College hoops primer: Top freshmen to watch, Final Four favorites and sleepers

Krysten Peek
·8 min read

The college basketball season is here despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a few coaches have already tested positive for COVID-19. But games are still scheduled to go on with strict guidelines and plans are already being put in place for a “bubble-like” NCAA tournament in March. There are a number of star freshmen players to keep an eye on with the 2021 NBA draft being the deepest and most talented class in recent memory. Baylor returned almost its entire team from last year and is an early Final Four favorite along with Villanova and Gonzaga.

Here’s a look at the top freshmen players to watch and early Final Four favorites and sleepers.

Top freshmen players

Cade Cunningham

Ht./Wt.: 6-8, 220

School: Oklahoma State

Cunningham is the projected top pick in the 2021 NBA draft and chose to stay at Oklahoma State despite the postseason ban enforced by the NCAA due to past recruiting violations. Cunningham is a 6-foot-8 point guard who can score at all three levels. He’s a great facilitator and can play above the rim. Cunningham is the only freshman named to the AP Preseason All-American team and was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year his senior year at Montverde Academy.

Evan Mobley

Ht./Wt.: 7-0, 210

School: USC

USC lost a piece of the frontcourt after Onyeka Okongwu went No. 6 in the draft to the Atlanta Hawks but gained another great rim protector in Mobley. The 7-foot center has a 7-foot-5 wingspan and was a top-five recruit coming out of high school. His older brother, Isaiah, also plays for the Trojans and fans should expect a tall lineup with both Mobley brothers capable of handling the ball. Evan Mobley has a solid pick-and-pop game and could be one of the best players in the Pac-12 this year.

Scottie Barnes

Ht./Wt.: 6-9, 220

School: Florida State

Head coach Leonard Hamilton just had two players picked in the lottery of the 2020 NBA draft and could have another lottery pick next year in Barnes. He can play multiple positions and is one of the most exciting players to watch on the court. Barnes was named a McDonald’s All-American last season and is extremely athletic for a player his size.

Ziaire Williams

Ht./Wt.: 6-8, 185

School: Stanford

Williams has the size and length of a modern-day NBA wing and has the consistent jump shot to go along with it. Williams played his senior year at Sierra Canyon High School outside of Los Angeles where he averaged 15 points and eight rebounds per game. He has a strong handle for his size and a solid first step off the wing.

Jalen Johnson

Ht./Wt.: 6-9, 220

School: Duke

Johnson’s early NBA comp is former Duke wing and current Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum. He is a great passer in the lane and can guard multiple positions on defense thanks to his size and speed. His shooting mechanics are top notch and he can extend his shot past the 3-point line. Johnson will be the go-to player on offense for Duke’s young team filled with mostly freshmen and sophomores.

Greg Brown

Ht./Wt.: 6-9, 205

Brown is a super bouncy forward who first started dunking in sixth grade. He chose Texas over the loaded G League Ignite team and has put on some muscle since his high school season. Brown was listed at 6-foot-8 and 190 pounds as a high school senior and has since grown an inch and added 15 pounds. Brown might be the most exciting player in the open court due to his high-flying dunks and he’s definitely a player to watch this season.

B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke

School: Kentucky

Coach Calipari is known to reload with five-star talent year after year and he’s done it again this season with Boston and Clarke. Boston is listed at 6-foot-6, 185 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He has a solid 3-point jump shot and will knock it down from all over the court. Clarke’s measurements are almost identical to Boston’s, as he’s listed at 6-foot-6, 194 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He loves to get downhill and finish at the rim and isn’t afraid of drawing contact when finishing in the lane. Both players are a little bit on the raw side and it will be interesting to see how their skills develop and grow during this one season at Kentucky.

Brandon Boston, Jr. of Sierra Canyon Trailblazers shoots the ball against the Minnehaha Academy Red Hawks during a game on Jan. 04, 2020. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Brandon Boston, Jr. of Sierra Canyon Trailblazers shoots the ball against the Minnehaha Academy Red Hawks during a game on Jan. 04, 2020. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer

School: Tennessee

After a mediocre season last year finishing 17-14 (9-9 in the SEC), Tennessee has added some speed and two playmakers to the backcourt. Springer is a point guard listed at 6-foot-4, 204 pounds and has a killer crossover. Johnson is more of an under-the-radar prospect who is a 6-foot-5, 186 pound combo guard. He was the top-rated recruit in the state of Tennessee and is already on NBA scouts’ radar due to a breakout performance at the USA Basketball training camp in October 2019.

