SEC Freshmen Report: Volume IPosted by CNguon on December 21st, 2012
Christian D’Andrea is an SEC microsite contributor. He can be reached on Twitter @anchorofgold.
The SEC has always been home to some of the NCAA’s most talented newcomers. Much of that has to do with Kentucky’s one-and-done superstars, but Lexington’s five-star recruits aren’t the only players making an impact for Southeastern Conference teams. Several under-the-radar prospects – and some of them big names – are starting to get the feel for the NCAA game and bringing value to their programs early in their careers. As a result, teams like South Carolina and Auburn can put a little extra confidence behind their rebuilding efforts.
So who should SEC basketball fans be looking out for with conference play looming? Every week, we’ll look at how the best freshmen in the SEC have performed in their inaugural seasons. We’ll break the league down football-style into East and West divisions to provide an in-depth look at the young guns that may end up dotting all-SEC teams for years to come. This week, we’ll start with the East by introducing you to the most talented first-year players that the conference has to offer. While a team led by newcomers has carried Kentucky through an up-and-down first two months, teams like South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Missouri are also leaning on rookies to carry them to the postseason. Here’s a breakdown on those fresh faces in the (former) SEC East and how they’ve impacted their teams so far.
Kentucky: Kentucky, a team replacing all of its starters in 2012-13, has easily gotten the strongest return from its freshman play-makers this winter. Nerlens Noel has been as good as advertised, and Willie Cauley-Stein has shown a combination of size and skill that suggests that he’d be a starter for almost any other team in the SEC this winter. The two have combined for 18 points, 14 rebounds, and nearly six blocks per game as the Wildcats’ primary big men. Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress have carried the ‘Cats offensively. Both have shown well-rounded offensive play, while Poythress in particular has shown some defensive chops that could make him a nightmare matchup (a 7’1” wingspan and the size and strength to cover both forward positions) as the season wears on. However, both have struggled with turnovers early in the year, and their talent hasn’t been enough to cover up UK’s relative inexperience in three early losses. Kentucky may have gotten off to an unexpected start thanks to those losses, but they’re also playing on a steeper learning curve than most teams in the SEC. The development of their freshman class will be one of the conference’s biggest stories to watch once league play unfolds.
Tennessee: The Volunteers already wrought the biggest reward of their 2012 recruiting class when Jarnell Stokes joined the team last January. Stokes, a 6’8” big man, instantly gave Tennessee an interior presence that helped lift the team to a second-place SEC finish after starting the season just 3-6 overall. Unfortunately for UT, that leaves an underwhelming class behind him. Shooting guard/small forward D’Montre Edwards is the only freshman earning significant time for the Vols this season, and he’s averaging just 11.6 minutes per game. He had a strong performance this week with 11 points and five rebounds against Presbyterian, but the rangy wing will have to prove that he can be more efficient on offense before he earns big minutes in meaningful games for Cuonzo Martin.
Vanderbilt: 2012 brought an underwhelming recruiting class for Kevin Stallings, and it may have come at the worst possible time for the tenured Vandy coach. The Commodores lost their top six players – four from Vanderbilt’s best-ever Class of 2008 – and brought in three mid-level recruits in their place. However, the players they’ve brought in have showed some promise for a rebuilding team. Kevin Bright has been the most impressive so far. He’s filled in for Jeffery Taylor at small forward and given Vandy a solid two-way presence without interrupting the team’s rhythm. Bright flows well with the Vanderbilt gameplan, gives the ‘Dores a heady and tough defender on the wing, and offers a little bit of everything to a team that needed a steadying influence. He’s also leading the team in rebounding this season. Sheldon Jeter is the other member of Vanderbilt’s freshman class to earn significant minutes in 2012. He came to Nashville late in the recruiting process but ended up as the most highly-rated member of his class. He’s still growing into his body, and the former guard has begun to show flashes of progress in a slow-developing first two months in the NCAA.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have pushed a fast pace in 2012, and their efficient scoring has helped them run out to a 6-3 record early in the season. Part of their success can be traced back to the play of freshman forwards Michael Carrera and Mindaugas Kacinas. Both players have been tasked with playing around the rim for a team that is short on big men, and both have proven to be efficient scorers for South Carolina. Carrera exploded onto the scene with a 17-point, 15-rebound performance in USC’s season-opening overtime win against UW-Milwaukee. He hasn’t been the most consistent player – zero field goals in games against Arkansas Little-Rock and St. John’s – and he’s foul prone, but he’s also a high energy player whose long arms and scrappy positioning make up for his lack of height (6’6”) around the rim. Kacinas, a native of Lithuania, has also earned big minutes in his first year thanks to an efficient scoring touch. Frank Martin has been bringing the 6’7” player off the bench but giving him significant minutes for a team in need of effective players in the paint.
Missouri: The Tigers have banked heavily on transfers like UConn’s Alex Oriakhi and Auburn’s Earnest Ross to fill many of the minutes that would otherwise have gone to a solid freshman class. Only two first-year players have cracked Mike Anderson’s rotation so far. Negus Webster-Chan, a 6’7” wing, has turned into a on-and-off starter for the Tigers early this year. He’s a long defender who can cover multiple positions, and that versatility has made him second on the team in terms of minutes played with over 29 per game. Tony Criswell, a junior college and UAB transfer, has been an effective rebounder for the Tigers this season. His upward trajectory for 2012-13 may be blocked by the presence of Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers in the Mizzou frontcourt. He doesn’t exactly fit the bill as a freshman player, but as a first-year guy in a power conference, we’ll add him to the list anyway.
Georgia: Things are bad for Mark Fox in Athens this season, and he may not be able to rely on much help from his new class of freshmen in 2012-13. Only point guard Charles Mann is earning more than 15 minutes per game through the first 10 contests of the season. However, the lanky distributor could be coming into his groove in December. After topping out with single-game season highs of 18 minutes and five points in his first eight games, he has averaged 31 minutes, 14 points, seven rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game in his last two. His 18-point performance against Iona earned him a starting spot against Mercer, and it looks like Fox could give him the reins by the time SEC play rolls around. At 3-7, the Bulldogs don’t have much to lose in turning the offense over to their long, lean, and fresh-faced point guard.
Florida: Florida is a program with little use for its freshmen right now. Michael Frazier and Braxton Ogbueze are both talented players, but they’ll each have to shine in order to earn a starting role in a backcourt that features established fixtures like Kenny Boynton, Scottie Wilbekin, and Mike Rosario. Frazier has earned minutes and established himself as a player who isn’t afraid to shoot from long range. He’ll give the Gators – a team that hasn’t been shy about shooting threes – another weapon in rotational minutes as the season wears on. Depending on the status of the backcourt, Ogbueze and DeVon Walker could contend for minutes as well.