Pure ability is the best way to predict which players will be the best freshmen in college basketball.
Of the 15 selections on Rivals.com's three freshman All-America teams in 2007-08, 13 were five-star recruits. Former four-star recruits DeJuan Blair of Pitt and James Johnson of Wake Forest were the other two.
But there are other factors to consider. Some of the most talented recruits have more opportunity than others. Nine of those 15 took the most shots on their teams, and four others took the second-most. Team success also plays a major role. Each freshman on the first two teams played for a school that reached the NCAA Tournament, and none of the 15 played for a losing team.
With all that in mind, in this week's mailbag we examine which players are in the best position to be freshman All-Americans.
A lot of emphasis has been placed on the freshman classes recently. Who do you see as your freshman All-Americans?
— John from Knoxville, Tenn. -----
Two guys really stand out: Memphis' Tyreke Evans and UCLA's Jrue Holiday. In fact, I think the national freshman-of-the-year race will come down to that duo. Both are one-and-done types and are entering ideal situations.
Evans might be the Tigers' most talented player, and he's joining a team that is losing its top two guards (Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts). Holiday will replace departed lottery pick Russell Westbrook, and his addition gives the Bruins a legit chance to reach a fourth consecutive Final Four.
You have to think Ohio State's B.J. Mullens and USC's Demar DeRozan – the No. 1 and No. 2 prospects, respectively, in the 2008 class – also will be in the mix. DeRozan will be asked to be replace O.J. Mayo and be the Trojans' go-to scorer.
As far as guys below five-star status, I like Kentucky point guard DeAndre Liggins and Nevada forward Luke Babbitt. Kentucky lost three of its top four guards, and Liggins will be handed the reins to the offense immediately. Babbitt, from Reno, Nev., could have played just about anywhere he wanted and originally committed to Ohio State. Eventually, though, he chose to stay at home.
Do you think this year's Southern Illinois team has a chance to be better than the 2006-07 team (which lost to Kansas in Sweet 16) based on prospects Anthony Booker and Kevin Dillard being way better than Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young?
— Alex from Chicago -----
If everyone was coming back, I could see the Salukis at least getting to the Sweet 16. But they're losing their two best players. Forwards Randal Falker and Matt Shaw were first and second on the team in scoring and rebounding last season.
That is a lot to replace for anyone. Consider that the Salukis missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven seasons with Falker and Shaw, and it's tough to see SIU making a big turnaround even with the addition of a stellar recruiting class.
Booker and Dillard are going to make big impacts from the start, and I think they eventually will be better than Tatum and Young. But 2009-10 is the season you should be looking forward to the most. By then, Iowa transfer Tony Freeman, who averaged 13.8 points and 3.2 assists per game last season, will be eligible (he has to sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules), and Booker, Dillard and the four other newcomers SIU is adding will have a full season at the D-I level from which to draw.
There was a center, John Riek, in a past top-10 ranking. He was taken out and reportedly turned pro. Did a pro team take him in free agency or is Riek going to college? If so, what team?
— Todd from Elizabeth, N.J. -----
Riek gave a commitment to Cincinnati last weekend, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be suiting up for the Bearcats.
Riek, a 7-foot-2 Sudan native who pulled out of the NBA Draft, had surgery to repair a torn ACL on July 19. The early projections have him back on the court in early January. But Riek also faces some major academic obstacles. He won't take the ACT for the first time until Sept. 13, and classes at UC begin Sept. 24. His former prep school coach, Mike Byrnes, has told reporters he doubts Riek will get a qualifying score, largely because of the language barrier.
Even if Riek can get healthy and eligible – big ifs at this stage – don't expect him to dominate immediately. Riek is a raw prospect. He'll obviously be a big force on the glass and on defense, but offensively he has a long way to go.
Big Ten thoughts
What do you expect out of Tubby Smith and Minnesota for the 2008-09 season, and is there any way Indiana doesn't finish last in the Big Ten?
— Scott from Lansing, Mich. -----
Another middle-of-the-pack finish in the Big Ten is the answer to your first question. Smith and his staff signed an impressive recruiting class, which includes three top-150 prospects and two junior college transfers. On top of that, the league looks poised for another down season. But the Gophers are losing their top three scorers. As with Southern Illinois, I think this is a transition season for the Gophers. They have some talent, but are young and inexperienced. I can't see them finishing any higher than fifth.
And I wouldn't pencil in the Hoosiers for last place just yet. The Hoosiers don't return much, but new coach Tom Crean may only need to grind out two or three Big Ten wins to stay ahead of Northwestern. The lowly Wildcats went 1-17 in league play last season.
Representing the Big 12
How many teams do you see making the NCAA tourney from the Big 12?
— Carlos from Houston -----
My best guess would be five.
I think you have at least three locks: Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. The Longhorns and the Sooners have Final Four potential, and the Jayhawks – while losing five starters – still have one of the league's most talented rosters thanks to a great recruiting class.
I'm not quite as confident about Baylor, but I still would lean toward the Bears getting an at-large bid. They return their top five scorers from a young team that broke through last season, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1988.
There's nobody else that looks that promising. Texas A&M probably is the next-best team, but the Aggies are losing two four-year starters (Dominique Kirk and Joseph Jones). Kansas State has a good bit of young talent, but the Wildcats barely got an at-large bid last season with Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. I can't see them staying as good without those two. Oklahoma State has a new coach (Travis Ford), but continues to lack a solid big man.
Still, there seems to be one team in each conference that overachieves or proves to be underrated each season. I'm guessing at least one of the teams mentioned in the paragraph above or a sleeper – maybe Missouri or Texas Tech – will work its way into the field of 65.