- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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This morning, my colleague Fran Fraschilla listed his five under-the-radar teams ready to break out in 2012-13. So today's Top 10 Thursday feature is a quick look at a batch of players who could enjoy a similar trajectory -- players who haven't broken out quite yet (for various reasons), but who could become key components in the national college basketball conversation next season.
By no means is this a comprehensive list, so if you feel like your favorite team has a prime breakout candidate, let us know in the comments section.
That said, let's jump right in, shall we? (listed in alphabetical order)
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Fans of college hoops already know Appling as Tom Izzo's defensively stalwart, fast-breaking point guard, and for good reason: The sophomore was a key contributor in Michigan State winning a share of the Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But with the team's do-everything leader Draymond Green gone, and a batch of younger, less-experienced players rounding out the rotation, Appling has a chance to evolve from a nice complementary piece into one of the Big Ten's bona fide stars.
Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: Blackshear arrived at Louisville as a highly touted recruit, but was rarely heard from during his freshman season, when he was derailed by injuries. But Blackshear returned in time to make a major impact in the Cardinals' Final Four swing at the inimitable Kentucky Wildcats. UK prevailed, but the Chicago native was excellent in his 14 minutes on the floor. With injuries behind him and playing alongside defender-drawing forward Chane Behanan, the shooting guard will have ample opportunity to show his quality.
Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse: How deep were the 2012 Syracuse Orange? Carter-Williams, a McDonald's All-American ranked No. 4 at the shooting guard position in the Class of 2012 (behind only Duke's Austin Rivers, Florida's Bradley Beal and UNC's P.J. Hairston) played just 18.1 percent of his team's available minutes, per KenPom.com, and couldn't register even a minute of floor time in Syracuse's four NCAA tournament games. The departures of Scoop Jardine and Dion Waiters will make way for Carter-Williams to shine, and shine he will.
Sam Dower, Gonzaga: On New Year's Eve 2011, I was in Cincinnati for Gonzaga's big-time road win at Xavier, and while much of the conversation focused on X's ongoing post-brawl struggles, it was impossible not to be impressed by Dower's line: 20 points, 10 rebounds, 7-of-11 from the field. Dower was like a mini-Chris Bosh -- a smooth-shooting left-handed forward at his best in spot-up 15-foot situations. The only problem? Because center Robert Sacre and power forward Elias Harris dominated the Zags' interior, Dower struggled to find minutes as a sophomore. Sacre graduated this spring, which means Dower will get much more time. If I'm a Gonzaga fan, that prospect excites me greatly.
Cory Jefferson, Baylor: When you have Quincy Acy, Perry Jones and Quincy Miller (not to mention lanky sub Anthony Jones) in your frontcourt, there's little leftover playing time. When Jefferson did see minutes on the court as a sophomore, he made them count. That was especially true on the defensive end, where he posted a 12.4 percent block rate and a 20.7 percent defensive rebounding percentage in just 23.4 percent of his team's available minutes. Acy, Jones, Miller and Jones (which sounds like an awesome law firm) have graduated or departed for the NBA draft, and Jefferson should have much more opportunity to ply his impressive defensive trade. He will have to hold off challenges from Scott Drew's latest batch of talented recruits (center Isiah Austin should be an immediate starter, while power forward Ricardo Gathers might take more time) but if he does, he could emerge as one of the nation's best rim protectors.
Le'Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State: Wait a second: How does a player ranked No. 10 overall in his draft class, who averages 30.1 minutes per game as a freshman, fly under the radar? It doesn't happen often, but it did for Nash, who entered Oklahoma State with massive hype and only occasionally lived up to his billing. It didn't help that the Cowboys were, you know, not very good. It also didn't help that Nash shot just 39.4 percent from the field, and posted an offensive rating of 89.2, despite leading OSU in usage rate by a rather wide margin. This is simple stuff: Nash has to become more efficient. If he doesn't, he might be destined to disappoint. But if he does? Yeah. Look out.
Dezmine Wells, Xavier: Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons dominated the ball for the Musketeers in 2011-12. Until Xavier's late-season run to the NCAA tournament, the Dec. 10 brawl with Cincinnati dominated the season storylines. All the while, freshman guard Wells was quietly having a very solid freshman campaign. He is a massively athletic, built-like-a-truck guard who plays much bigger than his 6-foot-4 size -- he might have missed his calling as a linebacker, but don't tell him I said that -- and few players in college basketball can attack the rim with a LeBron-esque head of steam quite like this. Wells will have ample touches in 2012-13. The sky is the limit.
Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky: I'm not sure it's possible, in 2012, to be a Kentucky Wildcat and also be under the radar. But if it is possible, Wiltjer fits the bill. The lanky forward was the seventh man in UK's championship rotation last season, and he made timely contributions throughout the season. But as the Cats marched to the national title, and Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and super-sub Darius Miller and the rest of the top six garnered 100 percent of the attention, Wiltjer largely became an afterthought. Don't make the same mistake in 2012-13. Kentucky will be loaded again, no doubt, but Wiltjer -- a former top-20 prospect in the Class of 2011, lest we forget -- will play starter's minutes, and should emerge as much more than a stretch forward with a sweet jump shot. If he combines a low-post game with that spot shooting, Wiltjer could morph into one of the nation's most complete scoring threats -- a Doug McDermott lookalike with national title talent at his side.
Nate Wolters, South Dakota State: Every year college hoops seems to give us at least one player who plies his trade in an overlooked league, but who plays so well he becomes impossible to ignore. Despite his averages of 21.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game (fun fact: Wolters was the only player in Division I hoops to average 20, 5 and 5), despite a 34-point shredding of Washington in Seattle, and despite a near-upset of Baylor in the first round of the tournament, Wolters' profile never quite expanded beyond the die-hard college hoops nerd circle. The 2012-13 season is his last chance to become something resembling a household name.
BJ Young, Arkansas: File Young in the Keith Appling category. After all, the Arkansas guard didn't go entirely unnoticed in 2011-12, when he earned second-team All-SEC honors as a freshman. But he has a chance to become a real star in 2012-13. Young shot the ball efficiently (57.5 effective field goal percentage), and found teammates at a sterling clip (22.0 percent assist rate), but turned the ball over on 18.5 percent of his possessions. If he can cut down on the giveaways, continue to mesh with fellow emerging freshman Hunter Mickelson (who probably also deserves inclusion on this list), and enlist a mastery of Mike Anderson's 40 Minutes of Hell system, Young could be an All-American candidate by the end of the season. The talent is clearly there.