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Ranking the Most Important Senior Classes in the 2014-15 NCAA Basketball Season

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2014

Ranking the Most Important Senior Classes in the 2014-15 NCAA Basketball Season

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    In bygone eras of college basketball, seniors were the superstars. The players who had endured a wait behind more experienced players to finally become starters and/or major contributors. The young men who were being rewarded for their loyalty to their school and program with extensive minutes.

    These days, seniors are often relics, the doddering old men who simply weren't good enough to go pro after two or three seasons, let alone one.

    But the 2013-14 campaign gave us the final ride of stars like Doug McDermott, Russ Smith, Shabazz Napier, Sean Kilpatrick and Cleanthony Early, all of whom were consensus All-American picks. By contrast, a freshman class expected to be the greatest ever produced only two All-Americanstop NBA draft picks Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

    This season, there are still plenty of teams that will ride or die with experienced talent. Some will even be near the top of many analysts' first top 25 ballots come October. These 15 programs will need strong production from their veterans to contend for their conference titles, and some even have eyes on bigger prizes.

    They aren't necessarily the best senior classes in the country, but they're the most essential to their teams' chances of making waves in March.

    While the young draw the headlines, some college basketball programs are still fertile country for old men.

Honorable Mentions

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    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    Five other groups of seniors who'll impact the game this season, with players and teams both presented alphabetically:

     

    Florida Gulf Coast (Marcus Blake, Kevin Boyle, Brett Comer, Filip Cvjeticanin, Nate Hicks, Jamail Jones, Bernard Thompson)

    #DunkCity could have sported an all-senior starting five if not for the back surgery that will cost Filip Cvjeticanin the entire 2014-15 season. As it stands, Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson are likely Nos. 1 and 1A in the race for Atlantic Sun Player of the Year. Jamail Jones and Nate Hicks should have solid years on the glass with FGCU's other top rebounders gone.

     

    Iowa (Josh Oglesby, Gabriel Olaseni, Aaron White)

    After Roy Devyn Marble's graduation, it would appear that the Hawkeyes are Aaron White's team. White finished among the Big Ten leaders in several advanced metrics, even though his raw counting numbers weren't gaudy. Josh Oglesby is the team's most prolific returning three-point shooter, while Gabriel Olaseni should form a good interior duo with junior Adam Woodbury.

     

    Louisiana Tech (Raheem Appleby, Michale Kyser, Kenneth "Speedy" Smith)

    The Bulldogs lost a lot of veteran talent, but Kenneth Smith and Michale Kyser should keep the Tech defense among the nation's fiercest. Smith was among the top 10 nationally in both steals and assists last season, while Kyser has swatted 2.5 shots per game for his career. Raheem Appleby should be one of Conference USA's most dangerous scorers if he's fully recovered from last season's ankle injury.

     

    Notre Dame (Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton)

    The Irish need all hands on deck if they intend to compete in an already-loaded ACC that just added Louisville. Jerian Grant's academic exile made last season difficult, but if he's not rusty from the layoff, he can be an All-ACC performer. He was averaging 19.0 points per game and 6.2 assists per game before leaving school, after all. Pat Connaughton's shooting will be essential as well.

     

    West Virginia (Gary Browne, Kevin Noreen, Juwan Staten)

    The Mountaineers' NCAA tournament hopes begin and end with Juwan Staten, who could be a contender for Big 12 Player of the Year if WVU contends. He led the league in scoring and finished second in assists. Gary Browne and Kevin Noreen could merely be along for the ride if the Eers' several newcomers produce quickly. Forward Remi Dibo leaving for pro ball in his native France hurts.

10. SMU

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    Seniors: Cannen Cunningham, Crandall Head, Ryan Manuel, Justin Martin, Yanick Moreira, Jean-Micheal Mudiay, Jordan Tolbert

    SMU's success this season will be inextricably tied to stars Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and freshman Emmanuel Mudiay, but this sizable group of veterans will need to produce as well. After all, these players will comprise a large chunk of the Mustang bench.

    A transfer from Xavier, Martin has a major chance to crack SMU's starting five. A front line of Martin (11.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG last year), Kennedy and sophomore Ben Moore could be the American's best.

    The 6'10" Cunningham and 6'11" Moreira (pictured) will provide interior length and rebounding, while Manuel is one of the American's elite perimeter defensive stoppers. Jean-Micheal Mudiay was invaluable in securing the signature of his McDonald's All-American brother, and that may be as close as he comes to a lasting legacy at SMU.

