Who's NEXT in college basketball?

October, 16, 2009
10/16/09
2:34
PM ET
Editor's note: Who's NEXT in college basketball? Over the next few months, ESPN will identify the players, teams, coaches and games that will leave their mark on the 2009-10 season.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams doesn't agree that the Tar Heels have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, nor that the Tar Heels are the choice school around the country.

He rattled off plenty of other great programs in the country with similar expectations that are in the same situation. And to some extent, he is correct. Programs like Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and at times Duke and Michigan State recruit from the nation's top talent and are just as capable of reloading every season.

But it's hard to imagine another program having the draw to pull together as deep a frontcourt as the one UNC will put on the floor this season. Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, John Henson, Tyler Zeller would start on nearly every program in the country. Add David and Travis Wear and Williams has no shortage of frontcourt options

That's why the North Carolina program meets the criteria to be the NEXT group in college basketball. How Williams divides up the minutes of this group of players will be his charge. But the way in which this frontcourt develops will make them the most intriguing lot this season.

Who else made our NEXT list for college basketball?

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Solomon Alabi
Dale Zanine/US PresswireSolomon Alabi figures to be a focal point for Florida State on both ends of the floor.

Solomon Alabi, C, 7-1, So., Florida State: Alabi has the length and presence to disrupt a game on the defensive end. But what separates Alabi from other players with similar ability is his desire to not just be another lanky center who gets drafted on potential. Alabi could have left for the NBA draft last spring and likely would have been taken somewhere in the first round. But he was a role player last season on a team dominated by Toney Douglas. He played a supporting role and never had his day.

But Alabi dedicated himself over the summer to becoming more capable on the offensive end. He'll likely be one of the top big men in the country and a focal point for Florida State at both ends of the floor. If he can emerge as a first-team All-ACC-caliber player in a league that boasts the likes Duke's Kyle Singler, Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors, Clemson's Trevor Booker and North Carolina's trifecta of Deon Thompson, Ed Davis and John Henson, then the hard work will have paid off.

Derrick Favors, PF, 6-10, Fr., Georgia Tech: Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt has had little trouble recruiting elite players to Georgia Tech. The problem is they're so talented that they don't stay more than one season. Favors is the latest to arrive at the Atlanta campus for what will most likely be a short visit. A top-three player in the country as a senior, Favors has the ability to put up monster numbers with the way in which he is drawn to the ball. What will make Favors even more successful this season is playing off Gani Lawal and Zach Peacock. Favors needs to have a cushion like those two so the entire focus isn't on him and he can develop at his own warp speed. If Favors can help the Yellow Jackets deliver a turn from two wins to nine or 10 in the ACC this season he will deserve a path toward the NBA, showing he isn't just a talented player, but someone who can directly affect winning, too.

Avery Bradley, 6-3, Fr., G, Texas: Bradley seems to be the perfect fit for Texas coach Rick Barnes. He can get to the hole, he can shoot and he can defend. Barnes has made Texas a guards' destination of late, with T.J. Ford, A.J. Abrams and D.J. Augustin all having stellar careers in Austin. Barnes' ability to manage a game in his guards' best interest has been a key to his success. Bradley should slide into a team that is capable of challenging for the Big 12 title as well as a national title. For some reason he hasn't had as much pop nationally as a few others in the class, but soon enough he will get his due.

Craig Brackins, 6-10, Jr., PF, Iowa State: Brackins gets the game, both on and off the court. He understood he needed to polish his skills and was well aware that just putting up 40-plus points on Kansas wasn't enough to run for the first-round cash. Brackins wants more. He wants to enter the NBA as a contributor, not just a name with potential. You could see his work ethic during the USA Basketball trials in Colorado Springs, Colo., this past summer. He knew he wasn't guaranteed to make the World University Games team. He was there to work. He has a shot to take Iowa State to the postseason, more likely the NIT or CBI than NCAA, but that would still be an accomplishment if he can lead in that manner. The Big 12 has produced some monster talent recently and he's next in line to compete for the national honor.

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Willie Warren
Jim Brown/US PresswireWill the national player of the year award be headed to Norman for a second straight year?

Willie Warren, 6-4, So., G, Oklahoma: What is it about the Sooners lately? Oklahoma could legitimately produce consecutive national player of the year candidates from players who entered college without as much hype as some of the recent recipients. Blake Griffin was a stud, but he grew into an intimidating force within a year. Warren knew he had a chance to make his mark if he stayed. He's an exceptional creator with the basketball, a strong guard, who can make plays on every possession. Jeff Capel has done a fantastic job of managing elite-level talent in his brief career in Norman. Warren sensed that staying put instead of chasing the money was the right thing to do. Now the focus is on him, and he'll have plenty of momentum toward the NBA after this season.

