It’s not terribly unusual for freshmen to break into the starting lineup in college basketball, but this season in the Big 12, it’s not just a few and they are making their presence and their playing abilities known, and with an exclamation point.
As many as 10 freshmen newcomers are starting most of the games this season for six Big 12 men’s teams, and a couple of them might just be on their way to the NBA after this season.Two of the best of the Big 12 newcomers – Ben McLemore of Kansas and Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State - were in action against one another on Saturday as Oklahoma State ended Kansas’ 33-game home winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse and handed the Jayhawks their first conference loss after seven straight wins to open league play. It was Oklahoma State’s first win at Allen Fieldhouse since 1989.
The Jayhawks, ranked No. 1 in the country in the USA Today coaches’ poll before Saturday’s loss, have one of the best freshman performers in the country in McLemore, a 6-5 guard from St. Louis. McLemore is the second leading scorer in the Big 12 with a 16.4 scoring average through all games, but the day belonged to Oklahoma State’s sensational freshman Smart on Saturday.
Smart got off to a slow start against the Jayhawks, missing his first three scoring attempts from th field, but got hot in a hurry to finish out the first half with eight of his 25-point total for the game. Aside from his game-high point total, two more than McLemore, Smart also proved to be tenacious on the boards, pulling down nine rebounds, eight of them on the offensive end.
At the end of the game with Kansas, Smart made five clutch free throws with under two minutes to go to help the Cowboys regain the lead after the Jayhawks had gone out in front 66-62 for the first time in the game. Smart seemed to be everywhere, making big plays down the stretch to help his team to the upset victory.
Smart is one of three freshmen in the conference this season in the top 10 in scoring. His 14.2 scoring average ranks eighth in the conference, and he leads the Big 12 in steals with 58, 19 more than another freshman, Josh Gray, a guard at Texas Tech, who is second in the conference in that category.
The Cowboys, who have won four of their last five games in the conference, have another freshman guard, Phil Forte, who has seen much playing time this year, almost 27 minutes a game, mostly as one of the first players off the bench for head coach Travis Ford. Forte is currently second in the Big 12 in made three-pointers with 50
Baylor’s 7-1 first-year center, Isaiah Austin, is tied with Kansas State senior Rodney McGruder for sixth place in the conference in scoring, averaging 14.5 points per game. Austin also ranks second in rebounding with a 9.4 per-game average.
Texas may have the youngest team in the conference. The Longhorns, who are struggling this season with a 9-11 overall record and just 2-6 in the conference, have three freshman who have started most of the games for Texas in 2012-13. Overall Texas has seven freshman and five sophomores on its roster.
Longhorn freshman guard Javon Felix is second in the league in assists (behind Baylor’s standout senior guard Pierre Jackson), averaging almost six per game. Felix also chips in eight points and 3.5 rebounds a game for the Horns. Freshmen Cameron Ridley, a 6-9 center, and Ioannis Papapetrou, a 6-8 forward from Greece, also have logged a lot of minutes for Texas this season. Papapetrou, one of the tallest Longhorns, is also the team’s most efficient three-point shooters, making 42 percent of his trifecta attempts.
Oklahoma also has a couple of freshmen in its starting lineup this season, guards Buddy Hield and Je’lon Hornbeak. Hield is averaging 9.1 points per game and is the second on the team in three-point shots made (18) and free-throw percentage (84 percent). Hornbeak has started all 20 of the Sooners games, and is averaging just over 23 minutes a game at the point-guard position.
For more news, information and complete statistical analysis on Big 12 men’s basketball and insights on all 10 conference teams, be sure to visit Big12Sports.com.