Predicting the 2014-15 Freshman of the Year in Every NCAA Basketball Conference

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent ISeptember 15, 2014

Predicting the 2014-15 Freshman of the Year in Every NCAA Basketball Conference

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    In this era of the one-and-done superstar, Freshman of the Year honors in NCAA basketball are often followed by a fat contract offer from the NBA.

    That puts a serious spotlight on the races for the award in conferences big and small, as even those first-year stars who stay in school will have put themselves one step closer to national acclaim.

    The competition will be at its hottest in the Big 12, where Kansas’ Cliff Alexander is just one of the frontcourt superstars arriving this fall. The high-flying Jayhawk will raise echoes of Blake Griffin in the Great Plains, but will he be the best of a loaded crop of recruits?

    Read on to see who could generate even more highlights than Alexander in Big 12 action, along with picks for the top freshman in every other Division I conference this season.

America East: Brandon Hatton, Vermont

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    The America East’s top freshmen, Brandon Hatton and Lance Crawford (of UMass-Lowell), both join heavily depleted rosters.

    The difference is that Crawford, a pass-first point guard, will suffer a lot more from a lack of weapons around him than shooting guard Hatton will.

    The Catamounts’ newest weapon is a pure shooter who will fit right into an offense that hit 40 percent of its treys last season. At 6’3”, he’s not half bad as a finisher, either, especially by America East standards.

AAC: Daniel Hamilton, UConn

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Emmanuel Mudiay had this award in his hip pocket until the former SMU commit switched directions and jetted off to a pro contract in China.

    With Mudiay gone, the AAC doesn’t have another freshman who can approach the scoring punch (or athletic ability) of Daniel Hamilton.

    The 6’7” Californian can scorch the nets when he gets hot, and even in a crowded UConn backcourt, he’ll get enough shots to make a difference.

    Unless Dominic Magee wildly exceeds expectations in running the Memphis offense, Hamilton will make enough highlight-reel plays to claim the top spot here.

Atlantic 10: Terry Larrier, Virginia Commonwealth

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    Terry Larrier doesn’t just boast the best combination of skill and athleticism of any A-10 freshman—he’s also the best fit with his new team. Larrier’s speed and quickness make him an ideal big guard for Shaka Smart’s Havoc press.

    The 6'7" Bronx native isn’t a great shot himself, but his deft passing ability will help high-scoring Treveon Graham sink a few extra baskets.

    Although he won’t put up as many points as Rhode Island’s Jared Terrell, Larrier's all-around game (and VCU’s likely spot atop the league standings) will help him come out ahead.

ACC: Jahlil Okafor, Duke

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    It’s a big year for 7-footers in college basketball, but the best center in the country could easily be a freshman who stands a “mere” 6’11”.

    Jahlil Okafor is a dominant low-post scorer who features spectacular hands and outstanding footwork to go with his 270 pounds of sheer power.

    Okafor’s toughest competition will come from the player who will be setting him up, point guard Tyus Jones, though rival UNC (with Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson) will also be in the mix.

    Still, it’s hard to imagine any of the other ACC youngsters dominating the floor from day one the way Okafor looks poised to do. It won't hurt that loaded Duke is among the favorites to cut down the nets in March, either.

Atlantic Sun: Jonathan Joseph, Stetson

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    Jonathan Joseph is the best of Stetson’s flotilla of freshmen, not to mention the Hatters’ best option for replacing the scoring lost with the end of forward Willie Green’s career.

    Joseph is a high-flying 6’5” wing who uses his athleticism as a defender and rebounder, too.

    Unlike Florida Gulf Coast’s Zach Johnson, Joseph will benefit from the experience around him rather than having to fight the veterans for playing time and shots.

    The most important of those veterans will be Raymone Andrewsin his second year as Stetson’s starting point guardwho will be sure to deliver a few eye-catching alley-oops to raise the freshman’s profile.

Big 12: Myles Turner, Texas

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    Kansas’ inside-outside combo of Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr. will be one of the best duos in the country (of any age), but the Jayhawks’ new stars will probably trade off the primary scorer’s role on a nightly basis.

