The Top 10 Returning College Basketball Players This Season

Can you smell that? It’s the smell of college basketball. As Dickie V would say: IT’S BACK BABY! While the Class of 2014 has garnered most of the hype for this season, there is still plenty of talent returning to the college hardwood this season. Forget the likes of Wiggins, Gordon, Parker, Randle, etc. Enter names like Fair, McDermott, McAdoo, Smart, and more.

These 10 players will be making an impact this season, while making you forget the Class of 2014 existed.

*** *** ***

10. C.J. FAIR
F, Senior, Syracuse
In Syrcause’s Final Four contest against Michigan, C.J. Fair showed why he’s ready to put the Orange on his shoulders this season. Fair put up 22 points and grabbed six boards in the 61-56 loss to Michigan, but showed that Syracuse nation has much to look forward to this season. Fair will no longer be accompanied by the likes of Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche and James Southerland. Coming off a junior year that saw Fair average 14.5 PPG and 7.0 RPG, he will have more opportunities to have the ball during his senior season. Even though he led Syracuse in scoring last season, this season will give Fair more opportunity to prove his worth. He’ll have to carry the load, especially with a depleted roster with no proven scores. Syracuse is always a program that tends to stick around when the Madness of March rolls around. Expect C.J. Fair to be leading his Orange into the NCAA Tournament this season.

F, Junior, North Carolina
Remember when Harrison Barnes was touted as the next Kobe Bryant? Yeah, me too. Then Barnes underperformed during his time at UNC and quickly those comparisons faded to black. This scenario reminds me of James Michael McAdoo’s current situation at UNC. McAdoo put up solid numbers last season (14.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG) but he didn’t take that huge quantum leap that everyone else expected from him. McAdoo had a Second Team All-ACC season, which is good, but everyone expected great from him.

Returning for his junior season, this will be the second time that McAdoo has forgone the NBA Draft and returned for another season with Roy Williams and the Tar Heels. McAdoo’s stock fell from lottery pick to barely a first-round pick over the course of last season. Shooting 37.9 percent in 12 games versus NCAA Tournament teams isn’t something that improves draft stock. The talent in the NBA will be more superior than what’s seen in the NCAA Tournament. McAdoo made a good decision by coming back for another year. With that being said, McAdoo has a lot to prove to doubters out there. This season will prove if he can finally step up to the plate and become the player everyone expected him to become. Watch for him to refine his game and come back as the player that everyone expected him to be.

C, Senior, Michigan State
Coming into Michigan State, Adreian Payne was a 215-pound freshman. Now entering his senior year, Payne is weighing in at 240. Adding this extra weight to his physique was a necessity as he looks to take his career to the NBA, where he will need that weight to bang in the paint with the likes of Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol. Payne averaged 10.5 PPG and 7.6 RPG in 25.8 minutes during his junior year, and he stands at 6-9 with a 7-0 wingspan, which makes him the perfect size for an NBA power forward. Payne has all the physical tools to be a force in the NBA, but made the decision to come back for his senior year with Tom Izzo at Michigan State. This decision seems like the right choice because Payne’s stats don’t really scream “star” at anyone. Payne has all the gifts, intangibles and tools to become a successful NBA player, but he will have to have a dominating senior year at Michigan State to prove these predictions true.

G, Sophomore, Michigan State
Gary Harris is a tough-nosed point guard. He spent his freshman season fighting through two shoulder injuries, but still continued to play for Michigan State. Unfortunately the injury bug has infected Harris again. Back in August, Harris suffered an ankle injury that was projected to keep him out 4-8 weeks. Harris should be ready for the start of the season, but this still isn’t a good sign for his sophomore year.

Gary Harris averaged 12.9 PPG during his freshman year and when healthy, will look to improve on those numbers. With the 12.9 PPG, Harris also shot 45.6 percent from the field and an impressive 41.1 percent from deep. Combine Harris with Adreian Payne and Michigan State could have a shot at the Final Four. Harris is an NBA-ready player with decent athleticism and a solid jump shot. Harris was already voted the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, so expect more of the same from Harris this season at Michigan State.

F, Sophomore, Michigan
The majority of Mitch McGary’s freshman year saw him as a reserve big man for the Michigan Wolverines. No big deal, as he would see increased time during his sophomore season. But McGary went all Meek Mill on us and said “Hold up, wait a minute! Ya’ll thought I was finished?” Well..we weren’t aware you ever started Mitch, but excuse us for not paying attention.

McGary completely exploded onto the season during the NCAA Tournament. He only averaged 7.5 PPG and 6.3 RPG during the season, but you had to watch Michigan in the NCAA Tournament to understand his explosion. Those pedestrian numbers during the regular season turned into 14.3 PPG and 10.7 RPG. Even more impressive, McGary recorded a double-double in half of Michigan’s NCAA Tournament contests (including a monster 25-14 game against No. 1 seed Kansas). McGary also recorded double-figures and nine rebounds in two other NCAA Tournament games. McGary went from a reserve big man to a walking double-double in the span of a few weeks. Keep an eye on McGary and the Wolverines as they look to make another Final Four appearance this season.

