Freshman Classes Having the Biggest Impact on College Basketball in 2016-17

Scott Phillips@@phillipshoopsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2017

Freshman Classes Having the Biggest Impact on College Basketball in 2016-17

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    Kentucky's Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox
    Kentucky's Malik Monk and De'Aaron FoxJames Crisp/Associated Press

    Freshmen are once again a focal point in college basketball this season as there have already been a number of first-year players standing out.

    Some schools are relying heavily on a freshman class to come in and produce right away as some top-25 programs are seeing newcomers to control from the start of the season.

    This list looks over 10 programs who are using freshmen classes to do a lot of the production. Some of these teams are ranked a bit higher because of team success while others look to have a brighter future based on the way some of these young players have stepped up.

    Recruiting ratings via Scout.com.

    Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and information were obtained firsthand.

10. Texas

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    Jarrett Allen
    Jarrett AllenBrendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

    Headliner: Center Jarrett Allen entered Austin with a ton of hype as the local 5-star prospect who was staying in-state for college. The talk of "one-and-done" might have faded a bit with Allen after a sluggish start to the Texas season but he's still putting up good numbers -- especially for a freshman. Allen is leading Texas in rebounding by a wide margin and he's also been a steady double-figure scorer while shooting 56 percent from the field. 

    X-factor: Another in-state McDonald's All-American, Andrew Jones, has struggled at times to adapt to the college level but there is no doubting his long-term talent. Jones might not be the point guard that some envisioned, but he's started to pick it up as a scorer recently as he's becoming increasingly confident with his offensive game. 

    Why they're here: It would take a miracle for Texas to make the NCAA tournament, but not all is lost for this season thanks to this freshman class. Allen and Jones are pieces any program would love to build around and other freshmen like big man James Banks and guard Jacob Young are also earning early minutes. This group didn't have the immediate payoff that some Texas fans hoped for but the future is still bright.

9. Maryland

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    Anthony Cowan
    Anthony CowanMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Headliner: Maryland has found itself back in the NCAA tournament picture despite losing four starters from last season's team as freshman guard Anthony Cowan has been a huge key. Cowan's ability to handle the ball and distribute has eased the burden on junior Melo Trimble to do both of those things and the backcourt has developed a solid chemistry this season.

    X-factor: Spring signee Justin Jackson has given a huge boost of athleticism to the Maryland lineup as the Canadian forward is leading the team in rebounding. Since Jackson is a good athlete and plays bigger than his size he can play on the inside while also stretching the floor with his ability to hit threes. With some Maryland veterans struggling to start the season, Jackson's steady production has been very important.

    Why they're here: Cowan and Jackson have become key pieces for Maryland along with shooting guard Kevin Huerter. Regarded as mostly a shooter coming out of high school, Huerter has shown a solid all-around game as he's rebounded well from the wing and also showed some playmaking. Those three have been a big reason why Maryland is still a factor in the Big Ten despite sluggish seasons from returning players.

8. N.C. State

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    Dennis Smith
    Dennis SmithGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    Headliner: Point guard Dennis Smith Jr. is trending as a current NBA lottery pick after his freshman season as he just had 32 points and six assists in a huge N.C. State road win at Duke. The electrifying playmaker has shown an ability to score and also run an offense this season as Smith has played heavy minutes and lived up to the hype so far.

    X-factor: Turkish big man Omer Yurtseven entered college with a lot of hype, but he's been a work-in-progress since missing the first nine games of the season. There are times when Yurtseven looks like a skilled big man who can contribute points and rebounds and there are other times when Yurtseven still looks like he's acclimating to the American style of play. If Yurtseven continues to improve his comfort level, it should help out Smith a lot. 

    Why they're here: Besides the combination of Smith and Yurtseven, the Wolfpack have used a few more freshmen in the rotation this season. Freshman big man Ted Kapita is coming off of his first career double-double in the road win at Duke while guard Markell Johnson is a solid rotation guard who can handle the ball and attack the paint. Smith is capable of taking over games and the other freshmen on this team have room to improve.

7. St. John's

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    Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds
    Marcus LoVett and Shamorie PondsSteven Ryan/Getty Images

    Headliner: It's really a coin flip to decide who is more important among St. John's freshman backcourt but Shamorie Ponds gets the slight nod here. The New York-native is putting up big scoring numbers in his first season with the Red Storm as he looks like he'll be among the Big East's better players the next few seasons. 

    X-factor: Joining Ponds in the St. John's backcourt is Marcus LoVett, as the duo are putting up nearly identical numbers. An exciting playmaker who can break defenses down off the dribble, LoVett can be wild at times but there is no doubting his immense talent. 

    Why they're here: Not many backcourts in the country are playing as well as LoVett and Ponds and it is fun to think about how the duo are only playing in their first year of college basketball. Over time, LoVett and Ponds should build an even greater bond on the floor and the pieces around them should mature and improve as well. St. John's has a lot to look forward to with these two guards.

6. Duke

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    Jayson Tatum
    Jayson TatumGerry Broome/Associated Press

    Headliner: Since joining the Duke lineup, Jayson Tatum has become one of the team's most dependable scorers as he's consistently put up double figures while making tough buckets. Tatum missed the first eight games of the season due to injury, so it has been an adjustment for him to mesh with other Duke scorers like Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen, but Tatum is talented enough to take over a game for periods of time and he's also becoming better as an all-around player.

    X-factor: After starting the season with a heavier workload because of injuries, guard Frank Jackson has seen his role fluctuate a bit as the Duke roster has become more complete. When the Blue Devils inserted Jackson in the lineup early this season, he provided a nice mix of attacking, shooting and secondary ball handling as he's been a key member for Duke's rotation this season.