    The real mystery man may be Tolbert. The 6'7" 240-pounder joins the Mustangs from Texas Tech, where he averaged 10.7 points and 5.8 reboundssecond on the team in both categories. SMU's staff has yet to give up hope that Tolbert will be immediately eligible, but no ruling has yet been made. He would make a superb backup to Martin and Moore at either forward spot.

9. Illinois

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    Seniors: Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Rayvonte Rice, Ahmad Starks

    The addition of Ahmad Starks should help to remedy some of the difficulties Illinois had in shooting from distance last season. The Illini struggled to score in Big Ten play, averaging only 60 points per game and failing to even break 50 on three occasions.

    John Groce's better teams at Ohio, as well as his first Illinois team, were crews that made liberal use of the three-point shot. During his three seasons at Oregon State, Starks steadily improved his shooting to a peak of 39.5 percent from deep in 2012-13.

    The perimeter shot isn't Rayvonte Rice's strong suit, but he's still an All-Big Ten performer without it. Starks and fellow transfer Aaron Cosby will help take some of the pressure off Rice to score from everywhere on the court.

    Longtime point guard Tracy Abrams, meanwhile, can barely shoot his way out of a phone booth, but he could contend for a conference assist crown if he's got enough options to pass to.

    Egwu, like Abrams, is at his best when he doesn't need to worry about scoring. When he can concentrate on rebounding and defense, he's one of the Big Ten's more effective big men.

8. BYU

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    Seniors: Nate Austin, Chase Fischer, Skyler Halford, Tyler Haws, Anson Winder

    We all know about the credentials of Tyler Haws (pictured). He's likely to leave BYU as a career 20-point-per-game scorer, and he needs only 655 to topple Cougar icon Jimmer Fredette from the school's all-time scoring throne.

    The problem is that he's surrounded by a group of veteran players who are nonetheless highly unproven scorers. The Cougars who most capably supported Haws last season are all gone for various reasons. Matt Carlino transferred to Marquette. Kyle Collinsworth is rehabbing a torn ACL and may join the team late. Center Eric Mika is off on his LDS church mission.

    At 7.0 points per game, Halford is the top returning scorer aside from Haws. Winder (40.3 percent) was second to Haws in three-point percentage last season, but he sank only 25 triples on the year. Fischer shot 42.2 percent from range in 2012-13 for Wake Forest, but he only averaged 5.4 points per game over his two seasons in Winston-Salem.

    Up front, Austin will need to hold down the post with Mika gone. Austin came second on the team in rebounding at 7.9 per game last season, but his scoring average peaked at 4.1 as a freshman.

    The Cougars added a solid recruiting class, but top signees T.J. Haws (Tyler's brother) and Payton Dastrup have already left for church missions. Depth isn't a strength of this BYU team, so these seniors must play up to their experience level if they intend to threaten Gonzaga's West Coast Conference hegemony.

7. Minnesota

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    Seniors: Elliott Eliason, Andre Hollins, Dre Mathieu, Maurice Walker

    The senior class that gets to build off of Minnesota's NIT championship and chase a return to the NCAA tournament isn't big in numbers, but it certainly is in importance. What we have here is the Gophers' starting backcourt and their two primary post players. That's all.

    Hollins led the team in scoring for the second straight year, but his efficiency fell off drastically. He sank an awful 37.7 percent from the floor, getting more of his points on free throws than on two-point shots. He pushed his shooting percentage above 41 during conference play, so perhaps there was an adjustment period in working with Mathieu.

    For his part, Mathieu had no problem finding good looks. He shot 51.1 percent from the floor and 48.9 percent from three. Another season with that kind of scoring efficiency, along with top-10 conference finishes in both assists and steals, will go a long way toward putting the Gophers into the Big Dance.

    There's not a lot of depth in the Minnesota backcourt, so Hollins and Mathieu must step up to improve the team's results.

    Eliason and Walker combined for 12.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game last season, numbers that would satisfy nearly any center in America. Walker in particular has transformed himself, losing nearly 90 pounds during his college career. The resulting stamina boost allowed him to nearly triple his minutes from his sophomore to his junior season.

