Ranking the Top Freshmen in the 2021 Men's NCAA Tournament

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2021

Ranking the Top Freshmen in the 2021 Men's NCAA Tournament

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Unless you're one of the top college basketball players in the country destined to be a one-and-done and go to the NBA, the adjustment from high school to college can be incredibly difficult even in a normal year. And this year is anything but normal.

    Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams all over the country saw games postponed or canceled, and most student-athletes didn't get the regular on-campus experience. Most of the conventional wisdom about how freshmen will perform can be thrown out the window.

    That brings us to this year's unique NCAA men's tournament, which is taking place in pods in Indianapolis. Many of the top teams are reliant on upperclassmen—in a year filled with this much instability, that continuity can be a trump card. But plenty of first-year players are still worth keeping an eye on as March Madness gets ready to tip off.

    We've compiled some honorable mentions, as well as 10 freshmen to watch based on a combination of their standing as draft prospects and potential to make an impact in the tournament.

Other Impact Freshmen to Watch

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    East Region

    • Hunter Dickinson, C, Michigan—14.2 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG
    • Joshua Primo, G, Alabama—8.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 39.0 3PT%
    • Jabari Walker, F, Colorado—7.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 48.6 3PT%

    Midwest Region

    • Andre Curbelo, G, Illinois—9.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 4.0 APG
    • Tramon Mark, G, Houston—8.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG
    • Jalen Bridges, F, West Virginia—5.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 40.7 3PT%

    South Region

    • Davonte Davis, G, Arkansas—7.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG
    • Zach Edey, C, Purdue—9.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 60.5 FG%
    • Micah Peavy, G, Texas Tech—5.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.4 APG

    West Region

    • Bryce Thompson, G, Kansas—4.9 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.1 APG
    • Reece Beekman, G, Virginia—4.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.2 SPG
    • Jamir Watkins, F, VCU—7.2 PPG, 2.6 RPG

10. Caleb Love, G, North Carolina

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Stats: 10.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.2 SPG

    The Tar Heels' second-leading scorer was their only freshman to earn a consistent spot in the starting lineup.

    Caleb Love has had a few terrific performances—20 points in a win over Wake Forest, 25 points in a win over Duke—but overall, he hasn't consistently played up to the level that was expected coming into the season as a 5-star recruit.

    The raw tools are there for Love to be that kind of impact player. He's athletic, and as he gains more experience as a point guard, he could grow into a reliable distributor.

    With the Tar Heels seeded No. 8, they'll need to get the good version of Love and not the erratic, turnover-prone version who showed himself at other points in the season in order to go far in the tournament.

9. Greg Brown, F, Texas

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Stats: 9.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.0 BPG

    Brown has excelled as a finisher and rim protector in his freshman season with the Texas Longhorns, who enter the tournament as a No. 3 seed with a first-round matchup against Abilene Christian. Their draw is favorable, and they should have a reasonably clear path to at least the Sweet 16.

    A deep run would give Brown a major opportunity to push himself from a late-first-round prospect to potentially being picked in the lottery. He's prone to mistakes at times, but his raw talents have been clear in the impact he's made with Texas.

8. Cameron Thomas, G, LSU

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Stats: 22.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.4 APG

    Cameron Thomas is a flat-out scorer. That's his game, and that's what LSU can count on him to bring in the tournament.

    He's the kind of player who can shoot a team in or out of a game, and there's been a lot more of the former this season. He takes and makes incredibly difficult shots, the kind that make for incredible television in the already high-tension March Madness setting.

    LSU enters the tournament as the No. 8 seed, matched up with No. 9 St. Bonaventure and fighting for the right to (probably) face top-ranked Michigan in the second round. Thomas' run may be over after two games, but he has a chance to be special this week.

7. Jaden Springer, G, Tennessee

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Stats: 12.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.3 SPG, 44.4 3PT%

    Tennessee has a pair of freshmen who have helped power it to a No. 5 seed in the tournament. Jaden Springer has been the Vols' leading scorer, but he's also been prone to carelessness with the ball, averaging nearly as many turnovers (2.5) as assists (2.9) in his freshman season.

