As conference races around the country start to boil down to the top few contenders, so do our college basketball freshman power rankings. The first-year standouts who have survived the pressure of conference play are now playing vital roles as their teams jockey for position in the standings (and seeding for the Big Dance).
Marcus Foster and Kansas State face an uphill battle in the loaded Big 12, but the freshman guard isn’t going down without a fight. He led his team’s two biggest wins of the season with a combined 54 points in back-to-back games against Texas and Kansas.
Herein, a closer look at Foster’s hot streak and the rest of the 20 biggest freshman stars from around college hoops. Just like the committee does on Selection Sunday, these rankings give a little extra weight to recent performance, in the interest of rewarding players who are making an impact at the most crucial times of the season.
Jarell Martin hasn’t been a star in the Tigers’ balanced attack, but his scoring average keeps inching upward thanks to performances like his 15-point showing on the road at Georgia.
Key Stats: 9.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game
Why He’s Here: He provides reliable rebounding (even in a deep frontcourt) to go with a productive inside-outside offensive game.
Biggest Weakness: He’s not a playmaker on D, despite impressive athleticism.
Previous Ranking: 20
After a string of indifferent efforts, Kennedy Meeks came up big at the right time against Florida State, spearheading a Tar Heels victory with a sensational 23 points (on 11-of-12 shooting), seven rebounds and two blocks.
Key Stats: 7.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game
Why He’s Here: UNC’s late-blooming behemoth has controlled the boards while showing flashes of offensive brilliance.
Biggest Weakness: At 290 pounds, he’s had trouble staying on the floor in this uptempo conference (12 minutes against Notre Dame, 11 against Pitt).
Previous Ranking: 15
A pair of dismal performances (nine points and three boards total against Pacific and St. Mary’s) took much of the shine off Eric Mika’s back-to-back double-doubles against San Francisco and Santa Clara.
Key Stats: 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game
Why He’s Here: The Cougars’ top interior option has provided welcome balance in a high-scoring attack.
Biggest Weakness: His 6’10” length belies his lack of defensive impact.
Previous Ranking: 16
Andrew Harrison’s passing is starting to get more consistent, but it’s his scoring (20 points against Florida, 16 at Auburn) that’s catching the most eyes.
Key Stats: 11.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game; .373 three-point shooting
Why He’s Here: The towering (6’6”) point guard keeps expanding his value to the Kentucky offense.
Biggest Weakness: There’s no shame in getting lit up by Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin, but Harrison’s defense continues to be an issue in general—he’s fouled out twice in his last three games.
Previous Ranking: 17
The state of Oregon is none too pleased with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson after he torched its Ducks and Beavers for a combined 30 points, 15 rebounds and six assists in one weekend’s worth of action.
Key Stats: 8.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game
Why He’s Here: Arizona’s defensive stopper is starting to find his timing offensively since replacing injured Brandon Ashley in the starting lineup.
Biggest Weakness: Without even a semblance of a three-point shot, he’s forced to contribute to the Wildcats’ traffic jam on the interior.
Previous Ranking: 18
Not only has Sindarius Thornwell continued his impressive showing as a scorer, but he’s also taking over more of the Gamecocks’ playmaking responsibilities (nine assists against Auburn, six in a win over Vanderbilt).
Key Stats: 13.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game; .347 three-point shooting
Why He’s Here: The explosive offensive weapon has improved his all-around game as the season has worn on.
Biggest Weakness: He doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing his shots, but even so, a .412 field-goal percentage is an issue.
Previous Ranking: 12
A three-game scoring slump from Aaron Harrison has been mitigated somewhat by defense (five steals in the three contests) and passing (six assists against Mississippi State).
Key Stats: 13.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game
Why He’s Here: The shooting guard half of the Wildcats’ celebrated twins is also the team’s most versatile player.
Biggest Weakness: Kentucky needs him to shoot better than .313 from long range.
Previous Ranking: 10
A pair of one-assist performances from point guard Nigel Williams-Goss has played a major role in Washington losing three games out of four. Of course, his 16 points, five boards and five assists also keyed the one win, over a tough Stanford squad.
Key Stats: 13.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.0 steals per game; .357 three-point shooting
Why He’s Here: The Huskies’ floor leader has been filling up box scores all season.
Biggest Weakness: He’s slumping badly on D, with just one steal in his last five games combined.
Previous Ranking: 14
The Longhorns (winners of nine games out of 10) continue to impress, and so does their high-scoring floor leader: Isaiah Taylor had seven assists at TCU and 17 points in a losing cause at Kansas State.
Key Stats: 12.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game
Why He’s Here: The versatile penetrator has been the heart of the Texas attack.
Biggest Weakness: He’s attempted just 14 three-pointers and shot .286 on those.
