SEC Freshman Watch: Breaking Down the “East’s” Most Effective NewcomersPosted by Christian D'Andrea on February 12th, 2013
Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite Contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland. You can find past editions of the SEC Freshman Watch here (East) and here (West).
The SEC conference slate is more than halfway complete, and the league’s freshmen have begun to stabilize in their fourth month of NCAA competition. As expected, some first-year players are starting to wilt under the grind of the college schedule, while some surprising players are getting stronger as the year goes on. Kentucky has rebounded from early adversity to rejoin the Top 25 rankings, while Georgia, who once sat in the SEC basement with a 1-4 record, has ridden a five-game winning streak to stake its claim as a mid-tier team.
These teams are getting big contributions from freshman play-makers to reboot their seasons. The Wildcats are playing well through Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin’s growing pains thanks in part to the burgeoning defense of Nerlens Noel in the middle. Georgia is riding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to key wins, but Charles Mann has turned into the Bulldogs’ third-leading scorer and Brandon Morris is becoming a pesky defender on the wing. Even South Carolina, mired in a 2-8 SEC season so far, can take solace in Michael Carrera’s scrappy production in the Gamecock frontcourt. Let’s take a closer look at how these first-year players have performed since SEC play got underway. This week, we’ll go back and examine how the freshmen of the former SEC East are doing.
Kentucky: Nerlens Noel has stepped his game up defensively for the Wildcats, and that’s been a big piece of Kentucky’s charge back into the Top 25. UK has won five straight heading into Tuesday night’s showdown with Florida, and Noel has averaged 5.2 blocks and 10.2 rebounds in that span. His offense is still a work in progress, but his impact has been undeniable.
Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin have been trending in the opposite direction, as they’ve taken a back seat to Noel as the season has worn on. Poythress’s minutes and scoring have dropped as the athletic freshman has struggled with fouls (four per game in his last six contests). Goodwin has struggled as a shooter and a ball-handler recently. He hasn’t made a three-pointer in his last eight games (0-of-10) and his assists have dropped (while his turnovers have increased) as the Wildcats have faced tougher opponents.
Willie Cauley-Stein, the lesser-known member of Kentucky’s vaunted freshman class, has been steady in limited minutes for the ‘Cats. He’s had strong scoring performances against the league’s worse teams and has avoided turnovers, but it will be interesting to see if he can keep that pace up against tougher opponents and in a more featured role in the UK offense.
Vanderbilt: The college grind seems to be catching up to freshman Kevin Bright. The German freshman has struggled on offense recently, relying too heavily on his three-point shooting and failing to create the inside-out scoring that the Commodores need on the wing right now. He’s still a solid defender and the ‘Dores leading rebounder, but there’s room for him to regain his early-season form.
Sheldon Jeter has taken advantage of Vanderbilt’s struggles to emerge as a key member of the rotation in 2013. He’s shown off a smooth shooting touch and the ability to get into the lane, although he’ll need to get stronger and more aggressive at the rim to finish his drives.
Tennessee: Junior college transfer D’Montre Edwards was the closest thing that the Volunteers had to a contributing newcomer until freshman guard Derek Reese stepped into Cuonzo Martin’s rotation. At 6’8″, the rangy wing has the size and athleticism to stretch the floor and create mismatches for the Vols. He’s been used to provide perimeter scoring in limited minutes for UT so far, and while he’s growing into his role he hasn’t been able to follow up on a strong start to SEC play.
South Carolina: Michael Carrera continues to be a bright spot for the under-performing Gamecocks. He’s averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds over his last four games, but all four have been losses for Frank Martin’s squad. He plays bigger than his size at only 6’5″, but athletic frontcourts like Missouri’s have frustrated him in 2013.
Mindaugas Kacinas’s playing time has been petering out since conference play began. The Lithuanian forward could have a nice career ahead of him in Columbia, but it looks like his days of making an impact as 2012-13 winds down are numbered.
Missouri: Negus Webster-Chan’s usage has gone way down since league play began. He went from averaging 29 minutes per game as a part-time starter to playing just eight minutes total in Mizzou’s last three contests. He’s made just two baskets in his last 11 games and will have to show up in a big way at Frank Haith’s practices to regain the Tigers’ trust this season.
Junior college transfer Tony Criswell has shored up his role as a reliable big man off the bench. Though he’s not much of a scorer and he can be a liability when it comes to fouling in the paint, he’s been a persistent rebounder thanks to his 6’9″, 240-pound frame.
Florida: Michael Frazier II has grown into a more efficient guard, and that (along with a healthy slate of league blowouts) has led to more court time for the first-year player. He’s become a floor-spacing threat thanks to a solid three-point stroke, and the 6’4″ athlete has also developed a nose for the ball, rebounding well for a player in the backcourt. He could play a major role for the Gators when the postseason rolls around if he keeps this pace up.
Georgia: Charles Mann isn’t much of a shooter for a combo guard, but his play-making ability has helped to earn him minutes in the Bulldogs’ recent five-game winning streak. His ability to get to the free throw line has helped add an extra scoring threat behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who leads the Bulldogs in scoring by nearly 10 points per game. Brandon Morris is growing into a top-notch defender on the wing. He’s a high-level athlete with the foot speed to keep opponents in front of him, and his long arms have kept him in Mark Fox’s lineup despite having little to offer on the offensive end.