    Myles Turner, on the other hand, enters as the clear favorite among many weapons at Texas, and he’s every bit the offensive force that Alexander and Oubre are.

    Turner, a 6’11” center who can dominate on the block or drain the trey, will also play just as much high-level defense as KU's youngsters.

    He’ll also get a boost from the presence of Isaiah Taylor, a point guard with more experience and more skill than any of Kansas’ floor-leader options.

Big East: Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

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    The star power leaving the reshaped Big East—Doug McDermott, Bryce Cotton, Semaj Christon et al.—vastly exceeds the conference’s incoming talent.

    Surprisingly, one of the few teams to buck that trend is a Seton Hall squad that’s been little more than an afterthought since Tommy Amaker left town in 2001.

    Isaiah Whitehead is a bona fide blue-chip shooting guard, a physical scorer at 6’4” who can drain the trey but specializes in earning (and hitting) free throws by barreling through the lane.

    In this still-physical league, that will mean more than enough points to keep him comfortably ahead of Georgetown’s Isaac Copeland and Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett.

Big Sky: Iziahiah Sweeney, Portland State

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    Although he’s listed at just 6’3” and 170 pounds, Iziahiah Sweeney attacks the rim like a much bigger player. The Californian also has a dangerous three-point shot, but it’s his athletic ability that will stand out against Big Sky competition.

    The Vikings excel at sharing the ball, and seniors Tim Douglas and Gary Winston will help the youngster find his rhythm in the backcourt.

    Although his supporting cast still can’t measure up to the one Zach Braxton joins at league-champion Weber State, Sweeney’s more polished offensive game will help him stave off the challenge from the Wildcats big man.

Big South: Ezra Talbert, Liberty

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    Formerly committed to Creighton, Ezra Talbert changed his mind and became a recruiting steal for Liberty. The 6’8” small forward will tower over Big South wings, and he can exploit that advantage in the paint or on the perimeter.

    With next year’s Flames lacking an obvious go-to scorer, there’s plenty of opportunity for Talbert to put up big numbers.

    That freedom to operate will help him edge out the league’s other top freshman, Troy Harper of Campbell, who’s stuck behind incumbent point guard Quinton Ray.

Big Ten: D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State

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    As a conference, the Big Ten—which failed to land a single top-10 freshman—had a tough year in recruiting. The glaring exception was Ohio State, which secured almost all of the conference’s elite prospects in a class headlined by D’Angelo Russell.

    A McDonald’s All-American from Louisville, Russell has the long-range touch of a 2-guard along with the passing skill and instincts to run the point when needed.

    He’ll be able to do a little of everything in an Ohio State offense in search of an identity, and his all-around game will eclipse the points James Blackmon Jr. will score in Yogi Ferrell’s shadow at Indiana.

Big West: Ron Freeman, Cal State-Fullerton

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    Instant-impact freshmen are in short supply in the Big West, where the best newcomers this season—Ron Freeman and Long Beach State’s Justin Bibbins—have more potential than performance.

    Bibbins, though, has an extra hurdle to clear because he’ll be adjusting to the college game from a height of 5’8”, an obstacle that will ensure Freeman comes out on top.

    The Titans’ top recruit is a 6’5” slasher who knows how to use his long arms to good effect on both ends of the floor.

    He’s not a great shooter at this stage, but the presence of senior combo guard Alex Harris will take a lot of pressure off Freeman in that department.

CAA: Evan Bailey, College of Charleston

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The College of Charleston ranked 330th in the nation in scoring last season, and two of the top three-point threats from that squad (Willis Hall and Nori Johnson) are gone.

    Suffice it to say, Evan Bailey will be firing away when he gets a look from beyond the arc.

    The Ohioan is a serious catch-and-shoot threat whose 6’6” frame will make it tough for most perimeter players to contest his shots.

    He’s not nearly as versatile as Towson newcomer Eddie Keith, but Bailey’s point production—bolstered by the return of senior point guard Anthony Stitt—will earn him the top spot.

