March Madness 2014: The Biggest Challenge Each Star Freshman Faces

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagMarch 19, 2014

March Madness 2014: The Biggest Challenge Each Star Freshman Faces

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    Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and the rest of the heralded freshman class of 2013 spent the past three months adjusting to the pressure that accompanied their lofty reputations.

    Now it starts all over again.

    Among the first-years, Wiggins, Parker, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon and Tyler Ennis have grabbed the most headlines this season and are regarded as the cream of the crop. The spotlight will continue to shine on each of them for different reasons. 

    Here’s a look at the varying types of postseason pressure facing the top players from the class of 2013. 

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

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    Biggest challenge: Be more consistent

    The knock on Wiggins all season was that he follows up a couple of great games with a no-show. There was the three-point performance in a home win against Oklahoma State, the seven-point effort during a drubbing at Texas and a handful of other lackluster games when Wiggins just seemed to drift and blend in without ever becoming a presence.

    Those things can’t happen—not even once—if Kansas has hopes of reaching the Final Four. Wiggins has to carry this team, especially this weekend. With 7-foot center Joel Embiid out until at least the Sweet 16, Wiggins needs to operate with an alpha-male mentality every time he steps on the court.

    He needs to hunt shots, attack the basket, take pride in his defense and play with the swagger of a No. 1 overall draft pick, which he could very well become in three months.

    The encouraging thing for Kansas is that inconsistency that plagued Wiggins early in the season appears to be a thing of the past. In January, for instance, Wiggins averaged 17.3 points on 11.6 field-goal attempts per game. In March he’s attempting 15.8 shots and scoring 23.4 points per contest. In other words, he’s playing with the aggressive nature that coach Bill Self has been trying to bring out of him all season.

Jabari Parker, Duke

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    Biggest challenge: Be a leader

    More than once the past few weeks, I’ve noticed Parker getting in the faces of his teammates more than usual. Sometimes he’s hyping them up after a good hustle play. Other times he’s scolding someone for a bad spot or trying to calm a guy down when he’s irritated at an official. In other words, Parker has taken control of this team.

    The role fits him well.

    Parker is mature beyond his years. An interview with him is like having a conversation with a seasoned pro. Watch him interact with fans or in front of television cameras and it’s obvious he’s comfortable in the public eye.

    Duke doesn’t have another player like that on its roster. As much as they admire him for his talent, the Blue Devils respect Parker as a person. Parker needs to take advantage of that during the NCAA tournament and be as vocal as ever as he attempts to guide them to the Final Four.

Julius Randle, Kentucky

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    Biggest challenge: Morph into “beast mode”

    The 6’9”, 250-pound Randle is one of the most difficult matchups in college basketball. His combination of size, strength and athleticism makes him a surefire top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, and his motor and relentlessness in the paint can be breathtaking when he’s battling an opponent for an offensive rebound or diving for a loose ball near the baseline.

    Kentucky won’t make it past the first weekend—and maybe not its first game—if Randle doesn’t operate with that mentality the entire time he’s on the court.

    Kansas State, the Wildcats’ round-of-64 opponent, doesn’t have a forward who can come close to stopping Randle if he plays at a high level. Neither does Wichita State, although the Shockers should be able to run fresh bodies at Randle by rotating Kadeem Coleby, Darius Carter and Chadrack Lufile in and out of the lineup.

    Either way, Randle is good enough to own his opponents during the opening weekend of the tournament. Not just when it comes to scoring, but rebounding and defense, too. The rest of Kentucky’s players have been wildly inconsistent. Just by playing hard and being physical, Randle is the one player who has no excuse not to be a major factor for the Wildcats every single game.

Joel Embiid, Kansas

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    Biggest challenge: Don’t rush it

    Embiid will miss the first weekend of the NCAA tournament because of a stress fracture in his lower back, an injury that has kept Embiid on the sideline for Kansas’ last four games. Embiid, who leads the Jayhawks in rebounding with 8.8 boards per game, may feel pressure to try to get back onto the court too early. Perhaps he’ll have an urge to tell coach Bill Self he can play even if he’s not ready.

    That would be a major mistake.

    Embiid has too much to risk by returning to the court before he’s ready. The potential No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, Embiid is three months away from becoming a multimillionaire who can change the lives of his family members back in Cameroon forever.

    If he tries to make a rash decision and play this weekend, someone needs to stop him. As much as his teammates would love to have him on the court, it’s not worth it. Not this weekend.

    Kansas should be able to beat New Mexico or Stanford in the round of 32 without Embiid. A return for the Sweet 16 seems much more reasonable.

Aaron Gordon, Arizona

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    Biggest challenge: Free throws 

    Gordon hasn’t received nearly as much publicity as the other high-profile members of the freshman class, but he may have a better chance than any of them to win a national championship. 

    On the flip side, he could also end up being the goat. 

    A freakishly athletic power forward and a high-level defender, Gordon has been absolutely dreadful from the free-throw line, where he’s made just 43.5 percent of his foul shots.

    Gordon gets to the line somewhat often (he attempts nearly five free throws a game), so it's conceivable that he could be on the stripe during a crucial moment of a close game at some point during this tournament. “Grab-a-Gordon” may become the defensive strategy against the Wildcats over the next few weeks. 

    Gordon has to make teams pay. 

    Something tells me he already takes extra foul shots before and after practice. It clearly hasn’t been enough. 

    Perhaps he should meditate before games or use a sports psychologist. Maybe he should shoot granny style from this point forward. It certainly can’t get much worse. Not just for Gordon, but for the entire Arizona roster, which ranked last in the Pac-12 in free-throw percentage (65.5). Yikes!

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

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    Biggest challenge: Make your teammates better

    The Orange are hurting. Jim Boeheim’s squad has lost five of its last seven games and could easily be shaky in the confidence department entering the NCAA tournament.

    Ennis can help change that.

    As Syracuse’s point guard, he can put his teammates in positions to succeed. Whether it’s making the perfect pass that allows Trevor Cooney to catch and shoot in rhythm, giving up the ball on a fast break so C.J. Fair can score instead or simply energizing and pumping up Jerami Grant after a made basket, Cooney has the ability to boost the spirits—and as a result, the play—of the other guys on the court.

    Ennis was a huge reason Syracuse opened the season with 25 straight wins, but he needs to play an even bigger role if the Orange have hopes of an extended run in the NCAA tournament.