The college basketball season isn’t far off. It’s time to start looking at the important questions that will shape the 2016-17 season.
Here we are again in September, on the cusp of a new season and already infatuated with the players who have yet to log a minute of collegiate basketball. It’s understandable. Freshmen offer such promise and hope, a blank slate upon which a team’s expectations can be written.
And this year there are so many of them, a gaggle of at least 10 wildly talented rookies who quite literally span the country -- from Duke to Kansas to Michigan State to UCLA to Washington.
How could one of them not dominate the sport?
Perhaps one will, but if recent history is an indicator, it takes a pretty extraordinary freshman to steal the show. In the last 10 years, only two freshmen have won the Wooden Award -- Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Texas’ Kevin Durant -- and in that same span, only two rookies have earned the Final Four’s most outstanding player award -- Davis again and Duke’s Tyus Jones.
Experience, even just a little bit of it, truly does matter in the college game.
So here’s the question: In this, the Year of the Freshmen, which non-freshmen could steal the show?
Grayson Allen, Duke: In 2015, Mike Krzyzewski won his fifth national championship on the backs of a wildly talented freshman class. Allen is the holdover from that crew, around long enough now that he is the elder statesman to a group of rookies that could be even more talented than the 2014-15 crop. If you recall that national title game, you’ll also remember that it was Allen’s injection of instant offense that helped rejuvenate the Blue Devils and lead them to the win against Wisconsin.
He hasn’t lost any of that swagger. Sometimes the swagger oversteps -- or at least overreaches, via tripping fouls -- but Allen’s fierce edge is what makes him so good. That and a really reliable jump shot. With so much talent around him, Allen won’t have to do as much this season. Last year, he averaged a yeoman’s 36 minutes per game and accounted for nearly a quarter of Duke’s field goal attempts -- not because he was a ball hog, but because if he didn’t shoot and score, Duke didn’t win. But he will certainly still get his points. Combine that with his fierce competitiveness and a wisdom cultivated from a trying sophomore season and you’ve got a player who has the talent and the experience to dominate the game.
Ivan Rabb, California: File Rabb’s decision to return to the Bears as perhaps the stunner of the offseason. The 6-foot-11 freshman was a likely lottery pick, especially after tearing up the Pac-12 with 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game his freshman year, and was told he wouldn’t last beyond the 10th pick of the NBA draft. Yet despite being the product of a generation that seemingly can’t wait for anything -- from phone calls to future careers -- Rabb simply wasn’t in a hurry.
"I just wanted to improve," Rabb told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman. "I didn't just want to be in the NBA. I wanted to make sure I was ready when I got there.”
So now here sits Rabb -- likely stronger after another offseason of conditioning and wiser with a year’s worth of college game experience -- with the desire to get better. That’s the recipe for a statistical explosion. Without Jaylen Brown and Tyrone Wallace, Cal coach Cuonzo Martin will be even more reliant on Rabb to score and produce. If Rabb is able to extend his jump shot, as he hopes, he should be more than capable of answering the bell.
Josh Hart, Villanova: The way Villanova plays (and wins) does not necessarily lend itself to producing a breakout star. The Wildcats are a sum-of-its-parts team more than perhaps any other in the country. They won a national championship because one senior (Daniel Ochefu) mopped a court, another (Ryan Arcidiacono) flipped a pass and a sophomore (Phil Booth) came off the bench to score 20 points. Their team success almost masks individual achievement.
But Villanova also liked to score, and was quite good at it. Despite the penchant for team ball, Hart was the best at putting the ball in the basket. He averaged a team-leading 15.5 points per game, failing to reach double figures just three times all season. His game is more blue-collar than flashy, making him seem almost sneaky good, but he’s got a nose for getting to the rim as well as the ability to drain 3-pointers.
Without Arcidiacono, the demand on Hart to score more will be even greater. It will also be up to him and teammate Kris Jenkins to take over the leadership role that Arcidiacono and Ochefu handled in a season when Villanova isn’t exactly going to sneak up on anyone.
Enigmatic would be the polite way to describe Jackson. Pull-your-hair-out-of-your-head frustrating also works. He is so gifted, a 6-foot-8 player who can score from essentially anywhere on the court, but the naturally quiet kid also has a penchant for being too passive. Williams had more than a few heart-to-hearts with Jackson, reminding him of the importance of being aggressive. When the message got through, the results were impressive. A game after a crushing loss to Duke, Jackson’s 15 points and eight assists helped North Carolina regroup against Miami.
With all of the talented freshmen congregating down Tobacco Road, the attention on the national runner-up Tar Heels has been diverted to Duke. But North Carolina has a host of experience in the form of Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, not to mention the bitter taste of a Jenkins’ 3-pointer to avenge. The key piece, though, could be Jackson. If there is no longer a need for an asterisk, he could become a dominating force on a very good team.
Melo Trimble, Maryland: There are few things more dangerous than a player who believes he has something to prove, and Trimble has more than a few wrongs to right. The sophomore suffered through a midseason slump that coincided with the Terps’ own skid. In Maryland’s final eight regular-season games, Trimble shot 33-of-106 (31 percent) and his team finished 3-5. Afterward, he wisely decided to return for his junior season, recognizing that the last impression he left with NBA folks wasn’t going to help his cause.
Now Trimble returns to a team that needs him more than ever. Jake Layman, Rasheed Sulaimon, Diamond Stone and Robert Carter Jr. are gone, putting more of an onus on Trimble to keep Maryland’s resurgence alive. Despite his struggles, Trimble still averaged 14.8 points, 4.9 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game, making him easily the most productive player on Mark Turgeon’s roster. Still, those stats didn’t approach the numbers Trimble put up during a scintillating freshman season, something he’s no doubt heard and read more than a few dozen times.
Failure, perceived or actual, can be a powerful motivator.