Zach Hayes is RTC’s resident bracketologist and a frequent contributor.
For the college basketball fanatic, incoming freshman are like shiny, new toys. It’s one of the true pleasures of following the sport religiously and a benefit of the current one-and-done era: every talented prospect from all reaches of the nation must compete on the college hardwood for at least one season. It gives us a chance to enjoy John Wall’s end-to-end speed, Kevin Durant’s heroics and Michael Beasley’s scoring prowess, even for just five months. A handful of coaches have assembled an accomplished group of these freshmen, whether as a complete annual overhaul (Kentucky) or an influx into an already stable core (Duke). Here are the top ten freshmen classes around college basketball this season and a preview of what fans that may not follow the ins and outs of recruiting can expect from these all-world talents:
1. Kentucky – G Brandon Knight, C Enes Kanter, F Terrence Jones, G Doron Lamb, F Stacey Poole, F Eloy Vargas
Let this sink in: John Calipari’s 2010 class is good for tops in the nation, yet his 2011 group is even better with arguably three of the top five prospects next year. This year’s collection is highlighted by Knight, Gatorade’s National High School Player of the Year as a junior and easily one of the nation’s top prospects. In fact, he’s even further along as a pure scorer than his predecessor at the point for Kentucky, with a more reliable jumper and the ability to carry his team offensively. Maybe more importantly, Knight has the mentality, toughness and competitive nature to take on the burden of leading a program of Kentucky’s stature with such lofty expectations. The class would take a considerable blow if Kanter, a Turkish import dealing with eligibility concerns, can’t take the Rupp Arena floor at any point this season. Kanter plays in the post with high efficiency and an array of advanced moves, making him the ideal replacement for the ultra-productive DeMarcus Cousins. Kanter is talented enough to be a First Team All-America candidate if he plays an ample amount of games. Like Kanter, Jones is a former Washington commit that features a tremendous outside jumper and a hard-working mentality on defense, a trait that will endear him to Calipari immediately, a coach that has always demanded equal effort on both ends of the floor. Lamb is another gifted scoring two-guard that would be the highlight of nearly every other recruiting class in the nation, while Poole is more of a slashing wing with supreme athleticism. Look for Florida transfer Eloy Vargas to earn playing time immediately for what could be a relatively thin Kentucky frontcourt.
2. North Carolina – F Harrison Barnes, G Reggie Bullock, G Kendall Marshall
This three-man class continues the steady stream of Roy Williams recruiting coups, although the Hall of Fame coach hopes that this trio has more of an immediate impact than his 2009 unit of John Henson, Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald and the Wear twins. Barnes is the near-unanimous choice for the best all-around player in the 2010 class and the prohibitive favorite to take home Freshman of the Year honors this season. Good luck finding easily noticeable flaws in Barnes’ game. He excels in the mid-range, can score in a multitude of ways, has an excellent perimeter shot, shows unwavering effort on the glass and plays with an IQ off the charts for an 18-year old. Williams hit the jackpot when he convinced Barnes to spurn Duke (can you imagine Barnes with Irving and that returning team?) and spend his one year in college at Chapel Hill. He’s a phenomenal student and a coaches’ dream, always willing to listen to advice to improve this game. The Heels backcourt is somewhat crowded with Larry Drew, II, also expected to see heavy minutes, but both Bullock and Marshall are way too gifted to keep on the bench. Bullock features a pinpoint outside jumper — possibly the best in the entire class — and has a true offensive mentality as a two-guard in Williams’ offense. Marshall is more of the pure point guard, a phenomenal distributor blessed with uncanny court vision. He could be an upgrade over Drew in a short period of time. Marshall will need to improve his shooting range to avoid defenses sagging off of him late in games.
3. Ohio State – C Jared Sullinger, F DeShaun Thomas, G Aaron Craft, G Jordan Sibert
Nobody would be shocked to see Sullinger challenge Barnes for top freshman in the country this season. What makes him so effective in the post is a rare combination of brute strength and touch around the rim. Always playing with confidence and a high motor, Sullinger can score in a multitude of ways down low that make him nearly impossible to guard. Expect the Columbus native to step in immediately at the center position as an upgrade from the incumbent Dallas Lauderdale. Thomas is one of Indiana high school’s top all-time scorers, a versatile southpaw forward that can finish anywhere on the floor and has the strength/athleticism to guard power forwards. Due to the return of David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford, along with Sullinger entering the fray and the question mark at point guard, Ohio State has enough depth that Thomas may prove Matta’s ace in the hole off the bench this season. Craft could end up winning that open point guard competition. While his offensive game needs improvement, all Matta will need from his freshman is the ability to find his plethora of talented teammates and play capable defense against opposing point guards, two areas where Craft is very capable. Sibert could also see chunks of minutes as a freshman. The Cincinnati product is still inching back to 100% following a leg injury, but when healthy will provide the Buckeyes with another slashing wing with a scorers’ mentality.
4. Memphis – G Will Barton, F Jelan Kendrick, G Joe Jackson, F Tarik Black, G Chris Crawford
Hopefully UTEP, UAB and other Conference USA foes enjoyed one year of lackluster Memphis basketball. That brief spell is about to come to a quick and decisive end when this prized recruiting class takes the floor at FedEx Forum. Barton has the highest ceiling — a 6’6 shooting guard that can score at virtually any spot inside of halfcourt, uses his size to lock down defensively and finishes smoothly at the rim. He should start immediately alongside Wesley Witherspoon, giving head coach Josh Pastner plenty of height and versatility around his perimeter. Kendrick is another 6’6 prospect with point guard skills. He has the vision and distributing skills to direct traffic late in games for Pastner, but can also step in at the shooting guard or small forward. Local product Joe Jackson could win the point guard job immediately as another phenomenal scorer with an offensive repertoire that reaches far beyond his years. He’s been seemingly unstoppable late in games scoring the basketball, although his progress running the Tigers attack as a pure point is something to keep an eye on. Black is the top post player in this class, another Memphis kid that’s virtually unguardable with the rock deep in the paint. He should see immediate minutes alongside Will Coleman and Angel Garcia on the Tigers frontline.