Freshmen have never meant more to college basketball than they do right now, but not all first-year collegians are up to that challenge. Even some stars have started to wilt early in the 2012-13 season as they’ve entered the grind of major-conference play over the past couple of weeks.
One major name who’s bucked that trend in a big way is Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel. The Wildcats’ defensive ace is playing his best ball of the season since the beginning of SEC play, an achievement that’s sure to do wonders for his already lofty draft projections.
Read on for more on Noel and the rest of the 20 best freshmen (including redshirts) in the country, with an eye to where their prospects have been heading in recent games.
A.J. Hammons narrowly edges out the similarly built (and similarly talented) Josh Scott of Colorado largely because of how desperately Purdue has needed Hammons’ talents.
Coach Matt Painter’s usually dependable well of defensive stalwarts has nearly run dry. The 7’0” Hammons (at 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) is about all the Boilermaker D has working in its favor these days.
Offensively, Hammons has been all over the map (two points in a win over Illinois, 20 the next time out against Michigan State) in averaging 10.4 points a night.
Still, he’s looked sharp against physical Big Ten frontcourts (he’s up to 8.0 boards a game in conference play), which bodes well for the rest of Purdue’s season.
Stock: Inching up
With the pressure of a preseason No. 1 team resting squarely on his shoulders, Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell has delivered a solid effort as Indiana’s point guard.
He’s not a scorer at this stage (just 6.6 points per game), but his 5.3 assists a night have been a key weapon for the Hoosiers’ top-ranked offense.
Coming off his worst career game (one point and one assist in a rout of Penn State), Ferrell showed off his resiliency.
In one of the Hoosiers’ biggest wins of the season, the youngster looked like a star with 13 points and eight assists against then-No. 8 Minnesota on Saturday.
Stock: On the upswing
UPDATE: Although Ferrell made a valiant effort to carry the Hoosiers as a scorer in the final minutes, he managed just a single assist in IU's home loss to unranked Wisconsin. His rating has been adjusted accordingly.
On almost any other roster, Willie Cauley-Stein would be the prize of the freshman class: a 7’0”, 244-pound shot-blocker with a wide receiver’s athleticism.
At Kentucky, where he didn’t even rate as a starter earlier in the year, he’s still turned in some fine performances. Cauley-Stein is averaging a quiet 7.6 points per game while pulling down 5.8 boards and blocking 1.9 shots per contest.
The unpolished freshman has really struggled against Kentucky’s toughest opponents, and SEC play has not been kind to him thus far.
He’s gone two consecutive games without a block, including a disappointing six-point, three-rebound effort while fouling out against Texas A&M.
The heir apparent to one-and-done Moe Harkless, 6’8” Jakarr Sampson hasn’t quite matched his predecessor’s sterling numbers.
Still, the athletic Sampson is the Red Storm’s second-leading scorer (13.8 points per game) and leading rebounder (6.6 boards a night).
Sampson is also a promising defender who’s contributing 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals per contest. What he’s not doing, at least as yet, is turning in consistent performances in Big East action.
St. John’s has started 2-3 in the league, with the wins (over Cincinnati and Notre Dame) coinciding with Sampson’s strongest scoring efforts.
One of the surprises of the early season was the meteoric rise of Michigan’s third freshman, Nik Stauskas.
Billed well below teammates Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, ESPN's 76th-ranked recruit has proven himself as a lights-out three-point shooter.
The 6’6” marksman is averaging 12.7 points per game while hitting an unbelievable .505 from beyond the arc (and .493 from the field overall).
Like many first-year standouts, though, Stauskas has found the going much rougher away from home. A pair of subpar road games in Big Ten play—especially Sunday’s disastrous 0-of-3 shooting effort at Ohio State—have put a few dents in his impressive start.
A versatile 6’7” forward, Alex Poythress has shifted primarily to SF for Kentucky since Willie Cauley-Stein muscled his way into the starting lineup.
Poythress is the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer at 13.2 points per game while also grabbing 6.4 rebounds a night.
The agile youngster has continued to rebound effectively since the start of SEC play. Unfortunately for him and the Wildcats, though, the scoring Kentucky so badly needs from him has fallen off against top-tier defenses.
Replacing a star like Tu Holloway is a tough way to break in as a collegian, but Semaj Christon has stood tall under that challenge. The 6’3” Xavier PG is averaging 14.1 points along with 4.8 assists per game on the season.
Christon struggled to make plays for his teammates during Xavier’s 1-5 December swoon, but he may finally have reached the light at the end of that tunnel.
He dished out seven assists while still lighting up George Washington for 21 points as the Musketeers improved to 2-0 in Atlantic 10 action.
When Chris Obekpa figures out how to shoot, he’s going to be a scary, scary player. Already, at just four points per game, he’s an impact big man in one of the country’s toughest conferences.
The 6’9” Nigerian import leads the nation with 4.9 blocks per game, and he’s also pulling down 6.1 rebounds a night.
Big East play has hardly slowed him down, as he’s already recorded two double-digit rebounding nights and a total of 20 rejections in five league contests.
For all the offensive deficiencies Michigan State has battled this season, the Spartans would be far worse off if it weren’t for Gary Harris.
The sharpshooting SG is Michigan State’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game, and he’s draining three-pointers at a .377 clip.
Harris—who’s also a first-class defender at 6’4”, 205 pounds—has acclimated to Big Ten competition surprisingly well. He roasted Purdue for a career-high 22 points, most of it on 6-of-8 three-point shooting.
Stock: Creeping up
No freshman in the country got more unexpected pressure dumped on his head than Javan Felix.
The 5’10” PG arrived in Austin expecting to caddy for star floor general Myck Kabongo, only to be shoved into the starting job (and 36.4 minutes per game) when Kabongo was suspended through mid-February.
Felix has made the most of his opportunity, scoring about as well as Kabongo did a year ago (9.4 points per game) while topping his predecessor in assists and steals (6.3 and 1.6 a night, respectively).
He’s turned in some valiant efforts in losing causes during the Longhorns’ 0-3 conference start (most notably, a 26-point, nine-assist night in an overtime loss to Baylor).
There’s no shame in being the fourth-leading scorer on your own team when that team has an offense as scary as Michigan’s.
Ballyhooed swingman Glenn Robinson III (son of the former NBA All-Star) may be scoring “only” 12.3 points per game, but that’s just part of his contribution to the mighty Wolverines.
The 6’6” Robinson is also the team’s second-leading rebounder at 5.8 boards a night, and he’s shooting .394 from three-point land.
Like his entire team, he’s coming off a dreadful game in a loss to Ohio State, but his performance overall in Big Ten action has been right on his season averages.
Stock: Treading water
Nerlens Noel is still figuring out how to score against collegiate opponents, but he’s already the best all-purpose defender in the nation. The 6’10” center is averaging 9.3 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 2.8 steals a night.
Few players in the country are hotter than Noel right now. In three SEC games, even as Kentucky has struggled, Noel has actually managed to raise his scoring and defensive numbers (most notably with 5.3 blocks per contest).
Stock: In the stratosphere
Jordan Adams, one of the highest-scoring freshmen in the nation, has been a welcome antidote in Westwood to the disappointing play of classmates Tony Parker and (early in the season) Kyle Anderson.
The 6’5” SG is the Bruins’ second-leading scorer at 16.4 points per game, and he’s also Ben Howland’s top perimeter defender with 1.7 steals a night.
Adams’ production has tailed off slightly in Pac-12 play in spite of the Bruins’ 4-0 start. On the bright side, he did rack up a career-high seven steals in a win over Stanford.
The point guard position has been Kentucky’s Achilles' heel this season, but SG Archie Goodwin has done yeoman’s work to shore up that weakness.
He leads the Wildcats not only in scoring (15.2 points per game) but also in assists (3.6 a night, just ahead of Ryan Harrow).
Unlike many of his Wildcats teammates, Goodwin has been fairly reliable in UK’s toughest games. He had an off night in fouling out against Tennessee, but has turned in a couple of other respectable games against SEC foes.
Stock: Nosing up
When then-No. 14 Creighton pummeled his Sun Devils back in November, Jahii Carson’s anonymity was pretty well ensured.
Arizona State is 14-3, including a win over a tough Colorado squad. But, with freshman-laden Arizona and UCLA dominating the Pac-12 spotlight, the ASU redshirt standout has been relegated to the back of the sports pages.
Carson’s numbers, however, merit quite a bit more notice, as he’s averaging 17.1 points and 5.2 assists per game. He’s also coming off one of his best games of the year, with 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a tough loss at Oregon.
If Carson puts on a similar show against the archrival Wildcats on Saturday, he’ll finally get some of the accolades he deserves.
Coach Scott Drew could wish Isaiah Austin were a little less enamored with the three-point shot, but the freshman sensation is certainly putting up some enviable numbers for Baylor.
The 7’1” center—who occasionally seems to think he’s a small forward—leads the Bears with 8.6 rebounds per game and ranks second at 14.6 points a night.
The most encouraging sign yet for Austin has been his ability to stand up to big-time competition.
In his last five games, he’s faced Gonzaga seven-footer Kelly Olynyk, Texas freshman Cameron Ridley (who outweighs Austin by 50 pounds) and Kansas’ senior shot-blocking machine Jeff Withey.
For that five-game stretch, Austin has managed to raise his average to 16 points a night while still grabbing 8.4 boards (and blocking 1.4 shots) per contest.
Few point guards of any age can match the rebounding punch of Marcus Smart, who led the Cowboys for much of this season and still ranks second on the team at 5.5 boards a night.
He’s a pretty devastating point guard, too, averaging 14 points, 4.7 assists and an eye-popping 2.8 steals per contest.
Unfortunately, Smart’s wonderful start has fizzled since Big 12 play opened. His struggles—especially his meager 2.7 assists per game—have a lot to do with the Cowboys’ disappointing 1-2 conference record.
Heralded for his NBA-ready athleticism after his redshirt season in 2011-12, Ben McLemore is proving he also has a first-class shot. The 6’5” SG has buried 43.5 percent of his three-point tries while leading No. 4 Kansas with 16.4 points per game.
McLemore has done his best work when the Jayhawks have needed him most. He poured in a team-high 22 to take down Ohio State in Columbus, and his 33 points (on a dazzling 10-of-12 shooting) saved a near-upset at the hands of Iowa State.
Since serving what proved to be a three-game season-opening suspension, Shabazz Muhammad has accomplished the amazing feat of justifying his preseason hype.
The consensus No. 2 recruit in the nation, Muhammad leads UCLA with 18.2 points per game on .450 three-point shooting. He’s also pulling down a respectable 4.9 rebounds a night from his spot on the wing.
Muhammad had his first career single-digit scoring night against Utah last week, but conference play hasn’t been all bad news for him. He shredded Stanford for 23 points and 10 rebounds, his second career double-double.
If it weren’t for Mason Plumlee, Anthony Bennett would be the best big man in all of college basketball. The 6’8” UNLV star is posting Wooden Award-caliber stats with 19.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.
Bennett hit a bump in the road against New Mexico, tying a career low with 12 points in a UNLV defeat. He didn’t wait long to bounce back, though, manhandling Air Force for 22 points and 16 boards in an overtime win three nights later.