Big Ten Basketball: The Top 10 Candidates for Freshman of the Year

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2013

Big Ten Basketball: The Top 10 Candidates for Freshman of the Year

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    Earlier this week, we broke down the Big Ten's best freshman classes and found Michigan's group the best of the lot.

    Individually, though, the race for Big Ten Freshman of the Year should be a wild one all the way into March.

    The league's 12 teams feature 13 freshmen playing 20-plus minutes per game. Nine of those players are averaging at least seven points per game, a respectable figure for rookies in the predominantly defensive-minded Big Ten.

    The 10 players depicted in this slideshow should be considered the primary candidates for the league's best newcomer.

10. Mitch McGary, Michigan

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    Michigan's rookie big man isn't a major candidate for individual awards, since his minutes have been limited by coach John Beilein's preference for a smaller, quicker lineup.

    Still, McGary has been dominant in the minutes he has played, particularly on the glass.

    His 18.4 offensive rebounding percentage sits fourth nationwide, fractions of a point ahead of the Big Ten's overall rebounding leader, Minnesota veteran Trevor Mbakwe. McGary trails Mbakwe by half a point in defensive board percentage, but both rank in the national top 60.

    In conference games, McGary has averaged approximately five points and six rebounds in 19 minutes per game. That would total out to a double-double if he could play all 40.

    To do that, he'll have to improve on the defensive end and learn to avoid foul trouble. McGary averages 2.7 fouls per game in conference, despite the limited minutes.

    When he learns how to stay on the court for more than half the game, the largest Wolverine could be—dare we say it—McScary.

9. Shavon Shields, Nebraska

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    Shavon Shields is a 6'6" guard, but he plays like a bigger man at times.

    In some phases, he even outplays bigger men. Shields' five-RPG average is buoyed by his snaring 18.4 percent of available defensive rebounds. That's nearly a full percentage point better than Purdue's 7' manchild A.J. Hammons.

    Only once in Shields' first eight conference games has he been held to fewer than six rebounds.

    Shields isn't a natural shooter, but he did hit a groove in making 20 of 30 shots in a one-week span against Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State. He tore up the Nittany Lions for 29 points, the most by any Nebraska player this season until Ray Gallegos hit Minnesota up for 30 Tuesday night.

    Husker fans could desperately use someone who can be a scoring threat for a team ranked 33rd in the nation in points per game. Shields already has some cred with Corn Nation as the son of Husker offensive line legend Will Shields. If he could keep producing those double-figure scoring games, he might rival his daddy for sheer rock-star status in Lincoln.

8. Mike Gesell, Iowa

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    Mike Gesell started the season as Iowa's point guard of the present and future. Now, he shares the backcourt with classmate Anthony Clemmons and plays more of a shooting guard role.

    Sometimes, though, it takes a little cajoling from coach Fran McCaffery for Gesell to get into that gunner's mindset.

    After Iowa's overtime loss to Purdue, McCaffery told the Cedar Rapids Gazette, "It’s funny, because in the game Sunday, if you remember, he was turning down shots early and we were setting him up, and I challenged him during one timeout, I said, ‘Just shoot the ball.'"

    Gesell dropped in 18 points in that game, the third time he's reached that mark. Even more encouraging was that the 40-percent field-goal shooter made six of his 11 attempts against the Boilers' stingy defense.

    Gesell's nine points, three rebounds and three assists per game don't leap off the page, but his versatility and the substitution flexibility he affords McCaffery make him perhaps the most valuable Hawkeye this season.

7. Ronnie Johnson, Purdue

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    It can be argued that Ronnie Johnson has shouldered a much bigger burden for Purdue than his counterpart at arch-rival Indiana, Yogi Ferrell.

    Johnson joined a team losing much of its proven veteran talent, while Ferrell stepped into a lineup returning most of the production from a Sweet 16 team. Both have had moments where they've played like freshmen, but both have also learned on the job quickly.

    While Johnson's .411 true shooting percentage is cringeworthy, a function of frequently questionable shot selection and shaky work at the foul line, his other decisions with the ball have been reasonably solid. Johnson has a turnover percentage of 21.3, which is better than that of not only Ferrell, but also fellow frosh Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmons of Iowa.

    For that matter, it's also superior to veterans like Julian Welch of Minnesota and Tracy Abrams of Illinois.

    Johnson also tends to gamble on defense, looking for the steal. It makes him an exciting player to watch, but that excitement can quickly turn to consternation for Boiler fans.

6. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin

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    On perhaps any other team in the Big Ten, if not the nation, Sam Dekker would be a star already. For Wisconsin, he's a reserve who has to wait his turn.

    Of course, it's not that Dekker can complain too much. After all, the list of freshmen who have played more than Dekker's 22.2 MPG for coach Bo Ryan is short and distinguished: future NBA draft picks Devin Harris and Alando Tucker and currently injured floor general Josh Gasser.

    Dekker does a strong job of getting his points in the flow of the Badgers' offense, while also creating for others. His effective FG percentage is superior to that of Michigan State star Gary Harris, while his assist percentage more than doubles those of Harris and Michigan's Glenn Robinson III.

