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Big Ten men’s basketball: Five freshmen to watch in conference play

Here’s a list of freshmen to keep an eye on during league play in the Big Ten.

Photo of John Blackwell by John Fisher/Getty Images. Photo of Owen Freeman by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Photo of Mackenzie Mgbako by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

With the nonconference schedule in the rearview mirror and teams having mostly taken shape, it’s worth taking a look at new faces around the conference.

Some of the league’s true freshmen have lived up to or even outplayed their recruiting ranking. Others? Not as much. That being said, here’s a list of guys worth watching this winter/spring.

Honorable Mentions

  • Gavin Griffiths - G, Rutgers
  • Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn - G, Illinois

Owen Freeman - Forward/Center, Iowa Hawkeyes

Syndication: Iowa City Press-Citizen Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Freeman has emerged at center for the Hawkeyes, filling a gap left by Filip Rebraca. He’s been a revelation at that spot, to outside eyes at least.

Rated as a three-star and the 37th best power forward in the class of 2023 by 247Sports, it’s fair to say he’s outplayed his ranking at this point. Freeman is averaging 9.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 0.5 assists for the Hawkeyes, becoming one of Fran McCaffery’s go-to guys with a team-leading 24.3% usage rate.

It’s worth noting that Iowa likes to spread the ball around, but Freeman has become a key cog in the system just months into his college hoops career.

Freeman, who’s perfectly capable of getting easy points in the dunker’s spot, has plenty of strength to back down opposing defenders on the block, is opportunistic with second-chance points and is mindful on defense, getting plenty of blocks and deflections.

He’s one to keep an eye on this season and in the future as Iowa transitions away from the era of Luka Garza and the Murray brothers.

John Blackwell - Guard, Wisconsin Badgers

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Arizona Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports

As it turns out, AJ Storr wasn’t the only boost Greg Gard added at the wing this offseason.

Mind you, Blackwell is a bit undersized for that spot, but has played well in relief of and alongside the likes of Storr and Max Klesmit. Blackwell too was a three-star, rated as the 29th best combo guard in the class of 2023.

He’s averaging 9.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.7 assists off the bench for the Badgers, giving Gard options in relief of his starters. His offensive rating of 132.9 leads the team.

One of the things that makes him dangerous is his 3-point shot, he’s hit 48% of his 25 attempts from deep on the season. Defenses can’t afford to lose track of him on the arc, something Tony Bennett learned the hard way.

He has the speed and handle to drive past his man or push the ball down the court in transition. You wouldn’t guess that he’s a true freshman.

Cam Christie - Wing, Minnesota Golden Gophers

NCAA Basketball: New Orleans at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Christie, a four-star shooting guard out of Illinois, chose Ben Johnson and Minnesota over offers from Iowa State, Illinois, Iowa and DePaul.

On a team that needed someone, anyone to step up after last year’s disappointing finish, Christie has largely risen to the occasion. He averages 11.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game for the Gophers.

With a usage rate of just 18.1%, he’s not exactly the go-to guy for Minnesota but makes the most of the opportunities he’s given. His offensive rating of 119.5 is good for third on the team.

He has the handle to bring the ball up the court, and is capable of creating for himself or knocking down catch-and-shoot attempts from deep.

Mackenzie Mgbako - Wing, Indiana Hoosiers

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Mgbako was rated as the 10th best overall prospect in the class of 2023, picking Indiana over Kansas following a late decommitment from Duke. He joined the Hoosiers with his sights set on the 2024 NBA Draft.

A starter since opening night, his first few outings with the cream and crimson saw low minutes and averages before something of a breakout performance against Harvard in Indianapolis. Mgbako scored 18 points with 8 rebounds against the Crimson and has put up double figures in every game since.

His improvement has come as the Hoosiers have gelled more as a roster overall. Without enough outside shooting to build something around, Mgbako has been a vital presence on the arc for passes out of the post.

Most of his opportunities come from deep, but he’s able to hit turnaround jumpers in the midrange. He has enough strength and speed to generate good looks in the post, but leaves most of those opportunities for Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware.

Outside of scoring, he goes after rebounds and while his handle hasn’t proven reliable enough on a consistent basis, but he’s proven a willing and capable passer.

He’s one to watch for his sheer talent and how he could progress as a player throughout Big Ten play.

Deshawn Harris-Smith - Guard, Maryland Terrapins

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Villanova Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Harris-Smith was among the top-rated prospects in the class of 2023, ranking as the 27th best overall and fifth best small forward by 247Sports. He received high praise from Kevin Willard in the preseason, who referred to him as the most talented player he’d ever coached.

For a team that needs more from the perimeter, a leap from Harris-Smith in league play will be crucial to any postseason hopes the Terps have left after a rocky nonconference.

Cycling between the two and three, Harris-Smith’s usage rate of 20.5% ranks third on the team but his offensive rating of 90.5 is hovering around the bottom. If he can figure it out during the league’s season he’ll make the Terps an easier watch than they have been thus far.