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Andy Wittry | | October 29, 2020

6 college basketball freshmen who could be BIG difference-makers this season

Andy Katz makes his first 2021 NCAA bracket prediction for March Madness

In the last three seasons, there have been four consensus First Team or Second Team All-Americans who were freshmen at Duke. Arizona, Kentucky and UCLA have each had a player earn such an honor in the last half-decade, which isn't a surprise for fans of men's college basketball.

Those are schools that consistently enroll elite freshman talent.

But what happens when a school enrolls one of the most talented freshmen it has ever had? We'll find out this season.

There are several freshmen who potentially represent the most talented freshman their school has had in a decade or two, if not ever. Here are some freshmen who represent potentially all-time difference-makers for their programs.

Makur Maker, Howard

How much did Howard benefit from the commitment of Maker over the summer? Well, the Bison jumped nearly 100 spots in advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy's preseason ratings for the 2020-21 season. For reference, there will be 357 Division I men's basketball teams this season, so Pomeroy's preseason ratings elevated Harvard from one of the 10 worst teams in the country to a team on the level of a low-end Atlantic 10 squad.

Maker is listed at 6-11 and 235 pounds, and he chose Howard over the likes of Alabama, Kentucky, Memphis and Oregon. He's arguably the most talented player in the MEAC from the minute he steps foot on campus and his addition to the Bison's roster might make Howard the team to beat in the conference.

Howard has some considerable size, in addition to Maker, with 6-11 center Cam Timmons, 6-10 forward William Settle, 6-10 center Liwayne Richardson, 6-9 forward Jordan Wood, 6-7 forward Christian Johnson, 6-6 forward Sam Green, 6-6 guard Wayne Bristol Jr., 6-5 guard Kyle Foster, 6-5 guard Spencer Hayes and 6-4 guard Isaac Suffren, but on a big roster, Maker's contributions should be especially big.

Howard hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1992 — eight years before Maker was born. Thanks to a generational talent, the Bison might be able to make a generational postseason run. At the very least, with Maker, Howard should finish above .500 — something it hasn't done since 2002.

Catalina Fragoso | USA Today Sports Images Cade Cunningham.

Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

Cunningham, a 6-6 guard, might be the best freshman in the country this season. After an offseason in which nine of the 10 consensus First Team and Second Team All-Americans turned professional, Oklahoma State's talented frosh could play his way onto one of those teams next spring.

He's potentially the best player the Cowboys have ever enrolled. Marcus Smart (2012), LeBryan Nash (2011) and Gerald Green (2005) preceded Cunningham.

Smart, now of Boston Celtics fame, was the Big 12 Player of the Year, USBWA National Freshman of the Year in 2013 and a consensus Second Team All-American as a freshman, and if Cunningham is better in his first year in Stillwater, he could be in the National Player of the Year conversation.

Cunningham will be joined in Oklahoma State's backcourt by another talented freshman, Rondel Walker, and the Cowboys return junior guard Isaac Likelele, who's the team's leading returning scorer at 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.

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Mark J. Rebilas | USA TODAY Sports Images Ziaire Williams.

Ziaire Williams, Stanford

It might be unfair to talk about the last time that Stanford enrolled a freshman as talented as Williams because the last time it did, it enrolled two freshmen of that caliber. That was in 2006, when Stanford added 14 feet and 530 pounds of human, otherwise known as the Lopez twins — Brook and Robin.

Fourteen years later, the Cardinal have landed the 6-7 forward Williams out of Sierra Canyon. The McDonald's All-American chose Stanford over the likes of Arizona, North Carolina and USC. 

Last season, Stanford's defensive efficiency ranked seventh nationally and the Cardinal ranked first in the Pac-12 in effective field goal percentage and 2-point percentage. Now the Cardinal adds arguably its best freshman ever.

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Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

Gonzaga has made the last 21 NCAA tournaments, it has earned a No. 1 seed in three of the last seven, and the Bulldogs have reached No. 1 in the AP poll in three of the last four seasons. One of the most impressive parts about the rise of the 'Zags is that Mark Few has built and developed his roster through international recruiting, transfers and redshirt seasons.

So, what happens when an elite program that makes it a habit of landing some of the best transfers and producing breakout players almost annually also adds one of the best freshmen in the country? We'll find out this season.

Suggs, a 6-5 guard from Minneapolis, might be the best freshman to ever attend Gonzaga. The previous player to hold that title, Zach Collins, helped Gonzaga reach the 2017 national championship game, and the Bulldogs were so talented that season that Collins didn't start once and only played 17.3 minutes per game. But Collins's per-40 minute numbers were the best on the team among rotation players: 23.2 points, 13.7 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per 40.

The 2020-21 'Zags return forward Corey Kispert, who averaged 13.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, and guard Joel Ayayi (10.6 points, 6.3 rebounds). Expect another breakout player to develop at Gonzaga — maybe forward Drew Timme (9.8 ppg and 5.4 rpg)? — and throw Suggs into the mix and you have a serious March Madness contender.

Caleb Murphy, South Florida

There's an argument to be made that the most talented freshman in South Florida's program history didn't even finish his career with the Bulls. Center John Egbunu, who enrolled at South Florida in 2013, was a regular starter for the Bulls as a freshman before transferring to Florida, where his college career ended with a Gators team that made the Elite Eight in 2017.

Murphy, a 6-2 combo guard, chose South Florida over offers from Arkansas, Clemson, Florida and Georgia, among others. He represents a high-level talent that the Bulls haven't seen since Egbunu, who didn't realize his full potential in Tampa. He could complete a talented backcourt that also includes seniors David Collins (13.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Justin Brown (9.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

Andrej Jakimovski, Washington State

It has been 12 years since Washington State enrolled a freshman arguably more talented than Jakimovski. That was back in 2008, when a 39-year-old coach named Tony Bennett — ever heard of him? — enrolled a shooting guard named Klay Thompson. Thompson's freshman class also included Michael Harthun, another talented guard.

However, the Bennett-Thompson duo never realized its full potential as Bennett became the head coach at Virginia after Thompson's freshman season.

Jakimovski is a 6-7 small forward who chose Washington State over the likes of Boston College, Davidson, Georgia Tech and Minnesota, among others.

The Cougars went 16-16 under first-year head coach Kyle Smith, who will have one of the best freshmen in program history at his disposal in Year Two.

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