Fab Melo, Vander Blue among sophs to keep an eye on this season
It's an old cliché, but it happens to be true: The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores.
Of course, in this era of the one-and-done, many of the very best freshmen don't become sophomores at all. But most mortal players will make the biggest improvement of their basketball lives between their freshman and sophomore years of college.
There are three reasons for this. First and foremost, their body matures. Many players did not take part in a high-level strength and conditioning program in high school, so they find themselves unable to physically withstand the rigors of a long college season. They benefit greatly not just from their first season in college but also their first off-season.
Second, the college game is much faster than the one they played in high school. It usually takes about a year to get used to it.
Finally, even in cases where the freshmen are physically and mentally ready to contribute, they find often themselves stuck on the bench behind a senior. Thus there is more available playing time in year two.
For the last several years, I have scavenged early in the season for players who experienced nondescript freshman seasons but are ready to break out as sophomores. I have steered away from the special few who are either too obvious or were already outstanding as freshmen. And once again, I have revisited last year's selections to see how prescient I was (or wasn't). Usually that's a bit of a painful exercise but I have to say that upon further review, my choices were pretty spot on.
Let's start with the list of whom I declined to include because they were too good as freshmen: Harrison Barnes, North Carolina; Jared Sullinger, Ohio State; Perry Jones, Baylor; Will Barton, Memphis; Terrence Jones, Kentucky; C.J. Leslie, N.C. State; Joe Jackson, Memphis; Patric Young, Florida; Kendall Marshall, North Carolina; Tarik Black, Memphis; Phil Pressey, Missouri; Jeremy Lamb, UConn; Shabazz Napier, UConn; Aaron Craft, Ohio State; Doug McDermott, Creighton.
Here, then, is my list of 10 sophs to watch. You can expect them to be breaking out on a television set or in an arena near you.
I usually don't make it my business to root for specific players, but I'm making an exception for Melo. He is endearing and earnest, and it's not his fault that he arrived in Syracuse amid sky-high expectations he was unprepared to meet. After all, Melo only came to the U.S. to play basketball three years ago. The college game proved to be too fast for Melo as a freshman, and like a lot of big men he came in woefully out of shape. Melo spent his summer working hard to improve his conditioning, and you can just see how much better his self-esteem is now. He's still a long way from being an offensive threat, but he has given the Orange the defensive anchor in the paint they lacked last year.
Expectations are often not fair for incoming freshmen, but in Blue's case there is no question he failed to meet them. He was one of the most heralded recruits to come to Marquette in a long while -- he was especially loved because he was from Madison -- but Blue's inability to shoot rendered him ineffective because it allowed defenses to back off. That's why his playing time dwindled as the season went on. (Blue played a total of 14 minutes in the Golden Eagles' first two NCAA tournament games.) My decision to select him is based more on what I think he can do than how he has played thus far. Blue is still not a great shooter, but you can see that his percentages have jumped, largely because of improved shot selection. He is also learning not to let his shooting determine how he performs in other areas of the game. For example, he only took two shots and scored three points in a rout of Jacksonville, but he still grabbed nine rebounds. He shot 4 for 14 in the win over Wisconsin but had eight rebounds. That's progress.
This young man is going to make a lot of money playing this game, possibly as soon as next year. When I saw Leonard as a high school player, I was taken with his size, skills and agility. But he got pushed around last season and was often very emotional. Sometimes Bruce Weber wouldn't even know how to react to his outbursts. Leonard was on the bench for most of the season while two lesser talented (and equally soft) veteran big men, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale, ate up most of the minutes. After a terrific summer with USA Basketball, Leonard returned to Champaign stronger, more confident, and ready to take advantage of his opportunity to start. He had the best game of his career during last Saturday's win against Gonzaga, finishing with 21 points (on 9 for 11 shooting) and six rebounds. I wouldn't be surprised if he were a lottery pick next June.
Bell missed the first five games of his freshman following surgery to repair a stress fracture in the tibias of both his legs, and he never really caught up. It wasn't easy breaking in to a jam-packed backcourt that featured seniors Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. Over the summer, Bell started every game for Team USA at the Under 19 world championships in Latvia, and he returned a much more confident shooter. Villanova is going to need even more production from him if it's going to shake off the doldrums of its 5-2 start.
You don't improve your three-point shooting by more than 12 percentage points without putting in a lot of hard work in a lonely gym. That's what Sheehey put in over the summer in Bloomington, and it has paid off. Last year the lightly-recruited swingman from Florida seemed in over his head, with his most memorable moment coming on a soaring dunk down the lane against Iowa. (Who says white men can't jump?) Now, Sheehey is demonstrating more poise and a better overall game. His breakout performance came on Nov. 27 against Butler, when he scored a career-high 21 points and locked down the Bulldogs' best offensive player, Chrishawn Hopkins, in the second half.
