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Newcomers highlight Wooden Award list

This could be a special year for college basketball. And the diversity within the list of early contenders for the John R. Wooden Award proves it.

For the first time, the Wooden Award preseason top 50 features freshmen and transfers. In the past, players from those groups could be included in the midseason top 25 list that’s released in January and the finalists grouping in March, but they were excluded from the preseason list.

That tweak makes this an enhanced snapshot of the season ahead. And it’s also a testament of the times.

Freshmen aren’t really freshmen anymore. Including freshmen and transfers is a necessary adjustment in this climate. Today, first-year players and transfers are critical in a culture that features more roster turnover than past years.

Proof? This preseason list for the Wooden Award, voted on by a mix of college basketball experts from across the nation, features nine true freshmen. Why? Because Aaron Gordon, Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden Jr., Noah Vonleh and James Young could all be stars for their respective squads this season.

Randle -- who, per ESPN Stats & Info, became just the fifth player (along with Kris Humphries, Michael Beasley, Eddie Griffin and Carmelo Anthony) to record at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first two Division I games -- might be the front-runner right now. Beasley, Griffin and Anthony all won national freshman of the year honors.

There are a number of capable veterans on this list, too. Adreian Payne, Aaron Craft, Doug McDermott, Keith Appling, Russ Smith, C.J. Fair and Kendall Williams are all legitimate candidates. The sophomores also have a strong group with Marcus Smart, Sam Dekker, Gary Harris, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Jahii Carson and Willie Cauley-Stein in the mix.

And it’s always fun to track the players who were not even considered entering the season as they emerge in the coming months and receive a slot on the midseason list. See: Victor Oladipo in 2012-13.

Here’s my projection for the final Wooden Award vote based on the preseason top 50:

1. McDermott

2. Randle

3. Smart

4. Wiggins

5. Fair

6. Parker

7. Smith

8. Harris

9. Robinson

10. Dekker

Some of these players will fail to match their potential and/or hype. But this is a rare blend of talent, which has caused the current level of excitement and anticipation. College basketball is at its best when there’s a good balance of youngsters and experienced players. That’s why 2013-14 could be such a unique and exciting campaign.

Sure, Kentucky and Kansas have controlled the spotlight this offseason. But Smart, Harris and McDermott all guide teams that will be dangerous in their individual conference races and throughout the postseason.

What about the underrated nominees? Watch out for Cleanthony Early and Wichita State. Juvonte Reddic might be the best player on Shaka Smart’s best VCU squad.

How much talent is spread across the collegiate landscape this season? Consider the players who weren’t even mentioned in the Wooden Award’s preseason top 50 list. Don’t be surprised if Harvard’s Siyani Chambers, Cal’s Justin Cobbs or UMass star Chaz Williams earn a slot on the midseason list. LSU’s Johnny O'Bryant could be this season’s Oladipo and crash the entire Wooden party. Same for VCU’s Treveon Graham.

Peruse the list and remember how fortunate we are to have so many standouts this season. A once-in-a-generation freshman class boosted the buzz that surrounds the sport right now. Let’s all enjoy it.

This early offering of Wooden Award candidates suggests that the hype will be justified.

Get your popcorn ready.

Here's the full preseason top 50:

Jordan Adams, UCLA

Kyle Anderson, UCLA

Keith Appling, Michigan State

Isaiah Austin, Baylor

Jahii Carson, Arizona State

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

Semaj Christon, Xavier

Aaron Craft, Ohio State

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin

Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

Joel Embiid, Kansas

C.J. Fair, Syracuse

Aaron Gordon, Arizona

Jerian Grant, Notre Dame

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

Gary Harris, Michigan State

Joe Harris, Virginia

Andrew Harrison, Kentucky

Tyler Haws, BYU

Andre Hollins, Minnesota

Rodney Hood, Duke

Joe Jackson, Memphis

Cory Jefferson, Baylor

Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati

Alex Kirk, New Mexico

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina

Doug McDermott, Creighton

Mitch McGary, Michigan

Jordan McRae, Tennessee

Shabazz Napier, Connecticut

Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga

Jabari Parker, Duke

Adreian Payne, Michigan State

Elfrid Payton, Louisiana

Dwight Powell, Stanford

Julius Randle, Kentucky

Juvonte Reddic, VCU

Glenn Robinson III, Michigan

LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State

Wayne Selden, Jr., Kansas

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

Russ Smith, Louisville

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee

Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke

Noah Vonleh, Indiana

Dez Wells, Maryland

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

Kendall Williams, New Mexico

James Young, Kentucky