We’re a week away from February, college basketball’s grind month and a time when freshmen hit the wall. But this year’s class shows no signs of slowing down, and there might even be an All-America selection or two from this group. Here’s our collection of top impact freshmen at mid-season:
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
Ben McLemore, Kansas: The Jayhawks’ scoring leader (16.1 ppg) made big plays on defense with two blocked shots in a short span of Tuesday’s victory at Kansas State. McLemore is KU’s top three-point shooter at 44.6 percent and tied a school record by making all six attempts against Iowa State. He leads the team in field-goal attempts, but some would like to see him become more selfish in an offense that has topped out at 64 points in its last four games.
Anthony Bennett, UNLV: Defenses started to catch up with the 6-8, 240-pound force recently as Bennett scored a season-low nine points in back-to-back games against San Diego State and Colorado State. He faced double-teams and physical play, but responded with 17 points in Thursday’s victory over Wyoming. Bennett leads the Runnin’ Rebels (16-4) in scoring at 18.4 points and rebounding at 8.4.
Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA: Muhammad was key to the Bruins’ huge victory at Arizona on Thursday night. He popped in a three-pointer after the Wildcats’ had trimmed the lead and came up with a big steal and two free throws to help seal the deal. Muhammad, a 6-6 wing, leads UCLA in scoring at 18.2 points and is hitting 47.1 percent of his three-pointers.
Nerlens Noel, Kentucky: By Kentucky standards, the defending national champion is struggling with a 12-6 record, but the 6-10 Noel brings a high-energy game, especially on the defensive end. He’s averaging 4.2 blocks and 2.5 steals per game, while averaging 10.7 points and 9.4 rebounds and shooting 57.8 percent. His game is mindful of Anthony Davis, last year’s Final Four most outstanding player, but Noel may be better defensively, if that’s possible.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Like Nerlens Noel, Smart can fill a box score as well as anybody in college basketball. The 6-4 Smart does it from the backcourt, and he averages 13.2 points and leads the team in rebounds (5.7), assists (4.5), steals (2.7) and is second in blocked shots at one per game. “He’s old school to me,” Cowboys coach Travis Ford said. “His strengths are winning, playing hard, making other people around him better.”
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.