What’s experience got to do with it, anyways?For some teams, a rise to the top of the conference is a slow build, with players improving gradually until they are ready to lead their squads as upperclassmen.
But others skip that process and instead interject some extremely talented players into the top of the rotation immediately.
Here are seven of the best freshmen duos around the nation this season:
Lauri Markkanen and Rawle Alkins | Arizona
Combined stats: 29.0 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 SPG, 47.0 FG%Markkanen has been the main man for Sean Miller this year, leading the Wildcats in points and rebounds per game. The 7-footer has a remarkable shooting stroke for his size — or for any size, really — cashing in on 48.9 percent of his 3-point attempts this year.
The Finland native is complemented in the backcourt by Alkins, a 6-foot-5 guard out of New York. Alkins is second on the team with 12.0 points per game while hovering around the top in rebounds, assists and steals. His inexperience is a little more on display than Markkanen’s with two turnovers per night, but he has been a major part of a deep rotation that has five double-digit scorers.
Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson | Duke
Combined stats: 27.9 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.5 SPG, 43.6 FG%
Many Duke fans probably hoped it would be Tatum and Harry Giles making the fab freshmen waves, but unfortunately preseason knee surgery has limited Giles to just seven games so far this year. Nonetheless, Jackson has been great as well, and a healthy Blue Devils team could be a frightening draw in the tournament.
Tatum and Jackson are each among Duke’s five scorers averaging double figures, with Tatum ranking second on the team with 16.8 per game. He missed the first eight games to start his college career with a foot injury, but he hasn’t missed a beat since returning. The forward has chipped in 6.6 rebounds and a block and a half per game in his 10 games this season.
Meanwhile, Jackson has been running the point for the Blue Devils after coming over from his hometown of Alpine, Utah. He’s only averaging 1.5 assists per game, but he’s done a tremendous job of protecting the ball with just 21 turnovers in 17 contests.
Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox | Kentucky
Combined stats: 38.1 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, 2.8 SPG, 49.0 FG%
It should come to the surprise of absolutely nobody that John Calipari has some remarkable freshmen on his roster, but Monk and Fox are a special pair.
Monk is in the top 20 nationally with 21.4 points per game, doing it at an extremely efficient 50 percent clip. He still holds the national season-high of 47 points, which everyone should remember from his tremendous performance in Las Vegas against North Carolina that was capped off with a game-winning 3-pointer.
While Monk’s primary contribution has been scoring, Fox has done all that and plenty more. In addition to being second on the Wildcats with 16.7 points per contest, he has 6.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game to make him one of the most well-rounded players in the country. He is a paltry 5-of-37 from beyond the arc, so he certainly still has room to improve.
Michael and Marcus Weathers | Miami (Ohio)
Combined stats: 26.9 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 5.9 APG, 2.6 SPG, 46.6 FG%
Often one of the biggest challenges rookies face is developing chemistry with players they have no experience with. Well, problem solved when two of the RedHawks’ best players have been together for all but the first few minutes of their lives.
What’s interesting about the twins from Roeland Park, Kansas, is how different their games are, and as such they bring multiple dimensions to John Cooper’s team. Marcus is three inches taller than Michael at 6-foot-5, and he uses the extra size to crash the boards (5.3 rebounds per game) and open up space to shoot (43.5 percent from 3-point range).
Michael, on the other hand, is the more traditional point guard at 6-foot-2, and he puts his quickness and ball-handling to great use. Michael is leading the team by a good margin in points per game with 17.8 and assists with 5.3, while also making his mark on defense with a team-high 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. His 4.3-turnover average is certainly a point of concern and will be the thing he needs to work on the most moving forward, but Michael has been a do-it-all weapon for Miami, allowing Marcus to fill in the gaps.
Miles Bridges and Nick Ward | Michigan State
Combined stats: 28.8 PPG, 14.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 3.8 BPG, 54.8 FG%Bridges gets the fanfare for his pure scoring abilities and high-flying dunks, but Ward has been hanging right with him all year. The two forwards are the Spartans’ leaders in points and rebounds, with each shooting over 50 percent from the field.
This year has been an adjustment for Tom Izzo’s squad, as the usually veteran bunch is seeing a lot of fresh faces. In addition to Bridges and Ward, the team’s assist leader, Cassius Winston, is also a rookie.
Bridges missed seven games with an ankle injury but leads the team with 15.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, while Ward is right behind him with 13.3 points and 6.5 boards despite averaging a little under 20 minutes. The two also lead the way with Ward’s 2.2 blocks per game to go with Bridges’ 1.6, and Ward is shooting 58.8 percent overall to Bridges’ 50.4. Neither are good at the line, though, so that could be a factor in deciding the outcome of the Spartans’ season down the stretch.
Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins | Penn State
Combined stats: 21.9 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 2.3 APG, 3.4 BPG, 50.0 FG%The Nittany Lions are a gritty bunch this season with no huge standouts but a solid sum of their parts. Five players average between 9.9 and 12.6 points per game, including the two freshmen Stevens and Watkins.
Watkins, a 6-foot-9 forward out of Philadelphia, has been one of the more unheralded big men in the Big Ten this year. He’s averaging close to a double-double at 9.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per night, doing it all at a nice 55.6 percent shooting rate. On the other end of the floor, his 2.7 blocks per game rank 14th in the country.
Stevens is second to Watkins in rebounds, averaging 5.8, while ranking second on the team with 12.0 points per game. He’s shooting 45.7 percent from the floor and 83.3 percent at the line, and he show maturity and composure by hitting two free throws with a few seconds left to tie Thursday’s game against Indiana (though Penn State fell shortly after on a buzzer-beater).
Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf | UCLA
Combined stats: 31.3 PPG, 14.6 RPG, 11.1 APG, 2.6 SPG, 59.2 FG%
Ball and Leaf versus Kentucky’s Monk and Fox is a fun debate, one that could very well be settled the old-fashioned way in Phoenix for the Final Four. Regardless of which pair has the edge, the UCLA teammates have done some amazing things this year.
Leaf is shooting 64.2 percent from the field this year, the sixth-highest mark in the nation. And unlike some of the giants who score the majority of their points within an arm’s reach of the basket, the 6-foot-10 forward has been doing it all over the court, hitting just over half of his 3-point attempts this year. He also leads the Bruins with 9.0 rebounds per game. Leaf’s Achilles’ heel has been at the charity stripe, where he is shooting just 60.7 percent. If he can get some rhythm there before March, he and the Bruins could be incredibly difficult to stop.
Ball, who possesses outstanding handles for a 6-foot-6 point guard, is second in the nation with 8.2 assists per game. He also averages 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals and is making well over half his shots at 53.2 percent. His 43.1 percent mark from long distance is also a nice asset despite his somewhat funky shooting mechanics.