Conference USA: William Lee, UAB

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    Credit: 247Sports

    With apologies to C.J. Turman of Florida Atlantic, William Lee is in a class by himself among Conference USA freshmen.

    More college-ready than many power forwards at 6’9” and 210 pounds, Lee is set to be one of the league’s best defensive players from the get-go.

    The homegrown big man will also do his share of scoring, both in the paint off the catch and on his frequent offensive rebounds. Along with senior C.J. Washington, he’ll give the Blazers a front line that few C-USA opponents can handle.

Horizon League: Bryce Nickels, Youngstown State

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The Horizon League’s top freshmen are variations on a theme, a collection of mobile, rebound-magnet forwards.

    However, where UIC’s Tai Odiase will be fighting for minutes with a raft of JUCO transfers, Bryce Nickels “only” has to outplay fellow top recruit Sidney Umude to get playing time at Youngstown State.

    Both new Penguins are decent shots, though they’d both rather finish in transition than rely on their developing half-court games. Nickels’ edge becomes apparent at the defensive end, where his terrific shot-blocking ability belies his unremarkable 6’8” length.

Ivy League: Chris Egi, Harvard

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    Both Harvard and Princeton add high-powered freshman post players to their rosters for 2014-15.

    The crucial difference, though, is that the Tigers have hardly any returning perimeter talent to support Alec Brennan, while Harvard’s Chris Egi will have the Ivy’s top backcourt setting him up.

    Egi is an energetic 6’8” forward who will push veteran Steve Moundou-Missi for the team rebounding lead. He’s not much of a scoring threat, but the playmaking ability of Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders will set up a few easy baskets for him regardless.

MAAC: Elisha Boone, St. Peter’s

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    Elisha Boone features a skill that may be unfamiliar to St. Peter’s fans: an accurate jump shot. The benighted Peacocks offense (324th nationally in field-goal percentage) will welcome the catch-and-shoot ace, who’s also a solid finisher in the paint at 6’3”.

    Trevis Wyche, in his second year as the starting point guard, will be especially glad to have someone who can actually turn his passes into assists at a respectable rate.

    Even with St. Peter’s returning much of its scoring, the youngster will get enough touches to stay ahead of athletic-but-raw Samson Usilo of Manhattan.

MAC: Lamonte Bearden, Buffalo

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    Lamonte Bearden is an adept penetrator and passer who gets his share of points even without an elite long-range shot. At 6’3”, he’s also going to have a size advantage on MAC point guards.

    Just as important, he has some talent around him to feed, with experienced guards Will Regan and Shannon Evans returning to the Bulls’ rotation.

    Between his passing and his scoring, he’ll be more productive as a freshman than Drake Lamont will on a Western Michigan squad that figures to be dominated by senior David Brown.

MEAC: Kahari Beaufort, Delaware State

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    To put it gently, Delaware State’s offense has room to improve after finishing 348th in the country in scoring. That’s music to the ears of shot-hungry freshman Kahari Beaufort, who will get every opportunity to carry the Hornets’ attack.

    The 6’3” Beaufort is a streaky shooter, but like most such players, he’s unstoppable when he’s hot. He’ll make his share of mistakes, but he’ll put up too many points for Morgan State’s Jahleem Montague or any other MEAC freshman to match.

Missouri Valley: Josh Cunningham, Bradley

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    The Bradley Braves haven’t had many reasons to be happy about hiring head coach Geno Ford, who has yet to post a winning record in conference play. By landing Josh Cunningham, though, Ford has given himself a player worth building around.

    A scrappy 6’7” rebounding machine, Cunningham picked the Braves over the likes of Indiana and Oklahoma. As the focal point of a weak roster, he’ll stand out in a way that none of Wichita State’s array of freshman forwards will get the chance to do.

Mountain West: Rashad Vaughn, UNLV

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    Both San Diego State and UNLV landed impressive collections of 2014 recruits, but the Aztecs’ already-deep frontcourt will have its youngsters competing with veterans for minutes.

