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Forde Minutes: Marquee names are being upstaged, and it could shake up NBA draft

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Ethan Wragge (1) catch-and-shoot clinic reservations available separately):

THE OTHER FRESHMEN

In a season that began with breathless, all-encompassing, set-the-ratings-agenda coverage of freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon, two other classmates have deftly stolen the spotlight. And not because those four have underperformed – the other two have simply risen to their level.

Neither is from America. Both came here to increase their basketball skill and enhance their recruiting profile. And despite not entering the season as leading men, both have lifted their teams into national championship contender status.

Joel Embiid (2), Kansas. Rivals Class of 2013 ranking: No. 25. Home country: Cameroon. American prep stop: The Rock School in Gainesville, Fla. What they were saying about him preseason: Intriguing prospect who keeps getting better. What they’re saying about him now: May have eclipsed teammate Wiggins as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. Draft Express lists him as the current top pick.

Embiid is drawing the kind of raves once reserved for Anthony Davis, Greg Oden, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon – the can’t-miss-big-man kind of raves. Of course, Oden did miss (injuries), and Davis is not yet a transformative player, and the sample-size people are basing the grandiose Embiid projections on all of 18 collegiate games. But the lithe athleticism, deft footwork, great hands, soft touch, sharp timing and sheer size are intoxicating ingredients.

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Syracuse's Tyler Ennis drives against North Carolina. (USA today)

Tyler Ennis (3), Syracuse. Rivals Class of 2013 ranking: No. 22. Home country: Canada. American prep stop: St. Benedict’s in Newark, N.J. What they were saying about him preseason: Solid guard who would step into the lineup right away, but probably not make anyone forget about Michael Carter-Williams. What they’re saying now: Who is Michael Carter-Williams? Draft Express has Ennis as a top-20 2014 pick at present.

Ennis lacks Carter-Williams’ flair but is much more reliable. He is the rarest of college rookies: seldom prone to mistakes, and never prone to emotional inconsistencies. He plays off-the-charts smart and is unbothered by stressful situations. He’s had exactly one game with more turnovers than assists, and in conference play is shooting 50 percent overall, 40 percent from 3-point range and 75 percent from the line. Assist-to-turnover ratio in ACC play: better than 3-to-1.

The onrushing development of Embiid and the immediate readiness of Ennis have helped make 14-4 Kansas the No. 1 team in the RPI and 18-0 Syracuse the No. 2 team in the human polls. Both teams figured to be good; but because of their (slightly) underrated freshman, both teams are national championship contenders.

OTHER FRESH FACES TO WATCH

Now that we’ve expanded the Fab Freshmen list from four to six, who is next on the watch list? The Minutes offers a few suggestions:

The other Kentucky freshmen (4). James Young (the No. 11 Rivals prospect in the Class of 2013) and Harrison twins Andrew (No. 5) and Aaron (No. 7) are combining to average 39.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. They’ve all had their dominant moments: Young hung 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on Mississippi State; Andrew Harrison had a career-high 26 against Tennessee on Saturday; Aaron has averaged 14.7 points in the last three games. They’ve also had their freshmen moments: Young perching on the perimeter instead of slashing to the basket; the Harrisons reacting with dismay whenever something goes against them on the court. But the consistency looks like it’s starting to come for all three players. If they improve their road performance – especially Andrew Harrison, who is shooting just 30 percent away from Rupp Arena – Kentucky will be much tougher by March.

Zach LaVine (5), UCLA. The Rivals No. 44 prospect of 2013 earned a rep on the AAU circuit as a spectacular dunker, but his all-around game is what has earned him the third-most minutes on the Bruins team. He’s UCLA’s No. 3 scorer (12.6 points per game) and most prolific 3-point shooter (32 made in 71 attempts, a stellar 45.1 percent). His long arms and athleticism are the building blocks of NBA-level defensive ability, which has caught the eye of pro scouts. If he continues to play well this season, he may move himself into one-and-done territory ahead of some more touted freshmen.

