Transfers, freshmen and improving lineups signal good things to come
The change in the calendar isn’t really college basketball’s midpoint, but it is the most logical time for teams to take stock of what they have and turn the page as conference play begins.
Meanwhile, late December is the time of year where a handful of midseason transfers and freshmen become eligible (or ineligible. More on that tomorrow).
While many teams are undoubtedly improving as the season goes a long, a handful can take major steps forward in the coming weeks. Some are because a key freshman is about to enter the lineup or a midseason transfer is able to join the team. Some are younger teams starting to figure out rotations and starting lineups.
We’ve selected nine teams that look like they’re ready to take the next step into the new year.
Teams on the Rise in the New Year
Why: Freshman Chris Walker is eligible
Florida started the season as shorthanded as any team in the country, but that has changed in recent weeks. The Gators enter conference play with point guard Scottie Wilbekin back from suspension for the last seven games. The same goes for Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith, who missed only two games. Freshman point guard Kasey Hill has returned from injury. But the last piece is freshman Chris Walker. Coach Billy Donovan has tried to diminish expectations for a player who was just cleared to practice in December, but Florida is still slated to add an athletic 6-10 McDonald’s All-American sometime early in conference play.
Why: Veterans emerging
The Big 12 is going to be more of a grind than most thought at the start of the season — Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor also have hopes of winning the league, and Texas and Kansas State have surprised in the non-conference schedule. Maybe it’s a good thing Bill Self’s young team has gone through a gauntlet in the non-conference slate. Point guard Naadir Tharpe responded from his brief benching earlier this season to put up 20 points with eight assists against previously undefeated Toledo and 10 points against Georgetown. Memphis transfer Tarik Black emerged to score 17 points in 20 minutes against Georgetown on Dec. 21. Both are great signs for the Big 12 season. And this is still a team with two of the best freshmen in the country in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
Why: Jevon Thomas is eligible
Kansas State has already improved through its non-conference schedule, losing early to Northern Colorado and Charlotte before defeating Ole Miss and Gonzaga in December. Thomas is still working his way into the lineup after returning to practice last week when he became eligible as a midseason transfer. Thomas may become Kansas State’s top point guard by season’s end.
Why: Improvement in the backcourt
Saturday was the day Kentucky fans have been waiting for since the top signing class in college basketball history came together. The Wildcats beat Louisville 73-66 for their signature win of the season, but more important, they started to show what they can do when all the parts are playing together. Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and James Young combined to score 29 of Kentucky’s 32 points in the second half against the Cardinals.
Why: Seth Allen’s return
Maryland might not be an NCAA Tournament team, but the Terrapins at least have hope with the return of point guard Seth Allen from a foot injury on Sunday. Allen gave the Maryland offense an added dimension with three 3-point shots on six attempts in an 85-77 win over Tulsa and had only one turnover to three assists in 21 minutes.
Why: The return of Leslie McDonald
Befitting North Carolina’s up-and-down season, the Tar Heels may well end up on a list of teams on pace to improve and take a step back. The good news: The Tar Heels returned shooting guard Leslie McDonald after he missed nine games with an NCAA-mandated suspension. He’s 10 of 23 from the field and 8 of 17 from 3-point range in his first three games back, but he’s not even the top player Carolina hoped to get back from a suspension. P.J. Hairston’s career appears to be done after the Tar Heels abandoned hope of getting him back this season. Roy Williams will have to hope the finality of the Hairston decision will help his team move on.
Why: Cullen Neal and Deshawn Delaney in the starting lineup
First-year coach Craig Neal drew criticism earlier this season for giving too many minutes to a struggling freshman point guard. The point guard happened to be his son. Cullen Neal, though, has adjusted. He’s started the last three games, including a 24-point outburst in a win over Marquette. Junior college transfer guard Deshawn Delaney entered the starting lineup in the last two games and contributed 10 points and 10 rebounds against Marquette.
Why: Dominic Artis and Ben Carter back from suspension
Oregon has started 12-0 despite missing Artis and Carter for the first nine games during an NCAA-mandated suspension. The Ducks are still working both into the rotation. Artis, the bigger impact player of the two, played only 11 minutes in an overtime win over BYU. Fellow point guard Johnathan Loyd has handled the point guard job just fine. Carter adds a little bit of depth to the forward position, but the Ducks already rank in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage on KenPom.com.
Why: John Johnson eligible
Penn State probably won’t threaten for an NCAA Tournament slot, but the Nittany Lions have the players to be a spoiler in the Big Ten race. Penn State already has high-scoring guards Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill and now adds Pittsburgh transfer John Johnson to the mix. The 6-1 guard from Philadelphia went 8 of 11 from the field for 20 points in his season debut against Mount St. Mary’s on Dec. 22.