This marks the fourth year that I've taken time out in January to name the top 25 freshmen in the nation, which of course begs the question: Why do this in January?
We have now seen enough college basketball to draw some conclusions about not only the highly hyped recruits we all heard about coming into the season, but also the guys who arrived on campus without much or even any fanfare. Who's lived up to their advance billing? Who did the recruiting services miss? We now have some answers.
Last point. This is a performance-based list, where "performance" is defined rather ruthlessly as what you've done between November and now. You don't need me to tell you that 2011 McDonald's All-Americans like Le'Bryan Nash or Myck Kabongo will be heard from in the very near future, or that North Carolina again has stellar freshmen whose ability far exceeds their minutes. But over and above that, what else have we learned?
So much for the preliminaries. Time to count down the nation's top 25 freshmen:
25. Eric Moreland, Oregon State
There were many options to choose from in the category of Surprising and Unheralded Freshman Who's a Rebounding Fool at Both Ends of the Floor (I see you, Seth Tuttle and Jerrell Wright!), but in the end Moreland's amazing perseverance won the day. This kid originally signed as a freshman at UTEP in January 2010. When head coach Tony Barbee left the Miners to take the job at Auburn, Moreland transferred to Oregon State -- only to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury in his fourth game. Now he's on the floor at last, and in calendar 2012 Craig Robinson has even inserted his 6-10 "freshman" in the starting lineup, putting him at the top of the Beaver 1-3-1. That should deflate what was perviously one of the nation's finest defensive rebounding percentages, but remember this: Moreland can hit the boards.
24. Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado
Let's keep this in the Pac-12, shall we? Time to give that much-maligned conference some much-deserved freshman love. Meet Dinwiddie, an excellent example of that most devastating of cross-category weapons: a three-point shooter who also draws fouls. In his Pac-12 debut the 6-5 freshman scored 19 points on 4-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc against Utah. Why, if not for Dinwiddie CU would have won that game by a razor-thin 21 points.
23. Marquis Teague, Kentucky
Where do you rank a McDonald's All-American like Teague on a list like this? I say No. 23, and rising. Teague may suffer in comparison with his predecessors at the point under John Calipari (who wouldn't?), but as a freshman he's been the starter since day one for a team that will get a No. 1 seed come March. This weekend he scored 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting with four assists and two turnovers against South Carolina. Calipari's exactly right: "The kid has done fine."
22. Eli Carter, Rutgers
If Mike Rice's team would just gather in an occasional opponent miss, who knows, maybe the Scarlet Knights would have been on your radar before their win over Connecticut. (Rutgers' defensive rebound percentage in conference play is so bad it looks like a typo: 55.1.) As it is you'll have to take my word for it: even pre-UConn, Carter's performance was heroic. Here he is, a three-star recruit coming out of high school, and at 6-2 he's been made the focal point of a Big East offense. That's not a recipe for Dinwiddie-esque efficiency, but Carter's risen to that challenge, scoring 61 points in his first three Big East games.
21. Quincy Miller, Baylor
Scott Drew has recruited well enough in recent years to be classified the Thad Matta of the Brazos, but did you know that out of all the stars down there in the Ferrell Center the one who's most likely to hoist a shot on a given possession is Miller? (That shoot-first distinction in Waco is called the Lace Dunn Award, by the way.) Drew has given his 6-9 freshman a lot of leeway, and while the Chicago product is no Brady Heslip from beyond the arc he's a card-carrying member of Baylor's Committee of Five: double-figure scorers for a 15-0 team.
20. Tony Mitchell, North Texas
Players who became eligible only after the start of the season are hereby declared eligible for my list of top freshmen. Oh,
I see you Matt Carlino, but my choice in this highly specific category is Mitchell. The 6-8 Dallas product originally signed with Missouri out of high school, but chose to play closer to home when his status as a partial academic qualifier rendered him ineligible for the Big 12. In eight games since hitting the floor on December 18, Mitchell has functioned as the Derrick Williams of the Sun Belt, hitting 65 percent of his frequent twos and 56 percent of his once-in-a-blue-moon threes. Last week against South Alabama he recorded a 34-16 double-double. Now, just imagine Missouri with Mitchell.
19. Thomas Gipson, Kansas State
I've already sung Gipson's praises, and I'll gladly do it again. If Frank Martin could genetically engineer his own 6-7 freshman from scratch he would concoct something a lot like Gipson, a blue-collar competitor who devours offensive boards and draws four fouls during the pre-game handshake.