Ross was a highly-acclaimed recruit out of Portland, and while his game was a little immature last year, his main problem was that Washington had two frontcourt seniors in Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday. Ross showed signs he could become a big-time scorer (he had 19 points in a loss to North Carolina during the NCAA tournament), but this season he has really improved his defense and rebounding. Most of his maturation has occurred between his ears. That's the difference between a freshman and a sophomore.
Brust had a reputation as a big scorer coming out of suburban Chicago, but you wouldn't have known it last season: He played a total of six minutes after the Big Ten season began. Now that he is a sophomore, Brust has already established himself as a premiere marksman. He tied a school record when he made seven three-pointers in a win over BYU. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain that against stronger competition. In Wisconsin's losses last week to North Carolina and Marquette, Brust scored nine points in each game and shot a combined 2 for 10 from three. As long as opposing defenses key on senior point guard Jordan Taylor, Brust is bound to get plenty of open looks.
I must confess that as a fellow member of the under-six-feet set, I am partial to diminutive fellows like Bright. Last season he struggled while trying to make the adjustment from a high school scorer to a college point guard. His improvement in that department, combined with junior guard Jeremy Green's foolish decision to enter the NBA Draft, has enabled Bright to play a lot more minutes as a sophomore. Bright is feisty and quick, and he still looks more like a scorer than a point guard on the floor. But given the way his field goal percentages have skyrocketed -- a product of better shot selection and stronger legs -- that may not be such a bad thing.
Olander was a part-time starter last season, but his minutes dwindled as his frail body wore down. With the arrival of Andre Drummond it appeared Olander's role with the Huskies would diminish even further as a sophomore, but he returned to campus 20 pounds stronger and has proven to be a much better complement to Drummond than junior forward Alex Oriakhi. Olander has started all but one of UConn's games, and during the one game he came off the bench he played 31 minutes in the Huskies' win over Arkansas on Saturday. Olander has the size to clean up his teammates' misses on the glass, and his ability to make midrange jumpers makes UConn a lot harder to defend.
There wasn't much playing time for Starks last season behind Chris Wright, which is good because the slightly-built Starks wasn't ready to assume command. When Wright missed three games late in the season because of a wrist injury, Starks took over the point and Georgetown lost them all. Starks was supposed to battle with fellow reserve Vee Sanford for the starting job this year, but Sanford, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, transferred to Dayton in the offseason, opening up even more opportunity to play. So far, Starks has taken full advantage. He is still a long way from being a knockdown shooter, but his ability to manage the Hoyas' intricate, Princeton-style offense is a major reason they are off to a 7-1 start.
Gaddy was cruising along until he tore his ACL in early January. He's off to a strong start in his junior season. Let's hope he finishes it this time.
This choice may seem obvious in retrospect, but it wasn't so apparent at the time. Henson never became a dependable scorer as a soph (that is happening now), but he would have been an NBA first-round pick if he hadn't decided to come back to Chapel Hill.
Jenkins's three-point percentage dropped from his freshman to his sophomore years, but his improved versatility allowed him to nearly double his scoring average from 11.0 to 19.5. Jenkins is currently averaging 21.5 ppg as a junior and is one of the most feared three-point shooters in the country.
Solid choice. After being a bit player as a freshman, McGruder averaged 11.1 points and 5.9 rebounds over 30.6 minutes for the Wildcats last season.
I'm glad I projected Nelson's breakout when he was a sophomore and not a junior. He did enjoy a decent uptick last season -- his scoring average went up but his field goal percentage went down -- but he has been a total disaster as a junior. After Ben Howland suspended and then reinstated him last month, Nelson missed the team flight to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. He also sat out the entire second half of the Bruins' loss to Texas on Saturday.
Another good call. Oriakhi was a full-time starter and the leading rebounder for the 2011 NCAA champion.
Plumlee was better as a sophomore than he was as a freshman, but he did not have the breakout season I predicted. If he had, the Blue Devils would not have been so physically overwhelmed by Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen.
Siva spent most of his freshman season playing understudy to Edgar Sosa. His three-point percentage dipped considerably from his freshman to his sophomore year, but in every other way he took a big step forward. He's not a huge stat guy, but he is a winner.
Watford was a good player his freshman year. His numbers went up some as a soph but it would be a stretch to call it a breakout.
Money. Wayns stepped into the Wildcats' starting lineup as a soph and was the team's third-leading scorer. With Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes now gone, Wayns is running the show full-time and averaging a team-leading 18.7 points and 4.4 assists.