6. Boise State

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Seniors: Anthony Drmic, Igor Hadziomerovic, Derrick Marks

    Derrick Marks (pictured) and his Australian wingmen can go down in Boise State basketball history if they can steer the Broncos to a second NCAA tournament in three years. No BSU senior class has gone dancing twice since Bobby Dye coached the team to consecutive Big Sky tournament crowns in 1993 and '94.

    With the inside muscle of Ryan Watkins and the perimeter strokes of Jeff Elorriaga and Thomas Bropleh gone, Marks and Drmic become even more important to the Broncos offense. The duo accounts for almost half of Boise's returning points.

    Speaking of perimeter strokes, Marks and Drmic have to find theirs again. The two shot a combined 39.8 percent from the arc in 2012-13 but dipped to 32.7 last year. They'll have to improve without a dominant big man around to collapse the defense, and that's never an easy task for a shooter.

    Hadziomerovic is primarily a defensive player, but some offense from him would be helpful this year. He sank 39 percent from the arc in limited time as a freshman, so the potential is there.

    With another 20-win season, coach Leon Rice would tie Dye with four, and in only five years. Dye needed 10 years to win 20 that many times. Outside of San Diego State and possibly UNLV, there are a lot of question marks in the Mountain West this season, and if the Broncos want to be an answer, Drmic and Marks will need to put exclamation points on their careers.

5. VCU

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    Seniors: Treveon Graham, Jarred Guest, Briante Weber

    The nation's ball-handlers are counting the days until VCU super-pest Briante Weber plays his final college game. Weber has stripped 296 unfortunate victims, needing only 90 more steals to pass former Providence guard John Linehan for the NCAA Division I record.

    Very few players have been as strong a fit for their team's system as Weber in the Rams' Havoc defense. The turnover-or-bust nature of coach Shaka Smart's approach requires a spidery player whose motor never stops, and that epitomizes Weber's game. He's not a reliable scorer, but he doesn't kill the Rams with mistakes, either. He's forced twice as many turnovers as he's committed in his career.

    Graham needs only 605 points to pass Eric Maynor for VCU's all-time scoring record, and that represents only a 1.5-point-per-game bounce over last season. That should be a minimum expectation now that primary post threat Juvonte Reddic has graduated. Don't be surprised to see Graham in the mix for the Atlantic 10 scoring title.

    Guest is a capable rebounder and defender, but he lost most of his minutes to Mo Alie-Cox and Terrance Shannon last season. Shannon's gone, so Guest will need to outwork freshmen Justin Tillman and Mike Gilmore if he's going to see time in VCU's frontcourt.

4. Villanova

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    Seniors: Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston

    Villanova should be considered the favorite to win the Big East this season, and its two seniors are a primary reason why. Both Hilliard and Pinkston rank among the favorites for all-conference honors in 2014-15 and could possibly battle each other for league player of the year.

    Hilliard picked up the slack when last year's senior leader, James Bell, struggled through portions of the schedule. Around Christmas, Bell endured a seven-game span averaging only 10.3 points per game, nearly five points below his season average. Likewise, he averaged just 9.0 over the Wildcats' final eight games. Hilliard put up 14.0 and 16.6 over those stretches, establishing that he's fully capable of being the team's go-to guy.

    Pinkston is still the team's best post scorer, but he hopes to display more of a mid-range game if defenses are forced to respect center Daniel Ochefu in the paint. His scoring (14.1 PPG), rebounding (6.1), field-goal percentage (52.1) and free-throw percentage (74.4) were all career bests as a junior. If Ochefu doesn't take a step forward, it may be incumbent on Pinkston to set new personal highs again.

    Hilliard and Pinkston have built their capital in the Villanova program the old-fashioned wayby learning from past seniors like Bell, Mouphtaou Yarou and Maalik Wayns. If those seasons were mid-terms, it's time to see how the new lead Cats do on their finals.

3. Gonzaga

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    Seniors: Gary Bell Jr., Kevin Pangos, Byron Wesley

    Gonzaga has produced some superb guards since bursting on the national scene in 1999. Names like Matt Santangelo, Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp still reverberate through the history of the GU program. While some of those stars led teams that made noise in March, the current backcourt duo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. has been responsible for more overall wins than any three-year span in school history.

    Pangos has missed only two starts during his career, one of those being his second collegiate gamea 33-point blitzing of Washington State that remains his calling card. He battled injuries last season, which sapped some of his already limited explosiveness, but most of his numbers remained rock-steady.

