Ranking the Top Freshmen in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2019

Ranking the Top Freshmen in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    By the time March Madness rolls around, the freshmen who arrived on campus several months prior as green, inexperienced newbies are now seasoned college basketball veterans.

    However, the NCAA tournament is a different animal.

    That's why that mid-major No. 12 seed with a senior-heavy lineup is always such an intriguing upset pick over the major conference No. 5 seed with a bunch of high-profile freshmen.

    Not all freshmen wilt under the pressure of the Big Dance, though. Names like Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis should be all the proof you need.

    So, which freshmen will have the biggest impact this time around? We've compiled some honorable mentions and ranked the top 10, based not on NBA upside or overall ability, but simply on who will make the biggest mark on their team's success in this year's tournament.

Other Impact Freshmen to Watch

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    Iowa State freshman Talen Horton-Tucker
    Iowa State freshman Talen Horton-TuckerDavid K Purdy/Getty Images

    East Regional

    • Tre Jones, G, Duke9.3 PPG, 5.3 APG, 2.0 SPG
    • Gabe Kalscheur, G, Minnesota9.9 PPG, 41.6 3PT%
    • Grayson Murphy, G, Belmont9.8 PPG, 6.6 APG, 4.5 RPG
    • Daniel Oturu, C, Minnesota10.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.4 BPG
    • Reggie Perry, F, Mississippi State9.8 PPG, 7.1 RPG
    • Javonte Smart, G, LSU11.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG
    • Jalen Smith, F, Maryland—11.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG

        

    Midwest Regional

    • Devon Dotson, G, Kansas—12.1 PPG, 3.6 APG
    • Talen Horton-Tucker, G, Iowa State—12.1 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG
    • Keldon Johnson, G, Kentucky—13.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 38.8 3PT%
    • Nassir Little, F, North Carolina—9.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG

         

    South Regional

    • Louis King, F, Oregon—13.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG
    • Jose Perez, G, Gardner-Webb—15.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.0 APG
    • Joe Wieskamp, G, Iowa—10.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 42.2 3PT%

          

    West Regional

    • Tevin Brown, G, Murray State—11.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 37.0 3PT%
    • Jared Butler, G, Baylor—10.1 PPG, 2.8 APG
    • Joey Hauser, F, Marquette—9.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 43.3 3PT%

10. Nick Muszynski, C, Belmont

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Stats: 25.0 MPG, 14.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.2 BPG

    The health of Nick Muszynski will be a major X-factor as the Belmont Bruins look to put together a Cinderella tournament run.

    The 6'10" center left the team's conference tournament semifinal game with 3:47 to play after suffering a left ankle injury, and he didn't play at all in the championship game loss to Murray State.

    He led the Ohio Valley Conference in blocks (65), ranked second in field goal percentage (60.8) and finished ninth in scoring (14.9 PPG) behind teammates Dylan Windler (21.4, third) and Kevin McClain (16.3, sixth).

    If he's healthy and playing at full strength, it gives a good Bruins team another dimension on both ends of the floor.

9. Tyler Herro, G, Kentucky

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Stats: 32.2 MPG, 14.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.4 APG, 37.3 3PT%, 1.1 SPG

    According to 247Sports.com, E.J. Montgomery (No. 9), Ashton Hagans (No. 12), Keldon Johnson (No. 13) and Immanuel Quickley (No. 22) were all ranked ahead of Tyler Herro (No. 37) in the Kentucky Wildcats 2018 recruiting class.

    However, it's the 6'5" guard from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who has emerged as the team's most impactful freshman.

    While the other freshmen have shown flashes, Herro has been a consistent contributor, scoring in double figures in 13 of his last 14 games while averaging 15.5 points and 42.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc during that span.

    Sophomore P.J. Washington has emerged as the star of this Kentucky team, but Herro will be just as important to the team's success in March.

8. Cam Reddish, F, Duke

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Stats: 29.5 MPG, 13.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.5 3PG, 32.7 3PT%, 1.6 SPG

    Cam Reddish would rank much higher on this list if Zion Williamson were still sidelined.

    Now that the high-flying forward is back in action, Reddish returns to his previous role as the No. 3 option on the freshman-led Blue Devils.

    In the six games that Williamson missed, Reddish averaged 16.2 points, including a 27-point effort against North Carolina in the game where Zion was injured.

    The 6'8" Reddish is a lottery pick and a true impact player on both ends of the floor.

    He's just not as important to the success of his team as some of the other guys listed ahead of him here, even if he is a better overall player with a brighter pro future.

7. Naz Reid, F, LSU

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Stats: 26.6 MPG, 13.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 37.0 3PT%, 0.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG

    With a 6'10", 250-pound frame and the ability to stretch defenses with both his ball-handling ability and the deep ball, Naz Reid has the tools to develop into a prototypical stretch 4 in the NBA.

    For now, he's the second-leading scorer on the No. 3 seed LSU Tigers.

