How far can Shabazz Muhammad carry the Bruins?
The biggest X-factor for teams like Kansas, UCLA and Oklahoma State is whether their freshman studs can withstand the pressure of March Madness.
Who knows if Marcus Smart or Shabazz Muhammad will demand the ball with the clock winding down on his team’s season?
For most of these freshmen, their teams have already heaped a ton of responsibility on their young shoulders, and their teams wouldn’t be in the NCAA tournament without their contributions.
Not only will the coaches ask these first-years to leap over the proverbial wall, but in some cases, they'll entrust their team’s chances to players who’ve never even been in the field.
Once the madness begins on Thursday, these are the top 10 freshmen you can expect to thrive.
UCLA’s 6'9" guard has had an up-and-down first-year campaign, but if the Bruins are to advance past Minnesota, they’ll need him to score more than his 9.8 points per game average, especially given the injury to fellow frosh Jordan Adams.
The Bruins offense, which depended on Adams during certain stretches, may have to operate through a combination of Kyle Anderson, Larry Drew II and Shabazz Muhammad.
Anderson has great length and excellent vision, especially for a big man, but he’s relatively weak in the post, which is exactly where the Bruins will need him against the Gophers. Minnesota loves to play physical, and that’s not Anderson’s game.
He’ll need to hound the glass, especially on the defensive end, in order to mitigate the Gophers’ excellent offensive rebounders. Anderson’s 22.7 defensive rebounding rate is 83rd in the country, via KenPom.com (subscription required).
Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III has been the freshman most obviously impacted by the longevity of the season.
He’s only topped double figures once in his last six games but has averaged five rebounds per contest over that span.
Robinson is Trey Burke’s go-to scorer in transition because of his uncanny leaping ability. The Wolverines don’t force many turnovers, and their first-round opponent, South Dakota State, doesn’t cough up the ball much either.
That means he’ll need to find a happy medium between taking 15-foot jumpers and playing off Burke, who often looks to dish to baseline cutters once the defense collapses around him.
Robinson’s best attributes may be on full display in a potential Round of 32 matchup against the frenetic defensive style of VCU.
The 6'8" freshman was as responsible as any of Louisville’s stars for erasing a 16-point second-half deficit against Syracuse in the Big East tournament championship game.
Montrezl Harrell had 14 points over the final 11:26 to help cement the comeback and ensure the Cardinals would roll into the NCAA tournament as the top overall seed.
The game was easily Harrell’s best of his career, and he hadn’t done much in recent games preceding the tournament championship. But with Chane Behanan, who’s struggled of late, on the bench, Harrell fit in seamlessly with Louisville’s relentless press and was a force on both ends of the floor.
His numbers don’t jump out at you, but he adds depth to an already deep squad and could be an essential piece to Louisville’s puzzle.
Rasheed Sulaimon is the Blue Devils’ fourth guard in Mike Krzyzewski's rotation behind starters Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton, but the freshman still averages 11.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in nearly 30 minutes per night.
The freshman sharpshooter has been off his normally efficient game recently (freshman wall?), but he’s prone to go off from the perimeter at any time. What’s encouraging about Sulaimon, who’s hit 45 three-pointers on 38 percent shooting this year, is that he tends to play up to the competition.
He had 17 points and four rebounds in a nonconference win over Ohio State earlier this year and logged 13 points and five assists in a win over North Carolina. He also exploded for 25 points and 27 points against Maryland and Boston College, respectively.
Sulaimon is still prone to too many turnovers, but with how many offensive options the Blue Devils have, there’s little pressure on him to contribute offensively. Not to mention he’s a stout perimeter defender.
He could wind up being a major X-factor should the Blue Devils make a deep run.
Yogi Ferrell may be the most underappreciated freshman in the country. For months, he’s manned the third-most potent offensive attack in the nation at 80 points per game, yet he doesn’t get nearly the credit of Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo or even Christian Watford.
The freshman, who averages 7.8 points and 4.2 assists per game, is a master ball-handler who conducts the fast break with the poise of an upperclassman.
Maybe the most impressive thing about Ferrell is how seniors Watford and former point guard Jordan Hulls have openly granted the rights to their offense to a freshman. Hulls was the starting point guard for the majority of his career, and when Ferrell arrived in Bloomington, Hulls shifted over to the 2 with no friction or waves whatsoever.
Ferrell is a sturdy 180 pounds and has already developed into an astute game manager in 28 minutes per night. For good reason, Tom Crean has shown no trepidation over Ferrell’s responsibilities, and a deep run for the Hoosiers will likely be in no small part due to the freshman.
Just don't expect him to get any credit.