    The Vols face No. 12 Oregon State in the first round. The Beavers aren't a great defensive team, which could provide an opportunity for Tennessee's inconsistent offense to get going. It'll need big production from Springer to reach the Final Four, as it was widely projected to do before the season began.

6. Scottie Barnes, G, Florida State

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    Robert Franklin/Associated Press

    Stats: 11.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.5 SPG

    A projected lottery pick, Scottie Barnes' impact in his freshman season has come more on the defensive end than as a scorer. But he's also proved a uniquely gifted passer and playmaker for his size (6'9", 227 lbs), which makes up for his inconsistent shot.

    Florida State opens the tournament against No. 13 UNC Greensboro. If Barnes is able to focus on his strengths at both ends and isn't relied on too much as the primary offensive creator, he could have a huge impact, which could help FSU go far.

5. Moses Moody, G, Arkansas

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Stats: 17.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 37.9 3PT%

    One of the most reliable shooters in the country, Moses Moody has been a major driver for the Arkansas Razorbacks' success in earning a No. 3 seed. He also earned first-team All-SEC honors and was named the conference's Freshman of the Year.

    In helping the Razorbacks dominate, Moody also cemented himself as a likely NBA lottery pick in the upcoming draft. A big tournament could vault him from the back half of the lottery to just outside the top five, which seems fairly set at this point.

    Either way, he'll be worth keeping an eye on.

4. Keon Johnson, G, Tennessee

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Stats: 11.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.0 SPG

    Keon Johnson is Tennessee's second-leading scorer behind Springer, but he's even more turnover-prone, coughing the ball up 2.7 times per game compared to 2.5 assists. He must do a better job protecting the ball since the Vols can afford to have one of their guards play sloppily on that end in the tournament, but not both.

    What Johnson brings much more consistently are energy and defense. The Vols have one of the best defenses in the country, and his physicality is a big part of that.

3. Evan Mobley, C, USC

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Stats: 16.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.2 APG, 3.0 BPG

    Three of the consensus top-five picks in the upcoming draft are freshmen whose teams are in the tournament. The other two are playing for the G League Ignite squad. Evan Mobley is seen, by far, as the top big man in the draft, practically a perfect archetype of a modern stretch 4.

    The USC Trojans will have to wait until the First Four concludes to find out their first-round opponent. But whether they play Wichita State or Drake, nobody will be able to contain Mobley. He has an opportunity to make a case for himself as a top-two or top-three pick.

    No matter what, he's going top-five and will be one of the must-watch players, freshman or not, in the tournament.

2. Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Stats: 14.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.0 SPG

    A clear-cut top-five draft prospect who also happens to play for the No. 1 overall seed, Jalen Suggs' raw numbers don't tell the true story of his impact given how consistently Gonzaga has blown out opponents. That won't be the case in March, at least once the Zags get past the first couple of rounds and start facing tougher teams on a consistent basis.

    Suggs has proved capable of making an impact as both a playmaker and perimeter defender. His shooting has been inconsistent, but he hasn't had to shoulder much of the scoring load as of yet. On a team filled with upperclassmen, he's been able to pick his spots to dominate.

    But with the competition stiffening the further the Bulldogs get into the tournament, Gonzaga will need the best version of Suggs.

1. Cade Cunningham, G, Oklahoma State

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    Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

    Stats: 20.2 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.4 SPG, 41.2 3PT%

    When there's a consensus No. 1 overall draft pick, he's going to top this list, and Cade Cunningham is entering the tournament with as much hype as any prospect has had in recent years. Like Duke's Zion Williamson in 2019, he's going to be must-watch television for as long as Oklahoma State stays in the competition.

    As a No. 4 seed, the Oklahoma State Cowboys should be heavily favored to win their first-round matchup against No. 13 Liberty, so fans will have at least a couple of games to see Cunningham before he inevitably goes pro. A gifted playmaker and much-improved shooter, he is the kind of talent who can singlehandedly take the team far.

    Short of a catastrophic injury, there's nothing Cunningham can do in the tournament to hurt his standing as the No. 1 pick in the draft. A deep run would only be the icing on the cake. But he's the biggest name in the field regardless of how the next three weeks shake out.