    Bell had similar health issues that cost him six games, but he had what may have been the best offensive season of his career. Always a stalwart defender on the perimeter, contributions from Bell on the scoring end have frequently been gravy for the Zags.

    There may not be tremendous pressure on Bell to sustain that offensive success, thanks to the arrival of former USC Trojan Byron Wesley.

    Like Bell, Wesley originally drew recruiting attention for his defensive skills, but he blossomed into a 17.8-points-per-game man last season. His ability to charge the rim will be a tremendous complement to the shooting of Pangos, Bell, returning reserve Kyle Dranginis and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer.

    With the Zags' post game lacking depth behind center Przemek Karnowski, the perimeter players must rise to the occasion if GU intends to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009. As is often the case for traditionally built programs, the seniors should be well-prepared to lead the way.

2. Ohio State

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Seniors: Anthony Lee, Trey McDonald, Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson, Amir Williams

    Last year's Ohio State senior class included future Buckeyes icon Aaron Craft, and even Dan Dakich's favorite man-crush could only get his team into the NCAA tournament. Winning a game was just too much to ask.

    This season's seniors should have no hope, right? Eh, not so fast.

    Finally free of Craft's shadow, Shannon Scott has the Buckeyes point guard position all to himself. The numbers from last season suggest that he could be perfectly capable of running the offense as well or better than Craft did.

    While Scott struggled with his shooting every bit as much as Craft, his assist percentage was nearly the same and he recorded a better turnover percentage. Scott even recorded a better steal percentage and defensive rating than the Nation's Most Dangerous On-Ball Defender™. (All figures courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.)

    Uber-athletic wing Sam Thompson is good for a SportsCenter-caliber dunk every couple of weeks or so, but it's essential that he become a more versatile scorer.

    The remaining Buckeyes seniors comprise the team's entire post presence, so somebody has to come to play hard every night. Williams and McDonald haven't shown themselves willing or able, so Temple transfer Anthony Lee saw an opportunity for instant playing time.

    Lee is a vicious rebounder who's pulled 6.8 boards per game during his career, and he's improved his scoring every season, peaking at 13.6 per game last year.

    The rest of the Buckeyes roster is comprised of some talented underclassmen. Thad Matta isn't opposed to playing youngsters, but it's taken blue-chip talents like Greg Oden and Mike Conley to truly make immediate breakthroughs in Columbus. With this many seniors on the roster, there's something very wrong if Matta's having to start a freshman-laden lineup.

1. Wisconsin

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Seniors: Duje Dukan, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson, Frank Kaminsky

    To make the Final Four, it obviously takes a talented team. When the bulk of that team returns the following season, opponents are very aware that they're dealing with experienced talent to boot. Wisconsin loses only perimeter gunner Ben Brust from a team that fell one Hail Mary three-pointer short of the national title game. The Badgers' four seniors are out to prove themselves among the elite once more.

    Frank Kaminsky exploded in 2013-14. An anonymous stiff to anyone who didn't closely follow Badgers hoops, he became a dribbling, three-point shooting revelation, earning the alliterativeif derivativenickname "Frank the Tank." This season, he's on everyone's radar, starting the season as a potential All-American selection and NBA draft pick.

    Aside from Kaminsky, the Badgers have precious little in the way of post depth, with sophomore Nigel Hayes and his seldom-used classmate Vitto Brown the only true candidates. Kaminsky may not have tremendous pressure to live up to the All-American billing, but an injury would severely damage his team's chances to make another deep run in March.

    The backcourt duo of Gasser and Jackson are both fine shooters in their own right, so the perimeter cupboard isn't bare with Brust's graduation. The two give coach Bo Ryan a fine pair of ball-handlers who've been in his system a long time. Gasser, in fact, is entering his fifth year after an injury cost him all of 2012-13.

    Dukan is a yeoman reserve who enjoyed one moment of glory with a 15-point game in a win over St. John's. After that, his claim to fame was that he never stood out in a negative way, largely avoiding stupid turnovers and bad shooting mistakes. He may find a few more minutes this season, especially if he comes up strong in more big situations like hitting a pair of threes in the Final Four.

    The 2013-14 Badgers offense wasn't quite as plodding as in recent seasons, and it was the most efficient it's been in Ryan's entire tenure. The burden of proof is heavy on UW to repeat the performance, and the seniors must lead the way.

     

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