College Basketball Nation: Isaiah Hicks

By the time Florida's Chris Walker was cleared to play last season, it was difficult for the freshman to have any sort of real impact. Walker played in just 18 games and didn't even average five minutes.

He's still being projected as a lottery pick for the 2015 NBA draft.

That's why he's all wrong for this particular list of sophomores to watch. Much time is spent following the most talented players and their journey to the pros; consider this equal time tracking the players most likely to develop while staying around a few seasons.

These 12 sophomores should make big improvements from their freshmen seasons -- just not substantial enough to leap right to the NBA. The players were all ranked in the top 100 of the 2013 class by RecruitingNation, but played less than 10 minutes per game as freshmen. (The one exception was Marc Loving, who averaged 10.9 minutes.) Most important, these players will likely all be back as juniors:

[+] EnlargeLuke Fischer
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsAfter transferring from Indiana, 6-foot-11 center Luke Fischer will be eligible to play Dec. 14.
Luke Fischer, forward/center, Marquette. First-year coach Steve Wojciechowski must be plenty glad Fischer got homesick after just 13 games at Indiana and decided to transfer. Fischer will be eligible in December, which can't come soon enough for the Golden Eagles, who lost their top three rebounders and lack the size that the 6-foot-11 Fischer brings.

Tre'Shaun Fletcher, guard/forward, Colorado. Fletcher suffered a knee injury and missed 14 games as a freshman. When healthy last season, he proved to be a reliable reserve and his role should expand next season.

Conner Frankamp, guard, Kansas. The Jayhawks are looking for the stability at point guard they never seemed to get last season. Frankamp could provide it, not to mention add another shooter to the lineup. He'll have his chance to start at point if he can beat out Frank Mason and Devonte Graham.

Anton Gill, guard, Louisville. Gill's offensive skills weren't questioned, but as strictly a shooting guard, he wasn't versatile enough to work his way into the backcourt rotation. He still figures to be coming off the bench, with Terry Rozier and Chris Jones starting, but Gill will make an impact this season.

Isaiah Hicks, forward, North Carolina. Hicks appeared in every game as a freshman for the Tar Heels, but mainly played out of position at small forward. This season he should be returning to power forward, where he should establish himself as the Heels' top frontcourt reserve.

Kuran Iverson, forward, Memphis. At this point, he may be best known for being related to Allen Iverson. That claim to fame should change next season, when the Tigers no longer have such a guard-centric lineup. Iverson could help make the wings the strongest position on the team.

Matt Jones, guard, Duke. Coach Mike Krzyzewski believed in him enough to start him four times, but Jones has to rediscover his confidence after shooting just 29 percent from the floor. If he doesn't, he could find himself buried in a roster that just got a lot deeper with the incoming freshman class.

Marcus Lee, forward, Kentucky. Lee showed how effective he could be with his 10-point, eight-rebound performance in just 15 minutes in the Elite Eight game against Michigan. But his toughest competition is arguably the Wildcats' crowded frontcourt. It's hard to envision how he'll get enough playing time to stand out.

Marc Loving, forward, Ohio State. LaQuinton Ross' decision to turn pro left the Buckeyes sorely lacking in scorers. Here's where Loving will have a chance to make a big leap from his freshman season average of 4.4 points. He'll likely find himself in the starting lineup after appearing in all 35 games last season but starting none.

Elliott Pitts, guard, Arizona. Even with the departure of Nick Johnson, the Wildcats will still have a crowded backcourt. Pitts proved to be a 3-point threat from off the bench last season, shooting 39 percent from deep. That and his 6-foot-5 frame could help him crack the rotation more next season.

Tyler Roberson, forward, Syracuse. Playing behind C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant meant Roberson had to wait his turn. His lone start last season came when Grant was injured. But after averaging 2.2 points in 8.1 minutes per game, Roberson will be needed to help the Orange solve their scoring woes.

