College basketball freshman of the year: Bennett, McLemore, Smart enter the debate

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With Nerlens Noel hurt, freshmen from Kansas, Oklahoma State and UNLV step to the forefront

<p> College basketball freshman of the year: Bennett, McLemore, Smart enter the debate</p>

Like just about everything else this college basketball season, the National Freshman of the Year race is a bit of a mess.

A week ago, Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel could have been considered a frontrunner, not only for the top freshman, but also the National Defensive Player of the Year. His season-ending injury likely takes him out of the running.

The race for Freshman of the Year has fewer contenders now, but the debate is no less settled. For now, three appear to be the frontrunners -- UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, Kansas’ Ben McLemore and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart.

With McLemore and Smart facing each other tonight in Stillwater, a rematch from a game Oklahoma State won on Feb. 2, Athlon Sports decided to take a look at all three.

NATIONAL FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR - WHO IS THE LEADER?

ANTHONY BENNETT, UNLV
The case for Bennett: Bennett is second in the Mountain West in scoring at 18 points per game and fifth and rebounding at 8.7 per game. In key wins over New Mexico and San Diego State in the last two weeks, Bennett had a double-double in each, his ninth and 10th double-doubles of the season. His 12 20-point games leads the conference.

The case against Bennett: UNLV has underachieved in Mountain West play, going 6-5 in the league. Bennett hasn’t been the only reason for those struggles, but he scored fewer than 10 points in losses to Air Force and Colorado State and shot 5 of 16 in a loss to an 8-16 Fresno State team. Of Bennett’s 10 double-doubles this season, only three have come in Mountain West play.

BEN McLEMORE, KANSAS
The case for McLemore: Before the season started, few talked about Kansas as a national title contender. McLemore’s emergence as a redshirt freshman powered a 19-1 start. The 6-foot-5 guard has scored in double figures in all but two games this season, both of which Kansas won easily. He’s capable of flash like a 360-degree dunk on Texas, but he’s also an 87.1 percent free throw shooter. He’s been the fastest riser on NBA Draft boards this season and may end up being the No. 1 overall pick.

The case against McLemore: Kansas slipped in a three-game losing streak to start February. McLemore wasn’t awful during that stretch, but he was 6 of 16 from the field and 0 of 6 from three-point range in an embarrassing loss to TCU. He lost in a head-to-head meeting with Marcus Smart on Feb. 2, but he finished with 23 points and five rebounds that day.

MARCUS SMART, OKLAHOMA STATE
The case for Smart: Smart has transformed the Oklahoma State season. The all-effort point guard is among the Big 12 leaders in scoring, assists, rebounds and steals. During Oklahoma State’s seven-game winning streak, he’s averaging 19.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists. In the head-to-head matchup against McLemore and Kansas, Smart had 25 points and nine rebounds

The case against Smart: Oklahoma State wasn’t the same team early in the season as it is now, starting 12-5. In losses, Smart scored 23 points against Gonzaga and 25 against Kansas State. His worst game of the season was a 10-point, 3-of-10 effort in a loss to Oklahoma. Unlike Bennett and McLemore, Smart is not the leading scorer on his own team, but he is the best facilitator -- by far -- of anyone in the group.

Stats from Statsheet.com, including a side-by-side comparison of all three.

COMPARISON: BASIC STATS

  Bennett McLemore Smart
Points per game 17.9 16.7  15.0
Rebounds per game 8.7 5.5 5.8
Assists per game 1.1 1.9 4.5
Field goal percentage 53.9 51.1 41.6
Free throw percentage 70.7 87.1 77.6
Steals per game 0.8 1.2  2.9
Blocks per game 1.2  0.9 0.8

Notes: It's not a surprise to see Bennett, the power forward, with the biggest edge in rebounding over the two guards. Neither is it a surprise to see Smart, the point guard, with the edge in assists. What sticks out here is McLemore’s overall efficiency -- 51.1 percent from the field is outstanding for a guard, and 87.1 percent from the line is outstanding for anybody.

COMPARISON: ADVANCED STATS

  Bennett McLemore Smart
Points per 40 minutes 25.8 21.1 18.2
Points per FG attempt 1.52   1.52 1.37
Effective FG % 58.6 60.0 50.8
True shooting % 61.5 64.7 54.5
Plus/minus per game +8.2 +12.2 +10.8

Notes: Bennett gets a major bump in points per 40 minutes since he averages the fewest minutes per game. Bennett averages fewer than 28 per game while Smart averages nearly 33 and McLemore averages 31.5. McLemore’s advantage in the efficiency numbers shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, either. Effective field goal percentage is designed to give added weight to better three-point shooters, and McLemore is the best in that area. The same goes for true shooting percentage, which takes into account efficiency from both the three-point line and free throw line. Although Smart is often referred to as the most valuable freshman, McLemore leads the trio in plus/minus per game (the difference between points scored and points allowed while a given player is on the court). Kansas has the best record of the three teams and  has an edge over Oklahoma State in points allowed and points scored as a team.

COMPARISON: “TOP” CONFERENCE COMPETITION
Is anyone padding numbers? For McLemore and Smart, we removed TCU, Texas Tech, Texas and West Virginia from their Big 12 averages. For sake of comparison, we removed Fresno State, Nevada and Wyoming from Bennett’s numbers in Mountain West play:

  Bennett McLemore Smart
Points per game  15.4 21.0 19.3
Rebounds per game 8.5 5.4 6.7
Assists per game 0.9 1.3 4.7
Team record 4-4 5-2 4-3

Notes: This is a sort of-arbitrary and sort of-sensible way to look at the three candidates by measuring their impact in the toughest conference games. These numbers disregard UNLV’s loss to Fresno State and Kansas’ loss to TCU, two major losses that are part of the picture. It also doesn’t count McLemore’s games against NCAA contenders Michigan State, Saint Louis, Colorado, Belmont, Ohio State and Temple. Kansas scheduled the toughest early in the season, so McLemore deserves credit for his role in the 12-1 nonconference record in addition to scoring 21 points per game against Big 12 Tourney contenders. These numbers, though, underscore how valuable Smart has been in the Big 12 race. His scoring average against the Big 12’s best teams is four points per game better than his overall scoring average, and that doesn’t get to his stat-sheet stuffing prowess in rebounds and assists. Bennett’s numbers, however, declined against the top teams in the Mountain West.

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