No storyline has been bigger this college basketball season than the one involving the nation’s top freshmen.
Andrew Wiggins has received the most hype, Joel Embiid may be the country’s top NBA prospect and Jabari Parker is having the best season.
Still, in the back of his mind, Noah Vonleh has to be wondering, “What about me?”
In his first—and perhaps only—season of college basketball, the 6’10” Vonleh is averaging 12 points and a team-high 9.5 rebounds for an Indiana squad that is 10-3. Vonleh is shooting 56 percent from the field and has scored in double figures in all but four of the Hoosiers’ games.
Clearly, Vonleh has a bright future.
But no one is talking about him—at least not on the national scene. And Vonleh’s not alone.
Here are five other freshmen whose banner seasons are being overshadowed by the hysteria surrounding Kansas’ Wiggins and Embiid, Duke’s Parker, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and Kentucky’s Julius Randle.
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse—The Orange wouldn’t be 11-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country if not for the 6’2” Ennis, a point guard who is averaging 12.1 points, 5.4 assists and 2.8 steals. This is hardly the first time Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has started an underclassman at point guard, as Brandon Triche was given the keys during his inaugural season with the Orange, and Michael Carter-Williams ran the show as a sophomore.
Marcus Foster, Kansas State—After losing to Charlotte and Northern Colorado early in the season, the Wildcats are improving at a rapid pace thanks to the emergence of Foster, who leads K-State in scoring with 14.4 points per game. Foster, who scored 14 points in Saturday’s upset of Gonzaga, is the closest thing to a star player the Wildcats have after losing Rodney McGruder to graduation and Angel Rodriguez to transfer.
Zach LaVine, UCLA—No player in the class of 2013—not even Wiggins—can match the speed and athleticism of LaVine, who has already become a YouTube sensation with his highlight-reel dunks. LaVine is averaging 12.8 points on the season but only 8.3 points in his last three games. Right now, he’s a complementary player on a UCLA squad that features Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. Eventually, though, he’ll be a star if he stays in school.
Jordan Mickey, LSU—The Tigers are one of my sleeper teams thanks, in large part, to Mickey. The 6’8”, 220-pounder is averaging 13.7 points and 8.2 rebounds for an LSU squad that could crack the Top 25 before too long. The wiry Mickey is also 11th in the country in blocks with 3.6 per game. Mickey had 25 points and nine rebounds in a victory over Louisiana-Monroe on Dec. 14.
Eric Mika, BYU—The Cougars center hardly plays like a freshman. The 6’10” Mika has gone against some of the nation’s best big men and hasn't backed down. Mika, who weighs 230 pounds, averages 14 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Mika still has a long way to go, however. He’d be wise to work on his vertical jump, as opposing defenders have often outleaped Mika for rebounds. And he needs to cut down on his fouls. Mika has committed four or more fouls in six of BYU’s 13 games.
This Week's Grades
A: Transfers—A lot of coaches shy away from taking cast-offs from other schools because they often come with baggage, poor attitudes or an inflated sense of self. That’s hardly been the case with this year’s batch of transfers. Oregon’s top three leading scorers (Mike Moser, Joseph Young and Jason Calliste) all played for different schools last season. Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson is averaging 19.9 points after transferring from Tulsa, and Iowa State wouldn’t be close to the team they are now without Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane. Former Illinois State point guard Nic Moore has SMU off to a 10-2 start, and ex-Tulane star Josh Davis is averaging 10.7 rebounds for San Diego State.
B: Bruce Weber—Last season, in his first year as Kansas State’s head coach, Weber led the Wildcats to a share of the Big 12 title for the first time since 1977. Sadly, though, a large faction of K-State fans refused to give Weber any credit because he accomplished the feat with players recruited by former coach Frank Martin. And when the Wildcats dropped early-season games to Northern Colorado and Charlotte, Weber again came under fire despite the fact that he lost his top two players from last year’s team. Count me as someone who is not surprised that K-State has improved dramatically over the past month. Despite the absence of a true point guard—not to mention a star player—the Wildcats have reeled off six straight wins, including victories over Ole Miss and then-No. 21 Gonzaga. There’s no denying it. The man can coach.