18. Bradley Beal, Florida
Beal has garnered some of the same What's the Heck's Wrong with this Blue-Chipper? headlines as Marquis Teague, and it's true he's currently mired in a nasty perimeter slump (2-of-16 over his last four games). But at the end of the day Beal's still a 6-3 freshman making 51 percent of his twos for an offense that Ken Pomeroy ranks No. 1 in the nation. I say stay tuned.
17. LaDontae Henton, Providence
Did you seen Henton going to war against Syracuse in PC's 87-73 loss last week? Someone forgot to tell him that was the No. 1 team in the country he was facing. The box score (11-13 double-double) really doesn't do justice to the fearlessness displayed by a 6-6 freshman in a game where the Friars basically had no business being as competitive as they were. Ed Cooley's stylistic peculiarity is that players he likes never come out of the game, but if Henton doesn't drop dead from exhaustion he'll make a name for himself.
16. D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's
File under "Eli Carter, only more so." On paper Harrison's making just 43 percent of his twos as a 6-3 wing, but, like Carter, this freshman's got a lot on his plate. Specifically Harrison's the leading scorer for a Big East team with zero veterans and an acting coach. Reigning Big East rookie of the week D'Angelo Harrison, I salute you!
15. Aaron White, Iowa
When you score 16 points after halftime as a freshman on the road at Wisconsin, you my friend are Top 25 Freshmen material. With the 6-8 White emerging as a force to be reckoned with alongside an already formidable sophomore like Melsahn Basabe, "future," "bright," and "Iowa City" are no longer mutually contradicting terms. Heck, the present's pretty nice too. (Meaning Ohio State must be rather good at basketball.)
14. Anthony Drmic, Boise State
Drmic's an Australian who -- are you sitting down? -- chose not to play for Saint Mary's. I frankly didn't know that was permitted, and my understanding is that the Gaels have lodged an appeal with their local consulate. Anyway SMC missed out on a really good player: Drmic is, of course, an excellent three-point shooter (Australia being to perimeter shooting reputations internationally roughly what Tipton, Indiana, is domestically), but he's equally effective inside the arc and even pulls down an occasional defensive board. He's currently overcoming an ankle injury, but if healthy Drmic can help the defensively lacking Broncos immeasurably in their first year in the Mountain West.
13. Adonis Thomas, Memphis
Thomas is a specialist. If you're looking for rebounds or assists or even just trips to the line, move along, because Thomas doesn't play those games. But what the 6-6 freshman does do is make shots from the field, and he does so from both sides of the arc. That specialty plus the correct body type should be enough to land him in the first round of this summer's NBA draft.
12. Tony Wroten, Washington
No freshman uses a higher percentage of his team's possessions nationally than Wroten, and, frankly, that's not necessarily a good thing. In Wroten's case a portion of that "usage" has come in the form of turnovers, and certainly he's a work in progress defensively. Then again would you take a 6-5 freshman combo guard who more or less gets into the paint at will and hits 55 percent of his twos? I would.
11. Justin Edwards, Maine
If you're looking for a freshman who's not only put up good individual stats but has also had a tangible impact on his team, Edwards is as good a guy to start with as any. The Black Bears weren't supposed to pose any particular threat to the likes of Vermont and Stony Brook in this year's America East, but that expectation may require revisiting. With Edwards acting like a grizzled veteran alongside grizzled veterans Gerald McLemore and Alasdair Fraser, head coach Ted Woodward has an excellent three-headed scoring monster at his disposal. Woodward gave the freshman shots right away, and the 6-3 Canadian responded with 20 or more points in five of his first six collegiate games.
10. Austin Rivers, Duke
No freshman, not even Marquis Teague, had a tougher act to follow this season than did Austin Rivers, who was supposed to be the next Kyrie Irving in Durham. Well, Rivers isn't Irving, but he's a freshman who attacks the paint effectively and has hit 40 percent of his threes while functioning as the clear and unquestioned featured scorer for Mike Krzyzewski. Brush aside the expectations and the invidious comparisons and that's a pretty remarkable statement in its own right.
9. Jordan Tolbert, Texas Tech
It's safe to say Tolbert isn't here on the strength of his most recent performance, a 17-minute cameo against Baylor that featured more fouls (five) than made field goals (one). No, Tolbert's here for his pre-Baylor body of work: amazingly efficient interior scoring achieved on a team that, to put it mildly, has little to offer the freshman in the way of support on offense. No man is an island, but of these freshmen Tolbert comes the closest.
