans should be encouraged by the way he stepped up his play in the postseason. Bruesewitz averaged 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 26.3 minutes per game in the NCAA tournament. He's a physical player who has 3-point range.
Notre Dame F Jack Cooley: Notre Dame has some major holes to fill in the frontcourt as it tries to replace Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott. Cooley represents the Irish's most experienced option. The Luke Harangody lookalike averaged just 3.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 10.3 minutes last season, but he has shown flashes of potential. He had 18 points and eight rebounds in a blowout of USF last season, and also provided some tenacity off the bench late in his freshman season after an injury to Harangody left a void in the frontcourt. This season should give Cooley much more of a chance to showcase his physical play.
Louisville C Gorgui Dieng: This 6-10 center from Senegal averaged 1.9 blocks as a freshman to rank third in the Big East, even though he played just 15.6 minutes per game. Dieng made 10 starts and averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds. He had 13 points and 12 rebounds in a 71-58 victory over eventual national champion Connecticut. Dieng arrived at Louisville as the No. 44 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. He should receive more playing time this season as the Cardinals attempt to replace Terrence Jennings in the frontcourt.
Syracuse F C.J. Fair: Fab Melo was the more heralded prospect in Syracuse's 2010 recruiting class, but Fair provided more production last season. The 6-8 forward from Baltimore averaged 6.4 points and 3.8 rebounds while playing 18.6 minutes per game. He scored in double figures in five of his last 11 games, including a 17-point outburst against Rutgers and a 14-point performance in an NCAA tournament victory over Indiana State. Fair's late-season surge suggests he should put up even bigger numbers as a sophomore.
Illinois C Meyers Leonard: Although he arrived at Illinois as the No. 31 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class, he struggled to earn playing time on an experienced frontcourt that featured seniors Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. Leonard averaged just 2.1 points, 12 rebounds and 8.2 minutes. Now that Davis and Tisdale are gone, Leonard's role should increase dramatically. The 7-1 sophomore should take over as Illinois' starting center while helping the Illini replace Davis and Tisdale, who averaged a combined 22.5 points and 13.6 rebounds last season. Leonard prepared for the opportunity this summer by playing for the U.S. under-19 national team.
Butler F Khyle Marshall: Butler's run to the NCAA tournament championship game offered glimpses of what Marshall could offer this program in the next couple of seasons. Marshall came of age as an offensive rebounder in the postseason. He pulled down five offensive rebounds against Wisconsin, seven against Florida and five against VCU. Marshall averaged 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in 15.2 minutes as a freshman, but those numbers should go up quite a bit this season as Butler attempts to replace Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard. Marshall could develop into Butler's best overall player. The 6-7 sophomore learned plenty this summer while playing for the U.S. under-19 national team.
Missouri State C Caleb Patterson: This 6-11 junior spent his freshman and sophomore years backing up Will Creekmore, a second-team All-Missouri Valley selection last season. Now that Creekmore has finished his career, Patterson should move into the starting lineup as Missouri State attempts to defend its MVC regular-season title. Patterson averaged 5.5 points, 2.2 rebounds and 13.6 minutes last season, when he scored in double figures five times.
BYU F Stephen Rogers: Somebody has to put points on the board for the Cougars now that Jimmer Fredette has moved on to the NBA. The Cougars also must replace Jackson Emery, their second-leading scorer from last season. Rogers doesn't play the same position as either of those guys, but he can offer plenty of scoring. The 6-8 forward was an outstanding offensive player at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College before transferring to BYU, where he averaged 4.1 points, 2.2 rebounds and 10.2 minutes last season. Rogers, who began his college career at Arizona State, averaged 21.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 steals in his lone season at Mesa. He also made 85 3-pointers and shot 42.7 percent from beyond the arc that season.
Charlotte F KJ Sherrill: He's on this list because of how he performed late last season. Sherrill missed the first 10 games of the 2010-11 season with a lateral meniscus tear and ended up averaging 6.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 23.1 minutes per game. But he averaged 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds over the last 11 games and scored in double figures three times during that stretch, including a 24-point, 13-rebound performance in a 91-86 loss to La Salle. This 6-7 junior is a solid offensive rebounder who knows how to get to the free-throw line. If he stays healthy and builds on the momentum he established late last season, Sherrill should emerge as a key player for the 49ers.
Pittsburgh F Dante Taylor: After coming off the bench his first two seasons at Pittsburgh, this former McDonald's All-American should step into a feature role this season. Taylor averaged 5.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 15.1 minutes last season. Although he officially is listed as a 6-9 forward, Taylor primarily has played center the past two seasons. He's a solid rebounder who pulled down seven boards in just 15 minutes during a Big East tournament loss to eventual national champion Connecticut. Taylor's minutes should increase this season as Pittsburgh attempts to replace departed center Gary McGhee. Taylor arrived at Pittsburgh as the No. 14 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class.
Ohio State F Deshaun Thomas: This former five-star prospect provided instant offense off the bench as a freshman with the Buckeyes. Thomas averaged 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds while playing only 14 minutes per game. Much of his production came before Ohio State started Big Ten play, but Thomas also had a 22-point game against Indiana and scored 13 points in an NCAA tournament triumph over UT San Antonio. The departures of David Lighty and Jon Diebler could allow Thomas to move into the starting lineup this season. Thomas arrived at Ohio State as the No. 22 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class.
Florida F/C Patric Young: Although he averaged only 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in his first season with the Gators, this 6-9 sophomore already has established a reputation as an outstanding interior defender. He blocked a team-high 31 shots last season while playing just 17.8 minutes per game. Young already has an NBA-ready physique, which explains why the Web site draftexpress.com has him as the No. 8 pick in its 2012 mock draft. The former McDonald's All-American and five-star recruit honed his game this summer while playing on the U.S. under-19 national team. His next task is to develop into a more complete player. Florida has loads of talented guards, but Young needs to step up his game as the Gators attempt to replace Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus in the frontcourt. Macklin and Tyus averaged a combined 20.7 points and 11.6 rebounds last season.