With only two freshmen among the 20 finalists for the Wooden Award, that says something about the lack of high-profile first-year stars dominating college basketball this season.
This freshmen class doesn’t have a Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett, who dominated last year for Duke before leaving for the NBA.
James Wiseman (Memphis) and Anthony Edwards (Georgia) are potential No. 1 NBA draft picks. But after an exciting debut, Wiseman sat out for a violation of NCAA amateur rules and decided not to return to the Tigers. Edwards is playing, but he is far from making Georgia NCAA tournament-worthy.
Duke’s Vernon Carey is a legit national player of the year candidate. Arizona possibly has three lottery picks in former Hopkins star Zeke Nnaji, Josh Green and Nico Mannion.
But overall, this year’s freshmen are good-but-not-great college players. Many more are role players rather than go-to guys. For example, former Rochester John Marshall standout Matthew Hurt, Carey’s teammate at Duke, could be the X-factor on a Final Four team.
There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if these freshmen aren’t consumed during the season with being one-and-done NBA draft picks. Can they focus more on helping their teams win and less on how quickly they can make money by impressing professional scouts?
The Big Ten mirrors the rest of the country with a shortage of elite freshmen. There might be two — Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, with Cockburn the only one in consideration for All-America honors. The Big Ten could name its freshman of the week award after Cockburn, who has won it seven times this season. Jackson-Davis, the Big Ten’s only McDonald’s All-America selection from last year, has won the conference’s top freshman award three times.
Other than those two, there are only three other Big Ten freshmen averaging double figures in scoring this year. Michigan’s Franz Wagner and Iowa’s C.J. Fredrick, a redshirt freshman, are still in that category. Ohio State’s D.J. Carton decided to take a leave of absence last week to deal with mental health issues.
How are you supposed to handle the grind of the college basketball season if you’re not an immediate star with tons of social media hype like you expected? What if you’re not even getting consistent playing time? One way arguably how not to handle it is to leave the team midseason. Kentucky’s Kahlil Whitney, a former McDonald’s All-America, received heavy criticism for that recently.
Gophers freshmen Tre’ Williams and Isaiah Ihnen, the top two recruits from Richard Pitino’s 2019 class, were projected to have a bigger impact than a combined 5.2 points per game. This could be the first season Pitino doesn’t have a player earn Big Ten freshman of the week honors since his first year at Minnesota in 2013-14.
While this Gophers freshman class doesn’t have a Daniel Oturu, Amir Coffey, Jordan Murphy or Nate Mason, it does have guys willing to be patient, learn and develop at their pace. They are not seemingly in a rush to get to the finish line. They have support to get through the struggles most freshmen face.
Williams plays 17.7 minutes per game and had five starts when junior guard Payton Willis was recovering from injuries. Ihnen, who put on 15 pounds, didn’t see the court in four consecutive games, but he has now played in four in a row, including 29 minutes combined vs. Illinois and Wisconsin.
“I feel like with me, it’s just getting used to the physicality of it all,” the 6-foot-9 German said this week. “I feel like I was able to show [Pitino] that I can play, and I can help the team. It was good for me to build confidence and for him to build confidence in me.”
Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller
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