I believe it was Al McGuire who famously said, "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores." I'm not sure John Calipari would agree, but we're going to highlight a few of the sophomore standouts throughout the Big Ten anyway. And besides, as this list is bereft of McDonald's All-Americans these guys are likely to spend a bit more time in college than Cal's kids.
Now, as this is supposed to highlight only the best of the best throughout the conference and not role players we'll only be looking at sophomores that play over 20 minutes per game. Next week we'll update our True Freshman Tracker and dive a bit deeper into how this year's freshmen performed over the course of the non-conference season.
But first, let's take a closer look at the few sophomores that made the grade so far this season.
By the Numbers - Through Thursday, December 25th
|Derrick Walton Jr.||G||Michigan||45||33.8||11.3||104.9||.462||.302||.730||4.5||3.7||0.1||1.3||1.5|
|Marc Loving||F||Ohio State||61||23.4||12.3||140.5||.486||.585||.909||2.9||0.9||0.6||0.9||1.1|
|Geno Thorpe||F||Penn State||208||22.6||8.9||106.9||.473||.250||.845||2.6||1.0||0.1||0.9||1.7|
Bold highlights indicate the strongest performance in a given category
*Tai Webster is a hair under the minutes requirement but I decided to include him in this iteration
**Sanjay Lumpkin is a redshirt sophomore
Marc Loving's Shooting - Last year, Loving shot just .259 from behind the arc. Now, he's scorching the nets at .585. In watching Ohio State, you can see that his shot selection has improved and the offense has gotten him more open but that alone can't explain his meteoric rise in this area. After hitting 15 of 58 attempts last season, Loving has already connected on 24 of his 41 attempts this year. Clearly Marc's offseason workouts have helped him get more comfortable taking and converting shots from the perimeter.
Basil Smotherman and Stanford Robinson's Reduced Roles - Sure, these guys soaked up big minutes on bad teams - both Purdue and Indiana missed the postseason last year - but each seemed to have valuable skills that hinted at the development they might see over the course of their careers. Stanford Robinson attempted free throws on over 50% of his shot attempts, a number he has improved to over 80% so far this season, but his lack of improvement as a shooter and his high turnover rate has allowed talented freshmen like James Blackmon Jr and Robert Johnson to push him to the bench. Basil had the highest offensive rating among Purdue's freshmen last season but this year his numbers have dropped in several categories as he has has less success getting near the rim. These guys have the talent to be major contributors, but so far their sophomore seasons haven't been as strong as their freshman years.
Tai Webster's Regression - I, like many others, expected big things out of Tai Webster. While he wasn't highly rated coming out of high school, he averaged nearly 14 points during the 2012 Olympic qualifiers at just 17 years old and played for New Zealand's national team over the summer this year. For whatever reason, that hasn't translated to his play for Nebraska. Webster's offensive efficiency has barely budged since his freshman campaign(up to 78.6 from 76.7) and his assist rate has actually dropped from 16.8 to 14.1. Webster has improved a bit at the free throw line and inside the arc, but Tim Miles likely expected more from a guard that has had plenty of experience playing against high level talent.
Most Improved Sophomore (to date)
Sanjay Lumpkin - F, Northwestern
To say that I didn't expect Lumpkin to take this big of a leap this year would be an understatement. Last year, Sanjay struggled to hold ground inside the paint, was weak on the glass, and didn't finish well at the rim. This year? Lumpkin's shooting percentage inside the arc has increased by more than 20% from .441 to .676. And his three-point percentage has increased from .265 to .412. When 4-star PF Aaron Falzon committed to Northwestern I wondered what the future held in store for Lumpkin but it's now clear that Chris Collins is going to have to find a way to get Falzon minutes, not Sanjay.
What to Watch For
The rubber hits the road for these guys in the coming weeks as Big Ten conference play gets underway in just a few days on December 30th. Rotations are largely set by now, but the race to earn all-B1G honors is only just beginning.
Can Sophomores Who Earned Big Minutes as Freshmen Rejoin Rotations? We already touched on Stanford Robinson and Basil Smotherman, but Jaylon Tate also hasn't seen quite as many minutes as many expected - especially considering the season-ending injury Tracy Abrams suffered three months ago. Tate is one of the best passers on the Illini roster, but his offensive production has left much to be desired so far.
Can Kendall Stephens Expand His Game? Stephens came to Purdue hailed as one of the best three-point shooters in the nation and despite a recent slide - Kendall is just 2-14 behind the arc over his last three games - he has mostly lived up to that reputation. But Stephens has strugged to score within the arc. His 2P% is absolutely dreadful at just .212 and he struggles to get to the free throw line. His lack of versatility offensively makes him easier to guard which has been hampering the Boilermakers in their most recent contests. If opponents know that Kendall isn't a threat inside the arc, his shooting may not recover much this season.
Can Zak Irvin Find Better Shots? We know that Zak Irvin can shoot. He connected on 62-146 attempts last season; he shot enough that it's clear his performance wasn't a fluke. But he isn't playing next to Nik Stauskas this season. This year's Michigan team actually assists a bit more on their made field goals than last year's club, but Irvin's inability to create for himself is more clear. If Irvin can't move a bit more without the ball or create for himself more with his dribble he may not be able to match last season's performance from behind the arc.
While many of these players have certainly improved, most of them haven't quite broken out as all-B1G caliber players - yet. There's still a chance for some of these guys, notably Hayes, Williams, and Loving, to hear their names called during award season. While plenty of games are in the books at this point, these players are largely still improving and for many of them their best games of this season are yet to come. Stay tuned.