One of the fun things about following recruiting so closely is getting a heads up on who to watch going into the college basketball season. By now, Kentucky fans are no doubt aware of our four "fabulous freshmen"-- , Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer. All come in with fantastic prep pedigrees, and they are poised to do great things at Kentucky in their freshmen year.
But in case you haven't heard or read much about other diaper dandies across the nation, here's your primer. I've listed a handful of freshmen, those I think are poised to make a significant impact. The list is by no means comprehensive (I didn't write up the obviously good Duke's Austin Rivers, for example); it's just a handful of personal favorites.
Andre Drummond, Connecticut Huskies, C
[ESPNU Rank: 5*, 2nd Overall]
My first freshman is a doozy, and just about one of the best dang cherries you could ever get on top of a sundae. Andre Drummond, for the longest time, was the consensus top player in the class of 2012. The Connecticut Huskies, after winning the 2010 National Championship, were looking to rebuild in the post-Kemba era. Boom. Combine the two for instant dynamite.
Late this summer, Drummond decided to reclassify to the class of 2011 to play for...you guessed it, UConn. Drummond is the complete big man package. About the only concern recruitniks list is that he's "inconsistent." He can score, pass, rebound, play defense...everything. As Mike Gundy would say, "he's a man." And he's not even forty yet.
Drummond should start immediately from game one, sliding the formidable Alex Oriakhi to his natural position at power forward. If Anthony Davis isn't the best freshman big man in the country, it's probably because Drummond stole the honors. He's that good.
Brad Beal, Florida Gators, SG
[ESPNU Rank: 5*, 5th Overall]
Five-star Brad Beal starts his career at Florida much the same way his teammate, former five-star Patric Young did--behind a pair of returning All-Conference caliber starters. Unlike Young, I think Beal gets a lot more run in year one. Young played limited minutes--and had limited impact--with Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus clogging the middle for the Gators. Beal, a potent scoring guard, may see minutes hard to come by playing with Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker.
I don't buy it. I think Beal, the 2011 Gatorade National Player of the Year, can and will be better than his upperclassmen teammates.
First, his length and wingspan will be a huge equalizer against teams that traditionally picked on the short Boynton and the really short Walker. I don't have a great gauge on how good Beal's defense is, but that freakish wingspan alone should help stifle perimeter ball-handlers that were all too happy to see Boynton and Walker man up on them.
Second, Beal is a tremendous 3-point shooter on a team that sorely needs efficient long distance shooting. Boynton and Walker combined for an astoundingly-high 447 attempts last year, hitting just 35.5% (admittedly a massive improvement from 2009-10's abysmal 31.7% on 438 attempts). Expect Beal to shoot a lot less 3's and make a better percentage, leading to a more efficient offensive overall.
Kentucky plays Florida on February 7 and March 4.
Myck Kabongo, Texas Longhorns, PG
[ESPNU Rank: 5*, 11th Overall]
It's no secret to Texas fans that Rick Barnes is a limited coach on the offensive side of the ball. His best teams have come when he has an elite point guard on the floor (see: T.J. Ford and D.J. Augustin) who can lead the offense with little coaching guidance. That's why the Longhorns are so excited to welcome the Canadian-born Myck Kabongo to the team.
Texas' 2012 Final Four hopes were probably dashed when they lost three early entrants to the NBA Draft (first-rounders Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton, and Cory Joseph). But with Kabongo at the helm, this team should still be fun to watch. It compares favorably with the 2006-07 Longhorns, a green squad led by a superstar you may have heard of, Kevin Durant. While calling Kabongo the next Durant is simply unreasonable expectation, it's not a stretch to posit that Kabongo will have a Durant-like impact on this year's team.
The Toronto-born Kabongo is perhaps the best pure freshman point guard in the nation. He has natural leadership skills, uncanny passing vision, and a knack for scoring. Further, with the Horns lacking talented big men, they will likely end up pushing the ball up the court. The uptempo offense will just increase the number of opportunities for Kabongo to shine on offense. It wouldn't be surprising to see him amongst the nation's assists leaders at year-end.
Khem Birch, Pittsburgh Panthers, C
[ESPNU Rank: 5*, 12th Overall]
Birch, like fellow big man Drummond, was a late reclassification to the class of 2011. Birch, like fellow Canadian Kabongo, fills a gaping hole in his team's lineup. And like both of them, Khem Birch should make a huge impact during his freshman year.
Birch compares favorably to a 2013 Kentucky target, Nerlens Noel, in that Birch is probably the best defensive big in his class. True to form, he blocked six shots in the McDonald's All-American game. And I'll readily admit: I've got huge man-crushes on big men that also happen to be defensive wizards.
That's something Pitt can sorely use on the interior after Gary McGhee's graduation. Undersized big man Nasir Robinson returns, but expect him to slide to the 3 to fill the role left by departing senior Gilbert Brown. That leaves two starting spots on the interior. Key reserves Dante Taylor and Talib Zanna get first crack, but Birch may end up being the starter by conference play.