Noah Vonleh (6), Indiana. Hasn’t had the immediate impact on the win-loss record that Cody Zeller did, but the 6-foot-10 Vonleh has been very good. He's averaging 12.4 points and a team-high 9.2 rebounds, and is suddenly showcasing remarkable shooting touch (8 of 11 from 3-point range in Big Ten play). He's also cut down on his fouling in recent weeks, allowing him to be on the floor more. Like Zeller, offensive assertiveness is at times fleeting with Vonleh, who was Rivals’ No. 8 player in the 2013 class.

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Villanova's Josh Hart goes up for a contested layup against St. John's. (AP)

Josh Hart (7), Villanova. Prior to a no-impact, four-point performance Monday night, the No. 84 Rivals prospect had easily exceeded expectations. Not a lot of flash in his game, but there’s no denying his impact on the surprising Wildcats. Until the Creighton blowout, Hart had scored in double figures eight straight games, providing perimeter shooting (46 percent from 3-point range, 21 of 46) and some wing glass crashing (4.7 boards per game) for overachieving 'Nova.

Jordan Mickey (8), LSU. The athletic 6-foot-8 Texan is second on the team in scoring (13.1) and rebounding (6.9) while blocking a whopping 3.6 shots per game – more than Embiid. Rivals’ No. 41 player in the class needs a New Year’s resolution to regain his rebounding edge (hasn’t grabbed more than five in a game since December) and get to the foul line (just seven free-throw attempts since December).

MINUTES' MOST IMPROVED TEAM

Five guys who were freshmen once, and not terribly spectacular ones. But they’ve worked on their games and made significant breakthroughs this season:

Casey Prather (9), Florida. Then: scored a total of 176 points in his first three seasons. Now: Needs 17 Thursday against Alabama to equal that total this season alone. Prather’s scoring average has ballooned from 6.2 last year as a junior to a team-high 17.3 as a senior. The athletic wing player has stopped trying to be a perimeter shooter and relied on his strengths: slashing to the basket and finishing at the rim. Result: he leads the SEC in field-goal percentage at 63.6 percent.

Frank Kaminsky (10), Wisconsin. His out-of-body 43-point explosion against North Dakota in November was a sign of the season to come. The 7-foot 3-point shooter hasn’t had another game like that, but he has had 13 double-figure scoring games this season after a total of four in his first two seasons combined. Kaminsky has also more than tripled his rebounding average from last season, from 1.8 to 5.9.

Lamar Patterson (11), Pittsburgh. One of the reasons the Panthers are perennial winners is that there is always someone ready to step into a starring role when the opportunity arises. This year it is Patterson, a fifth-year senior who has upped his scoring average from 10 last year to 17.6 this year. His shooting percentages (51.2 percent from the floor, 42.9 percent from 3, 77.8 percent from the line) are all career highs as well. The 6-5 Patterson also leads an excellent passing team in assists at 4.5.

Trevor Cooney (12), Syracuse. The above about Pitt is all the more true at Syracuse – the impact players just roll off the Jim Boeheim assembly line. Cooney is the new Andy Rautins/Gerry McNamara automatic shooting threat, upping his scoring average from 3.4 as a freshman to 13.6 as a sophomore. He’s already splashed 54 3-pointers on the season, but his quick hands also are producing 2.3 steals per game.

Josh Scott (13), Colorado. Playing roughly the same minutes as last year, the 6-10 Scott has boosted his scoring from 10.2 to 14.3 points per game, and his rebounding from 5.7 to 9.1. With guard Spencer Dinwiddie out for the rest of the season with a blown knee, Scott will be counted on to do exactly what he did last weekend against UCLA and USC: average 19.5 points, eight rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. The Buffaloes need him now more than ever.

BUBBLE MOVERS

It’s early, but never too early for NCAA tournament bubble scrutiny. Tracking who helped their tourney cause and who jeopardized it within the last week-plus. (Note: RPI numbers are the official NCAA RPI, released Monday morning. Pomeroy numbers are from after games Monday night.)

Moving up:

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Providence's Carson Desrosiers (33), Ted Bancroft (22) and Bryce Cotton (11) celebrate against Creighton. (AP)

Providence (14). Elevated 18 spots in the RPI (66 to 48) from last week, and 33 spots since Jan. 8 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (83 to 50) after victories over Georgetown, St. John’s and Creighton. Research wonk (and friend of The Minutes) Kevin Pauga has the Friars among the first four out in his KPI ratings. What’s next: Home games this week against Butler and Xavier. A sweep of those opponents would almost assuredly move Providence into the field of 68. For the moment.

