Freshman Focus: The Mid-Major Microscope

-Matt Cox

As the college basketball season sits idle during the lull of finals week, it’s time to shed some light on some of the fantastic freshmen setting the mid-major landscape on fire. The marquee freshmen for Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and other big name schools have hogged all the ink, but the fountain of youth is not unique to the Power-6 programs. Below, we give these less familiar fresh faces their proper due…

Shouts to for providing a handy-dandy player filtering tool, which allowed us to reconcile our ‘cherry-picked’ list of freshmen with an analytically sorted list of the freshmen who have shined the brightest over the first month of the year.

Bouncy Bigs

Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky)

Most of the top pro prospects from the mid-major ranks are of the guard variety ( Ja Morant, Tookie Brown, Chris Clemsons, etc.), but Rick Stansbury’s freshman phenom will likely hear his name called before any other mid-major standout in next summer’s NBA draft. The Nigeria native has already earned C-USA Freshman of the Week honors three times with his stat stuffing production on both ends of the floor. Bassey enters finals week averaging a casual double-double (15 points / 10 rebounds a game) to go along with 3 blocks and 1.5 steals per contest.

In the half-court, the Hilltoppers are feeding their big man early and often on the low block, as WKU ranks 43rd nationally in frequency of post-up possessions (per Synergy). But when the pace ramps up, the Tops have been especially effective finding Bassey running the floor in transition. Bassey has demonstrated deceptively fast end-to-end speed for a guy of his stature and his willingness to run the floor has earned him some easy flushes out on the break.

On the other end, both the individual defensive metrics and eye-test assessment support the notion that Bassey is a formidable defensive anchor on the back end of the Tops’ defense - the following clip below shows a great example of Bassey doing his work early by pushing Gafford a few feet off the low block, which leads to a forced, contested shot and subsequent fast break going the other way.

With all that said, it’s hard to make much sense of the conflicting story told by the advanced on / off numbers, which indicate Bassey has actually been somewhat of a liability as a defender. Per, the Tops have surrendered 1.15 points per possession with him on the floor, compared to a 0.83 points per possession when he sits. The sample size is still small, so I expect that discrepancy to correct as the season plays out.

Obi Toppin (Dayton)

The former Mount Zion product and flagship recruit in Anthony Grant’s 2017 recruiting class is becoming appointment television for the Flyers. The high-flying redshirt freshmen set a school record with eight dunks against Detroit last week, as Toppin just laughed at an inferior Titan frontline all game long.

Toppin is not yet playing starter’s minutes, but his minute adjusted production proves just how effective he’s been when on the floor, even against an unforgiving non-conference schedule (Dayton’s already played Butler, Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi State and Auburn). In addition to shooting better than 70% from the floor, Toppin’s per-40 minutes stats of 22 PPG and 8 RPG are signs Grant may have no choice but to bump up his minutes as conference season approaches.

Carte’Are Gordon (Saint Louis)

Travis Ford didn’t necessarily need interior reinforcements this year with the stout frontline of DJ Foreman, Hashan French and Javon Bess all returning - but he’s certainly found use for Carte’are Gordon’s enviable elite length and bounce, which has helped propel an already elite defensive unit to new heights this year. Gordon’s offensive game remains extremely raw, but his activity level as the primary paint patroller has consistently bothered opposing rim attackers. While his post presence may be limited to exploiting lesser defenders, his value as an interior intimidator should help the Billikens sustain one of the best – if not the best – defense in the A-10.

Teammate Tandems

Nick Muszynski, Grayson Murphy & Caleb Hollander (Belmont)

The incomparable Rick Byrd shows no signs of slowing down at 65, as his Bruins once again look surefire OVC title contenders. The secret to this year’s success is a trio of redshirt freshmen, all of whom were groomed under one of the best player developers in college basketball last season. With Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain back as the only returning starters, Byrd showed no hesitation in turning to his seasoned freshmen to fill the gaps. Caleb Hollander and Nick Muszynski have turned out to be a perfect pairing at the 4 and the 5 up front, with Hollander asserting himself as yet another deadly stretch-4 in Byrd’s surgical offense and Muszynski doing all the dirty work in the middle.

But as good as the freshmen frontline has been, the emergence of Grayson Murphy has enabled the Belmont offense to keep ho-hummin along after passing magician Austin Luke graduated this summer. Luke’s value as the conductor of Belmont’s intricate offense has been nearly replenished by Murphy, who has established himself as both a cerebral point guard and complementary scoring threat next to Windler and McClain on the perimeter. The clips below demonstrate Murphy’s mature ability to change speeds with the ball as he attacks full-court pressure and ball screen coverage with a quick burst to escape his defender. 