Final Four favorites

Gonzaga Bulldogs

This could be the year head coach Mark Few finally wins a national championship. There is a ton of talent on this Gonzaga team. Senior Corey Kispert led the Zags in 3-point field goals made (78) and shot 43.8 percent from the 3-point line last season. Gonzaga has added Jalen Suggs, a projected lottery pick in the 2021 draft and Gonzaga’s highest-rated recruit ever, and top-50 recruits Julian Strawther and Dominick Harris to the backcourt. Sophomore Drew Timme is a force in the post and Joel Ayayi is back after testing the waters in the pre-draft process. That is a ton of talent on one roster and if Few and his coaching staff can make all these pieces work on the court, Gonzaga is going to be tough to beat not only in the WCC but also in the NCAA tournament.

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert (24) shoots the basketball against Saint Mary's Gaels forward Kyle Bowen (14) during a game on March 10. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert (24) shoots the basketball against Saint Mary's Gaels forward Kyle Bowen (14) during a game on March 10. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Villanova Wildcats

The Wildcats have won two of the last four NCAA tournaments and the only player Villanova lost to the NBA from last season was Saddiq Bey. That means that point guard Collin Gillespie is back and Justin Moore is expected to see a lot of minutes this year. Sophomore Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is one of the best forwards in the Big East and could have a breakout season. Cole Swider, Jermaine Samuels and Bryan Antoine round out an experienced Wildcats team that is one of the favorites to win the national championship in Las Vegas at +900, per BetMGM.

Baylor Bears

Jared Butler and MaCio Teague both opted to return to Baylor after testing the NBA waters last season and that was great news for Scott Drew and his staff. Butler was a Wooden Award finalist, averaging 16 points and 3.1 assists per game, while Teague added 14 points per game and shot 40 percent from the field. Forward Mark Vital might be the best defender and rebounder in college hoops despite his 6-foot-5 frame and this group has already proven it can win a lot of games after finishing 26-4 last season.

Baylor Bears guard Jared Butler (12) greets Mark Vital (11) and MaCio Teague (31) on the court during a game on Dec. 3, 2019. (Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports)
Baylor Bears guard Jared Butler (12) greets Mark Vital (11) and MaCio Teague (31) on the court during a game on Dec. 3, 2019. (Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports)

Iowa Hawkeyes

Luka Garza is the frontrunner for Naismith Player of the Year and this Iowa team has all the talent to make a deep run this season. The starting five is back, including Garza, Joe Wieskamp, Jordan Bohannon and Connor McCaffery. The Hawkeyes had the No. 1 offense in a competitive Big Ten last season, averaging 77.7 points per game and shooting 45 percent from the field as a team.

Final Four sleepers

Arizona State Sun Devils

The Sun Devils are led by 6-foot-5 freshman guard Josh Christopher, who was a top recruit out of California. Christopher is wearing No. 13 after James Harden gave him his blessing to wear the number he wore in college. Also joining Christopher this year is Marcus Bagley, younger brother of Sacramento Kings center Marvin Bagley III. Bagley is a 6-foot-8 wing who will add some height and athleticism to the team. The Pac-12 is a little bit stronger than it has been in years past but Arizona State should be the most talented team in the conference and could go on a run come tournament time.

Creighton Bluejays

Creighton played the last minutes of college basketball last year in a game against St. John’s when the season abruptly ended due to COVID-19. Even though Creighton lost Davion Mintz to Kentucky and Ty-Shon Alexander to the NBA, the Bluejays are returning point guard Marcus Zegarowski and Mitchell Ballock, who combined for 868 points last season. They are also adding freshman Devin Davis, who averaged 21 points and 4 assists per game his senior year in high school. The Big East is very competitive this year and the battles between Creighton and Villanova will be fun games to watch.

Houston Cougars

Kelvin Sampson has built an impressive program at Houston over the last few years and the Cougars should be the top team in the American Athletic Conference for the third season in a row. There is a ton of talent in the backcourt with AAC Player of the Year frontrunner Caleb Mills, Quentin Grimes, Marcus Sasser and DeJon Jarreau.

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