Freshmen take Big Ten backseat this season

Year of the Freshman doesn't extend to this league

Published: February 13 2014 | 9:59 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:36 am in

Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, freshmen, had significant roles in Michigan's 70-60 basketball win at Ohio State Tuesday night.

Walton had 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Big-time. Irvin added 10 points off the bench, and has averaged 15 over the Wolverines' last three games. Big-time.

But they are exceptions in the Big Ten this season.

This was supposed to be the Year of the Freshman in college basketball, but it may be just that. When four superpowers gathered in Chicago in mid-November for an ESPN doubleheader, it was all about Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, Jabari Parker of Duke and Julius Randle of Kentucky. Michigan State's "pup" was sophomore guard Gary Harris.

Those three, as well as Kansas' Joel Embiid, Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis, have been pretty terrific. (Ennis was especially terrific on the final shot of Syracuse's win over Pittsburgh Wednesday night.) Embiid, Wiggins, Parker and Randle are viewed as potentially the top four picks in the 2014 NBA draft.

Parker would be the National Player of the Year favorite were it not for Creighton's Doug McDermott. Parker averages 19.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. He is from Chicago. If he were on a good Big Ten team this winter, that team would be ... scary.

But the Big Ten is a veterans' league this winter. Seven of the league's top 20 scorers (through Tuesday's games) were seniors. None were freshman. Indiana freshman center Noah Vonleh, projected as an NBA lottery pick by many who project such things, is 22nd.

Vonleh does lead the league in rebounding. He had 12 Wednesday, but his Hoosiers still lost at home to Penn State, 66-65. The only other frosh in the top 20 is Northwestern's Sanjay Lumpkin, at 19th. Walton is the only rookie among assists leaders, at 13th.

In the Big 12, meanwhile, three freshmen are among the top 17 scorers, four are among the top 16 rebounders, and three (including Iowa State's Monte Morris) are among the top 10 in assists.

Only one ACC player is in that league's top 15 in scoring and rebounding. That's Parker, who is second in scoring, first in rebounding. Ennis is first in assists, and two other freshmen are in the top 10.

The SEC has six freshmen among its top 22 scorers. Three, naturally, play for Kentucky.

The Big Ten simply isn't freshmen-laden. Walton and Irvin are a pair of keepers, obviously. Vonleh will be a one-and-done if that's what he wants. But after that? Iowa hasn't relied heavily on any. Peter Jok has scored just five points in conference play after tallying 95 in nonconference games. The Hawkeyes had a well-stocked roster or returnees and only took on one freshman.

Kenny Kaminski has had some good games for injury-riddled Michigan State, but he's been used mainly because of injuries. Troy Williams has scored in double-figures five times for Indiana. Kendrick Nunn popped in 19 points for Ilinois Sunday against Penn State. Nigel Hayes has been strong off the bench recently for Wisconsin, averaging 15 points in his last three games. Kendall Stephens has two straight double-figure scoring games for Purdue.

But it's a vets' league, and by vets I also include sophomores. This isn't new. Last year, Harris was the only freshmen on the All-Big Ten first-, second- and third-teams. Harris was a second-team pick of the coaches and media.

It will be interested to see if the "older" Big Ten teams last longer in the NCAA tourney than squads depending heavily on freshmen (and future NBA stars). Most specifically, I mean Kansas and Kentucky.

I'm of the belief you have to have NBA players to win an NCAA title. Don't say "Butler" as a rebuttal. The Bulldogs had Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack. They don't have any future NBA players now, and they're 2-10 in the Big East.


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