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August 2, 2011

College hoops breakout players for 2011-12

Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, who led the Huskies to the 2011 national championship, was not in the top 10 in the Big East in scoring a year earlier. He didn't even lead his own team in that category (Jerome Dyson did).

But in a season, Walker transformed himself from the second-leading scorer on an NIT team to the NCAA tournament's most outstanding player.

Connecticut knew Walker would need to become a superstar for the Huskies to return to the NCAAs. He was a solid player as a sophomore, third-team All-Big East, but blossomed as a unanimous All-American as a junior.

The next Kemba Walker could emerge from the list below. And his team could reap in similar fashion.

The following six players could take the leap from the second, third or fourth option on their own teams to first- or second-team All-American. Here are the picks for potential breakout players on the national scene for 2011-12.

G Maalik Wayns, Villanova
The buzz: Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes bided their time as freshman role players on Villanova's Final Four team led by Scottie Reynolds in 2009. Through the last three seasons, Fisher and Stokes carried on the Wildcats' proud guard tradition. Now it's time for the duo to pass the baton. Wayns was Villanova's third-leading scorer (behind the two Coreys) last season. Coach Jay Wright needs his junior point guard to take charge in 2011-12, especially on a team that lacks seniors. Here's the key: Wayns averaged 13.8 points per game despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field and 27.1 percent from 3-point range. If he can boost those averages, Wayns could be Villanova's next star guard. Also keep an eye on fellow guard Dominic Cheek, who was a four-star prospect in the class of 2009, the same signing class as Wayns.

G Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut
The buzz: The United States' fifth-place performance in the FIBA U-19 Championships was a disappointment, but Lamb's performance was not. He spent last season in the shadow of Kemba Walker, but the then-freshman blossomed through the course of the season. Lamb endured a late-season slump, but rebounded during the postseason, averaging 15.3 points in 11 Big East and NCAA tournament games. In international play, Lamb averaged 16.2 points. When he returns to UConn, he'll have to prove he was more than Walker's sidekick. His international experience suggests he could be comfortable as the top Connecticut's top player.

G Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan
The buzz: Hardaway joined Lamb on the U-19 team, but he struggled at times in FIBA play. Michigan has just about everyone back from a team that improved from 15-17 to 21-14, but the biggest piece is missing. Point guard Darius Morris left early for the draft to become a second-round pick of the Lakers. But Hardaway was the better scorer over the second half of the season. After Jan. 22, Hardaway averaged 17.2 points per game, Morris averaged 14.2. They were the only two players to average double figures all year for the Wolverines. With Morris gone, Hardaway will get most of the attention – and he'll need a point guard to make up for Morris' 6.7 assists per game.

F Thomas Robinson, Kansas
The buzz: Only at a place such as Kansas could a player such as Cole Aldrich – or Thomas Robinson – sit on the bench for a season or two. With Marcus and Markieff Morris leading the Jayhawks, Robinson managed fewer than 15 minutes per game. Robinson made the most of his opportunity, though, averaging 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds (third most on the team after the Morris brothers). Robinson is a trendy pick to emerge from the shadows of Kansas' frontcourt and start looking like an NBA draft pick. Before that, he must show he can carry more weight for the Jayhawks, who not only lose the Morris twins but also Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Mario Little.

F Perry Jones, Baylor
The buzz: Jones entered his freshman season as the No. 9 prospect in his signing class. Of those ranked ahead of him, only Ohio State's Jared Sullinger stayed out of the draft. Jones perhaps would have been a high draft pick, but he can prove himself as a college player now that he elected to stay. He didn't have a bad season as a freshman with 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last year, but he was hardly a dominant player. After skipping the postseason, Baylor brings in a talented signing class headlined by Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello as well as transfers Gary Franklin from Cal and Brady Heslip from Boston College. With LaceDarius Dunn (19.5 points per game, 15.2 field goal attempts per game) gone, Baylor needs a go-to player. It could be the 6-11 forward with a possible NBA future, but the Bears need to settle on a point guard. If Jones does not deliver, it could put a dent in his draft stock, and Scott Drew's job security.

Sixth man: F Reeves Nelson, UCLA
The buzz: This spot could be reserved for UCLA sophomore center Josh Smith, but the 300-pound center has gained 10 more pounds over the offseason. Nelson's effort won't be questioned, and he should be productive after leading the Bruins with 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds last year. Between Smith's weight issues, the departures of Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA draft and an arrest for backup point guard Jerime Anderson, that leaves Nelson as the rock for the Bruins' team. He'll also welcome North Carolina transfers Travis Wear and David Wear to the frontcourt.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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