Texas (15). Rose 13 spots in RPI (56 to 43) from last week, and 22 spots in Pomeroy (66 to 44) after three-game winning streak over Texas Tech, West Virginia and Iowa State. KPI lists Texas as a No. 9 seed at present. The Minutes has been a frequent critic of Rick Barnes’ coaching, but to give credit where it's due: he’s doing solid work with his least-talented team in years. What’s next: home against Kansas State on Tuesday and at Baylor on Saturday. Big opportunity for the Longhorns to further enhance their positioning.

George Washington (16). Rose eight spots in RPI (30 to 22), and 18 in Pomeroy (60 to 42) with victories over Rhode Island, VCU and St. Bonaventure. The 15-3 Colonials are a robust No. 5 seed in the KPI, thanks to several good road/neutral victories (Creighton, Miami, Maryland, Manhattan, St. Bonaventure) and no bad losses. Coach Mike Lonergan is transferring impressively from Vermont to GW. What’s next: at slumping George Mason on Saturday.

Toledo (17). Victories over Central Michigan, Buffalo and at Akron jumped the Rockets 13 spots in RPI (50 to 37) week over week, and beating the Zips was worth a 13-spot increase in Pomeroy (80 to 67). Toledo is a No. 10 seed in the KPI. Can the Rockets win enough to earn an at-large MAC berth? Remains to be seen, with no signature non-conference victory. But Todd Kowalczyk’s team is at least in the preliminary conversation. What’s next: Toledo will be solidly favored in home games this week against Northern Illinois and Kent State.

Moving down:

New Mexico (18). Plummeted 24 spots in the RPI (21 to 45) after a home loss to underwhelming UNLV, and dropped 18 places over 10 days in Pomeroy (45 to 63). Craig Neal’s two losses in The Pit in eight games as coach of the Lobos are more than Steve Alford lost in his last 22 games there. KPI still likes the Lobos enough to give them a No. 9 seed, though. What’s next: Key home game Tuesday against Boise State, then a trip to Colorado State on Saturday.

Georgetown (19). Dropped 12 spots in RPI (46 to 58), and have retrenched 26 spots in Pomeroy over 12 days (33 to 59). Hoyas have lost four of their last five, with the only victory coming in overtime at Butler. (All Butler games go into OT these days. It’s the hot trend in college hoops, the new black.) What’s next: After an overtime home loss to Marquette, Georgetown faces a brutal three-game stretch at Creighton, home against Villanova, and Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. For a team that KPI already has on the outside looking in, getting at least one victory in that stretch is near-mandatory.

Baylor (20). Down 29 spots in RPI (13 to 42) and on a 15-place slide in Pomeroy over the last two weeks (26 to 41). The Bears have lost four of five Big 12 games, giving away any sense of NCAA tourney certainty with a bad road loss to Texas Tech and a home loss to Oklahoma. KPI slots Baylor as a No. 12 seed at the moment. What’s next: home games against Texas on Saturday and West Virginia next Tuesday loom very large.

Missouri (21). Moved down 13 spots in RPI (42 to 55) after a 1-1 week that included a loss at Vanderbilt. Tigers are down 14 spots in Pomeroy (41 to 55) over the last two weeks, which includes the damaging home loss to Georgia. KPI puts the Tigers alongside Baylor on the 12-seed line. What’s next: at LSU on Tuesday and hosting South Carolina on Saturday. Beating LSU in Baton Rouge would qualify as Mizzou’s best road win of the year to date.

FOG A MIRROR, PLEASE

The Minutes checks in on five veteran coaches with declining accomplishments – and perhaps declining approval ratings with their fan bases. Have they retired on the job?

Bob Huggins (22), West Virginia. Since taking his alma mater to the 2010 Final Four, the pace of decline seems to be accelerating in Morgantown. In 2011, the Mountaineers were 21-12 and an NCAA No. 5 seed that lost in the round of 32 – not bad. In ’12, they went 19-14, earned a No. 10 seed and were blown out in the round of 64 by Gonzaga – not great. In ’13 the bottom fell out, as WVU went 13-19. This year the comeback project is not proceeding swiftly: WVU is 10-8 and on a three-game losing streak. Huggins is beloved at West Virginia, and with good reason. But the Big 12 transition has been brutal so far.