Ish Wainright, guard/forward, Baylor. The Bears lost three of their top four scorers, including 3-point sharpshooter Brady Heslip. Wainright doesn't have the same range that Heslip had, but his size and length bring versatility to the lineup. At 6-foot-5, he can play multiple positions and has the potential to be a lockdown defender.
This is why Roy Williams made it clear, earlier this month, that North Carolina’s four-guard starting lineup was fine for now, but not forever.

This is why next year’s team -- no matter who stays or goes -- will almost certainly go back to boasting more of a traditional, two-big-guys look.

[+] EnlargeUNC/Kansas
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsJames Michael McAdoo had 17 points and four rebounds for the Tar Heels, who failed to keep up with the Jayhawks on Sunday despite a smaller, quicker lineup.
Leading top-seeded Kansas by nine points at halftime, the change that propelled UNC to the NCAA tournament is the thing that ultimately pushed the Tar Heels out in the end. The smaller, faster, higher-scoring offense went cold Sunday, with UNC making just 30.1 percent of its shots for the game (including only 28.6 percent of its 3-pointers). In the second half, in particular, it had no answer for Kansas 7-footer Jeff Withey who, finished with 16 points and 16 rebounds.

The eighth-seeded Tar Heels got out-rebounded by 17, and the tallest player in its starting line-up, 6-9ish James Michael McAdoo, was 5-for-19 from the field in the 70-58 loss in the NCAA Round of 32.

“It was definitely a nightmare in the second half, there's no question about that," Williams said during the post-game news conference. “You know, the change in the lineup, I tried to get the best five basketball players on the court for us. We knew we were giving up some rebounding, but we knew we were adding some things offensively from the perimeter.

“We decided to make that change. Down the stretch we basically decided to stick with it because we thought that was best for our team.”

And until Sunday, it was, what with young centers Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson never really establishing themselves during the season, while 6-5 sophomore wing P.J. Hairston -- finally inserted as the starting ‘4’ on Feb. 13, in place of Hubert -- often looked like the best player on the floor.

In the end, the Tar Heels won nine of their final 13 games with that starting lineup -- making the NCAA tournament, something that had been in doubt before the switch -- and giving this team something to build upon.

“For me, we had an unbelievably young team, and they tried and tried and tried," Williams said. “We've got a chance to be a sensational basketball team again.”

Indeed, the Tar Heels, who finished 25-11 overall, lose only one scholarship senior, starting shooting guard/backup point guard Dexter Strickland. But the status of several underclassmen is still up in the air.

Sophomore McAdoo, junior wing Reggie Bullock and Hairston all told The News & Observer after Sunday’s loss that they hadn’t thought about the NBA yet – comments you would expect them to make in the moments after their season ended so harshly. Traditionally, Williams meets with players in the weeks after the season to discuss their options, and talks to NBA team contacts on their behalves about where each player would possibly be drafted if they left early.

Williams reports back to each player, offers an opinion, and then it’s up to the athlete and his family to make the choice.

None of that threesome are currently listed among ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford’s list of top-20 draft prospects (although McAdoo was considered a lottery pick last year, had he left). And there’s not a whole lot of time to decide.

Although the NBA’s deadline to declare for the draft is April 28, the NCAA’s early-entry withdrawal deadline is April 16. Players also can apply to an NBA undergraduate advisory committee for their feedback before making a decision, but there no longer is any time to “test the waters,” so to speak.

Whatever the decisions of UNC’s top three scorers, the Tar Heels do have another triumvirate of incoming freshmen who could make an immediate impact. Nate Britt, ranked 20th on ESPN’s list of incoming ballhandlers, should be a strong back-up to Marcus Paige at point guard. Meanwhile, Williams will certainly look to Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks -- rated the No. 8 power forward prospect and No. 4 center, respectively -- to bolster a more traditional, comfortable, big-man-in-the-post approach.

“That [four-guard] line-up has been better for us, so we’ll stick with that right now,’’ Williams said before the ACC tournament. “But Ol’ Roy is not going to be small for the rest of his coaching career, I tell you.”

Sunday showed why: Going small got the Tar Heels to the NCAA tournament. It just couldn’t keep them there.