Elite Returning Sophomores Improve, But Their Teams Are A Toss-Up

Source: Dylan Bluell/Getty Images

It’s always difficult to count out a Tom Izzo-led team. One that returns a top 15 recruit for a sophomore encore, however, is one that’s impossible to ignore.

That’s what Izzo has in store for his 2018 Michigan State Spartans. Miles Bridges, the #12 recruit from the class of 2017 (according to 247Sports), and three of the next four leading MSU scorers also remain in East Lansing. As a result, Michigan State should provide a jolt to the Big Ten – a conference that has lacked an Elite Eight team or better the past two seasons.

Sparty figures to be a major force at the national level next season. Michigan State ranked 3rd in ESPN’s way-too-early 2017-18 rankings, 2nd in Sporting News’, 4th in Fox Sports’ and was the top team in NBC Sports’ top 25. Each source cited Bridges’ decision to spurn the NBA and return to school as the reason why Michigan State should appear in the preseason top five next season. MSU was ranked #12 in the AP preseason top 25 last fall, but a 3-3 start dropped the Spartans from the rankings for the remainder of the season.

Miles Bridges joins Wenyen Gabriel (Kentucky) and Marques Bolden (Duke) as the only returnees that ranked in the top 15 of last year’s recruiting class (247Sports). Since 2012, 23 players that ranked in the top 15 of their respective recruiting class returned for a sophomore season. The table below includes each of those 23 players with their respective recruiting rank and win share totals by season.

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Sources: 247Sports, Sports-Reference

The dreaded “sophomore slump” doesn’t appear to be all that prevalent for former top 15 recruits. Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead saw the greatest leap in his second year, going from just 1.1 win shares as a freshman to 4.2 as a sophomore, good for ninth in the loaded Big East. Other notable improvements include LSU’s Jarell Martin (2.4 to 5.1), Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski (2.4 to 4.5), Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison (3.2 to 5.1) and UCLA’s Kyle Anderson (3.7 to 5.6).

These 23 players averaged 2.9 win shares as freshmen, increasing to an impressive 3.7 as sophomores before plateauing at 3.4 and 3.3 in both upperclassmen seasons. The junior year continues to have the most varied results. Sam Dekker logged 7.0 win shares in his third season with the Badgers, but the likes of Alex Poythress (Kentucky) and Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke) nosedived as juniors, recording 1.3 and 0.8 win shares, respectively.

The table below lists each of the 23 aforementioned players and how their teams’ seasons ended.

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Top 15 recruits that return for their sophomore usually improve, but their teams aren’t always as much of a sure-thing. Of the 23 listed players, their teams combined to win 41 NCAA Tournament games their freshmen season. As sophomores, their teams totaled a combined 51 tournament victories. Four of these players missed the tournament altogether, and none of the 23 won the national title.