College basketball's All-Firecracker Team

Jason King
Yahoo! Sports

It's hard to predict what will happen during the 2011-12 college basketball campaign – or any season, for that matter. The preseason favorite hardly ever wins the title and some of the players who are expected to be All-Americans don't even make all-conference.

Picking potential breakthrough players, though, is a bit easier.

Usually they're guys who have shown flashes of stardom in the past but, for whatever reason, have fallen just short of elite status. With more opportunities and experience, they almost always take that next step toward greatness.

In honor of the Fourth of July, here's Yahoo! Sports' All-Firecracker team – guys I expect to catch fire in 2011-12.

Harrison Barnes, North Carolina, F, sophomore – The first half of Barnes' freshman season was a disappointment – but only because of the unfair expectations that were placed on him before he ever played a college game. Barnes finished the season on a high note by leading the Tar Heels to the Elite Eight. If he makes the kind of strides that people are expecting, Barnes could be the top player in college basketball this season and the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Melsahn Basabe, Iowa, F, sophomore – The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Basabe was one of the better freshmen in the country last season with an 11-point scoring average. But he flew largely under the radar as Iowa struggled. Basabe reached double figures in seven of his last nine games and also grabbed 6.8 boards per contest. Expect him to post even better numbers for an Iowa squad in the midst of a rebuilding project.

Perry Jones, Baylor, F, sophomore – The graduation of LaceDarius Dunn will be a blessing for Jones and the Bears. Dunn's poor shot selection limited Jones' touches last season and ultimately kept ultra-talented Baylor out of the NCAA tournament. The 6-foot-11 Jones is regarded as a top five pick in next summer's NBA draft. The presence of Quincy Acy, Anthony Jones, J'mison Morgan and Quincy Miller will make it tough for opponents to double-team Jones

Khris Middleton, Texas A&M, F, junior – Middleton displayed an NBA skill set last season and is projected as a future first-round NBA draft pick. There were times, though, when Middleton could've been much more assertive and finished with 24 points instead of 12. If he plays with more confidence and fire he could contend for All-American honors.

C.J. Leslie, North Carolina State, F, sophomore – Unlike Ryan Harrow, who bolted for Kentucky, Leslie opted not to transfer in the aftermath of Sidney Lowe's firing at the end of last season. Leslie averaged 11 points and 7.2 rebounds in just 24.6 minutes as a freshman. He'll be the player new coach Mark Gottfried leans on the most during his first season with the Wolfpack.

Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State, F, junior – Once projected as a surefire lottery pick, Sidney battled weight and attitude issues early last season. But he showed flashes of brilliance in February and March, when he eclipsed the 20-point plateau in three of his final six games. If Sidney takes off Mississippi State could be a top 15-caliber team.

Dante Taylor, Pittsburgh, F, junior – The only McDonald's All-American on the Panthers roster last season, Taylor made much more of an impact than he did as a freshman. Even though his stats (5.1 points and 4.1 rebounds) didn't show it, Taylor became a significant post presence off the bench for the Big East champions. The graduation of Gary McGhee will force Taylor into a bigger role.

Josh Smith, UCLA, C, sophomore – The 6-foot-10, 300-pound Smith averaged 10.9 points as a freshman last season despite playing just 21 minutes per game. If he stays in shape he could dominate the Pac-10. Smith, Reeves Nelson and the Wear twins should form one of the nation's top frontcourts.

Patric Young, Florida, C, sophomore – Young's strength and athleticism made him a dominate post presence in high school. But Florida's coaches quickly discovered that his basketball IQ was lacking. Slowly but surely, that's beginning to change. With Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin gone, Young should play a huge role in 2011-12 after averaging just 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds as a freshman.

Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut, G/F, sophomore – Kemba Walker got all the glory, but it was Lamb who came up huge for the Huskies during last season's national title run. He averaged 16.2 points on 58 percent shooting in six NCAA tournament games – and he was only a freshman. Don't be surprised if Lamb is even better in 2011-12, when he could guide Connecticut back to the Final Four.

Seth Curry, Duke, G, junior – Curry averaged nine points in his first season with the Blue Devils after transferring from Liberty. But he had trouble with his consistency, rarely stringing together more than three or four straight standout performances. Part of that was because of the presence of Yahoo! Sports National Player of the Year Nolan Smith. With Smith gone, Curry will likely be one of Duke's top offensive players along with incoming guard Austin Rivers.

Jio Fontan, USC, G, junior – The Trojans looked like a whole new team once Fontan, a Fordham transfer, became eligible in mid-December of last season. Even though Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson got most of the credit, Fontan was the x-factor for a team that squeaked into the NCAA tournament. Looking for Fontan to significantly increase last year's scoring average of 10.5 points.

Abdul Gaddy, Washington, G, junior – Gaddy had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the Pac-10 (3.8 assists, 1.2 turnovers) when he tore his ACL during the first week of January. He was also averaging 8.5 points. With Isaiah Thomas gone, look for Gaddy and incoming freshman Tony Wroten to form a pesky duo in the Huskies' backcourt.

Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan, G, sophomore – The son of the former Miami Heat star averaged 13.9 points as a freshman last season and scored in double figures in his last 16 games. With backcourt mate Darius Morris now in the NBA, Hardaway will have plenty of chances to improve those numbers. He's currently competing for the U19 USA world championship team.

Elijah Johnson, Kansas, G, junior – The graduation of Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed and the departure of Josh Selby create a huge opportunity for Johnson, a former five-star recruit who has yet to make his presence felt in Lawrence. A solid 3-point shooter and excellent defender, Johnson has been the Jayhawks' top performer during summer pick-up games.

Doron Lamb, Kentucky, G, sophomore – Lamb ranked third on the team in scoring (12.3 points) as a part-time starter last season. But he was largely overshadowed by players such as Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. With another huge crop of freshmen headed to Lexington, Lamb – who shot 48.9 percent from 3-point range in 2010-11 – will be counted on heavily for leadership.

Rhyne Smith, Purdue, G, senior – Smith has the chance to make a huge impact following the graduation of stars JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, both of whom were selected in the NBA draft. Smith averaged just 6.2 points last season but proved to be deadly from beyond the arc, where he connected on 44.1 percent of his shots. He had 20 points (including six 3-pointers) in an NCAA tournament loss to VCU.

Michael Snaer, Florida State, G, junior – Snaer averaged 8.8 points as both a freshman and a sophomore, which was mildly disappointing considering the hype surrounding his signing. Sometimes the biggest improvement a player makes takes place between his sophomore and junior year. The Seminoles hope that's the case with Snaer, a McDonald's All-American in high school.

What to Read Next