C: St. John’s—The Red Storm haven’t been terrible. Steve Lavin’s squad is 8-3 with losses to a pair of Top Five teams in Syracuse and Wisconsin and an overtime setback against Penn State. Still, I thought this squad would be a bit further along at this point. With players such as D’Angelo Harrison and Jakarr Sampson—who combine to average 32.7 points—returning along with the nation’s leading shot-blocker (Chris Obekpa), my hopes were high. No team in the Big East can match St. John’s talent. But from what I’ve seen so far, St. John’s will not challenge for the conference title unless it makes significant strides. The key may be highly touted freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan, who is shooting just 28 percent from the field. I’m not giving up hope—yet.
D: Hinson haters—I couldn’t believe the criticism Barry Hinson received for calling his players “mama’s boys” during a postgame press conference last week. Seriously, folks, we’ve taken sensitivity to a whole new level. The negative reaction to Hinson’s comments is the perfect illustration of the problem Hinson was alluding to all along. More and more kids these days are soft and lazy because they’re coddled at a young age by parents who run to their defense every time a coach challenges them or sits them on the bench. The sense of entitlement among young athletes is getting worse and worse, and most times, it’s being fueled by moms and dads. I applaud Hinson for his comments—and even more for not backing off of them the following day.
F: Jerian Grant—I hate to attack a student for struggling in school—especially at Notre Dame, where the academic standards are especially high. Still, with all of the support that’s available and the people put in place to make sure they succeed, there is absolutely no excuse for an athlete to flunk out of school—none. Grant was averaging 19 points a game for the 8-4 Fighting Irish and could return next season. In the meantime, his actions—or rather, his lack of action—has hurt his teammates and will surely affect their season.
Starting Five: Good Players on Bad Teams
Deonte Burton, Nevada—A senior guard, Burton is averaging 22.8 points and shooting 48 percent from the field for the 5-7 Wolf Pack. He’s scored more than 1,700 points in his career. He was the WAC Player of the Year as a sophomore before earning third-team All-MWC honors last season.
Olivier Hanlan, Boston College—Hanlan has been one of the few bright spots for an Eagles team that is one of the biggest disappointments of the season at 4-8. The 6’4” sophomore guard is averaging 20.1 points while shooting a respectable 45.3 percent from the field. Hanlan averaged 15.4 points as a freshman.
Juwan Howard Jr., Detroit—The son of the former NBA star averages 17.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists for the Titans, who are 6-8. Howard is a junior who began his career at Western Michigan. His best game of the year thus far came in a 24-point effort against North Carolina State.
Antoine Mason, Niagara—The Purple Eagles’ 3-8 start has caused Mason, a senior, to fly under the radar. The son of the former New York Knicks star leads the nation in scoring with 28.3 points per game. He’s scored 1,427 points in his career. This season he scored 31 or more points in six of his first seven games.
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina—He may be up and down early as a freshman, but keep your eye on Thornwell, a 6’5” highly rated guard who will be key in turning around the Gamecocks’ program. Thornwell is averaging 12.1 points but shooting just 36.7 percent from the field. He had 20 points in a 66-64 loss at Baylor last month.
Thoughts from Press Row
Be Patient, Florida Faithful: Kudos to Florida coach Billy Donovan for squelching some of the hype surrounding freshman forward Chris Walker, who joined the team two weeks ago and will be eligible to participate in SEC play. The anticipation surrounding Walker’s arrival and buzz about his impact on this year’s team have gotten out of hand, Donovan said.
“I almost feel like Olajuwon or Dwight Howard should be walking through the door,” Donovan said. “It’s not like that. He’s 6’10” and weighs 203 pounds. He just got absolutely annihilated by Patric Young (in practice) for three days. It was a very humbling experience for him.
“He has no chance of stepping on the floor right now and even remotely helping us in a game. It’s not his fault. He hasn’t played. He has the potential to be a very good player, but he is so lost and so far behind. I can’t even remotely say how, where, when and how he’ll be able to help us.”
Walker was the 12th-ranked player in the class of 2013 by ESPN.com.
“What happens is that, when the kid does play and he doesn’t play well, everyone’s going to say, ‘Boy, he’s overrated,’” Donovan said. “It’s not fair to the kid. Look at (Kansas’) Andrew Wiggins. The fact that anybody is comparing Andrew Wiggins to LeBron James is nuts. It’s crazy. It’s not fair to Wiggins. He’s not LeBron James. He’s a great player. He’s going to be a high draft pick. But c’mon.
“I’m not going to allow that to happen to Chris. I’m not lying or being less than truthful. This is where the kid is at right now.”
UNC's Free-Throw Failures: Two of North Carolina’s three losses can be directly attributed to its performance at the foul stripe. The Tar Heels made just 22 of their 48 free-throw attempts against Belmont and went a dismal 24-of-47 in falling to Texas. Both losses were by three points. As a team, North Carolina is making just 61.3 percent of its foul shots.
One player who hasn't struggled is guard Marcus Paige, who is 60-of-65 on the season (92.3 percent). In fact, Paige has emerged as the top playmaker and clear-cut leader of a squad that owns victories over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky.
“Everyone trusts him,” head coach Roy Williams told Bleacher Report. “Everyone understands that he’s a team-first guy. He’s our most unselfish player. He’s the one shooter that we have right now. I rarely say anything to him about taking bad shots.”
Paige, a sophomore, is averaging 19.4 points after scoring just 8.2 points as a freshman. His field-goal percentage has improved from 35.6 percent in 2012-13 to 43.8 percent this year.
“Last year everyone kept doubting him,” Williams said. “I kept saying, ‘This kid is a really good player. He can really shoot the ball.’ Down the stretch last year he made big shots for us. Everyone could see it wasn’t what they thought at first.”
Michael Dixon Jr.'s Redemption: A year ago at this time, Michael Dixon Jr. didn’t know if he’d ever play another college game after he was forced to quit Missouri’s basketball team in November amid allegations of sexual assault. He was never arrested or charged.
Dixon immediately began taking online courses and signed with Memphis during the summer. In August, he was granted a waiver that enabled him to play immediately.
“I just feel so blessed,” Dixon told Bleacher Report prior to a 77-75 loss to Florida at Madison Square Garden last week. “I was so worried that I’d never get this chance. I’m loving every minute of it.”
Dixon is averaging 10.4 points for the Tigers. The initial thought was that Dixon would start alongside senior Joe Jackson in the backcourt. Instead, coach Josh Pastner is bringing him off the bench.
“He’s so riled up when the game starts,” Pastner told me as he chuckled. “It’s almost good to let him sit there a minute and calm down before we put him in.”
Dixon’s father said his son couldn’t have made a better decision by selecting Memphis over a large number of suitors.
“We couldn’t be any happier,” Michael Dixon Sr. said in a text. “Pastner has been a dream.”
Baylor on the Rise: There were times early in his career at Baylor when Scott Drew was criticized for playing one of the softest nonconference schedules in the nation. That’s no longer the case. Barring any upsets, the 12th-ranked Bears will enter conference play sporting a 12-1 record with wins over schools such as Kentucky, Colorado and Dayton, all of whom have spent time in the Top 25.
“Wins were the most important thing in the early stages of the program, because we had to develop confidence and fan support,” Drew said by phone Tuesday. “But once we started experiencing some success, we became more concerned with RPI and scheduling tough opponents.
"It’s great for our fans, and our players like the challenge.”
Baylor’s only loss came against Syracuse in the championship game of the Maui Invitational. Four players (Cory Jefferson, Kenny Chery, Brady Heslip and Isaiah Austin) are averaging more than 10 points per game.
