Ranking the Top Freshmen in the 2014 NCAA Tournament

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2014

Ranking the Top Freshmen in the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    In the 2014 NCAA tournament, just as in the season that preceded it, freshmen will need to play crucial roles on some of the best teams in the country. Now, the young stars step onto a stage bigger than any they’ve ever encountered—and for some of the highest stakes in all of sports.

    One first-year standout who’s shown a taste for the spotlight already has been Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis. A frequent late-game hero during the Orange’s scorching-hot start, Ennis was the best point guard in the class by a wide margin.

    Will that performance be good enough to rank him as the top freshman in the field of 68? Read on for more on Ennis and nine more of the most explosive frosh still hoping to cut down the nets in Arlington. We also have a special honorable-mention spot for a player who clearly belongs on this list but may or may not appear in the Big Dance.

     

Honorable Mention: Joel Embiid, Kansas

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    Joel Embiid is one of the top five freshmen in the nation, hands down. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that second-seeded Kansas will have Embiid available at any point during this year’s Big Dance.

    The Cameroonian center suffered a stress fracture in his back during a game against Oklahoma State on March 1. He hasn’t played since, and there’s no timetable available for his return.

10. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona

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    For the first two-thirds of the season, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was among the nation’s top sixth men as No. 1 seed Arizona’s multiposition defensive-stopper.

    Then, when Brandon Ashley broke his foot in February, the freshman stepped into the starting lineup and added his considerable rebounding punch (5.8 boards a night) to that of Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon.

    Hollis-Jefferson is a respectable finisher near the rim, but his lack of a jump shot has hurt him this season. However, he can still do damage on the perimeter thanks to his skillful passing.

9. Isaiah Taylor, Texas

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    The Longhorns are a surprise just to be in the NCAA tournament after last year’s debacle, let alone to have earned a No. 7 seed while battling the stacked Big 12.

    One of the biggest changes for Rick Barnes’ team in 2013-14 has been the arrival of floor leader Isaiah Taylor, who’s immediately become the team’s top perimeter weapon.

    Not only is Taylor leading the roster with 3.9 assists per game, but he’s the second-best scorer (behind Jonathan Holmes) at 12.5 points a night.

    Taylor's arrival has also taken the pressure off 2012-13 freshman sensation Javan Felix, who’s been far more effective as a secondary playmaker while spending more of his time knocking down jumpers.

8. Aaron Harrison, Kentucky

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    On a No. 8-seeded Kentucky team that’s had trouble with ball movement all year, every point guard counts. That’s one of the great advantages for John Calipari of having Aaron Harrison—twin brother of the team’s starting PG, Andrew—line up at shooting guard every night.

    Aaron Harrison is just behind his brother with 2.1 assists per game, but he’s also pouring in 13.8 points a night.

    Further extending his versatility, he’s tied for the team lead in steals and alone at the top in free-throw percentage (another area where UK needs all the help it can get).

7. James Young, Kentucky

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    All year, opposing defenses have packed the paint against eighth-seeded Kentucky to slow down Julius Randle, daring the rest of the ‘Cats to shoot over them. All year, the one who’s been pulling the trigger is James Young.

    The 6’6” small forward is second to Randle with 14.5 points per game, and his .341 long-range accuracy leads a team that has few reliable options.

    Like most John Calipari recruits, Young is also a tremendous overall athlete, and his finishing ability on the fast break is nearly the equal of Randle’s.

6. Aaron Gordon, Arizona

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    Age aside, there isn’t a better dunker in college hoops than Aaron Gordon. Fortunately for top seed Arizona, its prized combo forward has brought a lot more to the table than that.

    Gordon leads the Wildcats with 7.8 rebounds per game and trails only Nick Johnson in scoring with 12.1 points a night.

    He’d be scoring even more if his free-throw shooting weren’t bad enough to make Shaq look good (.435, compared to O’Neal’s LSU career worst of .527).

5. Marcus Foster, Kansas State

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    There’s an excellent case to be made that the ninth-seeded Wildcats would be in the NIT (or worse) if it weren’t for Marcus Foster.

    On an anemic Kansas State offense, Foster’s team-leading 15.6 per game account for a full 22.3 percent of the entire roster’s scoring.

    Later in the season, Foster started to become more comfortable as a playmaker in Bruce Weber’s motion offense, too. He’s not an impact defender, but with his .404 three-point shooting, he’s pretty close to the total package on the offensive end.

4. Julius Randle, Kentucky

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    Just seven players in all of Division I—none of them freshmen—averaged more rebounds than Julius Randle this season.

    Even as the rest of his game metamorphosed, and not always for the better, Randle had that considerable credential to rest his reputation on.

    An indomitable scorer in nonconference play, Randle slowed dramatically against SEC frontcourts. He still scored 15 points per game to lead No. 8 seed Kentucky, while doing an impressive job of shooting free throws (.705) for a 6’9”, 250-pound power forward.

3. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

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    Few freshmen even in this elite company have improved as much over the course of the season as Andrew Wiggins.

    From the get-go, Wiggins looked uncomfortable in the role of primary scorer for second-seeded Kansas, but more recently, he warmed up for the Big Dance with games of 41, 30 and 22 points.

    Wiggins has also improved significantly as a three-point shooter, hitting at a .350 clip for the year as a whole.

    The peripheral skills that helped him contribute while he settled in as a scorer (including outstanding perimeter rebounding along with respectable passing and defense) haven’t lost anything as his scoring has spiked either.

2. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

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    Tyler Ennis didn’t quite make the same miraculous clutch plays down the stretch that he did in keeping Syracuse undefeated for so long, but he did just about everything else.

    The Orange’s multitalented point guard finished the year with averages of 12.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game.

    As if that weren’t enough, he’s also an intimidating three-point shooter (.372).

    And a player who’s come through for multiple game-winning plays in the same season (as Ennis did against Pitt and N.C. State, among others) could easily find his touch again when ‘Cuse needs it in March Madness.

1. Jabari Parker, Duke

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    For a total body of work in the 2013-14 season, no freshman can approach what Jabari Parker has accomplished. He ended the year as he started it, an unstoppable offensive force and an athletic, versatile defender.

    Parker averaged 19.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, leading Duke by convincing margins in both categories.

    Add in his .369 three-point shooting and his productive D (1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals a night), and he’s been every bit the superstar he was billed as when he arrived in Durham, N.C.