Evans Seven: Players who can return from injury, lift their teams
Injuries curtailed a number of top programs’ seasons last year. Much of the current talk centers around new faces enrolling, but there are several other players who - with a clean bill of health - can take their respective programs to greater heights. We highlight those prospects in this week's edition of Evans Seven.
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1. JOSHUA LANGFORD
Michigan State made it all of the way to the Final Four last season, but just think what they could have achieved if Joshua Langford would have been on the floor. Langford began the season with great promise, but he ended up playing just 13 games because of an ankle injury. He was averaging 15 points per game and looked to be the ideal complement to All-American Cassius Winston in the backcourt. Instead, the former five-star guard’s season ended quickly, but optimism remains that he can be the catalyst for the Spartans getting over the hump and giving Tom Izzo his second national title. Michigan State will welcome top 40 guard Rocket Watts into its program, and if Langford can receive a clean bill of health, Watts could end up being one of the best sixth men in the sport.
2. UDOKA AZUBUIKE
One of the most efficient scorers the college game has seen in recent years, Udoka Azubuike was expected to be in the NBA by now. But after tearing a ligament in his hand, Big Doke will return to the Jayhawks, and they'll welcome him with open arms.
They didn’t win too many recruiting battles this year, but they will welcome back Devon Dotson and will enroll two Rivals150 guards. But KU’s biggest addition will be a healthy Azubuike. Converting close to three-fourths of the shots that he has taken throughout his college career, the question about his play has never been about how effective he might be but rather if he can receive a clean bill of health. Azubuike is a senior in the classroom, but he has only played one full season. If he gets back to 100 percent the Jayhawks won't just compete for another Big 12 title, they'll also be in the national championship picture.
3. JEROME HUNTER
Indiana fans know all too well that last season did not go as planned in the one season the Hoosiers had Romeo Langford on their roster. While Langford had an up-and-down season and the Hoosiers failed to win as much as fans would have liked, what should not be swept under the rug is just how much the injury bug hit them.
One of those injured was Jerome Hunter, a former top 50 prospect within the 2018 class who was expected to give Archie Miller plenty of versatility in the frontcourt. Instead, Hunter's season ended before it began. But the Indiana faithful are hopeful again, thanks to some strong recruiting, along with the addition of Butler grad-transfer Joey Brunk. But Hunter could be the dark horse candidate for getting IU on the proper path. A 6-foot-7 prospect who can play either forward position, a healthy Hunter gives Indiana even more talent in the frontcourt and a chance for the Hoosiers to work their way up the Big Ten ladder.
4. SHAREEF O'NEAL
Much of the talk in recent weeks at UCLA has circulated around the hiring of Mick Cronin and the early departures of Kris Wilkes, Jaylen Hands and Moses Brown to the NBA. Those stories created one of the very few times that Shareef O’Neal, the son of Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal, has been forgotten about.
Despite the departures, the cupboard is not entirely bare and one of the reasons is because of a now-healthy O’Neal. News broke last fall that he would be shelved for his freshman season as he was forced into surgery due to a heart defect. In March, O’Neal announced that he was medically cleared to play again, giving Cronin a talented and versatile weapon in the frontcourt.
Having O'Neal in the mix along with Cody Riley, Chris Smith and Jalen Hill gives the Bruins a better chance than many might assume. On paper, UCLA is talented enough to compete in the less-than-stellar Pac-12 and reach the NCAA Tournament in Cronin’s first season in Westwood. But that might only happen if a healthy O’Neal can provide the support that he was originally expected to give the Bruins.
5. REX PFLUEGER
It was not a good year for Mike Brey’s squad, as the Irish were hit by a rash of injuries, and no injury impacted the Notre Dame program greater than that of Rex Pflueger. After enrolling one of his best classes that he ever assembled in South Bend, Brey was hoping to rely on the graybeard Pflueger to navigate the more difficult portions of the schedule. But when Plueger went down with an ACL injury after just 10 games it ended up being the death knell for the Irish.
Luckily, Pflueger will receive an extra year of eligibility, which could make Notre Dame the surprise of the ACC. He brings 110 games of experience to the program. That experience, along with the talent of Temple Gibbs and an offseason of development from Juwan Durham, John Mooney and Nate Laszewski could catapult Notre Dame into the upper echelon of the league for the first time in three years.
6. TRISTAN CLARK
Baylor jumped out of the gate in impressive fashion last season and surprised many, as the Bears were picked to finish in the basement of their league. The season did not end as great as it began, and while that will happen to anyone in a league as deep as the Big 12 the season-ending injury of Tristan Clark didn't help matters.
Clark had taken a giant leap in production from his freshman season and into his sophomore campaign. When he got hurt he was averaging 14.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game and was leading the nation in field goal shooting (73.7 percent). He was a promising building block that Baylor was going to lean on in February and March. But, unfortunately, he was forced to sit out league play due to knee surgery. Now healthy, Clark - along with Mario Kegler, Mark Vital and Makai Mason - could have the Bears on the cusp of their first league title since 1950.
7. KEITH STONE
Last season did not go as great as MIami would have liked, but it did provide some promise thanks to a budding underclassman talent in Chris Lykes. The former Rivals150 guard is back with the Hurricanes, and he will be joined by four-star prospects Isaiah Wong and Harlond Beverly in the backcourt.
The frontline is where questions remain which is why a healthy Keith Stone is so important to the Hurricanes' fate next season. Jim Larranaga navigated through one of his more difficult seasons, one that was further hampered by the ineligibility of Dewan Huell. So, the enrollment of Stone, a Florida grad-transfer, could not have come at a better time. A starter for the Gators before suffering a torn ACL in January, Stone has never been a major producer, but he is a reliable back-line piece and he will be asked to be just that. Kam McGusty, a one-time Oklahoma standout, will now be eligible, too. Add him to Miami's talented backcourt and the Hurricanes might be a surprise team in the ACC and have a chance at returning to the NCAA Tournament.