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Freshmen Bring Hope

In-season improvements are common for freshmen. After all, freshmen make more dumb decisions early in the year, so they have more room for improvement. And as Harrison Barnes showed last year, by getting in a rhythm and taking fewer questionable shots, a freshman can improve dramatically between November and March. 

That also means that teams that play a lot of freshmen are the most likely to improve as the season goes on. Last year, we had hard evidence as Memphis, Michigan, St. Joseph’s, and Kentucky were all substantially better in March than they were in January.

But who are the young teams this season? You might think you know the answer if you read the preseason magazines and saw everyone’s returning minutes. But minutes lost are not a perfect predictor of freshmen playing time. San Diego State and Rhode Island both lost 69-71% of their minutes this off-season. But while Rhode Island has started over with a new group of young players, San Diego State has chosen to fill the lineup with transfers and bench players. In fact, the Aztecs aren’t giving any playing time to freshmen.

Team

Conf

Pct Min

Fresh

Pct Poss

Fresh

SDSU

MWC

0%

0%

Rhode Island

A10

44%

41%

And that maturity has mattered a lot to the teams’ performances. While Rhode Island has struggled to a 1-10 start, San Diego St. has beaten Arizona and California. The teams with the most and fewest freshmen minutes are not always who you expect. 

Most Minutes to Freshmen

(Playing in a Top 11 Conference or Pomeroy Top 50)

Team

Conf

Pct Min

Fresh

Pct Poss

Fresh

Virginia Tech

ACC

35%

33%

Fordham

A10

36%

40%

Portland

WCC

36%

33%

SMU

CUSA

36%

39%

Georgetown

BE

36%

30%

Rice

CUSA

38%

37%

Arkansas

SEC

39%

44%

Villanova

BE

40%

33%

Houston

CUSA

42%

41%

Texas Tech

B12

43%

46%

Rhode Island

A10

44%

41%

San Diego

WCC

44%

44%

Alabama

SEC

44%

37%

Rutgers

BE

47%

49%

UTEP

CUSA

49%

47%

Kentucky

SEC

53%

54%

West Virginia

BE

53%

42%

St. John's

BE

61%

61%

Texas

B12

61%

62%

Boston College

ACC

65%

70%

D1 Average

 

19%

18%

- It may be a bit of a surprise to see Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg play such a young team. He normally likes tight, experienced lineups. But Dorien Finney-Smith, Robert Brown, and CJ Barksdale are too good to bench. This is easily one of Greenberg’s best recruiting classes.

- Percentage of minutes usually matches percentage of possession’s used, but not always. While freshmen Otto Porter, Greg Whittington, and Jabril Trawick are playing a lot of minutes for Georgetown, the Hoyas’ veterans Hollis Thompson and Jason Clark get the majority of the shots.

- Texas Tech is terrible, but freshman Jordan Tolbert is the real deal.

- Alabama’s inability to make three-pointers and score against a zone defense is really holding the team back from becoming an elite team. Freshmen Levi Randolph, Trevor Lacey, Rodney Cooper, and Charles Hankerson have all missed a lot of open perimeter shots at this point in the season. But if the team can find other ways to score against zone defense, the Crimson Tide can still be great. And if one of these young players develops a jump shot, look out.

- I think Mike Rice is doing a fabulous job, but if you expect Rutgers to be a sleeper in the Big East, be aware how young his team is this year. They’ll be better eventually (especially after Kadeem Jack returns), but it is hard to win with this many freshmen in the lineup and no veteran stars.

- Yes, Kentucky has the best recruits, but could anyone other than John Calipari beat Kansas and North Carolina while working that many freshmen into the lineup?

- West Virginia is exceedingly young, but the formula seems to be working for them. Notice how the freshmen get 53% of the minutes, but only 42% of the possessions? This team is staying competitive by feeding the ball to Kevin Jones and watching Truck Bryant do his thing.