Previous Ranking: 13
On top of his record-setting 35-point outburst against Alabama, Bobby Portis has been impressing on defense, too (six blocks against the Tide, four steals against LSU).
Key Stats: 13.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals per game
Why He’s Here: Far more athletic than his 242 pounds (on a 6’10” frame) might suggest, he’s been making plays all over the floor.
Biggest Weakness: As his scoring has picked up, he’s pretty much stopped passing (three assists in the last month).
Previous Ranking: 7
James Young continues to be Kentucky’s streakiest player, vanishing against Auburn one game (four points, 1-of-10 from the floor) and carrying the offense against Florida the next (19 points, 7-of-10).
Key Stats: 14.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game; .339 three-point shooting
Why He’s Here: When the ‘Cats need perimeter scoring, he’s answered the call better than anyone.
Biggest Weakness: He’s still not the defender he ought to be with his length and quickness.
Previous Ranking: 9
Aaron Gordon managed a now-rare (for him) double-double against Arizona State, but his 17-point night against Oregon State sent an even bigger message after a three-game scoring slump.
Key Stats: 11.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game
Why He’s Here: College hoops’ most impressive dunker is also one of the toughest rebounders in the Pac-12.
Biggest Weakness: New adjectives will have to be invented to describe his free-throw shooting, which (at .415) makes even Shaquille O’Neal look good.
Previous Ranking: 6
Indiana is mired in a three-game skid, but bruising Noah Vonleh hasn’t missed a beat, grabbing a dozen rebounds each against Penn State and Minnesota.
Key Stats: 11.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game
Why He’s Here: The Big Ten’s leading rebounder has piled up double-doubles as one of IU’s most consistent scorers.
Biggest Weakness: With two assists in his last three games, he’s actually raised his average (to 0.5 per contest).
Previous Ranking: 11
Marcus Foster is reaching new heights as a scorer, destroying Texas with a career-best 34 points and stunning Kansas with 20 more in back-to-back upset wins.
Key Stats: 15.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game; .388 three-point shooting
Why He’s Here: His 10-assist effort against Baylor highlights the versatility of K-State’s one legitimate offensive weapon.
Biggest Weakness: Defense hasn’t come nearly as easily to the 6’2” shooting guard.
Previous Ranking: 8
Jordan Mickey continues to dominate on both ends, blocking shots (three against Auburn) and scoring points (19 at Georgia) for the Tigers.
Key Stats: 13.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game
Why He’s Here: The high-flying 6’8” forward has terrorized SEC drivers.
Biggest Weakness: It’s tough to sustain top-level D when you’re routinely battling foul trouble (15 fouls in his last four games).
Previous Ranking: 5
Julius Randle is still stuck in second gear offensively, but he did notch back-to-back double-doubles (for the first time since November) against Auburn and Florida.
Key Stats: 15.7 points and 10 rebounds per game
Why He’s Here: Even with his point production flagging, the rebounding machine has more double-digit games than anyone in the Wildcats’ prolific offense.
Biggest Weakness: Although he’s a fearsome defensive rebounder, he does too little else on that end of the floor.
Previous Ranking: 4
Andrew Wiggins is playing his most consistent ball of the season, having strung together four consecutive games of at least 14 points and four boards.
Key Stats: 16.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game; .349 three-point shooting
Why He’s Here: The dynamic scorer is settling into a leadership role and becoming more comfortable as a passer, too (12 assists in his last four games).
Biggest Weakness: Defensively, he’s often left in the background by more productive teammates.
Previous Ranking: 1
Even before back and knee injuries sidelined him for the TCU game, Joel Embiid had endured his share of disappointing outings (six points and one block against Kansas State, five and one against Baylor).
Key Stats: 10.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game
Why He’s Here: The mobile 7-footer is a defensive stalwart, even when his offense falters.
Biggest Weakness: It’s anybody’s guess how long it will take before he’s 100 percent healthy again.
Previous Ranking: 3
Aside from a show-stopping performance at Boston College—29 points, 16 boards and three blocks—Jabari Parker has been cruising steadily along as one of the most intimidating scorers in the ACC.
Key Stats: 19.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game; .365 three-point shooting
Why He’s Here: The highlight-reel offensive star is also Duke’s best defender.
Biggest Weakness: Since ACC play began, his three-point shooting has gone cold (11-of-41).
Previous Ranking: 2
Tyler Ennis has been making clutch plays all season, but none that match his latest heroics. Saturday’s game-winning assist (to C.J. Fair) beat NC State just three days after his 35-foot buzzer-beater shocked Pitt.
Key Stats: 11.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game; .365 three-point shooting
Why He’s Here: The floor leader for the top-ranked Orange is making sure their perfect record stays perfect.
Biggest Weakness: Streaky shooting has left him with iffy .422 field-goal accuracy overall.