The new kids on the block have wasted little time making their collective presence felt.
During the first week of Big 12 Conference play, a handful of freshmen making their debuts in league action not only found ways to contribute — they found ways to dominate.
There was Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart pouring in 25 points, five rebounds and three steals in a narrow road loss to Kansas State. Baylor’s Isaiah Austin scored 18 points to go along with 12 rebounds during an overtime win against Texas, which lost despite a stellar performance from rookie point guard Javan Felix (26 points, nine assists).
Dusty Hannahs nailed four 3-pointers to help lift Texas Tech to a road win against TCU. West Virginia’s Terry Henderson scored 21 points in a loss to Oklahoma, whose own freshman, Buddy Hield, neared a double-double with eight points and seven rebounds.
Then there was Wednesday night in Lawrence, Kan., when freshman Ben McLemore provided another chapter in the legend of Allen Fieldhouse by dropping 33 points, including a game-tying 3-pointer — he made all six of his long-range attempts — with only one second left in regulation. The Jayhawks topped Iowa State in overtime to move to 100-1 in their last 101 home games.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford’s takeaway from the opening round of Big 12 action was likely shared by anyone watching.
“There’s a lot of really good freshmen in our league,” he said.
Nearly a dozen different freshmen are among the Big 12 leaders in at least one major statistical category, including three of the league’s top eight scorers (McLemore, Austin, Smart). The top four teams in the
Big 12 preseason poll — Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas — are all relying heavily on at least one freshman in their starting lineups.
“A lot of times the productivity of a freshman depends on his role on that team,” Ford said. “You look at a young man like Javan Felix at Texas. He’s had to play a really big role on that team to this point, so it’s allowed him to get out there and play a little bit. It’s the same thing with Marcus Smart on our team. We needed somebody to come in and play the point guard spot. Isaiah Austin gets a lot of playing time for Baylor. That was a need for them. So for a lot of freshmen, if you’re going to go in and get the opportunity to play a lot of minutes, then you’re going to have a chance to make an impact.”
There is no shortage of evidence to support Ford’s theory.
Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN analyst and former college coach, said the exodus of a large number of top players from the league has opened door for freshmen whose talent has allowed them to make an early mark.
“I think because the league had such turnover last season in terms of its top 20 scorers and rebounders,” Fraschilla said, “there’s an opportunity for some of these highly recruited guys to come in and make an impact. It’s a combination of the opportunity and their worldliness as players having competed against the best players in the country during high school and the summer circuit.”
Keiton Page, one of Oklahoma State’s most decorated players, graduated at the end of the season, opening the door for Smart and his uncommon skill set to step into the point-guard spot right away.
At Baylor, the departure of front line players Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Perry Jones III left a gap in the forward position that Austin has filled at a high level through his first 14 college games.
Texas’ Myck Kabongo, a preseason all-Big 12 player at the point-guard position, is serving a NCAA-levied suspension for receiving impermissible benefits and hasn’t played yet this season. Enter Felix, whose sterling performance against Baylor indicated he is becoming comfortable with the heavy load he likely didn’t expect to carry so soon.
That teams have been able to so quickly replace impact players with more of them speaks to the Big 12’s recruiting muscle, said its top coach, Kansas’ Bill Self.
“The thing that makes our league good is there are some staffs that are really good evaluators, projectors of talent,” he said. “We have freshmen in our league contributing at a high level who people nationally assumed might not do so when they were coming out of high school. We’ve got one ourselves, even though he sat out last year, in Ben McLemore. He wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. He was a guy that was a top 30, top 40 guy in the country. He’s arguably as talented as any freshman there is.”
McLemore, whose Jayhawks will face Texas Tech at 3 p.m. Saturday inside United Spirit Arena, was forced to redshirt last season after failing to qualify academically. He practiced with Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, upperclassmen leaders who carried the scoring load for Kansas on the way to an appearance in the national championship game. When that duo left for the NBA, McLemore was ready to step in. All he’s done is lead the nation’s No. 6 team in scoring at 16.9 points per game.
"That guy is a lottery pick," Tech coach Chris Walker said. "He's really, really good. He's not your average freshman."
Arguably the most impressive first-year player has been Smart, who leads Oklahoma State in assists (5.1 per game), blocks (1.3) and steals (2.7). He also is second in scoring (14.3) and rebounding (5.7). His success is of little surprise to Fraschilla, who lives in the Dallas area and watched Smart play often during his prep career at Flower Mound Marcus.
“Not only does he have the physical size and strength,” Fraschilla said, “but he has a feel for the game that some 10-year veterans of the NBA will never have.”
Of course, a freshman of even Smart’s tremendous talent isn’t new to the Big 12. Fraschilla recalled a conversation he had with Texas coach Rick Barnes about seven years ago, which was centered on a first-year player who was set to play for the Longhorns, one that ended up being pretty good in his own right.
“I remember it seems like yesterday I was talking to Rick Barnes, and he said, ‘I have the best player in the country,’” Fraschilla recalled. “I said, ‘You mean the best freshman?’ He said, ‘No, the best player in the country.’ He wasn’t bragging, he just knew who he had.”
Who he had was Kevin Durant, who made good on Barnes’ prognostication by becoming the first freshman to be named the national player of the year.
There may not be a Durant in the league this season, but McLemore, Smart and Austin are future NBA players who could be off to the professional ranks after just one college season. Will there be another crop of freshman joining the Big 12 ranks next season who can produce the same impact?
“You never really know with freshmen,” Baylor assistant coach Jerome Tang said. “I think what happened at Kentucky (where a team comprised mostly of freshman led the Wildcats to a national title last season) has kind of skewed things for everybody. Everybody expects every freshman to be like those guys, and everyone is not. There are a few special ones, and Isaiah (Austin) happens to be one of those special ones. But it’s not that every freshman can come in at that level and have an impact.”
This season, though, it seems like the Big 12 has a handful who can do just that.
To comment on this story: