The big challenges are over. The Big Ten and ACC are equal, and the Big East - what's left of it - has proven to be better than SEC, at least early in the season. I think Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee will be the three best teams in either conference by season's end, even with Michael Dixon gone from the Tigers. In this week's Haze, we'll hit the major conferences and look to Tiers 2 and 3 for some first-year gems. Note: I was going to add Hofstra freshman Jimmy Hall (12.7 points, 9.4 rebounds) to the list, but he was arrested Friday on burglary charges.
Rasheed Sulaimon, guard, Duke Blue Devils
It takes a really special freshman to come on a team with a bunch of upperclassman and forge a role for himself. The Blue Devils have been tested by a tough schedule and Sulaimon has stepped up in critical moments. In his last seven games, the 6-foot-4 freshman has scored in double digits and put 17 points on Ohio State last Wednesday. He has hit a 3-pointer in every game and is converting 39.5 percent of his long-range shots. Perhaps the biggest question on Sulaimon is whether he will stick around for a second year in Durham.
Brandon Ashley, forward, Arizona Wildcats
Last year, the Wildcats were small. They had to play Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom out of position. This year, they brought in some quality bigs, including center Kalen Tarczewski, who will likely be featured in a future edition of the Haze, and the 6-8 Ashley. The freshman has not played more than 24 minutes in any of his five games, but has some eye-opening performances. He had 20 points (6-of-6 from the field) and 10 rebounds against Long Beach State. He doesn't have much range on his shot, but Ashley gets to the line often (6.2 times per game).
Chris Obekpa, center, St. John's Red Storm
I play in a fantasy league that favors shot blockers. In that league a freshman like Obekpa is gold. The 6-9 Nigerian opened the season with a near-triple double (seven points, 11 rebounds, eight blocks) and has been patrolling the lane since. He is not much of an offensive player: he has set and equaled his career high of eight points in his last two games, but he isn't on the court to score. In his last four games, Obekpa has swatted 18 shots, and he averages 4.4 blocks (and just 4.6 points and 4.3 rebounds). If you need blocks, then Obekpa is probably already off the waiver wire.
Josh Gray, guard, Texas Tech Red Raiders
Gray is more of a speculative pick than anything else. The 6-1 guard of the Red Raiders has started all five games and scored in double digits in the first four. He was shut down by Ashley's Wildcats on Saturday, playing a season-low 19 minutes. Gray had seven steals with 12 points and four assists on Nov. 26 against Jackson State. With interim coach Chris Walker leading the way, Gray should get plenty of playing time to learn and grow.
Jherrod Stiggers, guard, Houston Cougars
The freshman to watch in Houston was supposed to be Danuel House, and the 6-7 freshman is averaging 11.3 points and 4.6 rebounds. House has been slightly bettered by the 6-5 Stiggers, who has scored at least 12 points in his last four games. The redshirt freshman, who sat out last year after hurting his knee in preseason, is a 3-point specialist and has taken more than 75 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. In the early going, Stiggers is hitting 48.9 percent of his threes and has hit 3.4 3-pointers per game. To provide a little extra value, the Texas native has nabbed nine steals in his last four games.
Taran Brown, forward, Santa Barbara Gauchos
The last couple seasons, when you thought about the Gauchos, you thought about swingman Orlando Johnson. The 20-point scorer has moved to the NBA, but the cupboard is not bare at UCSB. Brown, a 6-8 redshirt freshman, has taken up residence and may make a name for himself. The athletic forward has provided stats across the board: 13.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.0 blocks, 1.3 steals and 2.3 threes. He had a double-double in his first game against The Master's College, but has only 32.3 percent of his shots over his last three games. Brown may need to spend a bit more time in the paint to improve his field-goal percentage.
Michael Kessens, forward, Longwood Lancers
After a few years as an independent, Longwood has joined the Big South. It might be able to do some damage in their new conference behind Kessens. The 6-9 native of Switzerland has gobbled up rebounds at an alarming rate. He averages 11.4 boards and pulled down 17 rebounds Nov. 28 against Central Pennsylvania. Kessens is no slouch as a scorer with 13.0 points and has added 2.1 blocks. The one worry about Kessens, who played high school ball in France, is fouls. He fouled out of his first two games and collected four more whistles in his big game against the CPC Knights.