    Reid got off to a slow start this season, especially relative to expectations, as he was held to single-digit points four times in the team's first eight games. 

    He picked it up down the stretch, though, and goes into March warmed up after averaging 15.3 points over the Tigers last 11 games, including 26 points against Florida in the SEC tournament.

6. Ignas Brazdeikis, F, Michigan

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    Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

    Stats: 29.7 MPG, 15.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.6 3PM, 42.0 3PT%

    As Michigan steadily climbed the AP poll, Ignas Brazdeikis became one of the biggest stories in college basketball.

    The 6'7" forward averaged 17.0 points over the team's first 10 games, which included wins against Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue.

    He was held in check a few times during the conference slate, most notably scoring a combined two points, on 1-of-14 shooting in 55 minutes of action, across two games against Wisconsin.

    That said, he was plenty productive during the Big Ten tournament, averaging 15.7 points while knocking down seven of 16 three-point attempts in three games.

    If the Wolverines are going to make a deep run, Brazdeikis will have to be a major factor.

5. Neemias Queta, C, Utah State

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    David Becker/Getty Images

    Stats: 26.8 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 0.6 SPG

    Who is Neemias Queta and why is he ranked ahead of Cam Reddish and a handful of other potential first-round picks on this list?

    Because these rankings are about the freshmen who will have the biggest impact on the 2019 NCAA tournament.

    The 6'11", 225-pound Queta is an absolute force in the middle of a Utah State defense that ranks 47th in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency and ranks 10th in the nation in two-point field goal percentage allowed, at 39.1 percent.

    His 82 blocked shots led the Mountain West and were tied for eighth in the nation.

    He was also the Aggies second-leading scorer, converting at an extremely efficient 62.7 percent.

    Not bad for an unheralded international signing out of Portugal.

4. Luguentz Dort, G, Arizona State

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Stats: 31.5 MPG, 16.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.6 3PM, 31.5 3PT%, 1.6 SPG

    While Luguentz Dort was a 4-star recruit and the No. 30 prospect in the 2018 class, he was not viewed as a one-and-done prospect or an immediate star heading into his freshman season.

    Oh my, how things have changed.

    Fans will get to see the 6'4" guard in action early on, with No. 11 seed Arizona State playing in one of the First Four play-in games.

    Dort ranked ninth in the Pac-12 and led the Sun Devils with 16.1 points per game.

    On the defensive end, his length and athleticism led to 50 steals, which was good for sixth in the conference and tops on the team.

    With a 33-point game against a good Utah State team earlier this year on his resume, it's clear Dort is the kind of player who is capable of taking over a game.

3. Coby White, G, North Carolina

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Stats: 28.2 MPG, 16.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.2 APG, 2.4 3PM, 36.0 3PT%

    Despite being a 5-star recruit himself, Coby White was largely overshadowed by Nassir Little in North Carolina's 2018 recruiting class.

    As we enter the NCAA tournament, there's zero debate who the better player has been.

    In a starting lineup that features three extremely talented seniors (Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams), it is still White who runs the show.

    The 6'5" guard leads the team in assists and sports a solid 133-to-89 assist-to-turnover ratio.

    He's by no means just a floor general, though. He's second on the team in scoring (16.3 PPG) and has proven capable of going off offensively, like he did during a 34-point outburst against Syracuse on Feb. 26.

    Having those three tournament-tested seniors to lean on will help take some pressure off of the young guard, but if the Tar Heels are going to make a run at a title, he'll need to be on his game.

2. RJ Barrett, F, Duke

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Stats: 34.9 MPG, 22.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.9 3PM, 30.4 3PT%

    Almost any other year, RJ Barrett would be an easy choice for the No. 1 spot on this list.

    After all, he's the leading scorer for the top overall No. 1 seed, and one of just two players nationally to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists—joining Wyoming senior Justin James (22.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4.4 APG).

    But alas, he still stands in the shadow of Zion Williamson.

    That being said, the Blue Devils need both of their freshman superstars playing at a high level if they're going to deliver on a title-or-bust March Madness run.

1. Zion Williamson, F, Duke

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Stats: 29.1 MPG, 22.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 1.8 BPG

    Zion Williamson was always expected to be back in action for the NCAA tournament. The question was whether or not he would be the same dynamic player he was pre-injury.

    It took all of one game for those questions to be put to rest.

    After six games on the sidelines, Williamson returned for the ACC tournament opener against Syracuse. There would be no easing him back into action: He scored 29 points on a perfect 13 of 13 from the field, while also pulling down 14 rebounds and tallying five steals.

    A 31-point encore against North Carolina the next night drove the point home.

    Simply put, Williamson is the most unstoppable player in college basketball. There's no game-planning for a 6'7", 285-pound dynamo with the handles of a guard and the ability to take over a game on the defensive end.

    If Duke wins it all, Williamson will be the biggest reason why.

         

    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted.