November 7, 2011

Ranking the best sophs, juniors and seniors

College basketball fans love to keep tabs on team recruiting rankings as they get updated all the way through the spring signing period. Then they can't wait to see what kind of instant impact these prospects make during their freshman seasons.

But what about how they fare after they've been on campus a year or two? What classes become the strongest a couple of years down the road, after some of the top-rated recruiting classes have been decimated by early entries into the NBA draft?

Kentucky enters the 2011-12 season with the top freshman class, but we wanted to break down which schools had the top classes at the other three grade levels. Here's our look at the five best sophomore, junior and senior classes.

[ Related: Rivals.com Countdown to Tipoff ]

TOP SOPHOMORE CLASSES

1. NORTH CAROLINA: F Harrison Barnes (6-8/215), G Reggie Bullock (6-7/205), G Kendall Marshall (6-4/195).
Buzz: This trio includes two legitimate All-America candidates in Barnes and Marshall. Barnes was playing as well as just about any player in the country by the end of his freshman season, while Marshall might be the nation's top pure point guard. Bullock had a disappointing and injury-riddled freshman season, but he's a former five-star recruit who should bounce back this season.

2. OHIO STATE: G Aaron Craft (6-2/190), G Jordan Sibert (6-4/185), G Lenzelle Smith Jr. (6-4/205), F Jared Sullinger (6-9/280), F Deshaun Thomas (6-7/225), F J.D. Weatherspoon (6-6/215).
Buzz: Sullinger was a finalist for the Naismith and Wooden player of the year awards last season. Craft is an exceptional defender who had more than twice as many assists as turnovers last season, while Thomas averaged 7.5 point and 14.0 minutes last season. The other three sophomores earned little playing time last season.

3. MEMPHIS: G Antonio Barton (6-2/170), G Will Barton (6-6/175), F Tarik Black (6-8/243), G Chris Crawford (6-4/212), G Trey Draper (5-10/175), G Joe Jackson (6-1/164)
Buzz: The Barton brothers, Black and Jackson each averaged at least nine points per game last season. Crawford made 19 starts and averaged 6.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Jackson was the most valuable player in the Conference USA tournament.

4. CONNECTICUT: G/F Niels Giffey (6-7/205), G/F Jeremy Lamb (6-5/180), G Shabazz Napier (6-1/171), F Tyler Olander (6-9/225), F Roscoe Smith 6-8/205), C Enosch Wolf (7-1/245)
Buzz: Lamb heads into his sophomore season as an All-America candidate after an outstanding NCAA tournament run. Lamb, Smith and Olander each made at least 21 starts last season, while Giffey started 10 games.

5. KENTUCKY: F Terrence Jones (6-9/252), G Doron Lamb (6-4/210), G Stacey Poole (6-4/200).
Buzz: Jones is an All-America candidate who averaged 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman. Lamb averaged 12.3 points and shot 48.6 percent from 3-point range last year. Poole rarely played last season and reportedly is considering a transfer.

TOP JUNIOR CLASSES

1. DUKE: G Seth Curry (6-2/180), G Andre Dawkins (6-4/200), F Ryan Kelly (6-11/230), F Mason Plumlee (6-10/235), F Todd Zafirovski (6-9/240)
Buzz: Curry, Dawkins, Kelly and Plumlee averaged more than 20 minutes per game for the Blue Devils last season. They combined to average 30.9 points and 15.8 rebounds. Curry, Dawkins and Plumlee should open this season in the starting lineup. Curry could emerge as one of the top shooters, and Plumlee should remain one of the top rebounders in the ACC.

2. KANSAS: G Elijah Johnson (6-4/195), G Travis Releford (6-4/210), F Thomas Robinson (6-10/237), C Jeff Withey (7-0/235), F Kevin Young (6-8/195)
Buzz: Kansas won't win its eighth consecutive Big 12 regular-season title without a big contribution from this class. Johnson, Releford, Robinson and Withey could open the season in the starting lineup. After averaging 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds while backing up Marcus and Markieff Morris last season, Robinson has the talent to become an All-American this season.

3. VILLANOVA: G Dominic Cheek (6-6/190), F/C Maurice Sutton (6-11/220), G Maalik Wayns (6-2/200), F/C Mouphtaou Yarou (6-10/255)
Buzz: Wayns averaged 13.8 points and 4.5 assists last season and will need to perform even better this season as Villanova replaces Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. Yarou has been one of the Big East's top big men - when healthy. Cheek and Sutton also should have featured roles this season. This class would be even stronger if Isaiah Armwood hadn't transferred to George Washington.

