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February 9, 2011

Surprise: These freshmen making an impact

For every John Wall, there's a Derrick Williams.

Both were freshmen last season, but each took a different path to becoming an all-conference player as a freshman. Wall was the No. 1 prospect in the class and a hot commodity since the early days of his high school career before becoming the SEC player of the year and the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

Williams was a late bloomer. When he finally broke out as a high school senior, signing classes already were taking shape. Even Arizona ignored him on the first pass. The Wildcats eventually signed him, though, and he became the Pac-10 freshman of the year.

Today we'll look at the candidates to be this season's Williams. Our list of surprising freshmen only includes players ranked outside the top 75 in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings. They are role players on elite teams, good players on good teams or the top player on bad teams. In any event, these freshmen are making a surprising impact on the 2010-11 college basketball season.

Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Ranking: No. 111 nationally, No. 28 point guard
The buzz: No one has stopped raving about the star of the signing class and the nation's top freshman, Jared Sullinger. The five-star center is great, but the three-star point guard might be the key to Ohio State making a deep run in the NCAA tournament. He's just sixth on the Buckeyes in scoring (6.8 points per game), but he strengthened Ohio State at point guard, a position more or less manned last season by Evan Turner. Craft's biggest impact, though, has been on defense against some of the Big Ten's best; Penn State's Talor Battle was 5-of-17 against Ohio State, Illinois' Demetri McCamey also was 5-of-17 and Purdue's E'Twaun Moore was 4-of-13.
Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut
Ranking: No. 76 nationally, No. 19 point guard
The buzz: The Huskies were dangerously close to becoming a one-man team with Kemba Walker. On Jan. 15, Walker led the team in scoring at 25.3 points per game and sophomore big man Alex Oriakhi was the only other Connecticut player in double figures. But Lamb has blossomed of late. Starting with a win over DePaul on Jan. 15, Lamb has averaged 17.1 points in the past seven games (Walker has averaged 18.9 points during that span). With 3.2 assists per game, true freshman Shabazz Napier (ranked 98th) also has become a key Huskies player.
T.J. McConnell, Duquesne
Ranking: Not ranked
The buzz: Duquesne F Damian Saunders twice has made our list of the nation's best stat-sheet stuffers. Saunders remains one of the nation's most underrated defensive players, but he won't lead the Dukes in at least two categories -- and Duquesne (16-6, 8-1 Atlantic 10) is better for it. McConnell is a local product from Pittsburgh Chartiers Valley, where he played for his father. He is averaging 4.5 assists and 2.9 steals, but the most telling number is McConnell's unbelievably low turnover numbers in league play -- just seven in nine A-10 games. His 5.6-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in league games leads the A-10.
Augustine Rubit, South Alabama
The buzz: Rubit is the only freshman other than Jared Sullinger at Ohio State who is averaging a double-double in points and rebounds. Rubit's 11.1 boards per game is seventh nationally and the most among freshmen. Rubit, a 6-6 redshirt freshman, also averages 13.2 points per game for South Alabama.
Doug McDermott, Creighton
The buzz: McDermott originally committed to Northern Iowa but switched to Creighton once the Bluejays hired his father, Greg McDermott, as coach. A high school teammate of North Carolina's Harrison Barnes in Ames, Iowa, McDermott has put up bigger numbers than Barnes. McDermott is fourth in the MVC in scoring (14.4 ppg) and second in rebounding (7.8 rpg).
Ranking: No. 90 nationally, No. 23 point guard
The buzz: Alabama is 7-1 in league play and owns the overall SEC lead. A major reason is the emergence of Releford, a ballhandling wizard who also has boosted Alabama defensively. He's averaging 11.3 points and 3.6 assists against SEC opponents and has been even better against West Division foes (24 assists, nine turnovers). Alabama's NCAA tournament at-large credentials remain questionable, but Releford's emergence makes the Crimson Tide the division's best bet for a bid.
Josh Gasser, Wisconsin
The buzz: A role player, Gasser entered himself in the Wisconsin record book in the most unlikely of ways: He notched the program's first triple-double with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against Northwestern. It was the first triple-double in a Big Ten game since 2001. Gasser also is the third freshman starter under Bo Ryan, joining standouts Devin Harris and Alando Tucker.
The buzz: DePaul is well into another miserable season, as the Blue Demons have started 0-11 in the Big East. If there's a bright spot, it's Melvin, who was the first recruit coach Oliver Purnell signed after arriving from Clemson. Although he didn't become a starter until Dec. 14, Melvin is the team's leading scorer and No. 2 rebounder. Melvin has averaged 18.6 points and 6.2 rebounds since Dec. 8.
DeAndre Kane, Marshall
The buzz: Marshall has to wonder what might have been with its 2009 signing class. C Hassan Whiteside signed in that class, but declared for the NBA draft after his freshman season and became a second-round pick. Kane also was in the class but redshirted as a partial-academic qualifier. Marshall's leading scorer, Kane had 25 points and seven rebounds in a loss to Louisville, 28 points in an upset of West Virginia and 20 points in a win over Memphis.
Melvin Ejim, Iowa State
The buzz: The Toronto native was averaging 12.7 points and 7.1 rebounds on Jan. 8 but has cooled a bit. He briefly lost his starting job but responded with 19 points and 12 rebounds against Oklahoma. Iowa State is struggling (1-8 in the Big 12), but a consistent Ejim will go a long way toward making the Cyclones more competitive.
Bruce Ellington, South Carolina
Ranking: No. 96 nationally, No. 24 point guard
The buzz: Ellington stayed in-state (he's from Moncks Corner, S.C.) and has made himself at home for coach Darrin Horn. Ellington leads the Gamecocks in scoring at 14.4 points. Ellington, also a star high school football player (his cousin is Clemson RB Andre Ellington), is mulling his opportunities to play both sports, though nothing formal has materialized.
The buzz: If only Basabe could play against Indiana every game. Basabe, from Glen Cove, N.Y., originally signed to play for Fran McCaffery at Siena but followed McCaffery to Iowa. Basabe has feasted on teams such as Indiana (20 points, 10 rebounds in one matchup, 20 points and 13 boards in the other) and Michigan (25 points, eight rebounds). He also had 22 points and 13 rebounds against Ohio State, so the future looks bright.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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