Practice has begun and games are just five weeks away. We all read the same things as the season begins (as we should); coaching changes, freshmen, transfers, etc. However a subject that gets less ink is players that are returning to their teams after missing most if not all of the prior season to injury. Here is a look at four such players that hope to make their teams better in 2016-17.
E.C. Matthews returns to the Rhode Island line up after tearing his ACL ten minutes into the Rams’ season opener last season. Matthews was the Atlantic 10 Pre-season Player of the Year prior to last season with hopes of a conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth. Without the dynamic 6-5 junior who averaged 16.9 points per game two years ago Dan Hurley’s team clawed their way to a 17-15 (9-9 in conference) finish culminating with a loss to UMass in the conference tournament. The season without Matthews gave the Rams valuable experience on how to win without a star. Now they return four of the top five scorers from last season on top of their leader and are seen by some as a top 25 team.
The Oregon Ducks had a great season, 31-7 a PAC-12 Championship and a trip to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. A key member of that team was thought to be Dylan Ennis a graduate transfer from Villanova, but he injured his foot in the fall and appeared in just two games around the New Year before reinjuring the foot against Oregon State. In June Ennis was granted another year of eligibility by the NCAA and rejoins Dana Altman’s 31-win Ducks that is loaded with six of its eight top scorers from last season and looking to go even further this season.
Indiana was upset in the Big Ten Quarterfinals by Michigan but made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament capping off a 27-8 season. The Hoosiers have lost point guard Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams but Coach Tom Crean gets James Blackmon, Jr. who missed the team’s final 22 games after tearing his ACL. Before the injury Blackmon averaged 15.8 points and over four rebounds per game and now he returns to a team that is a pre-season top 25 possibly top 10 team.
In yet another story of the rich get richer, Amile Jefferson returns to the Duke Blue Devil line up. 25-11 seems like a down year for Duke, an overtime loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Quarterfinals and then a Sweet 16 loss to Oregon in the NCAA Tournament. So how does Duke regroup? How about the nation’s top recruiting class with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden on top of returning a favorite for National Player of the Year in Grayson Allen. Jefferson was averaging a double-double (11.4 pts and 10.3 rebounds) before fracturing his foot nine games into the season. The Blue Devils are the preseason #1 team in the country.
Hope springs eternal for every team this time of year but for these four teams their returning contributors add an extra shot of optimism that 2016-17 will be even better than the campaigns they had last season.