NCAA Tournament 2013: Freshmen Who Will Shine on the Big Stage
The future is now.
While there's nothing quite like watching Trey Burke hit step-back jumpers or Russ Smith lightning bolt his way through the lane at breakneck speed, watching the babies grow up in front of our eyes might just be the best part of the NCAA tournament.
It doesn't matter if they are 5-star McDonald's All-Americans or walk-ons. Seeing a player who is still too young to legally drink thrive on the biggest stage in the world will always be one of the best parts of March Madness.
Let's take a look at this year's top candidates.
Mitch McGary, Michigan
Disclaimer: This list could be filled entirely of Michigan freshmen, but I'm keeping the limit to one youngster per team. So there.
In Michigan's four NCAA wins, McGary has been McUnstoppable, averaging 17.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.75 steals. Entering the starting lineup has certainly helped, but the NCAA tournament has brought out the Hulk in McGary.
He isn't the most athletic cookie in the jar, but he is abusing other big men with his strength, hard work and ability to finish under duress around the rim.
I wouldn't be surprised if McGary struggled to score against the length and athleticism of Syracuse's bigs, but it's tough to rebound out of a 2-3 zone, and the freshman attacks the glass like few others. Don't be surprised if he surpasses his season- and tournament-high of 14 'boards.
Also, he's having way too much fun to crumble under the limelight and stop dominating now.
Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State
Fred Van Vleet is unflappable. He cannot be flapped.
Although Ron Baker's return from injury and stellar play in the tournament has been absolutely crucial for Wichita State's unexpected run, Van Vleet is the freshie that I trust on the biggest stage.
He simply hits big shots.
Against Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the nation, the Shockers were up two with two minutes to play and the ball. The shot clock was running down and nothing resembling an offense was taking place, so Van Vleet calmly buried a 30-footer:
That continues to be the most underrated shot of this tournament.
And it wouldn't be his last. Against Ohio State, there was three minutes left and the Buckeyes were in the midst of a 23-6 run to cut Wichita State's lead to three. Vanvleet proceeded to assist on a Tekele Cotton three and then knock down the game-sealing fadeaway/floater/thing-of-beauty thing in the lane on the next play:
The true freshman was rated as the 138th-top prospect coming out of high school, but he is quickly proving to be one of the most clutch in America.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Fun fact: Montrezl Harrell is from Tarboro, North Carolina. Another fun fact: Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State didn't even come close to signing him.
The 6'8", 235-pound athletic freak of nature is still inconsistent. In the Big East championship against Syracuse, he went for 20 points, seven rebounds and one (OK, more than one, but I'm only showing you video of one) monstrous jam:
He followed that up with 19 points and five rebounds in Louisville's first two tournament wins, but came back with just four total points against Oregon and Duke.
What freshman will enjoy the best Final Four?
What you need to know is Rick Pitino is comfortable playing him (16.25 minutes per game in the Big Dance), he'll be called upon a lot against Cleanthony Early, a 6'8" forward with an equally athletic, versatile game, and he has the talent to put on an absolute show at any given moment.
Harrell is a prime breakout candidate for 2013-14, but don't be surprised if he starts that process a little early under the bright lights in Atlanta.
That's what March is all about.
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