Should be better: Houston
Better than I thought: Texas
Give him a raise: Kevin Ollie, Connecticut
Show him the door: Stan Heath, South Florida
I’m sold on: Oregon
Need to see more of: Wisconsin
Overrated: Rupp Arena
Underrated: Gallagher-Iba Arena
Keep your eye on: Jordan Mickey, LSU
Don’t give up on: Joe Harris, Virginia
Turning heads: UCLA’s Zach LaVine
Dropping jaws: UCLA cheerleader MaCall Manor. Yowza!
A Dozen Words on My Top 12 Teams
- Louisville—Sticking with defending champs until they give me a reason not to.
- Arizona—Center Kaleb Tarczewski is one of the nation’s most improved big men.
- Syracuse—In their first year, the Orange are the class of the ACC.
- Duke—Guard Quinn Cook is key to the Blue Devils’ long-term success.
- Oklahoma State—No team in the Big 12 is playing with as much swagger.
- Michigan State—Tom Izzo loved the Spartans’ second-half toughness against Texas in Austin.
- Iowa State—Resume is very strong with wins over Michigan, Iowa and Brigham Young.
- Wichita State—New starters Fred VanVleet and Darius Carter have fit in nicely.
- Wisconsin—The Badgers have a chance at their first conference title since 2008.
- Oregon—Playing his way into the rotation won’t be easy for Dominic Artis.
- Florida—Gators went 3-1 against gauntlet of Connecticut, Kansas, Florida State and Memphis.
- Villanova—The Wildcats haven’t defeated a quality opponent since topping Iowa Nov. 30.
N9NE Steakhouse, Las Vegas—One thing that’s always annoyed me is when someone takes a bite or two of a hamburger and says, “This is the best burger I’ve ever eaten,” or “These are the best ribs I’ve ever had.” I can’t help but wonder if they really mean it‚—or, at the very least—if they really thought before speaking. Those type of statements usually have a short shelf life, as the next burger or rack of ribs will likely catapult to No. 1 on their all-time list.
So please know that I put a lot of thought in what I’m about to say: The filet at N9NE is the best steak I’ve ever eaten. Sounds bold, I know. But it’s true. From the seasoning to the marinade to the tenderness of the meat, I couldn’t imagine a better hunk of cow. I literally could’ve sliced through my steak with plastic wear or, heck, a credit card. Make sure you have one of those handy when you visit N9NE. The joint ain’t cheap. But if there’s ever a time to toss around money like Mardi Gras beads, N9NE is the place to do it.
The sides were almost as heavenly as the steak. At the top of my list were the jalapeno and cheddar potatoes. Drenched with aged cheddar and stocked with spicy peppers, the au gratin potatoes could’ve been a meal by themselves. But luckily we had some gnocchi and a mound of truffle fries to keep them company.
For dessert, our group split the tabletop s’mores, which come complete with a mini campfire grill and roasting rods for the marshmallows. Make sure to get them nice and burnt before placing them on top of a graham cracker drizzled with chocolate syrup.
Mad props to my friend and Vegas tour guide,@kellyinvegas, for introducing me to N9NE last May. Kelly doesn’t know it, but I’ve already been back—twice.
Gold Coast Dogs, Chicago—The food options at Midway Airport are tough to beat. Nuts on Clark has some of the best popcorn you’ll ever taste, and the corned beef sandwiches at Manny’s Deli have a New York flair. Potbelly is always a solid option or, if you’ve got a while, Harry Caray’s is a good place to sit down and relax. Still, as much as I’ve enjoyed each of those establishments, I’ll never visit any of them again.
How could I after discovering Gold Coast Dogs?
If you’re looking for a taste of Chicago, this is the place. Gold Coast’s website claims its wieners have been tabbed as the best in the Windy City by multiple publications. I can certainly see why after ordering a chargrilled dog dressed to impress with pickles, onions, diced tomatoes, sport peppers, mustard and celery salt. Cooked to perfection before my eyes on the grill, the hot dog had just the right amount of crunch and snap with each bite, and the condiments were all cold, crisp and fresh—the perfect complement to the piping hot chili dog I consumed afterward without missing a beat.
Thanks to Gold Coast Dogs, I actually look forward to layovers.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.