The 2011-12 chapter of Kentucky basketball closed on April 17, when all five of its starters appeared at a joint press conference in matching blue polo shirts, and announced they were turning pro. The only player comment that drew a rise out of coach John Calipari, who was sitting among them in a black suit, came from Anthony Davis, the 6-foot-11 freshman who was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player and also swept every national player of the year award. When Davis humbly thanked the coaching staff for "helping me become the great player that I am," Calipari interjected and said, half-incredulously, "Did you just say 'the great player that I am?'"
It may have been presumptuous -- Davis did shoot 1-of-10 in the title game and has plenty of room for offensive development -- but my most indelible memories from this season will be of him making great, not-of-this-world plays. I suspect that in 10 or 20 years, what the Wildcats did will be remembered almost exclusively as the "one-and-done" championship. Their freshmen were their most memorable players, and they made a historic breakthrough, establishing a new model for title-team construction. The narrative will probably exclude the fact that Kentucky's title wasn't possible without two key sophomore returnees. Power forward Terrence Jones, who could have been a first-rounder in the 2011 draft, was a wildly underrated defender -- and the highest possession-user in the nation's second-most efficient offense. Shooting guard Doron Lamb's floor-stretching ability took the Wildcats' offense to another level, and he was their leading scorer (with 30 points) in the championship game. An all-freshman team would have been fun to watch, but it would not have been cutting down nets in New Orleans.
I also suspect that sophomore returnees will be playing an even more prominent role in next year's championship picture. Kentucky has two good ones in seventh man Kyle Wiltjer (a stretch four-man) and N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow (a point guard), but the five who figure to be the biggest factors play for other schools, and (in most cases) had to make hard decisions about passing on this June's NBA draft:
Staying Impact: With Cody Zeller, the Hoosiers are SI.com's very early preseason No. 1 for 2012-13. In the statement Zeller released announcing his return, he said that his experience at IU "has exceeded my expectations," and he exceeded almost everyone's expectations as a freshman, emerging as one of the college game's most efficient big men -- one who made crafty plays well beyond his years. He ranked the highest of any returnee in Ken Pomeroy's POY formula and should be a frontrunner (along with Creighton's Doug McDermott) for the Wooden and Naismith Awards.
Had He Left: Zeller would likely have been a top-10 pick, ahead of his older brother Tyler, a North Carolina senior. The Hoosiers would have lacked an impact post player, and slid to No. 3 in Big Ten preseason projections, behind Ohio State and Michigan.
The Next Step: For Indiana to meet the media's lofty expectations for 2012-13, it'll need to make big strides on defense after ranking 64th last season in adjusted points allowed per possession. That starts in the middle: Zeller's block percentage of 4.3 was glaringly low for a 6-11 center, and 6-9 forward Christian Watford had a better defensive rebounding percentage (18.8, to Zeller's 16.8).
Staying Impact: With C.J. Leslie returning, N.C. State may be the preseason favorite in the ACC, but with McAdoo in the middle, the Tar Heels will be a formidable challenger. He's the league's best pro prospect for 2013, and his spurts of offensive brilliance off the bench during the NCAA tournament were signs that he's ready for a huge sophomore breakout. UNC will be playing small, but will any opponents be able to match the athleticism of fast-breaking lineups in which McAdoo is surrounded with returning guards Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston?
Had He Left: McAdoo might have been drafted ahead of John Henson or Tyler Zeller, and Carolina's only returning post player would have been 6-10 sophomore Desmond Hubert, who averaged 4.9 minutes per game and did not see the court in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. The frontcourt situation would have been ugly.
Next Step: The Henson-Zeller combo made UNC a dominant rebounding and shot-blocking team in '11-12. McAdoo will need to put up respectable numbers in those departments; he blocked just 2.1 percent of opponents' shots last season, and his defensive rebounding percentage was a meager 15.6. Was that just because the elder big men were hogging all the glass-cleaning opportunities, or does McAdoo need to make gains in getting rebounding position?
Staying Impact: Burke was the nation's best freshman point guard last season; having him back alongside Tim Hardaway Jr. in the Wolverines' backcourt should give them an outside shot at making a Final Four run. They were the team's two highest possession-users by a wide margin in 2011-12, and figure to dominate the ball again, even with the addition of elite freshman power forward Mitch McGary, the highest-ranked recruit ever to sign with coach John Beilein.
Had He Left: Michigan survived the early departure of its previous point guard, Darius Morris, when Burke emerged as a star. The Wolverines weren't going to repeat that feat; they also lost their other primary ballhandler, senior Stu Douglass, and would have been stuck with late-signing freshman Spike Albrecht, a three-star prospect from Massachusetts, taking over the offense. They would have been a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team ... and Burke may not have been a first-round pick, either. Him returning is the best-case scenario for all parties other than Michigan opponents.
Next Step: Like Indiana, the Wolverines need to lock down on D to become a real title contender. Burke was part of a defense that ranked 60th overall, including 289th in steals and 208th at defending the three-point line. His defense will have to progress, and on offense, will he be able to draw more fouls off of penetration? Beilien's five-out offenses have historically been near the bottom of Division I in free throw rate, but Burke is quick enough with the ball that he should be able to post a higher rate than 30.6. He averaged just 4.1 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes last season.
Staying Impact: The Cardinals are SI.com's No. 2 team in the preseason, in large part because their Behanan-Gorgui Dieng frontcourt is one of the best in the nation. Behanan started from Day 1, but didn't play his best basketball until the NCAA tournament, when he was named Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional after going for 15-and-9 against Michigan State and 17-and-7 against Florida. He looked to be on the verge of an All-Big East-level season as a sophomore. Fellow McDonald's All-American Wayne Blackshear, whose freshman year was plagued by injuries, could have a similar breakout while starting at small forward.
Had He Left: Behanan is so undersized for a power forward that he was never a real threat to declare for the draft, which is good for the 'Ville: he was their best rebounder on both ends, and that production would've been difficult to replace. The Cardinals roster has a few serviceable backup bigs in Stephan Van Treese (a 6-8 senior) and Zach Price (a 6-10 sophomore), but the one experienced fill-in for Behanan, Jared Swopshire (a 6-8 senior), opted to transfer to Northwestern as a graduate student.
Next Step: Free-throw accuracy should be Behanan's primary focus this offseason. He had the highest foul-drawing rate (48.3 free throws per 100 field-goal attempts) of any Cardinal, but shot the lowest percentage from the stripe (59.4 percent). He's their most effective scorer around the basket, making 56.0 percent of his two-point attempts, and has a nice mid-range jumper, but won't be a star until he gets more reliable from the line.
Five other sophomore returnees who could impact the '12-13 title race: Adonis Thomas, Memphis; P.J. Hairston, North Carolina; Otto Porter, Georgetown; Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse; Wayne Blackshear, Louisville.