The winter break is wrapping up, conference play is under way and youth is being served on college basketball teams across the country.
With most of the preliminaries out of the way, here are six of the standout freshmen who have passed the midterm tests for their teams. Some are playing right out of high school and others had to wait a year before their first college games — but they are playing and playing well. Just like the classroom rolls, they’re listed in alphabetical order (statistics as of Thursday):
Isaiah Austin, Baylor. The versatile 7-foot-1 center quickly made an impression for the Bears when he scored 22 points in 17 minutes in his debut — on 10-of-12 shooting with three dunks and two 3-pointers. Austin has provided a needed boost for the Bears after forwards Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller both left early for the NBA draft after a school-record 30 victories and NCAA regional final appearance last season. Austin isn’t likely to stay for four years, either, but the Bears can enjoy him while he’s there. He is fourth in the Big 12 in both points (14.9 per game) and rebounds (8.5).
Anthony Bennett, UNLV. The 6-foot-8 forward is the nation’s top scoring freshman at 19.4 points a game, which also topped all players in the Mountain West Conference. Bennett scored in double figures in each of his first 16 games, and had 10 rebounds or more in seven of those. The first McDonald’s All-American since Freddie Banks in 1983 to go to UNLV straight out of high school, Bennett averaged 8.9 rebounds a game, and was second in the MWC shooting 56 percent from the field (106 of 190).
Jahii Carson, Arizona State. The 5-foot-10 redshirt freshman guard was worth the wait for the Sun Devils. During the 2011-12 season, the Arizona prep standout who stayed home could only practice after being ruled an academic non-qualifier by the NCAA. Now he is fifth in the Pac-12, scoring 16.7 points a game and second in the league with 5.4 assists a game. He is playing 36 minutes a game, the most in the Pac-12 for any player and on pace to be the most for any Arizona State freshman. Carson already has five 20-point games, and became the fourth freshman in school history with a 30-point game (Creighton).
Ben McLemore, Kansas. The 6-5 combo guard can score everywhere on the court for the sixth-ranked Jayhawks. The redshirt freshman is second in the Big 12 averaging 16.9 points a game after scoring 33 (just two off Danny Manning’s KU freshman record) in the Jayhawks’ Big 12-opening 97-89 overtime victory against Iowa State on Wednesday night. He had six 3-pointers, the fifth a bank shot that tied the game and forced overtime. The sixth came 11 seconds into overtime, starting an 11-0 game-clinching run for the Jayhawks.
Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA. After having to wait until the fourth game to be cleared by the NCAA, the 6-foot-6 guard/forward scored in double figures his first 12 games, just like Kevin Love for the Bruins five years ago. Muhammad was second in the Pac-12 with 19.6 points a game and led the league making 49 percent of his 3-pointers (17 of 35). He had consecutive 27-point games in December, including seven points in overtime of a 97-94 victory over seventh-ranked Missouri when he hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with a minute left in the extra period for UCLA’s first win over a top-10 non-conference opponent since 2007.
Nerlens Noel, Kentucky. Seems impossible to have a list of top freshmen without a Wildcat since coach John Calipari churns out so many one-and-done stars. Noel, the lanky 6-foot-10 forward with hair several inches on top of that, arrived to comparisons of Anthony Davis, the NBA’s top overall pick and AP Player of the Year last season as a freshman after the Wildcats won another national championship. Noel, who averages 10.3 points a game, is the SEC’s top shot blocker (3.5 blocks per game) and ranks second in the league with 9.3 rebounds. By the way, two other Kentucky freshmen — Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress — average at least 14 points a game.
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