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Freshman of the Year: Shabazz Muhammad cracks the rankings

Shabazz Muhammad is averaging 24.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in his last three games for UCLA. (US Presswire)

First off, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to everyone — and thanks for stopping in to read even during a slow week. Although the holidays have hit and college hoops has a couple of days off, our Freshman of the Year rankings don’t stop. Marcus Smart drops a bit, Ben McLemore rises — and we have a new No. 5.

To be honest, I thought it would be very difficult to drop Smart past No. 2 as of a couple weeks ago. No other freshmen seemed worthy of contesting Smart and Anthony Bennett at the top — and then along came McLemore. At the bottom of the rankings, look at Shabazz Muhammad finally coming alive and cracking the top five. Given his current scoring pace, he could continue moving up, which would therefore put Jahii Carson at risk of falling out of the rankings. Or will we have a consistent top five? Conference play is just around the corner, which will provide some separation.

As always, the Freshman of the Year rankings will be released on Tuesdays, along with the Player of the Year rankings.

1. Anthony Bennett — UNLV Position: Power Forward

Ht: 6-8 Wt: 240

Season Stats: 19.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.7 BPG

As Bennett continues to dominate opponents, there is talk that he is a potential top-five draft pick in June. With his size and skill set, it’s easy to see why his stock is on the rise. In two games this past week, he had 41 points and 19 rebounds — numbers that could put him in contention for All-American status if he carries the momentum into conference play. He plays at North Carolina on Saturday.

2. Ben McLemore — Kansas Position: Shooting Guard

Ht: 6-5 Wt: 195

Season Stats: 16.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.3 APG

McLemore rises to No. 2 in the rankings after a stellar performance against Ohio State over the weekend. He had 22 points and six rebounds in the road victory, showing he is capable of being the focal point of the Kansas offense. Throughout the season, McLemore has been an efficient weapon, capable of creating his own shot and also finishing with highlight-reel dunks.

3. Marcus Smart — Oklahoma State Position: Point Guard

Ht: 6-4 Wt: 225

Season Stats: 12.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 5.1 APG, 2.7 SPG

Smart dropped another spot this week to No. 3, after holding down the top spot until last week. Over his last four games, Smart is averaging just 9.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.0 steals. He is making an impact on the defensive end, but is having some trouble taking care of the ball, and he is shooting 9-for-30 in his last four games. A home test vs. Gonzaga on New Year’s Eve should be interesting.

4. Jahii Carson — Arizona State Position: Point Guard

Ht: 5-10 Wt: 175

Season Stats: 17.9 PPG, 5.3 APG

Carson is still the third-leading scorer among freshmen, and one of the top five assist men as well. In a road game at Texas Tech on Saturday, Carson went for 18 points and five assists on 50 percent shooting. He needs to limit his turnovers, as he has given it away 17 times in the last four games. Carson continues to get to the free-throw line at a consistently high rate.

5. Shabazz Muhammad — UCLA Position: Small Forward

Ht: 6-6 Wt: 225

Season Stats: 18.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG

Muhammad cracks the rankings for the first time this year, as the highly touted newcomer continues to get acclimated (and sheds excess weight) to the college game. Over his last three games, the powerful wing is averaging 24.3 points and 5.0 rebounds, while shooting 26 for 47 from the field. He’s getting to the free-throw line at a high rate, and also finishing in different ways.

Others to Note:

  • Muhammad was knocking at the door last week, and it was impossible to keep him out this week. The rest of the guys under consideration, though, included Kentucky’s Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel, Baylor center Isaiah Austin, while guys like Jakarr Sampson, Nik Stauskas, Jordan Adams and Rasheed Sulaimon also were thought about.
  • He doesn’t put up big scoring numbers, but James Robinson of Pitt has been one of the more effective point guards. In his last five games, Robinson had 27 assists – with just four turnovers.
  • Kris Dunn made his debut last week for Providence, and what a first impression it was. He came off the bench and dished out 13 assists. He fell back to Earth over the weekend, but keep an eye on him.
  • Memphis’ Shaq Goodwin needs some consistency, but he’s doing work on the glass. During a two-game stretch a couple of weeks ago, he went for 37 points and 21 rebounds.
  • Derrick Colter deserves a mention, after scoring 25 points in each of his last two games. Duquesne lost both, but the 5-foot-11 guard shot 17 for 29 and also dished out six assists.
  • I mentioned High Point’s John Brown in the first rankings post of the season, but it’s time to do it again. The 6-foot-7 Florida native is averaging 18.1 points and 6.6 rebounds, but is also going for more than two blocks and two steals per night. Over his last three games, he’s putting up 22.3 points and 9.0 rebounds – including 27 and 10 against Wake Forest.
  • Eastern Washington is struggling, but forward Venky Jois has been productive. The native of Australia has six double-doubles in his last nine games, and is averaging 13.6 points and 9.4 boards on the year.
  • Freshman leaders — Points: Anthony Bennett, UNLV (19.5); Rebounds: Michael Kessens, Longwood (10.2); Assists: Javan Felix, Texas (6.4).
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