Ranking the Top 25 freshmen
Ben McLemore leads list of college basketball's top-performing freshmen
Last month I unveiled my first Top 25 freshmen rankings of 2012-13, and as soon as my picks appeared they were universally hailed and accepted as the unquestioned truth. I get that a lot.
No, wait, what I meant to say was "as soon as my picks appeared I was asked a lot of questions about Marcus Smart." Happily for my purposes, Oklahoma State's star point guard furnishes me with the perfect opportunity to revisit what this list is supposed to accomplish.
When I first started doing these rankings a few seasons ago, I thought it'd be interesting to take a ruthlessly performance-based and hype-free look at freshmen, that most hyped of all basketball demographics. The niche I've tried to carve out is somewhere in between what we hear about these stars before they arrive on campus (we all know who the McDonald's All-Americans are) and where we sequence these prospects before they're drafted (we all know who the likely lottery picks are).
The question I set out to answer with my rankings each season is separate from recruiting rankings and mock drafts. It is this: Which freshmen have helped their teams the most?
In the case of Smart in early December 2012, he was improving Oklahoma State appreciably, which is why I ranked him the No. 14 freshman in the country. On the other hand, he was also missing a ton of shots, which is why he wasn't ranked higher. Smart's overall performance (excellent) wasn't yet at the same level as his ability (unbelievable).
What about now? Read on. Here are my updated rankings for the nation's Top 25 freshmen:
(Who did I miss? Let me know on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.)
1. Ben McLemore, G, Kansas Jayhawks
We have a new No. 1, as McLemore makes the leap all the way from No. 8 last month to the top spot. That's what happens when you have quite possibly the best single game of any Division I player this season, namely McLemore's 33-point effort against Iowa State in Lawrence. Not only did he make 10 of 12 shots from the field, but he more or less single-handedly put the Jayhawks in position to record the victory with his game-tying 3 at the end of regulation. (KU won in overtime, 97-89.)
McLemore is a standout freshman in many ways, including demographically. He sat out all last season after being ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA, and even if he had played as a freshman in 2011-12, he would have been fairly old for his class. Now he's downright ancient compared to his peers: McLemore will turn 21 next month.
Just don't feel sorry for KU's old codger. McLemore couples volume and efficiency on offense in a way that few players can match, let alone freshmen. He is also the only freshman in the country who functions as the featured scorer for a team that will likely earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That degree of importance to Kansas explains why Jayhawk fans fell silent when the freshman rolled his ankle in the closing minutes of the team's win over Baylor.
Here's hoping McLemore is back on his feet in no time. I have a feeling one season is all the college game is going to get when it comes to being dazzled by McLemore.
Previous ranking: 8
2. Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV Rebels
Don't read Bennett's fall from No. 1 last month to No. 2 today as a negative verdict on his performance. On the contrary, the Rebels' star has continued to put UNLV on his back, particularly on offense. (Six players on Dave Rice's roster are averaging between seven and 10 points per game; Bennett averages 20.) McLemore's ascendance has been exceptional, but Bennett is right there with the young Jayhawk. With any luck, these two special freshmen could develop a Greg Oden-Kevin Durant kind of friendly rivalry.
To read John Gasaway's full ranking of the nation's Top 25 freshmen, you must be an ESPN Insider.
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