CBB freshman rankings: Time to give MSU's Miles Bridges the love he deserves

We here at CBS Sports have once again teamed up with the United States Basketball Writers Association and its Integris Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year Award, meaning our weekly feature on the best freshman in the country will work hand in hand with the Tisdale committee and the USBWA. The winner of the award will be announced in March, while a ceremony for all USBWA honors will take place in early April. Each week we will provide a look at the best freshman for the previous week, followed by our top 10 overall Frosh Watch as we see them at this point in the season.

Freshman of Week: Miles Bridges, Michigan St.

After missing seven games and sitting out the entire month of December, Miles Bridges floated off the national radar. He started strongly and was one of the few bright spots for a Michigan State team that struggled early and couldn't overcome a tough schedule and injury issues. Bridges was sidelined with an ankle injury, but he returned on Jan. 4. Over the past two games, against Purdue and Michigan, Bridges put up his strongest back-to-back efforts this season, averaging 24.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.0 steals while shooting 19-of-34 from the field, including 50-percent 3-point shooting.

His 33-point performance in a home loss to Purdue set a program record for most points in a game by a Spartans frosh. The projected lottery pick has kept Michigan State's NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The Spartans are 13-9, having just earned a critical win over Michigan on Sunday. Next up is a tricky road game against Nebraska on Thursday. Win or lose, Bridges is on my short list -- easily among the top five -- of the most watchable and exciting players in college basketball this season.

He also has played his way back onto the Frosh Watch.

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Bridges has been terrific as of late and is back on the Frosh Watch. USATSI

Here are the top 10 freshman performers in college basketball from the start of the season until now.

10. Miles Bridges, Michigan State

Last week: N/R

16.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.7 blocks, 53.3 2-pt%, 41.4 3-pt %, 99.4 ORtg

Bridges replaces FSU's Jonathan Isaac, who last week replaced St. John's Shamorie Ponds. The 10 spot here is becoming a revolving door, and it wouldn't surprise me if someone different is here next week. Bridges is no doubt highlighted in every scouting report as a 3-point threat, but I don't think he's getting enough recognition elsewhere for his range. Freshmen like Lauri Markkanen, Malik Monk, Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf are all known as reliable 3-point shooters. Bridges is nearly in their class, having attempted 70 triples this season and made 41 of them. Incredibly, he's able to get open looks often, too.

As always, thanks to @BigTenGeeks for being all over the GIF game.

9. Justin Patton, Creighton

Last week: No. 9

14.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.6 blocks, 73.4 2-pt%, 123.2 ORtg

Patton has not faltered since losing his point guard. Mo Watson Jr. went out during the first half of Creighton's game at Xavier on Jan. 16. Including that game, Patton's averaging 13.8 points and 6.3 rebounds. He's maintained his season averages, more or less. Creighton faces a tough challenge on Tuesday night, playing at Butler. The Bulldogs just took a home loss to Georgetown. Patton will need to play to his averages yet again, minimally, to give the Jays a chance at winning.

8. Josh Jackson, Kansas

Last week: No. 8

15.7 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.6 steals, 53.9 2-pt%, 107.6 ORtg

Jackson had one of his five best games of the season Saturday, a 20-point, 10-rebound effort on the road against Kentucky. This came after 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and a foul-out in a loss to West Virginia last week. Jackson is averaging more than three fouls and two turnovers per game, but he's been making good progress and could be primed for a big bump in the Frosh Watch. The difference between No. 8 and No. 4 on this list is getting smaller by the week. Jackson's weakness has been foul shooting. He's made only 26 of his 47 free throws in Big 12 play.

7. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

Last week: No. 7

16.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 54.5 2-pt%, 50.5 3-pt%, 85.4 FT%, 136.2 ORtg

The Wildcats are up to No. 5 in the AP poll. Markkanen averaged 14.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in the sweep of the Washington schools. He did not log an assist or a block in either game. In fact, Markkanen's 0.5 block average is bizarre. He's 7 feet tall. When you're 7 feet and playing college basketball, you should stumble into a block per game at the very least. Arizona fans are going to be up in arms again this week because Markkanen hasn't moved ahead of the seven spot. But while the Finnish prospect is growing into a really fantastic player, this is a year-long look at all-around statistical impact. This list is void of recency bias and doesn't draw its rankings based on one head-to-head matchup. At this point in the season, Markkanen has been splendid but just a hair behind ...

6. T.J. Leaf, UCLA

Last week: No. 5

16.3 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 2.6 APG, 65.6 2-pt%, 48.8 3-pt%, 130.4 ORtg

Through the first seven weeks of the season, Leaf was basically a top-four freshman. Over the past three weeks, he's been top-15 quality. Which is still really good. For example, Leaf's hit the worst stretch of his short college career in the past five games, and you want to know his averages in those games? He's putting up 12.6 points and 7.0 rebounds. He went 8-and-8 in the loss to USC last week. If anything, I'd like to see Leaf get more chances to shoot from deep. He's averaging two attempts per game. Up that to four, and I bet UCLA's offense gets even better. Also, keep an eye on Leaf's minutes. He averages 30.6 on the season but is a few minutes under that in the past six games.

