Notice all the kids running around college basketball lately? Notice all the freshmen? They have been impossible to miss, and the sheer tonnage of their production is one of the themes of this season.
But this is not about body of work. This is about moments. Their best moments so far, as March beckons. Limit of one per phenom, please.
Malik Monk, Kentucky
This is an easy one. Hard to beat putting 47 points on North Carolina, the most any individual had scored against the Tar Heels since 1952. The game was in Las Vegas and Monk hit the jackpot in his 11th start in college.
He had 27 points the first half, only two turnovers in 38 minutes, hit 18 of 28 shots, and delivered the decisive 3-pointer with 16.7 seconds left in a 103-100 shootout. “Like a pick-up game, that’s what it felt like to me,” he said afterward.
Markelle Fultz, Washington
The top scoring freshman in the country – and the Pac-12’s leading scorer by nearly five points a game -- got that way by going for 34, 37 and 30 over a three-game stretch in January. Which one to pick? The 37-pointer against Colorado, when he added eight assists, five rebounds and three blocks, leading a rally from 17 points back to an 85-83 overtime win. Times being what they are for the 9-18 Huskies, any victory is appreciated. They’ve lost nine in a row since then.
Honorable mention goes to the Washington State game, when Fultz missed by one rebound of getting the first triple double in the 115-plus years of Washington basketball.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
The most impressive stat line would be the 24 points, six rebounds and eight assists in the loss to Arizona. But for sheer impact, consider the 19-point comeback to beat Oregon, 82-79 in Westwood. Ball had 15 points, 11 rebounds and a crucial late 3-point dagger that he fired up from Santa Monica. Plus, when Oregon star Dillon Brooks had to be stopped in second half, Ball got the assignment. Brooks went 0-for-5 the last 15 minutes.
“That’s who Lonzo is,” coach Steve Alford said. “He figures out how to win games.”
TJ Leaf, UCLA
Ball’s fellow freshman was a beacon in the win at Kentucky, with 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Take that, Rupp Arena. But he was nearly unstoppable at Washington State, hitting 14 of 18 shots for 32 points, to go with 14 rebounds. Teammate Thomas Welsh: “He’s a guy that can do that on a nightly basis.”
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
One of the Spartans’ woes this season of struggle was not having Bridges for seven games because of an ankle injury. Look at what he could do on two good legs. He broke a 34-year-old freshman school record with 33 points at Purdue, to go with seven rebounds and four blocked shots. Alas, Michigan State lost anyway, 84-73.
“The last guy I’m worried about on my team is Miles Bridges,” Tom Izzo said afterward. “He’s not overrated. He’s one of the most special players I’ve ever had because he’s learning how to compete, he’s learning how to be, maybe, as versatile as anybody.
“It’s sad that he has a night like that and we don’t win the game.”
Dennis Smith Jr., NC State
So which of his two triple-doubles to choose, at a school that only had one in history before he showed up? How about neither? Top of the list has to be going into Cameron Indoor Stadium, scoring 32 points, hitting four of six 3-pointers, handing out six assists in the second half, accounting for his team’s last 16 points with either a shot or a pass, and, all in all, being a major Blue Devil pain. “Dennis,” Duke’s Frank Jackson said, “is scary.” The Wolfpack brightened an otherwise difficult season with an 84-82 victory, their first at Duke in 22 years.
“He is a fierce competitor and he wants to win every time,” coach Mark Gottfried said. “The fact that we’ve lost some games has hurt him bad.”
Jayson Tatum, Duke
Anytime a freshman can score 19 points in the second half to help win his first North Carolina game, that’s big. But only first runner-up on this list. That’s because of the 28 points and the six 3-pointers in seven attempts he hit against Virginia, three times sinking a 3 just as the shot clock expired. “I mean, jiminy Christmas, it’s why we won for crying out loud,” Mike Krzyzewski said of Tatum’s performance.
Bonus points to Tatum, for moving Coach K to use the phrase “jiminy Christmas” in a postgame interview.
Justin Patton, Creighton
There’s something exhilarating, watching a seven-footer bury a 3-point shot. Patton did that against St. John’s, not to mention scoring 25 points with nine rebounds and four assists, hitting 11 of his 14 shots. But then, that’s standard operating procedure for a guy whose 70-percent field goal shooting will break the NCAA freshman record if it is still there at the end.
“He reminds me of Marcus Camby,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “Especially tonight, he looked all-NBA.”
Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett, St. John’s
They come at opponents in tandem, each averaging 17.2 points a game. Ponds was loudest in the 76-73 upset of Butler, with 19 of his 26 points in the second half, and four free throws in the final seconds to snuff out the Bulldogs’ comeback bid. LoVett went 10-for-14 for 32 points at Xavier.
“They’re a handful,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said of the two. “And they are going to be that way for a number of years.”
Josh Jackson, Kansas
When national player of the year candidate Frank Mason III was sick and in foul trouble at Texas Tech, what were the Jayhawks to do? “We kind of exchanged roles,” coach Bill Self said. “And Josh became our Frank down the stretch.”
He was pretty good at it too, accounting for the last seven Kansas points to give him 31 in 40 minutes, hitting 12 of 15 shots, getting 11 rebounds, and winning the game 80-79 with a free throw with 2.8 seconds left. Then, he went back to being Josh Jackson, which ain’t bad, either.
Markus Howard, Marquette
How much mischief can a 5-11 freshman cause? Plenty, when he’s on fire from the 3-point line, hitting nine of 12. That’s how Howard scored 34 points in an 83-61 romp over Xavier.
“One of the better shooting performance I’ve ever seen,” coach Steve Wojciechowski called it. And he spent a long time at Duke. “I’ve been fortunate to be sitting on the bench to watch a few of them.”
Josh Okogie, Georgia TechHe scored 38 points against Tulane in his fifth college game. He slipped behind Notre Dame’s defense to beat the Irish with a layup at the buzzer. He put up 26 against North Carolina, All worthy candidates. But not as worthy as the night he scored 35 points with 14 rebounds to help rout Florida State.
“He was as focused,” Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton said “as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
It came down to whether he could get the 10th assist. Time was running short. “Malik (Monk) made a tough shot at the end and he got my triple-double,” Fox said. “My mom told me to tell him thanks.”
Jonathan Isaac, Florida StateTo go 5-1 through the ACC shark tank that presented them with six consecutive ranked opponents, the Seminoles needed something special. Special is what Isaac was, especially against Notre Dame, with 23 points (on 7-for-9 shooting), 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots.
Lauri Markkanen, ArizonaHe leads his lineup in scoring, rebounding and 3-point percentage, and the only other freshman in the country who can say that is 2,500 miles away, and Miye Oni at Yale. Statistically, his big moment was 30 points against Arizona State. But maybe more significant was the trip to USC, when he scored 23 points, went 5-for-6 from the 3-point line, and shut down a Trojans rally with a 3-pointer. None of which you often say about a 7-footer from Finland.