    The Rebels, in contrast, have almost no returning talent, leaving the field clear for Rashad Vaughn and his classmates.

    Vaughn, a physical 6’6” shooting guard, is the most complete player in a strong UNLV class. He’s got a chance to be the best freshman 2-guard in the country, and on a Rebels team with few offensive options, he’ll make a run at the MWC scoring title, too.

NEC: Mawdo Sallah, Mount St. Mary’s

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    Playing the post for an uptempo team such as Mount St. Mary’s isn’t the right job for every big man. Mawdo "Mo" Sallah doesn’t have a lot of bulk, but he does have the speed to keep up with the Mountaineers’ aggressive fast break.

    The 6’8” West Virginian will be especially tough to handle because he’ll be playing alongside Taylor Danaher, a 7-footer who was one of the few effective rebounders on the team last season.

    Facing the second-best post presence that his NEC opponents can put on the floor, he’ll rack up enough points and boards to beat out Falrleigh Dickinson’s Marques Townes in the balloting.

Ohio Valley: Mack Mercer, Belmont

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    Credit: 247Sports

    An already-weak Belmont front line lost both of its starters to graduation, providing ample opportunity for Mack Mercer to step in.

    A physical 6’8” and 220 pounds, Mercer will go a long way toward improving a team that ranked 330th nationally in rebounding last season.

    He’ll do plenty of damage on offense, too, thanks to a jump shot that will fit right in with the Bruins’ three-point barrage.

    Mercer also has the advantage of playing for an OVC title contender, while Richard Lee (a talented shooter in his own right) is mired on last-place Tennessee-Martin.

Pac-12: Stanley Johnson, Arizona

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    If UCLA’s dazzling crop of recruits could win this award jointly, the Bruins would be in good shape (even without ineligible Jonah Bolden). Man for man, though, none of them can match the athletic ability or scoring potential of Stanley Johnson.

    While Johnson isn’t a textbook jump shooter, he finds a way to generate points in bunches, many of them on gutty finishes in traffic. He’s also a physical defender and rebounder, vital attributes to keep him from getting lost in the shuffle of a deep Wildcats front line.

Patriot League: Nana Foulland, Bucknell

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    Although the most talented freshman in the Patriot League is Boston University’s Eric Johnson, he’ll be joining a Terriers roster that’s been absolutely gutted by graduation and transfers.

    Nana Foulland, on the other hand, will have a respectable team around him at Bucknell to help make the most of his more one-dimensional skill set.

    That dimension shows up on the defensive end of the floor, where the 6’9”, 220-pound youngster will immediately become the Bison’s most impressive rebounder and shot-blocker.

    He’s not a scorer by any stretch of the imagination, but he’ll be able to maximize his offensive contributions with the help of seasoned point guard Steven Kaspar.

SEC: Trey Lyles, Kentucky

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    It would really be fairer if the SEC offered a Non-Kentucky Freshman of the Year trophy, to give the likes of Florida’s Devin Robinson or Mizzou’s JaKeenan Gant a fighting chance.

    As it is, though, the members of John Calipari’s latest recruiting class will be battling it out among themselves again, with Trey Lyles the best bet to come out ahead.

    Lyles—a 6’10” forward with a precocious offensive repertoire—has the benefit of stepping into Julius Randle’s vacant starting job, where he’ll share the floor with the playmaking Harrison twins.

    He’s a shot-blocker as well as a scorer, and while classmate Karl-Anthony Towns also features both of those skills, Towns isn’t as sure to be on the floor in crunch time.

Southern: Jake Wright, Citadel

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    The Southern Conference has owned an automatic NCAA tournament bid since 1950, and in all that time, the Citadel has never made the Big Dance.

    That fact is just one reason that Chuck Driesell deserves some (rare) credit for luring Minnesotan shooting guard Jake Wright to his sputtering South Carolina-based program.

    Wright is a three-point marksman who will have the benefit of a veteran point guard (junior Marshall Harris) setting him up.