- Texas has been playing a weaker schedule in order to get its freshmen more confidence, but they were not ready to play on the road, looking outmatched against North Carolina on Tuesday. And Texas is going to have to go on the road regularly once Big 12 play starts. But as the team figures out who has the confidence to score against good defense, I expect they will be better. On Wednesday, it was freshmen Sheldon McClellan and Jonathan Holmes stepping up against the Tar Heels. (Interestingly, prized recruit Sterling Gibbs, the player who backed out of a commitment to Maryland, has the worst efficiency stats for Texas right now.)

- We knew St. John’s and Boston College were going to have a rough season with so many young players, and now Nurideen Lindsey has left St. John’s.

Fewest Minutes to Freshmen

(Playing in a Top 11 Conference or Pomeroy Top 50)

Team

Conf

Pct Min

Fresh

Pct Poss

Fresh

San Diego State

MWC

0%

0%

Oklahoma

B12

0%

0%

UNLV

MWC

0%

0%

Iona

MAAC

0%

0%

St. Louis

A10

3%

2%

Colorado State

MWC

3%

3%

Dayton

A10

4%

3%

Southern Miss

CUSA

4%

3%

Kansas

B12

4%

3%

Missouri St.

MVC

4%

4%

Florida St.

ACC

4%

4%

Belmont

A-Sun

5%

4%

Georgia Tech

ACC

5%

5%

Arizona St.

P12

5%

4%

Missouri

B12

5%

4%

Iowa St.

B12

6%

5%

St. Bonaventure

A10

6%

4%

San Francisco

WCC

6%

5%

Auburn

SEC

7%

4%

Nebraska

B10

7%

5%

- Thanks to a host of transfers, San Diego State and UNLV have maintained veteran lineups despite losing players to graduation. And that’s why the MWC is having another great season.

- Oklahoma has gotten off to a fine start under new head coach Lon Kruger, but keep in mind that he is not breaking in any freshmen. Much like Mike Rice at Rutgers last year, he’s trying to ring some victories out of the current roster before loading up with recruits next season.

- I can’t remember a time when Kansas didn’t have a marquee freshman playing a big role.

Predictions 

My guess is that the teams relying heavily on freshmen will struggle in January. It is hard to go on the road in a hostile environment for the first time with a young team. But if you give them time, I would guess that at least some of these teams will show shocking improvement. Don’t be surprised if Villanova goes on a surprise run in the Big East tournament or if Arkansas suddenly starts springing upsets in February.

On the flip side, I’d be cautious about a team like Missouri. Are they peaking in December? And for a team like Arizona St., things are even more depressing. With a roster filled with older players, but few wins, there is not much hope.

By Conference 

Big Ten

Pct Min

Freshm

Pct Poss Fresh

Nebraska

7%

5%

Wisconsin

8%

8%

Ohio St.

15%

13%

Purdue

16%

16%

Michigan

18%

22%

Indiana

20%

20%

Northwestern

20%

14%

Iowa

21%

22%

Illinois

22%

18%

Penn St.

24%

21%

Minnesota

26%

25%

Michigan St.

31%

30%

If Wisconsin is always ranked high in the computer rankings, why isn’t Bo Ryan a regular in the Final Four? One hypothesis is that Bo Ryan doesn’t recruit the type of athletes you need to be successful in the tournament. I’m sure that matters to some degree, but Wisconsin hasn’t exactly been losing to North Carolina in the tournament. The last five years the Badgers have been knocked out by UNLV, Davidson, Xavier, Cornell, and Butler. The simplest and most correct answer is that the NCAA tournament represents a small sample of games, and anything can happen in a small sample.

But while that is right, it is not very satisfying. So let me throw out another explanation: Bo Ryan’s teams are over-rated in the margin-of-victory calculations because he always has a veteran team on the floor. Bo Ryan’s lineups are consistently more mature than his opponents. Not only does Bo Ryan depend a lot on upperclassmen, he also red-shirts a ton of players. That means Bo Ryan’s team typically features, at most one or two players under 20 on the floor at all times, and that means his team doesn’t have the same dumb freshmen mistakes as other teams. But it does not mean that we should predict Wisconsin will beat North Carolina or Kentucky on a neutral floor. 