    Hostile crowds aren't rattling Dekker, either. In his first three Big Ten road games, he's made 12 of 22 shots, including 5-of-12 from long range. The crowds have rarely been more hostile than the one Dekker faced in his second college game, taking on Florida in Gainesville. While the Badgers were run over in that game, Dekker led the team with 11 points and shot 50 percent from the floor.

    If he's OK with playing in the O-Dome, Dekker should be ready for whatever kind of atmosphere the NCAA tournament can throw at him.

5. Nik Stauskas, Michigan

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    Between their top three freshmen, the Michigan Wolverines have already claimed six Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards. Canadian sniper Nik Stauskas has three of them.

    Stauskas lit up nearly every defense he faced in nonconference play, shooting nearly 60 percent from three-point range. He's been more mortal in Big Ten action, shooting 35 percent, but he's still good for double-digit scoring nearly every time he steps on the court.

    As long as he's not playing Ohio State, that is.

    Stauskas isn't quite the all-around performer that Glenn Robinson is, but if he hits a shooting groove, no team in the Big Ten can score with the Wolverines.

4. A.J. Hammons, Purdue

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    For a four-game stretch, A.J. Hammons looked like not only the best freshman in the Big Ten, but one of its best players, period.

    Against Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska, Hammons averaged 14.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. If he could sustain that kind of production all season, Hammons would be a lock for an All-Big Ten selection, never mind All-Freshman.

    The balloon popped when the Boilermakers traveled to Ann Arbor and suffered another late collapse against a highly ranked conference rival, similar to those against Michigan State and Ohio State. Hammons, for his part, collapsed from the opening tip.

    He produced as many turnovers and fouls as points and rebounds (two of each), and even his coach, Matt Painter, described him to the Indianapolis Star as "out to lunch."

    While it's logical that a 7', 280-pound man would frequently be discussed in the same sentence as the word "lunch," Hammons needs to put the Michigan game behind him and make sure he has no more of those late lunches. We've seen his upside, and it's as large as he is.

3. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana

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    Yogi Ferrell has adapted smoothly from being a scoring point guard in high school to creating for Indiana's cadre of star-quality college players. His assists per game, assist percentage and A/T ratio are all in the Big Ten's top 10, meaning the freshman is rubbing shoulders with national stars like Aaron Craft and Trey Burke.

    Ferrell doesn't gamble as much on defense as rival Ronnie Johnson, choosing to leave the big defensive plays to teammates. He doesn't get as many steals as Johnson, but he's still a strong defender who avoids fouls in the process (only 25 in 20 games).

    He helped frustrate Michigan State veteran Keith Appling in last weekend's IU victory, forcing the veteran Spartan guard into four turnovers and five fouls in only 19 minutes.

    Ferrell's own scoring has been slow to come along, but he's shot better than 50 percent over his last five games. Improvement in his shot could make his passing and penetration games easier, and that would make Indiana nearly unstoppable.

2. Gary Harris, Michigan State

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    Indianapolis native Gary Harris spurned IU for Michigan State, and the move has paid off for all concerned. The Hoosiers avoided a controversial choice between Harris and Jordan Hulls, Harris is a full-time starter for a potential Final Four team and the Spartans have a perimeter threat to take defensive heat off Keith Appling.

    A 45-percent shooter from the floor and 40 percent from deep, Harris is the conference's top freshman scorer. That last fact is all the more impressive considering that Harris uses less than 20 percent of Michigan State's possessions while he's on the floor.

    Other rookies who use larger percentages: A.J. Hammons, Sam Dekker, Northwestern's Alex Olah and Iowa's Adam Woodbury.

    Harris should maintain his scoring lead as long as no one can stay in his shirt the way Wisconsin did last week. The freshman stud got off only three shots en route to six points. He followed that up with 21 against Indiana, his fifth game of the season with 18 points or more.

    Any MSU game could see Harris go for 20. No freshman in the Big Ten has more potential to explode any given night.

1. Glenn Robinson III, Michigan

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    While Gary Harris can turn any game into a personal highlight reel, Glenn Robinson III simply goes to work. He's a 6'6", 210-pound swingman who's spent most of his freshman season bodying up to power forwards.

    It's Robinson, not big men Jordan Morgan or Mitch McGary, who leads the Wolverines in rebounding. He has 13 double-figure scoring games, while only managing five games of double-digit shot attempts.

    That efficiency truly qualifies as cold-blooded. Robinson is fifth or better in the league in FG%, eFG% and TS%. Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Michigan State's Adreian Payne are the only others to pull off that triple.

    Coach John Beilein can count on Robinson to make good decisions with the ball, not only with his shot. Robinson has been on the court for more than 1,000 Wolverine possessions this season. He's committed a mere 22 turnovers.

    Harris can beat Robinson to the FOY award if he continues his evolution into one of Michigan State's primary options. Robinson is unlikely to take shots away from Trey Burke or Tim Hardaway, but as he's proven, he doesn't need a lot to make a major impact.

    For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron, home of the exclusive Back Iron Index and Bracketometry, telling us which teams SHOULD be in the NCAA tournament come March.