8. Rodney Hood, Mississippi State
Hood's role in the Bulldog offense has increased steadily as the year has progressed. Rightly so, his shots go in. With Hood, Dee Bost, Arnett Moultrie, and Renardo Sidney, MSU's not lacking for options on offense. That being said if I'm Rick Stansbury I'm making sure my freshman knows he has a green light. As long as he stays away from the free throw line (as he usually does -- he's shot just 22 free throws all year), Hood's as effective as any of his elders.
7. Trey Burke, Michigan
To be honest I'm not entirely sure why Burke's name doesn't loom larger nationally. Before the season the worry in Ann Arbor was whether Darius Morris could be replaced. Now the only item under discussion is whether Burke is your 2012 first-team All-Big Ten point guard. In a league with the likes of Jordan Taylor and Aaron Craft that's saying something, but John Beilein's freshman has played himself into that company.
6. B.J. Young, Arkansas
With Young the question is simply how much stock to put in what are unquestionably amazing statistics. The Razorbacks have played an exceptionally weak schedule, and I don't suppose the 6-3 freshman would be making 57 percent of his twos if he'd faced the opponents that Long Beach State has. Then again Mississippi State isn't chopped liver, and the other night Young rang up 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting against the Bulldogs. My sense is that Young's amazing numbers are mostly legit. We'll see.
5. Andre Drummond, Connecticut
There are two types of people reading this paragraph. The first type is thinking: "Drummond at No. 5? Seems a bit high." The other type saw Connecticut beat West Virginia on Monday night. In that game Drummond not only recorded a 20-11 double-double, he also looked, well, scary. Take it from Jay Bilas: "Drummond dunks on the way up." In the past few years we've seen a steady stream of highly touted freshman bigs and, the occasional feisty DeMarcus Cousins or Kevin Love notwithstanding, they've been a remarkably laconic bunch. But until you've seen Drummond you likely haven't seen a 6-11, 280-pound athlete play angry. It is a sight to behold. I can very easily envision Jim Calhoun's big man finishing the season much higher on this list.
4. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
See No. 7, above: Pangos can be usefully summarized in broad strokes as Trey Burke, but much more accurate. Way back in November at the start of his career "the book" on Pangos was likely to "force him to put the ball on the floor," but when opponents realized this excellent perimeter shooter was also making 55 percent of his twos that book had to be thrown away. Pangos was a three-star prospect coming out of high school in Canada, and his slightly-built 6-1 frame won't land him on any all-airport teams, goodness knows. But to this point in the season he's been the best freshman point guard in the country.
3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky
Quite frankly I don't know whom to compare Kidd-Gilchrist to, and I'm open to ideas. He's 6-7, he's hitting 57 percent of his twos, and he recorded that 24-19 double-double against Louisville, but he's not a banger by any means. I only know that he already imparts a palpable sense that he can choose to take over a game any time it's required. This season in Lexington the offense is balanced to the point of caricature -- no rotation player accounts for more than 22 percent of the shots during his minutes -- but in March or, more likely, April, when Kentucky needs a monster game from a star on offense I have a feeling that star will be Kidd-Gilchrist.
2. Cody Zeller, Indiana
I don't suppose for a minute that Zeller has single-handedly transformed Indiana from that 12-20 outfit we saw last year to the top-10 team we have before us today. Zeller or no Zeller, burgeoning talents like Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo would have improved year to year, and it goes without saying that Jordan Hulls is a robot programmed to make shots no matter what else is occurring on the floor. But I do suppose that the presence of a (relatively) low-foul big man on the back line who can anchor the defense, make 66 percent of his twos, and get to the line has lightened the load at four other spots on the floor and on both sides of the ball. Zeller's not the sole cause of Indiana's ascendance, but there's simply no way the ascent would have been this steep without him.
1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky
Davis is one of the best shot-blockers the college game has seen in a long while, and by that I more specifically mean he nourishes this huge and justified reputation for blocking shots but he's earned his fourth foul in a game just three times. Basically he's on the floor whenever Calipari wants, and when he's in the game the opponent needs to reevaluate the whole idea of making shots in the paint. That's been true since Davis first stepped on the court in November. What's changed, however, is that even as he's continued to swat and (more often) alter shots Davis has dramatically improved his performance on the defensive glass. That combination -- excellence in both shot-blocking and defensive rebounding -- means his presence alone goes a long way toward giving Kentucky one of the best defenses in the country. On offense Davis does what little is required on a team this loaded, and he gives every indication of being able to take on a larger load should the need arise. (He's hitting a respectable 66 percent of his free throws, and he went 12-of-13 at the line against Louisville.) Davis has been the best freshman in the country so far.
Who'd I miss?
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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