Hype vs. reality: Top freshmen not making impact in March

On3 imageby:James Fletcher III03/25/24

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For year in college basketball, coaches went after the top high school players in the country to bolster their roster for a deep NCAA Tournament run. However, with the transfer portal and various exemptions which give athletes more time, the strategy has shifted.

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In total, only 45 of 94 freshmen (47.9%) from the Top 100 of the On3 Industry rankings who played college basketball made it to the 2024 NCAA Tournament. The figure is down from 58 of 98 (59.2%) in 2023.

The trend shows that not only are less talented freshmen making it to the NCAA Tournament, but they are playing as small a role in winning as the sport has seen in years. As the data shows, very few young players have had an immediate impact in March.

Last season, only one Top 100 freshman advanced past the Elite Eight, as Donovan Clingan came off the bench for UConn. Counting only the players who average at least five points, Clingan was also the only player to advance beyond the Sweet 16.

That comes in contrast to Mike Krzyzewski’s final championship team in 2015 or the last Kentucky team win it all in 2012, when each roster featured four players who fit into the category each.

With the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in the books, here is a look at how many of the Top 100 On3 Industry freshmen participated in, impacted, and advanced in March Madness this season, as well as what it means.

5-star prospects

The expectation for a five-star freshman basketball player is to come into college basketball, dominate the postseason, and take all accolades into the lottery of the NBA Draft. This year however, only four of the 14 players to receive that honor will play on the second weekend.

No. 1 player Isaiah Collier missed the field all together, as USC crashed out during the regular season and Pac-12 Tournament without much to discuss. Meanwhile, Top Five recruits Ron Holland and Matas Buzelis skipped the season to play for the G-League Ignite – which recently announced it will shut down operations after a disastrous season.

Three more Top 10 players – Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw and DJ Wagner – all went out with Kentucky in the Round of 64. The trio combined for just 13 points, with Edwards scoring 10 of them in the upset loss to Oakland. Wagner went 0-5 from the field and Bradshaw played just four minutes.

Even more concerning than the lack of five-star players in the field, only three average 10 points per game or better in the opening weekend. The success of Stephon Castle, Ja’Kobe Walter and Jared McCain in that category is offset by Cody Williams and Xavier Booker averaging less than six points off the bench before being eliminated.

North Carolina guard Elliot Cadeau played with the starters in a pair of wins, but contributed just six points on the weekend, including a scoreless performance against 16-seed Wagner. Iowa State’s Omaha Biliew is still in the field but only plays garbage time minutes and only registered two minutes in two games with no stats to show for it.

Top 50 difference-makers

Just below the group of five-stars there is an upward tick in production – even if it did not translate to postseason success. Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard fit into this category despite coming off the bench for Kentucky and having a disastrous game. Kwame Evans, Jackson Shelstad, Yves Missi and Aden Holloway also exited the NCAA Tournament early after producing in the regular season.

The success story here come from breakout Iowa State forward Milan Momcilovic – averaging 14.5 points and becoming a real contributor this March.

Outside of those players, only Duke’s Caleb Foster and Kansas’ Elmarko Jackson spent significant time in a starting lineup this season. Dusty Stromer and Jarin Stevenson have made an impact off the bench but are far from the forefront of the gameplan during March Madness.

Top 100 contributors

Any discussion about the players ranked between 50 and 100 in the 2023 recruiting class starts and ends with Kansas standout Johnny Furphy, who became an important part of the Jayhawks offense after breaking through the starting lineup and averaged better than 10 points in two NCAA Tournament games.

Beyond that, this group includes more redshirt players than impact role players. Alabama’s Sam Walters and Arizona’s KJ Lewis have managed to crack the rotation, but no one else beyond them is averaging better than five points.

Plenty of players in this group have gotten on the court in limited roles for part of the season and promise to grow into impactful college basketball players but have not been impactful in a meaningful way to postseason success so far.

The data from the 2022 class says plenty of the players in this range will have a market in the transfer portal if they choose to enter this spring.

Possible conclusions

Three game-changing rules have been implemented by the NCAA and ushered college sports into a new era since the data shows a stark shift toward veteran teams in March. First among those is the opening of the transfer portal – and subsequent changes to the policy – which make movement by players easier and more common. Also in the same conversation is the advent of NIL laws which have kept certain stars in the college ranks longer and made it easier to build talented groups by offering the most money.

The final seismic shift is the one which only lasts a little while longer in college basketball, making a potential offset in future years possible in theory. The free year of college eligibility – and later waves of wavier acceptance by the NCAA – means that the pool of veteran talent is larger than ever. There is a group of sixth, seventh, and even eighth-year seniors who bring experience and physical maturity which is hard for a freshman to match.

One other thing that must be taken into account is the general perception about the 2023 recruiting class which has stated for years that the level of talent is simply lower than most seasons. That makes similar or contradictory data from previous seasons within the same era important to consider along the way.

No matter which of these factors has played the biggest role, the face of the matter is Jalen Suggs and Paolo Banchero are the only five-star players to appear in the Final Four since 2020, and this class is running low on candidates to break the trend.