4. LOUISVILLE: F Rakeem Buckles (6-7/215), G Mike Marra (6-5/200), G Peyton Siva (6-0/180), G Jared Swopshire (6-8/200), F Stephan Van Treese (6-8/235)
Buzz: If only all these guys could be healthy at the same time. Swopshire missed last season with a groin injury, while Buckles likely will miss the start of this season as he recovers from a torn ACL. Siva is Louisville's starting point guard. Marra made 11 starts last season. For the purposes of these rankings, we didn't consider George Mason transfer Luke Hancock, a talented junior who won't play this season.

5. MISSISSIPPI STATE: C Wendell Lewis (6-9/260), F Arnett Moultrie (6-11/249), G Charles Parker (5-10/168), G Baxter Price (5-10/159), F Renardo Sidney (6-10/280)
Buzz: The guards in this class haven't played much so far, but the three big men should form a quality frontcourt trio. Sidney must improve his conditioning and discipline, but he has All-America talent. Moultrie, a UTEP transfer, averaged 9.8 points and 6.7 rebounds as a freshman. Lewis is a big, physical guy who had 14 points and 11 rebounds in a preseason exhibition.

TOP SENIOR CLASSES

1. VANDERBILT: C Festus Ezeli (6-11/255), G/F Lance Goulbourne (6-8/230), Aaron Noll (6-7/220), Jeffery Taylor (6-7/225), F Steve Tchiengang (6-9/245), G Brad Tinsley (6-3/210)
Buzz: Ezeli and Taylor are potential first-round picks who earned second-team All-SEC honors last season. Taylor and Tinsley will be four-year starters. Goulbourne made 21 starts and ranked seventh in the SEC in rebounds (7.3) last season, while Tchiengang provides solid minutes off the bench. Ezeli, who is recovering from a sprained right knee, must serve a six-game suspension to start the season for accepting improper benefits.

2. MISSOURI: F Laurence Bowers (6-8/221), G Marcus Denmon (6-3/185), G Kim English (6-6/200), C Steve Moore (6-9/267), G Matt Pressey (6-2/195), F Ricardo Ratliffe (6-8/240), G Jarrett Sutton (6-4/196)
Buzz: Denmon earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last season, while English and Ratliffe also posted scoring averages in double figures. Ratliffe, a junior college transfer, was the Big 12's newcomer of the year last season. Pressey made 10 starts last season. Missouri might have finished first on this list if Bowers weren't going to miss the entire season with a torn ACL. For the purposes of this ranking, we didn't consider senior guard Keion Bell, a Pepperdine transfer who won't play this season.

3. PURDUE: F Robbie Hummel (6-8/215), G Lewis Jackson (5-9/165), G Ryne Smith (6-3/189)
Buzz: This ranking is a leap of faith that Hummel returns to peak form as he comes back from two knee surgeries. Hummel, a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, sat out last season. Jackson averaged 8.0 points and 4.0 assists last season to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors and is expected to play a bigger role this season. Smith averaged 6.2 points and 2.4 rebounds while making 24 starts.

4. LONG BEACH STATE: G Larry Anderson (6-5/210), F Edis Dervisevic (6-8/250), G Corey Jackson (6-0/185), F Eugene Phelps (6-7/225), F T.J. Robinson (6-8/205), G/F Sean Starkey (6-4/190), G Casper Ware (5-10/175)
Buzz: Ware (17.2), Anderson (14.3), Robinson (13.6) and Phelps (9.7) averaged a combined 54.8 points per game last season for the 49ers, who were the Big West regular-season champions. Ware was the Big West overall and defensive player of the year. Robinson averaged a double-double last season. Ware, Robinson and Anderson are preseason All-Big West picks this season. Big West rival UCSB also has a solid senior class headed by Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally.

5. NEW MEXICO: F Drew Gordon (6-9/245), F A.J. Hardeman (6-8/235), G Phillip McDonald (6-5/200)
Buzz: Gordon, a UCLA transfer, averaged a double-double last season with 13.o points and 10.5 rebounds per game. McDonald averaged 10.9 points and 4.3 rebounds, while Hardeman added 7.6 points and 4.4 rebounds. Hardeman and McDonald are entering their third seasons as starters. New Mexico got the fifth spot by the slightest of margins over reigning NIT champion Wichita State, which could open the season with an all-senior starting five.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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