At the very least, Taylor's sophomore year should be Birch's floor. Taylor, a former five-star himself, averaged 5.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in limited minutes (15.1 per game). Birch is probably more raw offensively but should already match Taylor and Zanna in defensive prowess. More importantly, Birch has a clearer path to immediate playing time behind the unproven veterans. Expect him to seize the opportunity and be a stout defensive presence in the Panther interior.
Josiah Turner, Arizona Wildcats, PG
[ESPNU Rank: 5*, 15th Overall]
The elite point guards are in full force this year. Along with Kabongo and Teague, Josiah Turner will step into a starting point guard role from day 1. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Arizona was expecting a fairly decent point guard, Lamont "MoMo" Jones, to return. Instead, Jones made the puzzling decision to transfer to Iona. That just means the Josiah Turner era will start sooner than expected for Arizona.
Like Teague leading the second-ranked Wildcats, Turner is being handed the keys to an Arizona squad that expects to contend for the Pac-12 title. While All-American Derrick Williams left early for the Draft, the Wildcats return a host of solid starters/role players such as Kevin Parrom, Solomon Hill, and Kyle Fogg.
What they need is a superstar, provided one doesn't materialize from the returnees. Turner is the best prospect in a stacked recruiting class that includes Nick Johnson, Angelo Chol, and Sidiki Johnson). As a scoring-minded point guard, he'll look to take over the offensive production hole left by Williams. That shouldn't be a problem with his teammates, who were solid space players but struggled to create their own offense. If Turner becomes Arizona's superstar sooner rather than later, the Wildcats become a very dangerous team to face come tournament time.
Trevor Lacey, Alabama Crimson Tide, SG
[ESPNU Rank: 4*, 40th Overall]
Kentucky fans should be familiar with the name. John Calipari was thisclose to inking the talented prepster. Alas, Trevor Lacey decided to stay home and play for his local school, Alabama. Head coach Anthony Grant has done a lot of good things with the Crimson Tide since taking over in 2009, but he's still looking for that elusive first NCAA Tournament appearance.
This may be the year. Alabama returns a couple of talented forwards (JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell) as well as an All-Conference caliber point guard in Trevor Releford. They are, however, missing a plug at the 2. Hey look at that! Lacey is a natural-born shooting guard!
It's not a given Lacey starts, though. He'll have to battle fellow recruit Levi Randolph, an Alabama high school star in his own right, for the opportunity. My gut feel says that Lacey will win the battle. (Or, you know, they could run a three guard offense. That'll work too.) Maybe it's because I followed him a lot closer since Kentucky was recruiting him. But I think Lacey can slide right in as an efficient scorer that doesn't need the ball to be effective. On a team with a trio of returning offensive weapons, that has to count for something.
Kentucky plays Alabama on January 21.
DeAngelo Harrison, St. John's Red Storm, SG
[ESPNU Rank: 4*, 64th Overall]
This is a bit of a personal plug, as D'Angelo Harrison attended my alma mater (Dulles High in Sugar Land, TX). But it's Kentucky-relevant as well--the Wildcats host the Red Storm in early December for an exciting non-conference tilt.
The Red Storm will be a young as pups team. Eight of their ten rotation players last year were seniors. One potential returnee, Dwayne Polee, transferred, leaving just one returning scholarship player, backup point guard Malik Stith. Translation: there's an awful lot of playing time available.
Head coach Steve Lavin recruited his tail off, hauling in a gigantic nine-man recruiting class. Unfortunately, three of his better recruits (Jakarr Sampson, Norvel Pelle and Amir Garrett) were ruled ineligible That leaves St. John's with just seven scholarship players heading into the season. Out of the bunch, Harrison may be the best pure scorer; dude just gets buckets.
It's difficult to lock down exactly who the Red Storm will start, and even the rotation Lavin puts forth against Kentucky could completely change by Big East play. But if the Johnnies need to light up that scoreboard, they could do a lot worse than passing the ball to Harrison.
Kentucky plays St. John's on December 1.
TaShawn Thomas, Houston Cougars, PF
[ESPNU Rank: 4*, 92th Overall]
Look out, college basketball world. It may not be Phi Slamma Jamma all over again, but the Houston Cougars are returning to basketball relevance. Last year, Houston went and hired James Dickey, a heralded Lone Star coach that vowed to recruit the state of Texas, especially Houston.
Dickey's dividends are paying off big in the 2012 class; he's received commitments from two potential five-stars in Danuel House and Danrad "Chicken" Knowles. But the 2011 class isn't too shabby, either. It's headlined by TaShawn Thomas, a high energy forward that played for Houston Hoops AAU.
The Cougars were, to put it mildly, terrible last year, going just 12-18. But Thomas is their first top 100 recruit in a long while, and with House and Knowles on the horizon, there's a new sense of optimism in the Space City.
For this year, expect Thomas to slide into the starting rotation at the 4 and make a considerable impact. He should team with redshirt freshman Joesph Young (a 2010 recruit playing his first year because Providence wouldn't release him from his LOI) and returning senior Darian Thibodeaux to form a solid nucleus that can score. Whether they can win, well, that remains "to be determined".