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February 20, 2014

Big 12 full of talented freshmen

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When you think about the top freshmen in the Big 12, it's hard not to summon the two big fellas in the post at Kansas: Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins has been the face of not only the Big 12 freshman class but the 2013-14 freshman class. He's got the magazine covers to prove it.

Embiid has stepped onto the national stage from a small school in Gainesville, Fla., and for good reason. It's hard not to let the mind run wild when a player is compared to Hakeem Olajuwon.

Embiid and Wiggins are each long, strong and built to play Dr. Naismith's game at the highest level -- an NBA level. According to DraftExpress.com, Wiggins and Embiid are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 among eligible NBA draft prospects this year. That's why it's tough to look past either one of them and see what is truly a deep Big 12 freshman class.

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Even looking just a little further down that same Jayhawk roster, you'll find Wayne Selden Jr., a man listed among the top 30 NBA-ready players in the world. KU coach Bill Self has a made living in Lawrence, Kan., recruiting these kinds of players and surrounding them with four-year veterans who know what it takes to win.

But the trick to talent evaluation is not to so much identifying the teenagers with a grown man set of skills as it is identifying the teenagers you can build a team around that can compete for successive years.

And sometimes you have to leave the country to find them. Wiggins is from Canada. Embiid is from Cameroon. Buddy Hield is from the Bahamas.

"Basketball is just growing," Self said. "It's becoming more popular everywhere, and kids are playing it at a younger age."

Those players' talents are always immediately known, but sometimes never as easy to see. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger admitted when he first saw Hield in high school he didn't know he'd develop into one of the Sooners' best shooters or that he'd take so many 3-pointers.

"We thought he was going to be a really good slasher scorer," Kruger said. "I think everyone kind of thought he would be a good shooter. He's become a really good shooter. Interestingly, he probably shoots it more and we want him slashing more."

In fact, 50 percent of Hield's shots this season have come from beyond the arc. Last year only 38 percent of his shots came from distance.

Still, Hield has assumed the leading scorer role for the Sooners in only his second year. Most of the on-court leadership though, comes from another underclassman: Jordan Woodard.

Woodard was always going to have to play a lot of minutes for Kruger's squad. The point guard position is where the Sooners are thinnest.M/p>

On a team with only two true post players you wouldn't have been wrong to think how Woodard played would have a great bearing on how OU's season turned out. Turns out, Woodard has been great for the Sooners.

Texas' Isaiah Taylor and he are the only freshmen who rank among the top 10 in the Big 12 in assists per game and free throw shooting.

Woodard continues to be outstanding at earning trips to the free throw line with a free throw rate of 88.9. Only one other freshman in the country ranks ahead of him in the country in free throw rate. This Saturday he'll face another one of those unsung Big 12 freshman ballplayers.

Kansas State guard Marcus Foster is the scoring catalyst on a team that has battled back from a 10-3 nonconference schedule -- with losses to Northern Colorado, Charlotte and a mediocre Georgetown team -- to become one of the squads that has made this league so competitive. In conference play, Foster averages 16.2 points per game and has shot the trey at a 42.1 percent clip.

Not two weeks ago, he dropped 34 points on 13-of-16 shooting on a top 25 Longhorn team. In that same game, Texas freshman Isaiah Taylor scored 17 points.

Taylor, like Woodard, is a classic drive-and-kick point guard. While his assist and free throw numbers aren't quite as good as the Woodard's, there is one stat where Taylor has Woodard beat: wins and losses.

Texas is a game ahead of OU in the Big 12 standings and one of three conference teams already with 20 wins on its tournament resume.

As for Taylor, he's ranked as just the 69th-best freshman in the 2013-14 class according to DraftExpress. Foster is ranked just behind him at No. 70, and Woodard isn't mentioned among the top 100 freshmen in the class.

With five games still to play, the regular season conference title is still the Jayhawks' to lose. But it speaks to the future of the league that three of the four teams within three games of KU's lead depend heavily on freshmen who in all likelihood won't be playing NBA basketball next year.



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