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Steve Lavin's Red Storm got its first win of 2014 against Dartmouth on Saturday. (USA Today)

Steve Lavin (23), St. John’s. Freed from the rigors of having to play Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Red Storm has moved to the new Big East – and gone winless in its first five league games. Lavin took St. John’s to the NCAA tourney his first season, in 2011. The record since then: 40-43. The Johnnies are 2-5 in games decided by single digits this year.

Fran Dunphy (24), Temple. After six straight 20-win seasons and NCAA berths, Dunphy probably gets a pass on this season. He needs it, because the Owls are awful. They’re 5-11 overall, 0-5 in the American Athletic Conference, and a ridiculous 1-5 at home. And they still have six games remaining against the AAC power quadrant of Louisville, UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati.

Paul Hewitt (25), George Mason. He got the job on the rebound from Georgia Tech, and the early returns with Jim Larranaga’s players were pretty good: a 24-9 season in 2011-12, then 22-16 last year, but no NCAA berths. Now it’s gotten ugly. The Patriots are 7-11, in part due to a rugged non-conference schedule – but there’s also that 0-4 Atlantic-10 start, too. Looks like the program’s first losing season since 1997-98.

Mark Gottfried (26), North Carolina State. The recruiting successes and surprise Sweet 16 run of 2012 got everyone’s hopes up, but the past year-and-a-half has been a letdown. The Wolfpack made the NCAA tourney last year as a No. 8 seed but lost its first game (to Fran Dunphy and Temple), and this year has been a messy chemistry experiment. N.C. State has a road win over Tennessee and home wins over Notre Dame and Maryland – but it also lost to North Carolina Central and Wake Forest, and endured 30-point blowouts from Virginia and Duke. The Wolfpack has a long way to go just to get on the NCAA bubble.

WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?

Teams occupying unexpectedly lofty spots in the conference standings:

Clemson (27). Conference record: 4-1 in ACC, tied for second in the loss column – not bad after being picked to finish 14th out of 15 in the preseason. Best win: Beat Duke 72-59. After some tough sledding the past two seasons, Brad Brownell probably has the best team in his four-year tenure. The Tigers lead the nation in fewest points allowed and effective field-goal percentage defense, clamping down on perimeter shooters and relying on sophomore center Landry Nnoko to protect the rim. “Defensively,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon on Monday, “they’re as sound as they can be.” But now comes the hard part: five road games in the next six, with trips to Pitt, North Carolina, Florida State, Syracuse and Notre Dame. If Clemson is still a contender after that, give Brownell ACC Coach of the Year on the spot.

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Cal's Justin Cobb is one of five Golden Bears averaging double-digits in scoring this season. (USA Today)

California (28). Conference record: 5-0 in the Pac-12, tied for the lead with No. 1 Arizona. Golden Bears were picked fifth in the preseason. Best win: At Oregon 96-83. In league play, Cal is the most efficient offensive team in the Pac-12, shooting very well from the field and limiting turnovers. If the Bears are still undefeated after two games in Los Angeles this week, a Feb. 1 date with Arizona in Berkeley would suddenly loom very large.

Kansas State (29). Conference record: 4-1 in the Big 12, one game behind Kansas in the loss column. The Wildcats were picked fifth in the preseason. Best league win: 74-71 over Oklahoma State in Manhattan. To Bruce Weber’s credit, the unexpected spring transfer of point guard Angel Rodriguez did not deal a deathblow to K-State’s season. A blowout loss to Kansas is the only blemish in the last 13 games – but here come road games at Texas and Iowa State this week.

WHERE DID YOU GO?

Teams playing themselves right out of conference title contention – and maybe NCAA tourney contention, too:

Ohio State (30). At one point not long ago, the Buckeyes were 15-0 and ranked No. 1 by Pomeroy. Since then they have lost four in a row, with each defeat worse than the last: at Michigan State, home against Iowa, at Minnesota and then at Nebraska on Monday – the same Cornhuskers who were 0-4 in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are unraveling offensively, failing to shoot 40 percent from the floor the last two games. Help should arrive, with home games next against Illinois and Penn State (a combined 2-10 in league play). If it doesn’t this season becomes a full-on disaster.

