In today’s age of college basketball, freshmen are more important than ever. With the NBA’s rule that players must be 1 year removed from HS before entering the NBA draft, top talents now come to college for a year (or more) before making the lap to the pros.
For both Miami and Michigan State, freshmen not only play a big role on the court, but they are the players who figure to be difference makers in this opening NCAA tournament game.
Both Miami and Michigan State have superstar freshmen who came to campus with a world of ability. Both 5-star recruits were among the best players in the 2017 recruiting class, and have been leaders on the court for their respective teams.
Miami: Bruce Brown
A 20-year-old freshman, Brown may be the older of these 2 standout players, but he has a lot of game at his disposal. Brown, who has started 28 of Miami’s 32 games on the year, enters the NCAA tournament with season averages of 11.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.
A powerfully built slashing player, Brown’s shooting numbers (.458 FG%, .348 3FG%, .748 FT%) are solid, but not great. Brown is a streaky shooter who is MUCH better in catch-and-shoot situations than pullups off the dribble, and is better classified as a “scorer” than “knockdown shooter”.
At 6’5” 190lbs, Brown is well built, and uses his chiseled frame well. He had a triple double against South Carolina State — 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists in 30 minutes — the first for a Canes player since 2004, earlier in the year, and has multiple 20 point games. Brown has scored in double figures in 20 of Miami’s 32 games so far this season, and his 3 highest scoring games came against Duke (25 points) and North Carolina (21 points and 30 points). Through the latter part of the regular season, the Miami offense ran better with Brown as the initiator, a testament to his importance.
On top of those offensive stats, Brown is a tenacious defender, with a team-high 46 steals on the season. Brown’s size and length is an asset against smaller guards, and he can disrupt offensive sets with both his on-ball pressure and off-ball anticipation in the passing lane.
Brown has the talent to be taken in the teens-to-20s in the NBA draft (Brown’s Draft Express player profile is a testament to that), and has single handedly won games for Miami this season. His talent is exceptional, and Miami will need his A-game on Friday night.
Michigan State: Miles Bridges
A National top 5 player in the 2016 recruiting class, Miles Bridges has all the talent in the world. He was one of the most highly sought after recruits in the Country, and wit good reason: he can hoop.
Bridges is a wing who plays anywhere between shooting guard, small forward, and power forward for the Spartans At 6’6” 230lbs, Bridges is a powerfully built lefty with skills to impact the game on both ends.
To this point of his freshman season, Bridges has per-game averages of 16.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.6 blocks, with a shooting line of .481 FG%, .388 3FG%, and .687 FT%. Bridges is Michigan State’s leader in points and rebounds, which is a testament to his talent and versatility.
Bridges is unquestionably the most talented and most important player for the Spartans. Despite missing 6 games with a leg injury, Bridges has been MSU’s leading scorer 15 times, leading rebounder 16 times, and was tied for the lead in points and rebounds twice each.
Widely considered a top 10 NBA draft prospect (here’s his Draft Express player profile), Bridges is the kind of talent who can take over a game by sheer force of will. Miami will need to focus on limiting his effectiveness, a task that is much more easily said than done.
More than meets the eye
While Brown and Bridges are the top freshmen for their respective teams, there are others who figure to play a big role in deciding Miami-Michigan State on Friday night.
For Miami, the pair of G Dejan Vasiljevich and F Dewan Huell will need to make their presence felt.
An Australia native, Vasiljevich is the best shooter on Miami’s roster and a dead-eye shooter from 3pt range. He has had several games with multiple 3FGs this year, including 6 3’s at Syracuse in January. If you give him a sliver of daylight, Vasiljevich is going to shoot the ball, usually with good success. Vasiljevich can be a streaky shooter, however, so if he makes his first one, watch out....and if he misses his firsst one, watch out as well.
Vasiljevich has improved off the dribble this year, but spotting up from deep is his best game. On defense, Vasiljevich is a bit of a liability, with teams targeting him in pick and roll situations due to his limited lateral agility.
A 5-star recruit from local Norland HS, Huell has yet to live up to that billing. He has good size and length at 6’10”, but has yet to really have a breakout game. Right now, Huell is mostly hustle (he runs like a wing player much smaller than 6’10” 215lbs) and length.
Huell flashes effectiveness as a roll man in PnR, but could improve as a rebounder and post defender. A 2016 McDonald’s All-American, Huell stepping his game up in the NCAA tournament would be a big win for Miami.
For Michigan State, the pair of F Nick Ward and G Cassius Winston have been standout players throughout the 2016-17 season.
A stout post player, Ward is MSU’s most consistent offensive player. With per-game averages of 13.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks, Ward is an impact player, and statistically the 2nd best player for Michigan State behind Bridges. A crafty lefty in the mold of former MSU star Zach Randolph, Ward isn’t an explosive athlete, but that doesn’t stop him from being a tough matchup night in and night out. Ward has a knack for drawing fouls and getting to the FT line. Ward averages 6 FT a game, far and away the most by any MSU player. That is a testament to Ward’s ability to create contact and draw fouls, which is something that can create problems for opposing teams.
Ward has been a steady player for MSU this year. He has led the team in points 7 tiems, and rebounds 12 times. He tied with Bridges for the lead in points and rebounds 2 times each. Between the pair, either Bridges or Ward led Michigan State in points in 25 of 33 games, and led in rebounds in 29 of 33 games.
Like Randolph before him, Ward lacks length and athleticism, which can be exploited on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
An alum of my cousins’ alma mater — University of Detroit Jesuit HS — PG Cassius Winston is a player who has come along in his freshman year. He’s the backup point, but he has an impact on the game. Winston 6.7 points and a team-leading 5.1 assists in only 20 minutes a night. Winston’s assist rate is a nation-leading 46.9% — 4% higher than the next closest player. So, suffice it to say that when it comes to facilitating an offense, there is literally no player in America better than Winston. Those assists are great, but the turnovers — 2.2 per game — are not. And, Winston is nowhere near the same player on the road as he is at home:
Oh hello there pic.twitter.com/QUf5Ft6HmI— Moban Barjanovic (@McMathketball) March 14, 2017
Winston can be impacted by pressure defense at times, and he himself is not a great defender due to limited athleticism. Look for Miami’s dribble drive and PnR offense to go right at the freshman when he’s in the game.
Between Miami and Michigan State, there a 6 key freshmen who will have a major part in determining the outcome of the game.
And, for this Hurricanes fan, here’s hoping the trio of Brown, Huell, and Vasiljevich outdoes the trio of Bridges, Ward, and Winston on Friday night.
Who else will impact this game? Find out as our NCAA tournament coverage continues on State of the U.