Luke Frampton & Luka Brajkovic (Davidson)

Speaking of elite coaches and player developers, should we be surprised Bob McKillop has yet another crop of top-flight freshmen in the hopper? “The Two Luk(s)”, Luke Frampton and Luka Brajkovic, have each filled critical needs for a Davidson team already blessed with premier star power in Kellan Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson. Frampton has played the role of 3rd banana on the perimeter next to Grady and Gudmundsson, tasked with knocking down open shots and finding open cutters in McKillop’s complex motion offense.

With the backcourt fueling most of the Wildcats success, the other Luk(a) has stabilized the Davidson half-court scoring attack with a much needed inside-out balance. The Austrian big has posted a 64% true shooting percentage thus far, exhibiting exceptional patience and footwork operating inside. Brajkovic has also been an invaluable asset on the defensive side of the ball with Nathan Ekwu continuing to have issues staying on the floor.

Cameron Healy & Adam Hulka (Albany)

After a relatively disappointing season for the senior laden Great Danes – who watched their two best players in Joe Cremo and David Nicholls take their talents to more prominent stages via the grad transfer market – Will Brown had no choice but to throw his freshmen right into the fire this season. With a new era of Albany basketball in its early days, the rebuilding project has been fast tracked by the hyper efficient play of Cameron Healy and Adam Lulka.

While returning veteran Ahmad Clark has been brilliant in his own right as the go-to-option offensively, Healy has blossomed into the perfect combo guard for Brown’s system (much like the role Cremo played last year). And with the Danes top-3 forwards departing this summer, Lulka has risen to the occasion himself, along with another unsung freshman hero in Brent Hank. Albany still has a ways to go to returning to last year’s caliber, but Will Brown appears to have the right pieces to build on moving forward. 

Ascending Alphas

AJ Green
(Northern Iowa)

Let’s not sugarcoat anything here – the Purple Panthers have failed to meet preseason expectations over the first month of the season with a resume that features just two wins against Division 1 opponents. Nagging injuries has constricted Ben Jacobsen’s ability to properly utilize his bench and optimize his rotations, with Tywhon Pickford and Austin Phyfe both being bit by the injury bug early on. 

However, even that feels like a reach of an excuse for a team many thought could be a sleeper contender in the Missouri Valley. It’s still early and that prognosis may still hold, but a turnaround will lie in the hands of AJ Green, a highly touted freshman who has been asked to shoulder a heavy offensive burden for a squad suffering from a severe shooting slump. The always 3-point reliant Panther offense has converted just 29% of their triples, which ranks just outside the bottom-50 nationally. Green’s 15/49 (31%) shooting woes are a microcosm of this offensive eye-sore, one that must be corrected before I can reconsider UNI as a viable top-end competitor in the Valley this season. 

Here’s the good news – based on Green’s recruiting pedigree (relative to the rest of the MVC’s talent pool), it may not be a question of if he irons out the shooting kinks, but when

A former consensus top-100 recruit, Green is the highest ranked prospect Jacobsen has ever brought into Cedar Falls and one of the highest ranked recruits in Missouri Valley history. Only Gregg Marshall during Wichita State’s string of dominance brought in players of Green’s caliber, and even he only managed to lure in a few that ranked among the top-100 nationally (Fred Van Vleet is one such example). The bottom-line is while Green’s inconsistencies have hurt the Panther’s offensive efficiency, few players in the MVC possess his combination of size and skill at the lead guard position.

Jordan Lathon (UTEP)

UTEP basketball fans should be writing daily letters to Northwestern’s Admissions Board thanking them for revoking their scholarship offer to Jordan Lathon. Once pegged as the Wildcats’ point guard of the future and heir apparent to Bryant McIntosh, the stunning decision by Northwestern to retract their initial offer to Lathon paved the way for the 4-star recruit to wind up in Rodney Terry’s lap in El Paso.

Lathon’s size and versatility brings about comparisons to Marcus Smart and other guards around the country who fill up the box score in multiple columns – Jordan Goodwin of SLU is one college comp that comes to mind. In a rotation that leans on two other freshmen (Nigel Hawkins and Efe Odigie), Lathon has ascended into an offensive co-captain with sophomore stud Evan Gilyard. Terry is not protecting his inexperienced newcomers whatsoever and is allowing Lathon and the other freshmen to take their lumps early on. 

The early November struggles (see blowout losses to Arizona and New Mexico State) are now starting to pay small dividends – just refer to the Miners showdown with Marquette last week when Lathon went toe-to-toe with All-American candidate Markus Howard in a respectable 7-point loss on the the road:

  • Lathon stats: 36 minutes, 26 points, 6 assists, 1 turnover, 159 O-rating

  • Howard stats: 38 minutes, 21 points, 5 assists, 2 turnover, 108 O-rating

Antoine Davis

After completely overhauling Detroit’s roster this offseason, Mike Davis essentially tossed the keys to the Titans’ offense to Antoine Davis and said, “son, go get us some buckets”…

While a trigger-happy coach’s kid can be a tad bit hairy from a locker room chemistry perspective, it’s hard to find anything wrong with what Davis has done this season. He’s poured in 30 or more points five different times this year, including a 42-point outburst against Loyola MD back on November 19th. Davis has already canned 54 threes this season – tops in the entire country – and has somehow managed to sustain an efficient 44% conversion rate, despite taking an abundance of shots that range from “high” to “ultra-high” on the shot level of difficulty scale. 