C, Sophomore, Baylor
Saying I love this kid is an understatement. His combination of size, handles, basketball IQ, and shooting is superb for someone standing 7-1. If you’ve never seen Austin play, just picture something like Nerlens Noel in size and length. Isaiah Austin’s decision to come back for his sophomore year was a surprise to some, but it was a good surprise. Austin realized he has to develop a lot more before he can be a threat in the NBA. Austin averaged 13.0 PPG and 8.3 RPG during his freshman year at Baylor.

Look for Austin to pack on some pounds — his small frame at 225 will cause problems at the next level. Still, Isaiah Austin is a rare player to see in college basketball. Austin will benefit greatly from spending another year with the Bears of Baylor. Players this size that have the skills of a wing are at a premium and that’s what he brings to the table. He stands out every time he steps on the court and another year at Baylor will ensure that he stands out in the stat book too.

F, Sophomore, Michigan
It was a surprise to many when Glenn Robinson III decided to stay at Michigan for another year rather than declare for the NBA Draft. Many expected him to be a late lottery – first round pick, but he’s back for another year. GR3’s freshman year saw him average 11.0 PPG and 5.4 RPG. His numbers won’t blow anyone away, but lets remember he was the third option on a team with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke. With those two now in the NBA, Robinson should be a show to watch this season.

His superb athleticism has drawn some comparisons to Andre Iguodala. Stepping into his sophomore year, Robinson is the unquestioned leader and first option for the Wolverines. Averaging 11.0 PPG as a third option (only used in 15.2 percent of Michigan’s possessions last season), I can’t wait to see the numbers GR3 can do as the main scorer. He’s a highlight reel waiting to happen. But, behind all the flashy dunks and elite athleticism is a well-rounded player that doesn’t have many weaknesses in his game. Robinson has star potential and will make that known during his sophomore season in Ann Arbor.

G, Senior, Louisville
Russ Smith was the best player on the NCAA champion Louisville Cardinals last season. Seems like a good note to leave school on, right? Well Smith decided to come back for his senior year with Rick Pitino and the Cardinals after his championship season saw him average 18.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG and 2.9 APG. His performance during the NCAA Tournament was really the reason why Smith is a special player. Smith averaged 22.3 PPG during six games in the NCAA Tournament. Take out his nine-point, 3-for-16 shooting performance in the NCAA Championship and Smith was averaging 25 PPG in the five previous games.

Smith has a knack for getting the ball in the hoop; he has the utmost confidence in every shot he puts up. Russ Smith is also a terror on the fast break as he generated 9.1 transition plays per 40 plays, with Louisville scoring 1.37 points every time he was in transition. He has proven that he can be deadly at the shooting guard position, but this year is important to show his development as a point guard. Smith has had a tendency to play “hero” at many times last year, which is something that needs improvement. The decision by Smith to return for his senior year was smart. If he can prove his stature as a point guard, then Smith has the ability to develop into a first-round pick in 2014. Smith’s style of play will be exciting to watch this year, especially because his Cardinals are a favorite for another NCAA Championship run.

F, Senior, Creighton
Doug McDermott is really a special player. I’m extremely excited that he’s spending another year at Creighton. McDermott’s numbers look like something out of a video game; you almost have to check them a few times to make sure they are real: 23.2 PPG and 7.7 RPG while shooting 55 percent from the field and 49 percent from beyond the three-point line. Those numbers are insane, especially for a shooter… especially for someone standing at 6-8, and 225 pounds. He shows similarities to Dirk. Saying he’s a lethal, dead-eye shooter is almost an understatement. It’s like everything he puts up is going in.

So, how lethal is he? During a game on March 2 against Wichita State, McDermott scored 41 points. But, it wasn’t the points that were the most impressive part. He scored 41 points on only 18 shots, going 15-for-18 from the field and 5-for-8 from range. It will be interesting to see how much his numbers can improve during his senior year. Creighton has moved into the new Big East conference, so the country will become more aware of McDermott and his ability to shoot the lights out. McDermott has the ability to carry Creighton on his back, so look out for his sweet shooting stroke in the NCAA Tournament this season.

G, Sophomore, Oklahoma State
It’s a general consensus that Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart would have been a top-three pick had he declared for the 2013 NBA Draft. It’s also a general consensus that the NBA has taken all of the stars from college basketball. Well, Marcus Smart is returning for another year of action with the Cowboys, so throw that consensus away. Even though Smart decided to stay for his sophomore year at Oklahoma State, he’s still projected as a top-five pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He averaged 15.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.2 APG and 3.0 SPG during his freshman year. That stat line proves that Smart can affect the game in all areas. He is a major stat sheet stuffer. He isn’t just points, he isn’t just assists, he isn’t just rebounds, he’s EVERYTHING and then some.

Smart has already had his game compared to NBA superstars like James Harden and LeBron James. He’s, without a doubt, a king among paupers in college basketball. He has already made Oklahoma State relevant with one year of play, so imagine the sort of damage he will cause this year. Make sure you are watching the Cowboys this season. It’s sure to be a wild ride.

Which returning players will make the biggest impact this season?

Follow Drew on Twitter at @Dcorrigan50.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.