Resetting the Year of the Freshman
The six most notable frosh set for a rare day when they all play this Saturday
What's fascinating about this group of freshmen, which started with all eyes on four players but expanded to six, is that, despite the intensity of the spotlight, no one has fallen off during the course of the season.
That doesn't mean they've been flawless.
Kansas coach Bill Self could see it coming. He told ESPN's Andy Katz after November's Champions Classic that despite the super talent in the freshman class, they would still be introduced to struggle.
"We get too giddy about certain guys because of the unknown," Self said. "When guys are seen and studied and figured out, there will be a roller coaster for all these kids."
Kentucky forward Julius Randle has, on the whole, been the most dependable and steady player all season on a very young roster. But Tuesday night at LSU, his game showed signs of its mortality. He produced a season-low six points.
The Tigers ran double-teams at Randle all game, which resulted in 3 of 11 shooting and three turnovers. His five rebounds made it just the fourth time this season he didn't have at least eight. LSU was one of the few teams that could match UK's frontcourt size and Randle had trouble adapting to their length.
The fun part has been watching these freshmen figure out how to correct their flaws. If they've had one common thread it's that their lows don't stay there. These guys are finding ways to get better.
Don't take my word for it. See for yourself.
Saturday presents a rare opportunity to catch arguably the nation's six best freshmen college basketball players in action on the same day.
Randle will start things off as Kentucky travels to face Missouri at 1 p.m. ET. Kansas featuring forward Andrew Wiggins and center Joel Embiid are up next at 4 p.m. when they play at Texas. Both Duke's Parker and Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis will face off before a capacity crowd of more than 34,000 at the Carrier Dome at 6:30 p.m. Arizona's Aaron Gordon rounds out the day as the Wildcats take to the road against California at 10:30 p.m.
Jabari Parker, Duke18.8 PPG | 8.1 RPG
Peaks: Parker's alley-oop against Kansas drew comparisons to a similar dunk Grant Hill converted in the 1991 NCAA title game, when he was a freshman. Parker was also the first freshman since Kevin Durant in 2006-07 to score 20 or more points in his first seven games. Parker now owns Duke's freshman record with 12 20-point games, breaking the mark held by Gene Banks.
Valleys: He admitted to hitting his wall during three games against Elon, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech at the end of December and in early January. During that stretch, he shot just 31 percent from the field and averaged 10.3 points. He was held to a season-low seven points on 2-of-10 shooting in the loss to Irish.
Key stat: Parker is starting to expand his game into rebounding. He grabbed a career-high 15 against Miami and followed that with 14 against Florida State and 11 against Pittsburgh. Before this stretch, he had only four games with 10 rebounds all season.
Preseason quotable: "There's a mental adjustment for all freshmen they all have to make. He's in the process of doing that. He's doing a great job with accepting that. But his skill-set is something you can't teach, his quickness, his athleticism, he has a great feel for the game. He really understands the things we're trying to do. He's going to get better every day." -- Duke senior guard Tyler Thornton on Oct. 16.
In-season quotable: "He's a very good player. He's an extremely good athlete and there isn't much from a technical standpoint he's not capable of doing. He s good ball handler, good passer. He is smart. He is quick, athletic and he is focused." -- Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton after Parker scored 14 points and had 14 rebounds in a 78-56 Duke win.
Julius Randle, Kentucky16.1 PPG | 10.2 RPG
Peaks: In just the third game of the season, against nationally ranked Michigan State, Randle showed a national television audience that he was as advertised. After being contained in the first half, Randle was unstoppable in the second, making eight of nine attempts and scoring 23 of his 27 points. He's had 11 double-doubles in points and rebounds this season.
Valleys: There have been few games in which Randle hasn't simply been a machine. One of those was against North Carolina, when he was never a factor in the game. He's had a recurring issue with cramping, which, most notably, limited him to a season-low 21 minutes against Louisville. Among the stats Randle leads the team in is turnovers. From Boise State to Arkansas, a stretch of seven games, Randle had two assists and 21 turnovers.
Key stat: Randle is starting to realize he doesn't have to do it all. Three games before LSU he had a combined 10 assists, which is nearly a third of his total (33) for the season.
Preseason quotable: "I come in last night. I'm in my office about 11:00 (p.m.), 10:30. He's in there shooting. This morning, I hear bump, bump, bump, and I look out my window in the morning, and he's got a full sweat going, and he's going to practice today. So when you ask me, does he have a chance at (National Player of the Year)? Yes, he does because of that. The only kid that worked like that that I've had has been a Brandon Knight." Kentucky coach John Calipari on Oct. 15.
In-season quotable: "You have to understand, he's in a dogfight. I think right now that he's the only college player that when he catches the ball, he's got three guys on him. I don't know if there's another college player. You'd have to tell me who that would be. And they're being physical. So he's not just running down the court, he's like in a football game." Calipari on Jan. 11 after Randle scored seven points against Vanderbilt.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
16.5 PPG | 6.1 RPG
Peaks: Wiggins got the better of his matchup with Duke's Parker on Nov. 12 by going for 22 points, and he owned Iowa State, going for 17 points and 19 rebounds. Wiggins' defensive abilities are sometimes overlooked. His latest example came after Baylor's Brady Heslip was 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the first half. Wiggins took over the defensive assignment and made him a nonfactor in the second half. He's posted career-highs in each of his last two games entering Saturday's visit to Texas (27 points at TCU, 29 points vs. Iowa State).