Let me put it another way. Ryan Evans is a relative newcomer to the Badger lineup, but as a red-shirt junior, he’s been through a ton of Wisconsin practices. Compare him to Michigan St. freshman Branden Dawson who sees similar playing time at a similar position for the Spartans. Evans’ efficiency stats are better than Dawson’s at this point in the season. But if you had to wager, would you pick Dawson or Evans to thrive in March?

Pac-12

Pct Min

Fresh

Pct Poss Fresh

Arizona St.

5%

4%

UCLA

9%

7%

Oregon

9%

11%

California

12%

9%

Oregon St.

12%

11%

Stanford

17%

19%

Washington St.

17%

17%

Colorado

24%

26%

Utah

27%

23%

USC

28%

26%

Arizona

29%

30%

Washington

31%

36%

The problem for the Pac-12 isn’t that the teams are playing too many freshmen. (If you get out a slide rule, the Pac-12 actually averages 18% of minutes given to freshmen which is lower than the D1 average and lower than the Big Ten.) The problem is that because so many players have left early for the NBA in recent years, the players who have stuck around are not good enough.

ACC

Pct Min

Fresh

Pct Poss

Fresh

Florida St.

4%

4%

Georgia Tech

5%

5%

North Carolina St.

8%

7%

Miami FL

10%

11%

Virginia

15%

16%

North Carolina

17%

19%

Duke

24%

28%

Wake Forest

24%

16%

Maryland

28%

24%

Clemson

30%

22%

Virginia Tech

35%

33%

Boston College

65%

70%

On a lot of teams, the freshmen defer to the upperclassmen. See Wake Forest, Maryland, Clemson, and Virginia Tech where the percentage of minutes exceeds the percentage of possession’s used. But that isn’t happening at North Carolina. PJ Hairston and James Michael McAdoo take more than their fair share of shots when on the floor. 

Big East

Pct Min

Fresh

Pct Poss

Fresh

South Florida

9%

9%

Syracuse

12%

10%

Notre Dame

12%

10%

Louisville

16%

18%

Cincinnati

17%

13%

Marquette

18%

15%

DePaul

21%

16%

Pittsburgh

21%

17%

Providence

27%

23%

Connecticut

28%

27%

Seton Hall

31%

19%

Georgetown

36%

30%

Villanova

40%

33%

Rutgers

47%

49%

West Virginia

53%

42%

St. John's

61%

61%

Earlier this year, I talked about how Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey refuse to play freshmen. And while Marquette is still below the D1 average, this season is the most minutes Buzz Williams has ever given to freshmen in his entire career. On the other hand, Mike Brey refuses to break the long-term trend. 

Big 12

Pct Min

Fresh

Pct Poss

Fresh

Oklahoma

0%

0%

Kansas

4%

3%

Missouri

5%

4%

Iowa St.

6%

5%

Baylor

18%

21%

Texas A&M

21%

19%

Kansas St.

23%

29%

Oklahoma St.

34%

41%

Texas Tech

43%

46%

Texas

61%

62% 

It is hard to believe that “team transfer” aka Iowa St., is actually giving more minutes to freshmen than three other Big 12 teams.

SEC

Pct Min

Fresh

Pct Poss

Fresh

Auburn

7%

4%

Vanderbilt

17%

16%

Tennessee

18%

11%

Florida

20%

20%

Georgia

25%

31%

South Carolina

26%

26%

Mississippi St.

26%

24%

Mississippi

26%

28%

LSU

33%

35%

Arkansas

39%

44%

Alabama

44%

37%

Kentucky

53%

54%

LSU freshmen PG Anthony Hickey has been an extremely pleasant surprise, but he’s taken a few too many dumb shots this year. If he improves his shot selection, the win against Marquette can be more than a fluke.

 

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