Kansas vs. Texas: This is the NEXT rivalry if it's not one of the top two already. To the casual fan nothing will compare to Duke and North Carolina, and nothing should. But look deeper at the game and Kansas and Texas are putting together quite a run. The schools are 1-2 in the conference and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future. One of the best things about Duke and Carolina is that the rivalry also extends nationally, as both are usually in contention for a title. That's also now true of these two programs. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Missouri and Kansas State will have turns trying to unseat either program, but the depth of talent KU and Texas are hauling in is unmatched. They are the marquee programs television wants to see on a nightly basis. Now, if the Big 12 could scrap its scheduling formula and mix it up a bit so this game was played twice a season, that would be something to savor. Can you imagine Duke and North Carolina only once in the ACC? That game has to be twice. So does this one.

Lance Stephenson, 6-6, F, Fr., Cincinnati: Stephenson was searching for a home for months. He flirted with Kansas, St. John's and Maryland, to name a few. But Cincinnati was the program that had the patience to wait out Stephenson's legal and amateur-status troubles. Assuming that Stephenson is cleared here sooner rather than later, the Bearcats will benefit greatly from a player who can make his mark driving to the hole and ultimately as a possible productive player at the NEXT level. Stephenson was yet another New York name that was hyped up and is now awaiting delivery on his expectations. If he gets the chance to perform this season he'll likely elevate a program that under Mick Cronin has been close to making the NCAAs into the tournament.

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William Buford
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesOhio State will rely more heavily on William Buford on the offensive end this season.

Wesley Johnson, 6-7, Jr., F Syracuse: Johnson would have teamed up with Brackins at Iowa State last season and possibly put the Cyclones on the verge of an NCAA berth. The two of them would have been extremely tough to defend. But the previous spring in 2008, Johnson told Iowa State coach Greg McDermott that he was gone, stunning McDermott and leaving a gaping spot on the Cyclones. The beneficiary was Syracuse. The Orange desperately needed a star after losing Jonny Flynn early to the NBA. Flynn is a point and Johnson a wing but they have a similar trait: They both command attention. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has been quite prophetic in his career lately, anticipating the impact of Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara and Flynn. Boeheim hasn't minced words regarding Johnson. He expects he'll be a major one to watch.

Devin Ebanks, 6-9, F, So., West Virginia: Ebanks was supposed to be at Indiana. But the Kelvin Sampson mess forced him to look for another destination. Bob Huggins' return to his alma mater was the perfect spot for Ebanks to land. But what Ebanks didn't do was stop by for a brief spell. His talent is coveted by the NBA but Ebanks wasn't ready to just be a draft pick. He actually had the right advice, which was to return to West Virginia where he could be a focal point for the Mountaineers and flourish next to Da'Sean Butler. The Big East lost some of its star power last season. But all that did was create an opening for Ebanks to slide in and make his name.

William Buford, 6-5, G, So., Ohio State: If you saw the team name Ohio State you'd probably assume the next name would be Evan Turner. Turner will be the Buckeyes' go-to player this season. But our committee saw something different in Buford. His selection was based on his potential as a shooter that will make the Buckeyes players in the chase for a top-three finish in the Big Ten. He's someone to watch as the season unfolds, especially early as the Buckeyes have to deal with the absence of Dallas Lauderdale up front (broken hand). The focus will be even more on the backcourt and Buford's talent for hunting his shot.

Larry Sanders, 6-10, C, Jr., VCU: Shaka Smart coveted the VCU gig for a number of reasons. Just look where the past two coaches have landed: Jeff Capel went to Oklahoma and Anthony Grant to Alabama. Also making it hard to resist going to the Rams was the talent of Sanders still on the roster. The Rams lost guard Eric Maynor, who beat Duke in the NCAA tournament and was one of the top guards in the country in his past two seasons. But Sanders' presence in his first two seasons was hard to miss. He blocked 95 shots as a freshman and swatted 92 as a sophomore. His pogo-like jumping ability make him an intimidating presence from the opening tip.

Butler: Gonzaga is no longer the non-power six program of note. Gonzaga has its regular place alongside teams in the power six. Butler isn't there yet, but the Bulldogs are close. They're the NEXT program that should have staying power. Brad Stevens has figured out what some at Butler have not: stay put. Barry Collier thought it made sense to go for the money at Nebraska. He came back as the athletic director. Todd Lickliter may find it was better to have stayed than to have gone to Iowa, easily one of the tougher jobs in the Big Ten. You can't blame Thad Matta for leaving based on his track record of late and Ohio State's presence on the national scene. But Stevens has taken a collection of players who fit the Butler style to make this program one of the top 25 in the country. Butler was in the top 40 in the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia for the 2000s. Expect the 2010-to-2019 decade to produce the same result. Butler is being invited to quality events, both tournaments and made-for-TV neutral games. But more than that, they are earning Horizon League bids on a regular basis and winning in the NCAAs.

Craig Robinson, Oregon State: Forget about who Robinson is related to, because that's so 2008. Robinson took over easily one of the worst jobs in the power six conferences. Oregon State didn't win a game in 2007-08 in the Pac-10. The Beavers won seven in the league last season. Robinson's version of the Princeton offense took a little-known player who had lost some of his self-esteem on the court in Roeland Schaftenaar and helped him blossom into one of the top players in the Pac-10. As Oregon State lands players like Roberto Nelson out of Santa Barbara, the question for recruits is no longer "Why would you go to Oregon State?" It's more like "Why not?" Remember, the Beavers were one of the elite teams in college basketball. There is history in old Gill Coliseum. Robinson is about to tap into some of it, making the Beavers relevant again.

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Isaiah Thomas
Douglas Jones/US PresswireIsaiah Thomas will have a backcourt running mate in Abdul Gaddy that will give Washington a fearsome backcourt.

Washington's backcourt: The Huskies should now be known as the West Coast's Guard U. Brandon Roy became a star at UW. So, too, did Nate Robinson. Last season, Washington was one of the more exciting backcourts with Justin Dentmon, Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton. No offense to Dentmon, but the Washington backcourt added even more talent this season with the addition of Abdul Gaddy in Dentmon's place. The freshman was supposed to go to Arizona before turmoil set in at Tucson. Gaddy, who is from the Seattle area, should flourish at home.

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar can make the Huskies one of the more difficult teams to defend with their ability to put the ball on the floor, scatter through defenses, and cause overall pressure havoc. Thomas didn't get much national pub last season for having one of the top freshman seasons with 15.5 points a game. Overton was a solid game-changer and now Gaddy will be the floor leader. If Quincy Pondexter can rebound up front in Jon Brockman's absence this backcourt will get plenty of play in March.

Anthony Grant, Alabama: Grant was the most coveted coach in the SEC. He was the one who helped Florida coach Billy Donovan craft the 2000 national runner-up team, and aided in putting together the 2004 recruiting class that won the title in 2006 when he was an assistant. He came onto the floor when the Gators won the title in 2007 after his first season at VCU as a head coach. Grant beat Duke with Eric Maynor's help in the NCAA tournament at VCU. Grant would have been the next coach at Florida had Donovan not flip-flopped on the Orlando Magic. But Grant was patient in seeking the right move. He didn't just jump at Georgia or beg for LSU, but rather found that Alabama was the fit. Nick Saban and football run Alabama. But Grant's even-keeled approach should work well in Tuscaloosa.

John Wall, 6-4, Fr., PG, Kentucky: Wall's recruitment got a job for an AAU coach at Baylor and had coaches at Duke, Miami, Kentucky and NC State hanging on his every word. There was even chatter that he might try to challenge the NBA draft rule at one point and see if he could find a way into Madison Square Garden last June. Ultimately, Wall landed with John Calipari, his likely destination whether Calipari had stayed at Memphis or gone on to Kentucky as he did last April.

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Anthony Grant
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAnthony Grant has his hands full building Alabama into a player in the SEC.

Wall has the electrifying game that will draw people into the stands. He has already proved in a short time in Lexington that he can lead, running the early-season workouts. Calipari isn't flinching at comparing Wall to Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans and the impact those two had for him and the Memphis program. NBA personnel expect Wall to be in the discussion for the top pick in 2010 if he declares. Calipari expects him to be one-and-done. But along the way Wall will likely make his mark in Lexington, possibly leading the Wildcats and Calipari back to the Final Four.

Jarvis Varnado, 6-10, C, Sr., Mississippi State: Varnado declared for the NBA draft and abruptly halted the process in May, a few weeks after sending in his paperwork. He knew he wasn't ready for the NBA. His game was hardly polished. He was a niche talent, a shot-blocker with potential on the offensive end. Varnado clearly has received good advice. He has a chance to enter the league as a player in 2010-11 if he continues to develop his offensive game. He made news earlier this summer by giving up his scholarship and paying in-state tuition so the Bulldogs could add John Riek or Renardo Sidney. Sidney is on scholarship but unlike Riek hasn't been cleared to compete by the NCAA's Eligibility Center. That may drag on, and if it does Varnado will lose the power player next to him, making it even more important for him to play stronger, not just taller, this season. Varnado will block shots, making him possibly the all-time shot blocker in NCAA history this season. But if he can become an offensive force he might be even more memorable.

Terrico White, 6-5, So., SG, Ole Miss: White was not supposed to be the go-to guy on the Rebels last season. That title was slated for Chris Warren, but a torn ACL opened up a spot for White from mid-December on and he took advantage of the opportunity. White might just be one of the more game-changing wings with his ability to elevate on the drive. His perimeter shooting still needs work but he finds a way to score nonetheless. He was one of the more game-ready players on the Under 19 gold-medal winning team this summer.

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy has a healthy, loaded perimeter this season. He shouldn't have a problem finding enough touches for White. He'll command the attention. White nearly declared for the NBA draft because he was well aware of the buzz about his ability. But he received quality advice at the 11th hour and decided to come back. It was a smart move because he'll flourish in a crowded all-star guard group in the SEC.

Paul George, 6-7, So., F, Fresno State: ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla gets the credit for ensuring George was on the NEXT list. George didn't get his national pub last season because the Bulldogs struggled with a 3-13 record in the WAC. But how many freshmen that aren't household names were in the top 10 in their respective conference in scoring and rebounding (14.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg)? My guess is not many. The Bulldogs should be much more of a factor in the WAC this season. They won't win it, but they'll be worth seeking out for a game or two to see George's progress. He's a talent that will only flourish as a sophomore.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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