    Why they're here: Besides Tatum and Jackson, the Blue Devils have a couple of big men in Harry Giles and Marques Bolden that they are trying to work back into the rotation. Both freshmen come with 5-star reputations but they started this season on the bench as they dealt with injuries. Giles is still getting his timing down and getting his wind back after missing his entire senior season while Bolden is adjusting to the speed and athleticism of the ACC. Both big men have a chance to improve a lot by the time the NCAA tournament rolls around if they earn consistent minutes.

5. Michigan State

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    Miles Bridges
    Miles BridgesMike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Headliner: With his powerful dunks and ability to score from all over the floor, lefty forward Miles Bridges has made a big impact this season as Michigan State's leading scorer and rebounder. Since Bridges can play multiple spots on the floor, he's versatile enough to play anywhere in the Michigan State offense and it makes him tough to stop. 

    X-factor: Big man Nick Ward was the lowest-ranked of the four Michigan State Class of 2016 recruits, but he has had the biggest impact on the Spartans besides Bridges. Limited by injuries and quality options, head coach Tom Izzo has had to play Ward big minutes and the Ohio native has responded by becoming the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder. Ward brings a toughness and physicality that Michigan State desperately needs. 

    Why they're here: Bridges and Ward have become highly-productive cogs in the Michigan State rotation, but point guard Cassius Winston and wing Josh Langford are also playing just over 20 minutes a game. Michigan State's offense has more playmaking threats with Winston on the floor and Langford can help at times as a scorer.

4. Auburn

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    Mustapha Heron
    Mustapha HeronFrederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Headliner: Guard Mustapha Heron has been one of the better freshman scorers in the country this season as he's also shown a well-rounded game as a rebounder and defender. Heron is going to have to improve his 42 percent field-goal shooting, but he'll start to see that percentage go up as this young Auburn team plays more together and takes better shots.

    X-factor: Point guard Jared Harper is fearless and his ability to score and distribute has been exciting to watch at times for Auburn this season. Harper is still going to have to improve his efficiency and overall play, but he's shown that he's an SEC-caliber guard with a good-looking future.

    Why they're here: Head coach Bruce Pearl has a very young roster and Heron and Harper are only part of the freshman class. Center Austin Wiley entered the program mid-year after starting this season as a senior in high school so he's played admirably since entering the lineup. Forward Danjel Purifoy is also just a freshman which means that Auburn's top four scorers are all first-year college players. 

3. Arizona

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    Lauri Markkanen
    Lauri MarkkanenLeon Bennett/Getty Images

    Headliner: Finnish 7-footer Lauri Markkanen has been a huge coup for the Wildcats as the freshman has been one of the best shooters in college basketball. When you have a big man like Markkanen who shoots 50 percent from three-point range, you can see why Arizona was able to remain a factor in the Pac-12 race without Allonzo Trier in the lineup. 

    X-factor: The Wildcats also have a pair of freshman guards who are getting it done in Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons. While both players are averaging just over 11.0 points per game, Alkins is the more consistent of the two and also a better rebounder from the wing. A power wing who can create or score, Alkins could see a bump in production now that defenses have to help on Trier.

    Why they're here: Markkanen, Alkins and Simmons have been one of the best freshmen trios in college basketball and they've kept Arizona consistently in the top 25 all season. Alkins and Simmons now have Trier to help them on the perimeter and Markkanen should also get some help as well now that Trier's drive game can help him get more open perimeter jumpers. The ceiling for this Arizona freshman group will be fascinating to watch the last two months.

2. UCLA

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    Lonzo Ball
    Lonzo BallMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Headliner: If you've followed college basketball at all this season, then you've surely seen what point guard Lonzo Ball has been doing. Ball is second in the nation in assists per game as he's rejuvenated the UCLA offense into one of most efficient machines in college basketball. Not only has Ball been an elite distributor, but he's also a capable long-range shooter and a solid rebounder from the perimeter.

    X-factor: Forward T.J. Leaf has pleasantly surprised a lot of the basketball world with his production despite coming into college with a 5-star ranking. A big-time athlete who can also knock down three-pointers, Leaf is a new-age big man who can come close to a double-double while also spacing the floor with a reliable jumper.

    Why they're here: Ball and Leaf have been huge factors in the UCLA resurgence and the program has also been given a solid lift from freshman big man Ike Anigbogu. Playing in a reserve role off the bench, Anigbogu has given the Bruins an additional rim protector and athlete who can come in and rebound when Thomas Welsh needs some rest. These three freshmen have been a huge part of why UCLA has been playing so well this season.

1. Kentucky

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    Malik Monk
    Malik MonkJames Crisp/Associated Press

    Headliner: The Wildcats have so many talented freshmen who are producing this season, but shooting guard Malik Monk is the standout among the crowded group. The Arkansas native has always been a volume scorer who could put up points in a hurry and he's proved that at the college level with jaw-dropping performances like the 47 points in a win over North Carolina. Monk is putting up 21.2 points per game and doing so with great shooting splits as he's making scoring at the college level look easy.

    X-factor: Point guard De'Aaron Fox isn't checking in very far behind Monk as the "headliner" of this group as it could be argued that he's the more important player for Kentucky since he's better on the defensive end of the floor. Although he's not a good perimeter shooter, Fox has still managed to shoot 48 percent from the field this season as he's been distributing well and leading the Wildcat offense. Fox and Monk together can do so many things defensively and they're one of the most athletic backcourts in the nation.

    Why they're here: Besides having one of the nation's best backcourts -- that also happens to be made up of two freshmen -- Kentucky has big man Bam Adebayo inside as he's been a force on the offensive end while helping out on the glass. Forward Wenyen Gabriel has also proved to be a valuable presence as he's growing more comfortable on the offensive end while being versatile on defense.