When ESPN Insider asked me to put together my ranking of the 25 most impactful returning players in college basketball this season (excluding incoming freshmen and transfers), I wasn't thinking in terms of which players would be the highest NBA draft picks. Instead, I was looking for the players who would have the biggest impact on their teams, their leagues and on college basketball during the 2012-13 season.
In most cases, the guys who made the cut are already proven commodities, but in some cases I am projecting players who are moving up from minor roles on their teams to becoming impact players with increased playing time. And I included some players who have had and will continue to have huge success at the low- and mid-major levels, because I believe that their abilities and production would translate to any league in the country.
I am aware that there will be plenty of disagreement regarding my list, both with the players who made it and the many very good players who didn't. That's all right, because everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and these rankings reflect mine.
I will be updating these rankings throughout the season, adding freshmen and transfers to the mix once we've actually seen them on the court with their new teams and moving the players from this first list up or down based on their play throughout the season. Some early candidates to jump into the rankings include sophomores Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse), Le'Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State), James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga) and Otto Porter (Georgetown). It crushed me to leave those guys off this initial list, because I believe they are on the verge of great seasons. But in terms of where things stand right now, they were just on the outside looking in.
We've been counting down this preseason edition, unveiling five players per day this week, and now conclude today with the full ranking. Here are my top 25 impact players in college basketball heading into the 2012-13 season.
1. Cody Zeller
Forward | Sophomore | Indiana Hoosiers
Zeller, maybe the most important recruit to come to Indiana since Isiah Thomas, is set for a dominant sophomore season. He is on a deep and talented Indiana team that will look to him for leadership. The expectation is that he'll be the front-runner for national player of the year.
Along with the player who checked in at No. 2 on this list, Zeller was as ultra-efficient an offensive player as anyone in the country last season. For starters, he didn't mind mixing it up inside, getting to the foul line 216 times (and making 76 percent of his free throws). And he shot 62 percent from the field, with most of those shots taken in the lane. In fact, while Zeller may be working hard to expand all aspects of his offensive game, including playing away from the basket, it's how well he performs in the paint that will matter most to Indiana's championship aspirations.