5. Malik Monk, Kentucky

Last week: No. 6

21.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.3 APG, 59.5 2-pt% 39.6 3-pt%, 122.3 ORtg

We already know that Monk is one of the best scorers in college basketball. Best shooters? He's really good, but shy of great. Too streaky to be labeled "great" at this point. Monk has been better than 50 percent from the field only twice in his past seven games, and he's 30 percent from 3-point range in that span. He went 3 for 13 from deep in Kentucky's two-point loss at Tennessee. When Monk is going, he's a thrill. One of the best things in college hoops this season. But he's also hard to figure. Per Synergy Sports data, Monk is a significantly more effective shooter on catch-and-shoot action when he's got a hand in his face. He's shooting just 40 percent from the field this season when he receives the ball and immediately takes a shot with no defender in his area.

Yet he's shooting 49 percent from the field -- on a lot more shots -- when put up against a defender. That's wild.

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4. De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Last week: No. 4

15.9 PPG, 5.7 APG, 4.4 RPG, 1.6 steals, 54.0 2-pt%, 113.1 ORtg

The latest evidence that Kentucky's success depends on not Monk, but Fox, has come in the past two games. UK is 0-2. The first loss was on the road to mediocre Tennessee -- a two-point loss, a game that saw Fox score 17 points on nine shots, but also had him in foul trouble into the second half. In the loss to Kansas, Fox had 10 points, five turnovers, and a pair of assists and boards. He was merely OK. And Kentucky had a lot of problems. But without Fox taking over, Kentucky was left to other devices, devices it was incapable of turning on. UK is home to Georgia on Tuesday, then at Florida on Saturday. Finishing worse than 2-0 in that stretch will probably prompt a lot of people to remove Kentucky as a serious national title threat.

3. Dennis Smith, Jr., NC State

Last week: No. 3

19.0 PPG, 6.5 APG, 4.4 RPG, 2.2 steals, 49.0 2-pt%, 36.0 3-pt%, 111.5 ORtg

Smith vaulted to No. 3 last Tuesday, just hours after his huge performance at Cameron Indoor. He followed that up with eight points, six assists, five rebounds, five turnovers and three steals on 3-of-12 shooting against Louisville. Hey, the Cardinals have made a lot of good players look like afterthoughts this season. If you saw the 85-60 Louisville blowout on Sunday, you saw why Smith can only do so much -- and why Smith has his critics. He can sometimes force the issue, and his effort is seldom shaking at the 100-percent meter for an entire game. NC State is 14-8 and in need -- yes, I said need -- of two wins at home this week. Syracuse on Wednesday, then Miami on Saturday. Anything less than 2-0, and the fear of permanently falling into the NIT pool gets serious.

2. Lonzo Ball, UCLA

Last week: No. 2

14.9 PPG, 8.0 APG, 5.8 RPG, 1.7 steals, 69.0 2-pt%, 43.1 3-pt%, 129.8 ORtg

Last week I had a piece posted that looked at Ball's funky shooting form. Give that a read; I think you'll enjoy it. It's fascinating to me, and I love that this guy continues to kill it from deep against everyone, this despite having a release point that mimics what you see in CYO competition. UCLA had just one game since the last Frosh Watch, a road loss against USC. Ball had 15 points, 10 rebounds and seven turnovers. Not a great game for him or the Bruins, but he keeps steady at No. 2. Now that UCLA is 6-3 in the Pac-12 and unlikely to win the league's regular season title, I'm interested to see how Ball plays over the next four games. Will he become all the better, or will his role become less influential?

And hey, finally, we get Lonzo going up against the No. 1 player in the Frosh Watch. UCLA plays at Washington on Saturday.

1. Markelle Fultz, Washington

Last week: No. 1.

23.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 6.0 APG, 1.6 steals, 50.9 2-pt%, 40.6 3-pt%, 116.0 ORtg

Here's the reality of where we're at with Fultz. He's held on to the No. 1 spot in the Frosh Watch since the debut edition. This is, I believe, the sixth year of the Frosh Watch at CBSSports.com, and the only player in that time to hold the top spot wire to wire was Ben Simmons, last season. Simmons took FOY in a runaway. But Fultz is no lock to win Freshman of the Year, in part because the competition is so much better. Still, just because you haven't seen a lot of him doesn't excuse the reality that he's still better on a game-by-game basis, on the whole, than any other freshman in the country. Amazingly, Washington is just 9-12 and isn't even within shouting distance of the CBI, let alone the NIT. It's absolutely fascinating. Fultz averaged 22.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists against the Arizona schools last week.

Previous FOTW winners:

Dec. 6: T.J. Leaf
Dec. 13: Jayson Tatum

Dec. 20: Malik Monk
Dec. 27: Shamorie Ponds
Jan. 3: Markelle Fultz
Jan. 10: Dennis Smith, Jr.

Jan. 17: Josh Jackson
Jan. 24: Dennis Smith, Jr.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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