Predicting the 2014-15 Freshman of the Year in Each Major CBB Conference
The elite freshmen that enter college basketball every season don't get as excited about their conference's Freshman of the Year trophies as they might have in years past. Many are simply marking off days until they can hire an agent and chase NBA riches, but there are games to play and scouts to impress in the meantime.
Many of the freshmen spotlighted here are McDonald's All-Americans and projected one-and-done talents who may have just as much opportunity to win conference Player of the Year or All-American honors rather than settle for being named a top newcomer.
Still, until someone proves otherwise, these are the new faces in each of the game's top nine conferences that will present the best blend of talent and opportunity to put up tremendous numbers in their debut seasons.
ACC: Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Mason Plumlee was an All-American for Duke just one year ago. Jahlil Okafor is a more advanced player than Plumlee ever was during his college career. So it stands to reason that Okafor should contend for All-American selection this coming season.
Okafor could be Duke's primary offensive option this year in a way that no Blue Devil big man has been since—who? Elton Brand? Cherokee Parks? Dare we say the immortal Christian Laettner?
It's not unreasonable to expect Okafor to average around 16 points and 10 rebounds per game, figures that few players in the ACC are likely to match, never mind freshmen.
Other Candidates: Shaqquan Aaron, Louisville or Justin Jackson, North Carolina
American: Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU
Emmanuel Mudiay is listed as a point guard, and SMU already has a pretty good one returning. However, there's no reason to expect that the 6'5" Mudiay can't line up right next to the 5'10" Nic Moore in what could be one of the nation's most explosive backcourts.
There will be times, even with Moore on the court, that Mudiay will take over the game. His size makes him a more potent threat to attack the basket than the diminutive junior, and Moore is a better candidate to receive kick-out passes and convert threes.
If Mudiay's outside jump shot becomes a more consistent weapon, it may not be totally out of line to suggest that he could lead the American in scoring. Even failing that, no first-year player in the league will have more of a spotlight, with SMU a consensus pick to win the conference title.
Other Candidates: Daniel Hamilton, UConn or Gary Clark, Cincinnati
Atlantic 10: Jared Terrell, Rhode Island
Jared Terrell's commitment to Rhode Island may not have totally swung the balance of power in the Atlantic 10, but it certainly made the race more interesting.
By pairing the 6'3", 220-pound Terrell with last year's co-Freshman of the Year E.C. Matthews and perhaps three-star freshman Jarvis Garrett, Rams coach Dan Hurley may have the A-10's most potent two-way backcourt.
While VCU still has the league's top recruiting class, 247 Sports lists the Rams right behind them. Terrell is the only freshman on either team that appears to be a complete lock to crack his team's starting lineup from day one.
If he plays close to 30 minutes per game, Terrell could average anywhere from 14 to 18 points and may compete for the league steals crown. The latter would be a huge win, considering Briante Weber has one more season of menacing ball-handlers for VCU.
Other Candidates: Terry Larrier, VCU or James Demery, St. Joseph's
Big East: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
If you set aside team records and focus on sheer statistical volume, Isaiah Whitehead should certainly be the Big East's most dominant first-year player.
The only five-star recruit to join any Big East team according to 247, Whitehead steps onto a Seton Hall team that returns only three significant contributors from last season, two of them point guards.
For better or worse, coach Kevin Willard has hitched his career to Whitehead, and the Pirates will be Whitehead's team this season. Don't be a bit surprised if Whitehead averages over 18 PPG this season, and he should win this award in a walk if his shooting isn't ridiculously inefficient.
Other Candidates: Isaac Copeland, Georgetown or Jalen Lindsey, Providence
Big Ten: Romelo Trimble, Maryland
The race for the Big Ten's top freshman honor currently looks like a two-horse race between conference newcomer Maryland's Romelo Trimble and Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell. This writer has been on record earlier in the offseason stumping for Russell, but factors are beginning to align against the new Buckeye.
The most important issue currently revolves around a standardized test score that the NCAA has yet to receive for Russell. He has yet to be cleared for practices. This isn't likely to turn into the kind of situation that torpedoed the freshman season of Florida's Chris Walker, but one can never be completely sure with the NCAA. All we know right now is that Russell is missing some valuable summer practice time.
As for Trimble, reports are trickling out that the Terrapins are preparing to crank up the offense to announce their presence in the Big Ten with some authority. As the presumptive point guard for this sporty machine, Trimble should have the ball in his hands for a large number of possessions.