    He’s not going to rescue a team that went 2-14 in the league last year, but he will put up more than enough points to outdistance Evan Taylor of Samford, a pass-first point guard with nobody to pass to.

Southland: Davontae Bailey, Lamar

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    Credit: 247Sports

    When Nimrod Hilliard transferred to NC Central, Lamar’s weak offense got even weaker. The good news for Davontae Bailey, then, is that he won’t be hurting for touches as a freshman.

    The 6’4” Bailey is, like Hilliard, a combo-guard type who has no problem with calling his own number on a regular basis.

    Overshadowed in high school by the likes of LSU star Jordan Mickey and erstwhile SMU commit Emmanuel Mudiay, the Texan still has ample talent to outperform Houston Baptist’s Terry Harris, the other Southland freshman trying to rescue a cellar-dwelling team.

SWAC: Giovanni Mack, Texas Southern

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    Having ridden big man Aaric Murray to a surprise NCAA tournament berth, Texas Southern will now depend on its smallest players in its efforts to get back to the Big Dance.

    Point guard Madarious Gibbs is the team’s best returnee, and the 6’1” senior will be joined in the backcourt by 5’11” freshman Giovanni Mack.

    Mack is, unsurprisingly, a point guard by trade himself, but he’s got enough scoring punch to make a splash in that department. He’ll benefit from having a viable team around him while physical big man Kyle Williams struggles to elevate last-place Grambling State.

Summit League: Ian Theisen, South Dakota State

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    Ian Theisen is a great demonstration of Scott Nagy’s ability to recruit the kind of players his system requires.

    The 6’9” Minnesotan doesn’t have the raw speed or power to succeed as a traditional low-post forward, but his terrific jump shot makes him a perfect fit for the trey-jacking Jackrabbits.

    Theisen’s skill in the screen game will help him free up his teammates for shots, as well as give him some chances to show off his own range.

    Add in a healthy dose of long rebounds, and the hard-working forward will be able to keep D.J. Davis of rival South Dakota from stealing his thunder.

Sun Belt: Erick Neal, Texas-Arlington

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Graduation hit UT-Arlington hard, and the 15-17 Mavericks didn’t exactly have talent to spare last year. The depleted roster does, however, provide a great opportunity for freshman Erick Neal to show off his combination of scoring and playmaking ability.

    Although the two top scorers (and the point guard) are gone from last year’s squad, Texas-Arlington does return a pair of productive guards for Neal to feed in Lonnie McClanahan and Jamel Outler.

    The youngster will get just enough shots of his own to beat out Coye Simmons (of league newcomer Georgia Southern) for top honors here.

WCC: Josh Perkins, Gonzaga

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    Credit: 247Sports

    If Gonzaga were in any other league, Josh Perkins would likely be the lesser of any two outstanding freshman point guards arriving in 2014-15.

    However, in the West Coast Conference, predictions about BYU’s roster—specifically would-be frosh T.J. Haws—can get sidetracked in a hurry by Mormon missions, leaving Perkins alone as the class of the conference’s 2014 recruits.

    The Denver native steps into a low-pressure situation—despite joining the perennial WCC champs—because senior Kevin Pangos can do as much or as little ball-handling as the Zags need.

    As David Stockton’s replacement, the youngster will give Pangos a run for his fast-break money while handing out plenty of assists to the likes of Przemek Karnowski and USC transfer Byron Wesley.

WAC: Dan Manzi, Texas-Pan American

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    He won’t make anybody forget the WAC’s last celebrated center—7’5” Sim Bhullar, now of the Sacramento Kings—but Dan Manzi will be among the best big men in the league next year.

    At 6’9” and 230 pounds, he still runs the floor well enough that transition-minded Florida Gulf Coast was recruiting him before the Broncs got him.

    Manzi is a productive rebounder who will take some of the pressure off star guard Javorn Farrell to do everything.

    He’s also a good bet to win any head-to-head matchups with Bhullar’s replacement (and his toughest competition for this spot), the taller but skinnier Jose Campo.