North Carolina (31). The Tar Heels are 1-4 in the ACC for the first time since 2002, when Matt Doherty was driving his alma mater into the ground. The overachieving non-conference victories are ancient history now, replaced by solid beatings from everyone but Boston College. Combine the on-court shortcomings with the NCAA violations and endless academic headlines, and this is even worse than the Doherty Era. Little short of a total debacle in Chapel Hill.

Oregon (32). Once upon a time, back on Jan. 4, the Ducks were 13-0 and considered a prime contender to Arizona in the Pac-12. Since then: four straight losses, surrendering nearly 90 points per game in that time. The one that really hurts was the loss Sunday to rival Oregon State, which nobody has accused of being a decent team. And now comes a trip to Washington on Thursday and Washington State on Sunday.

ROAD WARRIORS OF THE WEEK

In acknowledgement that the toughest thing in college hoops is winning on the road, The Minutes continues its weekly shout-outs to teams managing to do so:

Michigan (33) at Wisconsin. The Wolverines won for the first time this century in Madison, hanging on thanks to guard Nik Stauskas, who scored their final 11 points over the last eight minutes. Michigan is undefeated since losing powerhouse center Mitch McGary for the season in mid-December due to a back injury. If that continues, John Beilein will get a long look for Big Ten Coach of the Year.

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Louisville's Rick Pitino gives star guard Russ Smith an earful during a win over UConn. (USA Today)

Louisville (34) at Connecticut. The most memorable part of the game was UConn coach Kevin Ollie’s ejection – after a very bad no-call – but this was an impressive performance by the Cardinals. With yet another player gone (point guard Chris Jones was injured), Louisville largely controlled the game in an amped Gampel Pavilion for its first signature win of the season. Final Four M.O.P. Luke Hancock has shaken off the early-season injury rust and averaged 16.2 points over the past six games, at times reprising the old Francisco Garcia, point-forward role.

Old Dominion (35) all over the place. The Monarchs (9-9) have started their first season of Conference USA 3-0, with every victory coming on the road – at East Carolina, Florida International and Florida Atlantic. Now comes a big home game Thursday against the best team in the league, Southern Mississippi. After the program completely skidded off the rails last year, with Blaine Taylor being fired during a 5-25 season, successor Jeff Jones is returning a proud program to respectability.

Elon (36) at Davidson. Nobody in the Southern Conference wins at Davidson – but the Phoenix did last week, in overtime. Somehow. They trailed by 14 points with five minutes to play, then went on a 16-2 closing run to force OT. It was a huge win for former Bob McKillop assistant Matt Matheny, in his fifth season at Elon.

UNDER THE RADAR LOVE

Alan Williams (37), UC-Santa Barbara. At 6-8 and 280 pounds, there is a lot to love about Williams. He’s pretty much unstoppable around the rim, averaging 22.8 points and 11 rebounds without shooting a single 3-pointer on the season. Williams has had some he-man games: 27 and 17 in the season opener; 39 and 9 against South Dakota State; 22 and 16 against Western Illinois; 33 and 15 against Cal Poly. With him in the lineup, the Gauchos are 11-3. Without him they are 0-2. Let the big man eat!

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Ron Hunter (38), Georgia State. He coached his annual barefoot game Saturday against Arkansas-Little Rock, continuing the quest to raise awareness of those too poor to afford shoes. The Panthers won, upping their record to 12-6 overall and 5-0 in the Sun Belt Conference. GSU, which hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since 2001, is the only team in Division I with a two-game lead in the loss column in conference play. Hunter’s son, R.J., is the team’s leading scorer at 19.1 points per game.

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Villanova's Jay Wright looks on while Creighton runs up the score against his Wildcats. (USA Today)

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Jay Wright (39), Villanova. Get a hand up. Ethan Wragge is still open.

POINT AFTER

In the ridiculously lovely city of San Diego, The Minutes recommends downtown visitors grab a beer at Bub’s, right outside Petco Park. Nothing terribly special about the place, but it has a great locale, a lot of TVs and the requisite beer selection to keep pulling you back. Have a locally brewed Stone IPA (40) and thank The Minutes later.

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