Kentucky’s title run altered the perception of freshmen teams. Granted, their ability to compete at the highest levels is not a new trend. Ask Magic.
But until Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist anchored a young UK squad’s national championship effort, we weren’t sure that the youngsters would or could outplay veteran teams on the sport’s biggest stage simply because they’d fallen so many times in Final Four/national title game situations. Ask Derrick Rose.
A strong crop of incoming freshmen, however, could put another dent in the theory that one-and-done stars can’t win gold. Here’s my list of the top 10 freshmen who could have an immediate impact during the 2012-13 season:
1. Nerlens Noel (Kentucky, center): I watched the top recruit in the 2012 class compete in the Peach Jam tournament last summer. Wow. With the Wildcats, he’ll fill the defensive void created by Anthony Davis’ departure. He’s an amazing shot blocker and interior defender. He’s raw on offense, but Davis needed time to develop on that end of the floor, too. John Calipari and his staff will turn Noel into a national player of the year candidate. He’s that good.
2. Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA, small forward): The explosive wing shook the Pac-12 when he chose UCLA on signing day. He’s currently projected as a top-three pick in multiple 2013 NBA mock drafts, but before he goes pro, Muhammad could restore UCLA to a prestigious post in the Pac-12 and on the national scene. The Bruins didn’t possess a consistent offensive catalyst during their tumultuous 2011-12 campaign. They have one now.
3. DaJuan Coleman (Syracuse, center): When I walked into a gym in South Carolina last summer, I became confused. An NFL lineman had no right to participate in a tournament for high school players, I assumed. “Wait … he’s not in the NFL. He’s actually in high school.” Coleman is built like Julius Peppers. Freakish physique with even freakier athleticism to go with it. Jim Boeheim’s squad will benefit from its length (Rakeem Christmas, Baye Keita, C.J. Fair return), but Coleman’s 6-foot-9, 275-pound frame will add an element of power that the Orange lacked last season.
4. Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona, center): The 7-footer gives coach Sean Miller the size he desperately needed last season. Solomon Hill had to man the post for an undersized Wildcats squad, but Tarczewski’s presence will allow Hill to return to his proper position. The No. 4 prospect in the 2012 recruiting class is not a finished product, but he’s a much-needed element for Miller’s program. He’ll get plenty of touches and continue his rapid growth process in Tucson.
5. Isaiah Austin (Baylor, center): Even if every player had returned for the Bears, Austin would have warranted major minutes as a freshman. But with Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller gone, he’ll be the program’s focus. Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip will provide firepower in the backcourt, but Baylor needs Austin, a talented center, to hit the weight room in the offseason so he’s prepared for the physical toll of playing in the paint in the Big 12. But he’s certainly capable and full of potential, especially with his defensive and offensive versatility.
6. Gary Harris (Michigan State, shooting guard): Next year’s Michigan State squad could top last season’s team. The bulk of Tom Izzo’s game plan went through Draymond Green. That scheme carried the Spartans to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament but proved detrimental in the NCAA tournament. Next year’s Spartans will be a more versatile crew with Harris’ arrival. The five-star wing is a premier athlete and he’s gold on the break. Harris, the No. 11 prospect in the 2012 class, gives MSU a potent athlete on the perimeter.
7. Shaq Goodwin (Memphis, power forward): He lives up to the name. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound athlete is a powerful and agile specimen who toyed with his peers on the prep level. He’s a strong rebounder and he can attack offensively in multiple ways. He can score with his back to the basket and make noise in transition. I watched him on the summer circuit a year ago. Trust me. He’ll be ready on day one.
8. Sam Dekker (Wisconsin, small forward): When I asked coach Bo Ryan about Dekker during an AAU tournament a few weeks ago, he couldn’t stop smiling. Yes, the Badgers have serious questions at point guard with Jordan Taylor graduating. But Dekker, a five-star prospect from Sheboygan, Wis., opens up the floor in many ways for Ryan’s program. The 6-foot-7 small forward earned Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball honors following his senior season. The latter ended with Dekker bringing the ball up the floor in the final seconds and nailing a 3-pointer from the wing in the state title game. He scored 40 points that night. He could become a star in the Big Ten next year, too.
9. Marcus Paige (North Carolina, point guard): If Kendall Marshall had stayed healthy throughout the Big Dance, North Carolina may have won the national title. The point guard position is crucial for any program, even one with the NBA-bound stars that the Tar Heels possessed last season. Paige should follow Marshall as UNC’s starting point guard. He's a skilled facilitator, but he’s also willing to attack the basket as needed. With Marshall going pro, he won’t get much of a grace period. And that’s OK. The mature Iowan is ready.
10. Rodney Purvis (NC State, shooting guard): The Wolfpack look like the best team in their state right now. Their top contributors, including C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, return. And now Purvis joins the bunch, too. The versatile guard will increase NCSU’s depth next season. He’s a combo guard who should help Mark Gottfried’s squad on the wing but could develop into a solid point guard as well. The bottom line is that Purvis can help a top-10 team in a variety of ways next season.