It’s also a chance to see freshmen get some real tests. Last year we saw the statistics of most non-Durantian freshmen decline and with the gaudy numbers put up this season, merely treading water will be an impressive feat for most folks. So rather than just continue to rank the top 10 freshmen as the “second season” begins, I welcome conference play with a big ol’ primer – complete with a nifty little boxing gimmick – examining the impact freshmen and handicapping the rookie of the year awards in each BCS league and on the non-BCS landscape. The regular ranking comes at the bottom, minus snarky elaboration, with the usual games to watch following.
My New Year’s Resolution is to not develop an unhealthy proclivity toward one freshman which could severely cloud my judgment, taste and smell like I did last year so send anti-Eric Gordon e-mails before it’s too late.
Atlantic Coast Conference
The Champ – Kyle Singler, Duke
It’s a relatively light year for ACC freshmen but that’s not to say Singler owns this spot by default. If anything, his talent is underappreciated on a deep, balanced Duke team. He may not be Duke’s best player, as I had proclaimed in the preseason, before Gerald Henderson realized he was Gerald Henderson, but he might be Duke’s most important player. He’s got next-level talent but it’s his versatility and the intangibles that come along with it that will matter. He must defend a number of different positions and offensively, has to be part-scorer, part-spot up shooter, part post player and part playmaker. He’s almost in the Shane Battier mold, a glue guy who also happens to be your most talented player.
The Contender – JJ Hickson, NC State
A lot of people liked NC State before this season, including myself, and they have been very underwhelming thus far. The main reason for the preseason slobbering was the amazing frontcourt, of which incoming stud JJ Hickson was an afterthought. Well now that Ben McCauley and Brandon Costner have soiled their respective beds and the point guard position has been left in shambles (I heard they are in talks with Vinny Testaverde), Hickson has emerged as the Pack’s best player. He’s had some seriously monstrous games and will have better stats than Singler, but he may get labeled with the dreaded “subtraction by addition” label, if notoriously late-blooming NC State continues to struggle. Besides Hansbrough, he’s the best interior player in the league but it’ll be his ability to mix in with his frontcourt teammates that will determine his impact.
The Undercard – Rakim Sanders, Corey Roji, Boston College; James Johnson, Wake Forest; Jeff Allen, Virginia Tech
All these guys play on middling ACC teams with unproven non-conference performances but a chance to make the tourney if they take advantage of league play. Which means their team’s postseason fate probably hinges on them. If they continue to shine, a bubble is in their team’s future, if they hit the freshman wall, maybe that new weird sub-NIT tournament will come calling. I like Johnson the best, a versatile big man who should be stay a bit closer to the basket (10-49 3PTs), but a guy that might have the athleticism to neutralize the likes of Hansbrough, Clemson’s James Mays and Miami’s interior tandem to get the Deacons a signature win or two. BC needs one of their two freshman starters to emerge as a viable second scorer and Allen and the Hokies should contact NASA to retrieve the ball from the perimeter black hole that is Vassalo/Washington and establish the kid as the post threat he can be.
The Champ – Michael Beasley, Kansas State
He’s going to win conference freshman of the year, that’s a given. But he’s probably not going to outlast DJ Augustin for POY, no matter what his absurd numbers look like. I want to see Beasley win some games for this team before I give him the credit that Eric Gordon, Kevin Love and Derrick Rose deserve and, in big games, he has shown some serious chinks in the armor. Sure he had 40 and 15 in 23 minutes against the Winston Salem Fightin’ Emphysemas but five points on six shots against Xavier in 32 minutes? Eight for 20 from the field against Notre Dame? Beasley is no doubt a top three pick in the draft this year, probably No. 1, but when an immensely talented player can’t lead a team to a .500 conference record, some NBA scouts (although probably just those of the Spurs and Pistons) will be concerned.
Partner – DeAndre Jordan, Texas A & M
He’s probably the most talented freshman big man in the country but his poor conditioning and the inevitable freshman wall probably led to Mark Turgeon conserving Jordan’s minutes a bit in the non-conference. What he’s done in half a game – 10 points, seven rebounds and over a block – bodes well for his Big 12 production because the Aggies can’t afford to rest him (plus if you extrapolate that 34 percent foul shooting to a full 40 minutes, he’s almost a 70 percent shooter!). And if he had enough minutes to qualify, his 78 effective FG% over at KenPom would be tops in the nation. When he’s ready to go the distance and when future Polish League Player of the Year Joseph Jones is ready to stop clogging the lane, Jordan should help the Aggies at least put a scare in Kansas and Texas.
Rock Em Sock Em Robots – Blake Griffin, Oklahoma; James Anderson, Oklahoma State; LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor; Gary Johnson, Texas
These are really good players but none of them have a shot in hell at garnering the attention of Beasley, thus their lowly, Made in China-like status. After some underwhelming and inconsistent games early on for Griffin against Memphis and USC – his two lowest scoring games of the season – he got 15 and 14 in a win against Gonzaga and then put in probably one of the top five individual freshman performances of the year against West Virginia with 18 and 16 in 42 minutes, making some incredible plays and dominating inside before fouling out in double OT. If Oklahoma can get to the NCAAs, he should finish behind Beasley for freshman of the year. Anderson is an exciting player and a polished all-around wing scorer but is languishing on a bad team. Definitely a must-see guy if you don’t mind watching a blowout. Dunn isn’t quite getting the minutes yet, but when he plays, he’s been a go-to scorer. He could be the X-factor for any return to relevance for the Bears. And Johnson is obviously a wild card. He’s only played two games this season after a heart condition but certainly the All American talent is there and a big role for the Longhorns is there for the taking. He seemed to fit in seamlessly with his teammates against St. Mary’s with 15 points on 7-10 shooting, five rebounds and zero turnovers. We know how good this team was without him and he could propel them into a legit title contender.
The next bout: Big East and Big Ten