Valleys: Despite his talent, Wiggins isn't assertive by nature and sometimes needs prodding from Jayhawks coach Bill Self. That explains how he could score just three points and have two rebounds and end up benched against Oklahoma State.
Key stat: Wiggins' scoring (13.6 PPG) is slightly down, but his rebounding (7.8) since Big 12 play began is up.
Preseason quotable: "So much of what is perceived of him, if he didn't get 22 a night or whatever it is, it will be not successful. Well, that may not happen. But he can impact in ways to help us win far more so than maybe anybody I've ever coached. I hope people do cut him some slack from a production standpoint. I think the expectation should be high. I think that there should be hype. But comparing some of the guys that they've compared him to I don't think is fair because those guys come around once in a lifetime." -- Kansas coach Bill Self on Oct. 22.
In-season quotable: "He (Wiggins) never got lost today. He was able to put his hand print all over the possessions and create opportunities for himself and others. I just thought he played the way that he should play every game. I don't think that he's not going to score 19 in a half every game, obviously, but I thought that without question he didn't do anything tonight that he couldn't do in any other game." -- Self on Saturday after Wiggins scored 27 in their win over TCU.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona
12.0 PPG | 7.9 RPG
Peaks: Gordon leads Arizona and all Pac-12 freshmen with 7.8 rebounds per game. He's arguably the Wildcats' most consistent player, with six double-doubles in scoring and rebounding. His 16 points, eight rebounds and three steals helped avoid an upset against San Diego State. He also had 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists against Duke.
Valleys: Gordon showed his mortality, going 2-of-10 against UNLV and 3-of-13 against Utah, whose front line consistently denied him at the rim. Gordon hasn't made a 3-point attempt since Dec. 19 against Southern. (He's 0-for-6 during that span.)
Key stat: Gordon can affect a game without scoring. In that same win over Utah, when he couldn't buy a basket, he still had 12 rebounds and a key blocked shot that ignited a 16-2 run that broke the game open.
Preseason quotable: "He's a very easy guy to deal with because his greatest strength isn't his ability as a basketball player. To me, his greatest gift that he's given his teammates and us is that he's an incredibly hard worker. He's extremely focused. He's somebody that is tireless in his own approach to be great." -- Arizona coach Sean Miller on Oct. 17.
In-season quotable: "I thought he got frustrated at the beginning, I don't see him get frustrated very much. He had a couple things not go his way, missed his first two free throws. But he got right back on track. The value of Aaron Gordon, you could really see (against Utah) in that he had 12 rebounds, seven offensive rebounds... it is difficult but that's who he is, he has a way of continuing to move towards that next play." -- Miller after Sunday's win over Utah.
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
12.3 PPG | 5.4 APG
Peaks: He obliterated California with a career-high 28 points in the Maui Invitational. He's made it a habit of torching former Big East foes, dropping 21 points and six assists on St. John's and 20 points on Villanova. Mainly, it's his steadiness that has helped the Orange stay unbeaten: Ennis has had zero or one turnover in nine games.
Valleys: Ennis' shot was suspect, especially early in the season, when he was shooting just 25 percent from the field through his first five games. He had a four-turnover game against North Carolina, but it is the only time he's had more than two all season.
Key stat: Take away his first five games and Ennis is shooting 48 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from 3-point range.
Preseason quotable: "I've started four freshmen point guards since I've been the head coach at Syracuse. I'm as comfortable with this point guard as any of the point guards I've started. I've had some pretty good ones." -- Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim on Oct. 16.
In-season quotable: Tyler Ennis is that good. I told our players this is when he starts to attack. Six, seven minutes left in the game. He did it up (at the Carrier Dome) when we played them. He did it against Pittsburgh. He did at Boston College. He's just an outstanding freshman; he doesn't appear to be a freshman. In fact, he's so calm out there you don't really see that in a college player unless he's just so highly skilled and Tyler Ennis is." -- Miami coach Jim Larranaga on Saturday after Ennis powered a 15-2 run to beat Miami.
Joel Embiid, Kansas
11.4 PPG | 7.6 RPG
Peaks: He had his eye-opening performance Jan. 5 against San Diego State with 12 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. Embiid recorded eight blocked shots against Oklahoma State and nearly notched a triple-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Valleys: His first start also turned out to be one of his worst games. Embiid had just six points and six rebounds at Florida. Like Randle, Embiid has trouble taking care of the ball. Over his past eight games, he's committed 26 turnovers.
Key stat: Embiid averaged 8.2 points and 5.8 rebounds coming off the bench. In 10 games he's started, he's averaged 12.5 points and 8.2 rebounds.
Preseason quotable: "He's made a lot of progress in a short amount of time since he's been with us. If he continues to improve at this rate, he could be a guy that could not only really impact our league, but impact the landscape nationally a little bit. He's young and green and doesn't really know what he's doing, but there is obviously a skillset there that few 7 footers have." -- Kansas coach Bill Self on Oct. 22.
In-season quotable: "I think Embiid is the best player in the country ... Did you see him play (against Iowa State)? That's why. He's huge and he's got great length and he can shoot and he's got incredible footwork and he's been playing the game for about two years." -- Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg on Jan. 13 after Embiid had 16 points on 7 of 8 shooting, nine rebounds and five blocks in the Jayhawks win.