The Terps still have an interesting array of scorers, even after five players bolted for other schools. With Dez Wells, Jake Layman, Evan Smotrycz and classmate Dion Wiley, among others, getting on the business end of his passes, Trimble could be a contender for the Big Ten assist title.
Other Candidates: D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State or Vic Law, Northwestern
Big 12: Devonte Graham, Kansas
Kansas coach Bill Self has been quoted recently as saying he doesn't want to play with a point guard on the floor anymore. His tongue appears to be firmly planted in his cheek when he says it, because he explains that he'd love to have multiple players on the court with point guard skills, not just one primary ball-handler.
Provided that North Carolina product Devonte Graham can break away from sophomore competitors Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp, he might make Self's usual lineup look much more conventional than the coach seems to anticipate.
A 6'2" playmaker fresh off of a national prep school championship with Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, Graham has the kind of big-game experience that is essential for a Kansas recruit. Graham's size and athletic ability could allow Self to play him alongside Mason or Frankamp in a true dual-point alignment.
Either way, expect Graham to see plenty of minutes and plenty of touches setting up KU's stable of scorers. Blue-chip recruits Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander will both have a lot of competition for baskets, but Graham could distinguish himself from the pack by being the primary set-up man for the entire offense.
Or he could sit on the bench and wave a towel all season. It's June, after all. Who knows for sure?
Other candidates: Cliff Alexander, Kansas or Myles Turner, Texas
Mountain West: Rashad Vaughn, UNLV
True to its location in the gambling mecca of America, UNLV is the Mountain West's wild card this season. Most teams that lose all five starters expect to rebuild and sink to the bottom of their conferences, but the Runnin' Rebels could still contend in the MWC.
Part of that could be an indictment of the league that was once considered the next major conference, but another part is based on excitement over incoming guard Rashad Vaughn.
The Minnesota native, who played his prep school ball at nearby Findlay Prep, will take full control of the Rebel offense from his first game. UNLV has a serious paucity of frontcourt depth, so the guards will see as many shots as they can handle.
Vaughn is a capable scorer from any level, and he may be the MWC's most dangerous threat before he even plays a single collegiate game. He'll play alongside a veteran point guard in San Francisco transfer Cody Doolin, the kind of player who'll learn quickly where Vaughn wants the ball and is capable of getting it there.
If the Rebels are truly contenders this season, expect Vaughn to garner serious support for not only this award, but MWC Player of the Year.
Other Candidates: Malik Pope, San Diego State or Isaiah Bailey, Fresno State
Pac-12: Stanley Johnson, Arizona
There are other Pac-12 freshmen stepping into bigger roles than Arizona's Stanley Johnson, but those roles are largely built out of their teams' roster uncertainty.
While Johnson is stepping onto a very talented Wildcat roster, he's still capable of being the best player on the court every night out. When you're running with studs like T.J. McConnell, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, that's heady praise.
Johnson combines a power forward's strength with the ability to stroke a jumper out to the arc, but what will really catch eyes is his underrated ball-handling. He spent time running the offense as the point guard for his high school team at California powerhouse Mater Dei. At 6'6" and 235 pounds, that's the definition of a matchup nightmare, especially for his unfortunate high school opponents.
In the Pac-12, he'll find the sledding a bit tougher, but he's an NBA lottery pick in waiting for a reason. Look for Johnson to command the Wildcats' perimeter game in much the same way that departed veteran Nick Johnson—no relation—did last season.
Other Candidates: JaQuan Lyle, Oregon or Kevon Looney, UCLA
SEC: Trey Lyles, Kentucky
You could probably flip a coin between Kentucky recruits Trey Lyles and Karl Towns for the SEC Freshman of the Year award, and either big man could turn out to be a highly deserving choice. Consider this one a vote for the Saskatchewan-born Lyles.
Lyles may not have Towns' expansive shooting range, but he must be respected out to about 18 feet. He walks in from day one as Kentucky's most potent low-post scoring option. While he's not the shot-swatting machine that teammates Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee and Towns appear to be, Lyles will certainly make opponents nervous when they drive on him.
With UK's superior depth, coach John Calipari may not have to play anyone much more than 25 minutes per game. That's all the time that a player like Lyles would need to rack up numbers head and shoulders above the rest of a somewhat-iffy SEC recruiting class.
Other Candidates: Alex Robinson, Texas A&M or Karl Towns, Kentucky