Over the past few games, the inevitable regression has started to soak in (Davis went just 2/16 from downtown against Toledo last game), but with a shaky supporting cast around him, don’t expect him to get gun shy anytime soon - Davis is currently taking 40% of his teams shots when he’s on the floor, the 2nd highest clip in the nation.

Lamine Diane
(CS Northridge)

Mark Gottfried is well regarded for allowing his teams to play with unrestricted freedom offensively - perhaps too much freedom - but no player has ever been awarded a greener light than Lamine Diane. Gottfried has a long way to go in resurrecting a forgettable CSUN program, but with a swiss army knife like Diane in his arsenal, the Matadors could play the role of spoiler in an improving Big West this year.

While Diane’s efficiency remains a minor blemish, it’s hard to deny the impact of the following jaw-dropping per game numbers posted thus far: 25 PPG, 11 RPG, 2 APG, 2 BPG & 2 SPG. Diane’s player DNA bears a striking resemblance to Shakur Juiston at UNLV – that is, a wing / forward hybrid, an athletic mid-range slasher, a crafty interior finisher and a hyper-productive glass cleaner all wrapped into one.

Nick Honor (Fordham)

After last season’s turbulence sent the Rams into disarray, Jeff Neubauer has appeared to iron out some of those kinks this year - an impressive feat without Canadian ballhawk Joseph Chartouny at his disposal. Granted, the Rams have feasted on a slew of bottom-feeders in the non-conference slate, but regardless, a 7-2 record deserves a golf-clap level applause in my opinion (eh, perhaps I’m being too kind)

The heady play of Nick Honor at the point has helped the Fordham faithful forget about their prior offensive floor general (Chartouny). Unlike many of the other freshmen lead guards who display brief stints of questionable decision-making, Honor has run the Fordham offense with the maturity of a 5th year senior. Even more impressive is that his solid shooting splits of 53% / 38% / 91% (2 pt / 3 pt / FT) have not been inflated by simple catch-and-shoot shot opportunities. Per, not a single one of Honor’s 2-point jumpers has been assisted on this year and only 27% of his 53 attempts from behind the arc have been set up by a teammate. Honor is striking the optimal balance of getting his own (which he did plenty of in his 30-point explosion against Rutgers), and spraying the rock around to others on offense.

Sincere Carry

With the inexplicable demise of Mike Lewis this season, freshman Sincere Carry has risen to the occasion to keep Keith Dambrot’s rebuilding effort in Pittsburgh on course. The Dukes hold claim to a 6-2 record at the moment and showed they could hang with the big dogs after a competitive showing at Notre Dame over Thanksgiving break. Like most freshman point guards, Carry has coughed up the rock a bit too often, but his outstanding vision and efficient shooting clips from all three levels of the floor has made him a major net asset for Dambrot. Carry’s 2.5 steals a game ranks among the top-20 in the country and 1st among all qualifying freshman.

Jalen Pickett

It’s hard to watch Siena basketball without the cartoon character that was Jimmy Patsos patrolling the sidelines. Patsos has been replaced by mid-major mastermind, Jamion Christian, who worked wonders at his former employer of Mount St. Mary’s. Christian is strapped for talent in his first season in Albany, and has intentionally tried to limit the talent disparity by reducing possessions and slamming on the offensive tempo brakes. This strategic move has also helped slow the game down for one of the MAAC’s future stars, Jalen Pickett, who has become an extension of Christian’s sharp basketball mind on the court for Siena.

At the moment, only Andrew Nembhard, Connor McCaffery, Braden Norris and Jared Bynum are sporting a higher assist to turnover rate than Pickett, but Pickett’s usage rate supersedes all of them. The 6’4 freshman has been an iron man for the Saints, failing to tally 35 minutes only twice this season, and he’s earned’s game MVP honors in 5 of Siena’s 10 games. Despite some early season hiccups and head scratching losses (mostly due to defensive breakdowns), Jamion Christian must sleep well at night knowing his point guard of the future has officially arrived.

Other Notables: Camren Wynter (Drexel), Josh Perez (Gardner Webb), Braden Norris (Oakland) Neftali Alvarez (Fairfield), Jamari Blackmon (North Alabama), Michael Wang (Penn), Neemias Queta (Utah State)