Tom Izzo has called Gary Harris the most talented player on his team, despite the presence of veterans Keith Appling and Adreian Payne. That should tell you all you need to know about Harris’ importance to the Spartans.
Unlike most freshmen, Harris has actually gotten better as the season has progressed. He’s averaged 13.4 points over his last nine games, including 16-of-42 shooting (38 percent) from the three-point line. He’s a terrific on-ball defender, as evidenced by a four-steal performance against normally stingy Wisconsin toward the end of the season.
The Spartans have great frontcourt depth with Payne, Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson, but Appling has been shaky down the stretch, meaning that Michigan State’s backcourt production might well fall to Harris.
The 6'4" freshman has an excellent court demeanor and never seems to be overwhelmed by the moment. He’s already proven to be a heady, mature scorer for Izzo, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to produce in the tournament.
Size-wise, there isn’t a more intriguing freshman prospect than coach Dave Rice’s big man, Anthony Bennett.
Bennett battled nerve issues in his shoulder during the latter portion of the regular season but seems to be OK, judging by his monster performances in the Mountain West tournament.
The Rebels offense had a good inside-out balance working against Air Force and Colorado State, due in large part to Bennett. The 6'8" forward got into a scorching outside rhythm when he hit three first-half three-pointers in the span of a minute against Colorado State.
He also boosted the Rebels’ inside game when he battled inside for 11 rebounds against eventual tournament champion New Mexico.
Bennett possesses unbelievable power in the paint along with a smooth outside touch, which makes him very difficult to match up with. Couple his three-point shooting with UNLV’s frontcourt of Mike Moser and Khem Birch, and not many teams have the size to contain the Rebels.
Should they get past No. 12 California, a likely tantalizing matchup against Syracuse awaits in the next round.
The Jayhawks’ dynamic guard has had a freshman year so good it’ll likely be his only year playing amongst the amateurs.
Ben McLemore, who averages 16.4 points per game, is a high-volume shooter who’s absolutely lethal from outside. The freshman, as an off-ball shooter, knocked down 44 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, including six games where he hit at least four three-pointers.
McLemore could be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft, but first he’ll need to perform for a No. 1 seed in the tournament. Kansas, indicative of its point guard problems, turns the ball over way too much to be viewed as a heavy favorite.
However, if slashers Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe can make more decisive passes after drawing the defense in, McLemore should continue to thrive coming off screens for open looks from the perimeter.
McLemore is the most talented player on an already loaded team, but he won’t get a chance to shine for long if the Jayhawks don’t value each possession.
The Big 12 Player of the Year means more to his team than every player on this list save for the No. 1 rookie.
His usage rate of 28.1 percent of possessions, according to KenPom.com (subscription required), is off the charts for a freshman, especially first-years in the tournament.
Marcus Smart is a 6'4", 225-pound load as the Cowboys point guard. Although he probably shoots too much (40 percent on 11.3 shots per game), Smart is a powerful and crafty scorer once he gets into the lane.
Despite his age, he’s not intimidated by the big moments either.
In the first meeting against Kansas, Smart went for 25 points, nine rebounds, three assists and five steals in defeating the Jayhawks. He struggled in the second meeting, but with his shot not falling, he attacked the paint and got to the line 14 times.
On top of his scoring prowess, he’s an opportunistic defender who always seeks to interrupt an opponent’s dribble pattern. While that’s led to nearly three steals per game, he’s been called for at least four fouls 10 times this season. The Cowboys need him on the court much more than they need him to attempt a theft.
No. 5 Oklahoma State drew a first-round matchup against an under-seeded Oregon team. Should the Pokes advance, they’d likely face Saint Louis, and Smart is as athletic a guard as the steady Billikens have seen this year.
The broken foot of guard Jordan Adams only puts more responsibility on Shabazz Muhammad, the more-than-likely one-and-done lefty for the Bruins.
Muhammad averaged 17.8 points and 5.3 rebounds per game throughout his first year under coach Ben Howland. He shot 40 percent on three-pointers but did most of his damage inside the arc with an array of crafty moves. His sheer strength inside was the biggest factor in his production.
With Adams in the lineup, Muhammad wasn’t much of a facilitator, but he’ll need to spread the ball around more than his 0.8 assists per game average. Kyle Anderson will help, but Muhammad can’t always look for his shot.
The No. 6 Bruins drew No. 11 Minnesota, which has been reeling in its own right. The Gophers have a potent offense, but their miscues could play into the hands of the Bruins. Minnesota turns the ball over on 21.7 percent of possessions, and the Bruins could bury the Gophers in the transition game.