- Jay Bilas, College Basketball analyst
On Monday, we looked at the teams that could be worse off next year because some of their top players declared for the NBA draft. Tuesday, we analyze the opposite: teams that will be better next year because their best players decided to stay.
Here is how the teams stand based upon the decisions of their players to return:
The Buckeyes went from a very good team to a title favorite when big man Jared Sullinger decided to stay in school for his sophomore season. Sullinger was the best and most productive low-post big in the nation in his freshman season, and there is no reason to believe that he won't be even better in Year 2 in Columbus. A bonus is the decision of Deshaun Thomas, who could blossom next season with more playing time. For those that doubt Thomas could have bolted after being a sub, I submit the cases of Daequan Cook and Daniel Orton. With Sullinger surrounded by Aaron Craft, William Buford, Thomas and newcomers Shannon Scott, Amir Williams and Sam Thompson, there will be openings for the supporting cast to shine because of the attention paid to Sullinger. Ohio State will always be talented under Thad Matta, but if players like Sullinger decide to stay longer than one year, the Buckeyes will be dangerous for years to come.
Even though it may seem unlikely that three underclassmen would leave Vanderbilt early, this is a relatively weak draft and the basketball world has changed. Today's kids have all grown up with the idea that the best players leave college early. Staying in school for four years has a certain quaint, old-school feel to it, even at Vanderbilt. With Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor coming back, the Commodores return 10 veteran players and all five starters. Each of Ezeli, Jenkins and Taylor referenced the bad end to last season, as if it was a major factor in the decision to come back for another year. I can't believe such a thing would enter into a business and life decision, especially since it wasn't the first time Vanderbilt was bounced out early as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. But the Commodores have to be considered among the top national contenders with that trio back in Nashville.
Unless something changes before May 8, the Orange will keep Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine, C.J. Fair, Fab Melo, Dion Waiters and Baye Moussa Keita. They will also welcome in freshmen Michael Carter-Williams, Rakeem Christmas and Trevor Cooney, all top-100 prospects, with Carter-Williams and Christmas among the top 25 in the country. The loss of Rick Jackson will hurt, but Syracuse returns a ton of firepower and experience. Joseph, Jardine, Fair and Waiters could each have bolted, and their decisions would not have been the biggest head-scratchers out there.
Do you think it would have been crazy for Adreian Payne, Keith Appling or Draymond Green to declare for the NBA draft? Maybe so, but it would not have been as outrageous as some other decisions. Tom Izzo did not have the kind of season he expected in 2010-11, but having Payne, Appling and Green back makes it more likely that Michigan State will bounce back strong in 2012.
New Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried got some really good news as talented forward C.J. Leslie and strong guard Lorenzo Brown passed on the draft. Leslie is unpolished and nowhere near ready, but could have drawn some attention in a less-than-stellar draft. On the down side, while point guard Ryan Harrow also decided to forgo the draft, he did decide to transfer.
The Tar Heels are a near automatic preseason favorite because of the return of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Don't kid yourself; the return of all three is unusual. Barnes would have been a top-five selection; Zeller has been injured a couple of times in his college career and one couldn't blame him for declaring; and Henson is a defensive force that would have demanded lottery attention. In today's age, it is remarkable that Roy Williams kept them all. The last time I can recall so many top players staying is the Florida Gators in 2006 and North Carolina in 2004. With Williams adding freshman big man James McAdoo to his NBA front line and sharpshooting P.J. Hairston to his backcourt, Carolina could be the next great team in college basketball.