The most intriguing part of the local men’s college basketball season has been the freshmen. Almost every team has a good one or multiple good ones, and that’s helped sustain interest during a season when postseason bids are going to be scarce.
Freshman players are like baseball’s minor league prospects; their potential is exciting to fans. Considering how many good freshmen there are locally, I’ve decided to rank them.
1. Tre Mitchell, UMass — Clearly, the best in his class. The 6-foot-9-inch big man has great touch, hands, and footwork around the basket. He can nail a 3-pointer, too. He needs to rebound more consistently and get tougher on defense, but there’s plenty of time for that. He should be the Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year, and he’ll get some votes for first-team All-A-10, too. The future of UMass basketball revolves around him.
2. Jay Heath, Boston College — Before the season, BC coach Jim Christian said that fans were going to love him. He was right. Heath provides effort, hustle, decent (if inconsistent) outside shooting, and tough defense. A quiet sort off the court, Heath says defense is the best part of his game. He also loves school — the academic part. No wonder Christian loves him.
3. Sean East, UMass — He can be a little too adventurous at times, but he’s an outstanding passer. His outside shot deserted him for a while, and coach Matt McCall took him out of the starting lineup. Despite that, he can instantly affect the game. If he improves, he’ll be an excellent player. He needs to work on that shot, however.
4. Tyson Walker, Northeastern — Once or twice a game, Walker will make a play that’s astounding. Usually, it’s a drive to the basket and a layup against a taller defender. He’s a natural point guard who will evolve into a more consistent scorer. He does need to improve his outside shooting.
5. Chris Ledlum, Harvard — Coach Tommy Amaker said it best: “He brings us an edge and toughness that we absolutely need. He’s a put-together kid, he’s physical, plays with abandon, that’s what you have to like. And if you can kind of harness it, guide it a little bit, boy, he’s going to be hard to deal with.’’ He’s come off the bench behind veteran players but he’s set up to be the next star.
6. C.J. Felder, BC — At 6-7, Felder is kind of caught between being a big man and a perimeter player. He’s quick and jumps well, but as Christian said, “In high school, he was used to just jumping over people; you can’t do that in our league.’’ He has the talent to adjust and become a solid forward.
7. Preston Santos, UMass — For most of the season, he made no impact. Then, McCall suddenly pushed him into the starting lineup and he’s made a difference with his hustle, defense, and rebounding. “He does what I tell him to do,’’ said McCall. If this list was made a month ago, he wouldn’t have been on it.
8. Julian Rishwain, BC — He’s a fan favorite. Just shoot it, they’ll say. He has great form, but the numbers haven’t been great. Form usually wins out eventually. An injury has slowed him as the season winds down. I would expect him to become a dangerous 3-point threat at some point. Christian also points out that when he’s on the court, the ball seems to move better on offense.
9. Joe Pridgen, Holy Cross — In the darkness of a nightmare season for the Crusaders, he’s been a sliver of light. He has shown he will develop into a good Patriot League player. He’s already the team’s leading scorer. At 6-5, he gets most of his points with rugged play near the basket.
10. T.J. Weeks, UMass — He’d be a lot higher on the list, but he played only 10 games before hernia surgery knocked him out for the season. Before he got hurt, he was an outstanding 3-point shooter with an aggressive attitude, averaging 14.7 points per game while shooting 48.5 percent from three.
Coaches would never admit it, but many times they have their favorite players. Here’s a pretty good guess at some coaches’ favorites.
BU — Jonas Harper, who mostly provides defense and ballhandling.
BC — Heath, see above.
Harvard — Justin Bassey. Amaker relies on him to be a top-notch defender and ball mover on offense.
UMass — Santos. He does what he’s told to do. An obvious coach’s favorite.
Merrimack — Juvaris Hayes. Coach Joe Gallo will defend the flaws in his game to the death. Hayes had four steals in Sunday’s loss at Mount St. Mary’s, giving him 452 for his career, the most in NCAA history on any level.
Northeastern — Max Boursiquot. He’s undersized and not athletic, but Bill Coen still sees the value in the matchup problems he causes.
■ Gonzaga’s loss — Losing to BYU in Provo is understandable. Do not dismiss BYU, which is the leading 3-point-shooting team in the country and has a big home-court advantage (the Cougars are 14-1 at the Marriott Center). They will be a factor in the NCAA Tournament with a threesome of big man Yoeli Childs and guards TJ Haws and Jake Toolson. Their 23-7 record isn’t indicative of how good they are, because Childs has played only 17 games.
■ Late-season rally Part 1 —Preseason optimism for Providence melted away after losses to Penn, Long Beach State, and Charleston, but the team never gave up. The Friars are 16-12 overall and 9-6 in the Big East after beating ranked teams Butler, Creighton, Seton Hall, and Marquette. Right now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects the Friars as one of the last four in the NCAA field.
■ Late-season rally, Part 2 — After UCLA lost to Fullerton State back in November, it sure looked as if the first season for coach Mick Cronin would be a painful part of a rebuild. Now, the Bruins have won 9 of 11 after sweeping the mountain road trip of Utah and Colorado. At 17-11 overall and 10-5 in the Pac-12, they’re slowly creeping toward at-large consideration.
■ Winners — Seven schools have won 20 games in every since season 2009-10: Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky, Saint Mary’s, Vermont, and Wichita State.