The 6-foot-8 small forward was a surefire high-major prospect after leading City to the Class 2A North Region semifinals in 2008. But over the next two years, Fair tore his ACL and missed his entire junior season with the Knights, and then left town to play at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. With his two-year absence from local high school competition, Fair felt like he may have faded from the Baltimore basketball scene's collective consciousness.
That feeling faded during the 2010-11 season, when Fair flashed his potential for the Orange. The former Knights star averaged 6.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in just 18.6 minutes per game. Fair hopes a summer spent working out in Baltimore will ensure that he sees more minutes as a sophomore.
"I just want [Syracuse fans] to know that I really worked on my game a lot this summer, I improved a lot," Fair said. "It will show on the court. I think they can expect to see a better, improved C.J. Fair. If I get better, and I know my teammates got better, it'll be a good, promising year."
Jim Boeheim has been impressed so far with what he's seen out of Fair this fall. It's clear to the Syracuse coach that the sophomore small forward dedicated himself over the summer to getting stronger and becoming a better shooter. There's no question, Boeheim said, that Fair has made "a big improvement" since the end of the 2010-11 season.
"He'll have more of an impact," this season, Boeheim said. "He'll get more time. We'll look to him a little bit more when he's in there. It's probably one of the most well-balanced teams we've had in a long time. I think he's one of the key guys for us. But he's on a tremendous path. I think he can be a dominant player before he leaves here."
4. Kim English, Missouri
Throughout his three years in Columbia, English has taken pride in his ability to lead. The 6-foot-6, 200-pound senior is one of the most quotable Tigers, a social-media superstar, a campus leader, and one of the Big 12's top guards. But the 2010-11 season, fell short of English's expectations. The junior averaged 10 points and a career-high 25.8 minutes. But the Tigers, who started the season 14-1, fell to Cincinnati in a second-round NCAA tournament matchup.
"Last year was real freelancing, loosey-goosey," English said. "But that style worked my first two years when we didn't have as much talent. Last season, we had seven or eight guys who could get buckets on their own. That much freedom had us bumping heads a lot and not really focusing on defense."
Senior year could be much different for English. Frank Haith left Miami to replace Mike Anderson — who left for Arkansas — as Missouri's coach, and English likes what he's seen so far out of the new system. Leaving the program in an even better place than how it was when he arrived is of the utmost importance to the former Randallstown star.
"It could be the best of my four years here — that's saying a lot," English said. "We were an Elite Eight team that won 31 games my freshman year. Next season we got to the second round. Last season was a crazy-talented team. We started the season Top 15, got to No. 8 in the country, and then we fell apart. We had so much talent, but just didn't jell together. Our chemistry now is better. We could easily be better than those three teams. But we have to do it every single day in practice. We really are preparing the right way. I'm just excited to get started."
As a freshman, Fitzgerald appeared in 26 games for the Sooners, averaging 4.8 points and two rebounds. Then last year came Fitzgerald's breakthrough campaign. The Baltimore County resident averaged 12.6 points and five rebounds, earning All-Big 12 honorable mention honors for his efforts.
"It was a great adjustment," said Fitzgerald, who played his junior season at Owings Mills before finishing his high school career at Brewster (N.H.) Academy. "I had to drop some weight so I could be on the court. … I had to adjust really fast. I adjusted my freshman year, started 11 games that season, then came out sophomore year and started every game. I kept improving from there."
First-year Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said he "didn't know much about" Fitzgerald before he got the Sooners job, but his early impressions of the junior forward were extremely positive. What about Fitzgerald's game stood out to Kruger the most?
"He can really score," Kruger said. "He's got a knack for hitting shots. He's got good touch on mid-range jumpers, good feel for the game. He really worked hard and improved his conditioning. He's done a nice job of that through summer and is doing a good job of that this fall."
Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound power forward, has simple goals for his junior season.
"Just win. Just win and make the tournament this year," Fitzgerald said. "I'm not really paying attention to all the media right now because all I know is that this team, right now, is ready to play and win this year."
2. Cleveland Melvin, DePaul
The former Lake Clifton big man is coming off a freshman season in which he averaged 17.4 points and 6.3 rebounds in conference play, earning Big East Rookie of the Year honors for his efforts.