"If Khris Middleton can just hit a shot or two, he will break out and become a stud, the kid has it all."
-- Mark Turgeon, before Texas A&M vs. Kansas State last season. Middleton hit a jumper that night, steadily hit more as the season progressed, and now he is a first team All-Big 12 performer.
"Starting to come together Pepper, starting to come together."
-- Manager Lou Brown from the movie "Major League"
Ask anyone about their first year in college and usually it is the worst of the "best four years of my life." Whether you are stuck in a dorm with someone with B.O., stuck with a frat big bro who is merciless, or just stuck at a school in which you feel miscast, outcast and maybe a little homesick, first-year students often struggle. Now imagine you are going through at least some of the same issues on and off the floor. Additionally, your body is maturing, you have started to add strength in a weight program and you are practicing and playing harder than you ever have in your life.
The result: freshmen do not hit shots. Tried and true, generally the game is a bit fast, thus their rhythm is slightly off; and when your rhythm is off, so too is your jumper. Even good shooters find that fewer minutes and fewer shots combined with less familiarity breeds poorer play than most freshmen expect of themselves. Add in today's one-and-done culture and players put way too much pressure on themselves to produce early at an efficient rate.
While Harrison Barnes has not, as of yet, lived up to the massive hype placed on him before he landed at UNC, his numbers should continue to climb in efficiency, if not in raw points. In fact, there are players in nearly every league that are quietly -- in some cases not so quietly -- hitting their stride in January. And we may be too slow to come around to their explosion as their overall averages do not say "great year," but their recent production is changing scouting reports.
Here are seven players playing at a much higher level now than earlier in the season. Forget their averages, they are blowing up as they are starting to make plays and shots. Obviously I left Terrence Jones and the Kentucky guys off the list since they have gotten minutes and shots from the get go.
Aaron Craft, Ohio State. Jared Sullinger is getting the pub in Columbus, but Craft is quietly taking over this team. He has played more than 30 minutes in five of their last six games and scored in double figures in three of the last four -- including a stellar 19 points and 7 assist game against Penn State where he frustrated Talor Battle into a 1 of 10 shooting night. Craft is a huge key for the No. 1 team in the country. He did have a freshman-like setback against Iowa, but Big Ten coaches continue to be effusive in their praise of the Findlay, Ohio frosh.
J.P. Olukemi, Oklahoma State. JPO is not a frosh, but a junior college transfer (sophomore) who finally got his first start against Iowa State and blew up with 29 points. "Thank goodness for the altitude getting to him, because we could not guard him," said Tad Boyle, who survived the Cowboys despite JPO's 21 points and 4 boards last Saturday in Boulder. Olukemi has had double figures in eight of nine games and should start putting up big numbers with more minutes. It is not crazy to think he could be a one-and-done with his length and athleticism.
Allen Crabbe, Cal. The Bears are better without Gary Franklin, and not just because Franklin took a lot of questionable shots, but because Crabbe is more relaxed and getting more minutes and shots without his fellow frosh around. After Franklin left, Crabbe, who has started all season, has put up 17, 17, 30, 16 and 17 points, including the game-tying 3 before losing at UCLA. Last year's California Gatorade POY might not make it to postseason play this year, but he may end up having the best year of any frosh on the west coast.
Jeremy Lamb, UConn. He had 14 against Villanova and some inside the program feel that Lamb will soon be the second option that Kemba Walker so readily needs. Lamb has the shooting touch and the transition game to blend with Walker, though he has been overshadowed by Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith at times.
Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State. He is huge with a soft touch and his skill set is very developed. His matchup on Saturday with Trey Thompkins is a great litmus test for where Sidney is against a potential first-round draft pick.
Perry Jones, Baylor. It's true that his team (along with Kansas State and Virginia Tech) might be the biggest disappointments this season, but Jones is starting to get his game together. He still looks lost against a zone and in the Baylor zone, but his ball handling, passing and mid-range scoring are starting to come together. Jones has had 20 or more points in three of the Bears' first four Big 12 games.
Phil Pressey, Missouri. He looked completely and totally overmatched early in the year. But recently with his Michael Jackson of MU look (a broken bone in his hand has made him wear a cast fashioned like a weight lifting glove), Pressey has regained his confidence and had 16 and 13 points in his last two games.