The Oklahoma men’s basketball team is 17-1 and off to its best start in 23 years.
Undoubtedly, the driving force behind the Sooners’ stellar start is sophomore Blake Griffin, who averages 22 points and leads the country with 13.4 rebounds per game. But there’s a critical component of Oklahoma’s rotation that wasn’t around last year with Griffin.
That missing component was Willie Warren, the Sooners’ starting shooting guard this season and a big reason OU is 3-0 in Big 12 play heading into tonight’s home matchup against Nebraska.
Warren tops the following top-10 list of this year’s Big 12 freshmen who are making the biggest impact on their respective teams.
The hype on Warren is well documented: a five-star Rivals.com recruit out of Fort Worth’s North Crowley High; a prolific scorer who’s not afraid to drive the lane and create contact. He’s already projected the No. 16 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft by draftexpress.com.
Before he arrived in Norman, Warren developed something of an arrogant reputation. There’s a popular YouTube clip of one of his dunks in high school, followed by taunting, that did nothing to prove he was humble.
Playing for OU coach Jeff Capel, however, has done wonders to quash Warren’s hot-head reputation. There’s no time to show-boat on Capel’s watch. Warren likely knows by now the best way for OU to make a deep NCAA Tournament run is to operate the offense through Griffin. Warren is not the team’s flashy scorer, but the Sooners won’t challenge for the Big 12 title without his contributions, either.
It pays off being a guard in the Sooners’ offense. Griffin has become considerably more patient this year in surveying the defense after catching the ball in the post. As a result, Warren receives his share of open looks from the perimeter. He’s averaging 15.5 points per game — second on the team — and attempts 4.6 three-pointers per contest.
He’s had his share of superstar moments, like back-to-back eruptions of 31 and 35 points against Rice (Dec. 22) and Arkansas (Dec. 30), both on the road. He seems content, though, being OU’s No. 2 option.
Here are the rest of the top 10 freshmen in the Big 12 who have made the biggest impact this season:
2. Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas
Frosh forecast: Taylor has played well, despite the pressure put on him as a starting combo guard in his first year in Lawrence. He has averaged 10.2 points and 3.1 assists and has started 17 of KU’s 18 contests. Consider Mario Chalmers averaged 11.5 points and 3.9 assists per game his freshman year. Taylor’s not too far off those numbers.
3. Marcus Denmon, Missouri
Frosh forecast: Denmon doesn’t start, but he has given Missouri quality depth off the bench for the first time arguably since it made the NCAA Tournament in 2003. Don’t expect Denmon (7.5 points per game) to come off the bench much longer. The Kansas City (Mo.) native is already averaging close to 12 points per game in Big 12 play for the 15-3 Tigers.
4. Keiton Page, Oklahoma State
Frosh forecast: An inspiration for all players not blessed with natural height or size, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Page is making a name for himself in his first season in the conference. Last weekend at Baylor, when Oklahoma State needed a bucket, coach Travis Ford turned to Page, who delivered a nifty, step-back three-pointer with 12 seconds left to give OSU a one-point lead.
It was all for naught, though, when Baylor’s Curtis Jerrells sent the game into overtime (the Bears eventually won) with a free throw on the ensuing possession. Page is smart for a freshman, though. Instead of celebrating his three-pointer, he sprinted back on defense and attempted to take a charge on a Jerrells drive, but it wasn’t called. Page appeared to be outside of the paint, too. Keep in mind, Page is a freshman, Jerrells is a senior, it was the final seconds of the game, and Baylor was at home. Probably not going to get that call. On the last few possessions of that game, though, Page looked as comfortable as any senior on the floor.
5. Marcus Morris, Kansas
Frosh forecast: After an eight-game layoff, Bill Self put Morris back into the KU starting lineup on Monday against Texas A&M.; He responded well, with 10 points and a season-high two three-pointers. He should only get better as the season progresses.
6. Quincy Acy, Baylor
Frosh forecast: Baylor coach Scott Drew obviously has high expectations for the 6-7 Acy, who started his first game Saturday against Oklahoma State. He responded with 17 points and 12 boards. He’s also fifth in the Big 12 in blocked shots at 1.35 per game.
7. Kim English, Mizzou
Frosh forecast: MU coach Mike Anderson must like what he sees in the 6-6 guard English. After playing a bench role for the nonconference season, English has started the last two conference games for Missouri. He’s averaging 7.5 points per game. English and Denmon could form a solid backcourt for the Tigers for a long time.
8. Nate Tomlinson, Colorado
Frosh forecast: The guard has started 15 of Colorado’s 16 games, averaging close to eight points and more than three assists per game. He’s a work in progress, though. Against Kansas and Sherron Collins, for instance, Tomlinson didn’t score and dished only one assist, compared to seven turnovers.
9. Markieff Morris, Kansas
Frosh forecast: The taller Morris twin started in a stretch of six games for KU, but has played a bench role in the last three. He’s continuing to get minutes (17.7 per game). Markieff still hasn’t scored in double figures this season, but should before too long.
10. Toney McCray, Nebraska
Frosh forecast: The 6-6 guard has averaged 17.5 minutes per game and has registered 7.1 points per game. He’s coming off the bench for coach Doc Sadler.