Peyton Siva, Trevor Mbakwe among most important senior returnees
Even teams that rely heavily on young players, still need experience, leadership
Xavier transfer Mark Lyons could fill a ballhandling void at Arizona this season
Guard Matthew Dellavedova is likely to lead Saint Mary's to the top of the WCC
While college basketball has morphed into more and more of a young man's game, there's still no replacement for the experience and leadership of seniors. While it's much more common to see a mid-major program nurture a full class into something special by its final season, precious few programs can make do without some dose of fourth-year fortitude. Even national champion Kentucky, with all its early-entry underclassman power, got huge contributions from Darius Miller on its way to the crown.
This coming college hoops season will be no different, as many expected contenders will rely heavily on seniors. Here are 10 of the most important ones:
Peyton Siva, Louisville
It feels like he's been around forever, especially if you've read George Dohrmann's Play Their Hearts Out, and now Siva is a big key for a Cardinals club that has the talent to repeat as a Final Four team. With the way the Cards defend, they don't need a ton of offense and improved decision-making and consistency from their floor general should help them improve on that side of the ball.
Jordan Hulls, Indiana
Incoming point guard Yogi Farrell is arriving with considerable hype for the potential preseason No. 1 Hoosiers, but they still should get significant contributions from Hulls, their best shooter. Hulls has shot better than 40 percent from the arc in each of his three seasons, including a searing 49 percent last year.
Mark Lyons, Arizona
The former Xavier shooting guard gets a one-season second act in Tucson. He could be the crucial missing piece to a team loaded with young frontcourt talent but lacking a primary ballhandler after point guard Josiah Turner transferred following a turbulent freshman campaign and Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell isn't eligible until next year. Forward Solomon Hill should also provide senior leadership and production.
Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota
Back for a sixth season after a knee injury derailed his first senior year, Mbakwe should provide a huge boost to the scrappy, developing core that made it to the NIT final last year. Mbakwe was, by far, the Gophers' best player before he was injured and the Gophers should be one of the Big Ten's better teams this season with him. They have a very deep, rugged squad returning.
Michael Dixon, Missouri
As detailed in the top transfers column, the Tigers have a huge infusion of new blood this year, but they also return three key parts, including the explosive Dixon, who averaged more than 10 points per game in just over 22 minutes a game last season. Missouri could have a repeat of last season, where the Tigers entered the year barely ranked and made it as high as No. 2. They could threaten Kentucky for the SEC title.
Pierre Jackson, Baylor
With Missouri out of the picture, there's one fewer hurdle for the reloading Bears in the Big 12. Getting quicksilver point guard Jackson back for his final season should help the transition for the latest standout freshman class. The Bears' backcourt also returns sharpshooting Brady Heslip, among others.
Scott Wood, NC State
The Wolfpack's standout freshman class is generating a ton of buzz, but the Pack should be the ACC favorite because they also have a lot of returning talent. Wood's coming off his second straight 40/90 season (3pt %/FT %) and is a perfect glue guy on the wing for this very good team. Indeed, there may be no reason this season to ask Wood how it feels to lose to a rival.
Jack Cooley, Notre Dame
Scott Martin getting an extra season of eligibility was a big boost for the Irish, but their main man should be Cooley, who could challenge for Big East player of the year honors this season. After Tim Abromaitis went down last season, Cooley emerged as the Irish's top scorer and rebounder, shooting 62.5 percent from the floor.
Ryan Kelly, Duke
Mason Plumlee returns, as well, but the Blue Devils were exposed as much more limited offensively when Kelly was out injured in the postseason. The return of the sweet-shooting 6-foot-11 forward should be a big boost to a team that once again will be blooding some new backcourt talent.
Jeff Withey, Kansas
Withey emerged as one of the nation's preeminent shotblockers last season and should continue to blossom even with the loss of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. A season after the Jayhawks surprised by making the national title game, they should be much deeper, if not as star-powered. A ninth straight Big 12 crown is very much in the offing.
And here are 10 more seniors from outside the football-centric conferences who stand good chances of lighting up your March Madness brackets:
Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's
The Gaels' best player now comes with extra seasoning. The Gaels return a lot from last season's WCC champs, including their lead guard who probably is the league's top player. 2013 should see another solid tussle between the Gaels, Gonzaga and this next guy's team ...
Brandon Davies, BYU
If the league POY isn't Dellavedova, there's a solid chance it could be Davies, who bounced back solidly from his honor code violation to help lead the Cougars back to the NCAAs last season. He and Charles Abouo make for a rugged frontcourt tandem for any league, let alone the WCC.
C.J. McCollum, Lehigh and Mike Muscala, Bucknell
We'll cheat a bit here as the Patriot League's two biggest stars return to duel for a fourth season. I tried to warn Duke fans in March about the explosive McCollum, but now the nation knows how good the multifaceted guard is. He wasn't good enough to win the league's regular-season title last year, though, and Bucknell cashed in its NIT berth by cashiering Arizona on the road.
D.J. Cooper, Ohio
Not many mid-major point guards return having won NCAA tournament games in two different seasons, but the Bobcats will be looking for a follow-up from last season's surprise Sweet 16 appearance. If Cooper can add some efficiency to his high-volume output, all the better.
Nate Wolters, South Dakota State
Wolters has been the darling of stat wonks for several seasons thanks to his uber-efficient and productive style. He hit the national scene after he and the Jackrabbits mauled Washington in Seattle. They got a taste of the NCAAs last season (where SDSU scared Baylor) and has a good chance to be back in the dance in 2013.
Isaiah Canaan, Murray State
What more can you say? Canaan's going to be on many preseason All-America lists with very good reason, and the Racers should be excellent again. Add in Kerron Johnson and Belmont to an OVC that also has Robert Covington back at Tennessee State, and the top of the league should be very strong.
Anthony Marshall, UNLV
The Rebels' frontcourt is loaded and it will be up to Marshall to run what should be a very potent Rebels offense. This very well could be the school's best team since the Tarkanian Era, with excellent depth and top-end skill up and down the roster.
Chase Tapley, San Diego State
Converse to the rival Rebels, the Aztecs' return a ton of strength in the backcourt, with the sharpshooting Tapley one of a number of weapons. If reinforcements in the frontcourt add the expected punch, the Aztecs could trump UNLV and win what should be an extremely tough Mountain West.
Andrew Smith, Butler
The arrival of one-year senior transfer Rotnei Clarke (and freshman Kellen Dunham) should mean big things for the Bulldogs' senior center, who will have a lot more space and time in which to operate now that Butler will again have capable perimeter shooting. Smith's reemergence is paramount now that Butler's making an immediate move into the Atlantic 10. The quality of bigs will be much better.
Elias Harris, Gonzaga
Remember when there was talk about Harris coming out after his freshman season? Well, he stayed and now he's a senior cornerstone of what should be a very good Zags club. If Polish import Przemek Karnowski can adequately replace much of what Robert Sacre provided, Gonzaga has the depth and talent to make the second weekend of the NCAAs.
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