Frosh Watch: East Carolina's Jayden Gardner wins Freshman of the Week honors after absurd 35-and-20 performances

CBS Sports is once again teaming up with the United States Basketball Writers Association and its Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year Award. Every Tuesday we announce a national Freshman of the Week winner in addition to our Frosh Watch, which is a ranking of the top 10 most statistically impressive freshmen in men's Division I college basketball.

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East Carolina's Jayden Gardner is the CBS Sports/USBWA Freshman of the Week. Getty Images

Freshman of the Week: Jayden Gardner, East Carolina

One of the best freshmen in America is playing in Greenville, North Carolina, on an 8-8 team that's undergoing a signficant program shift.

ECU's Jayden Gardner has been a stud almost the entire season, and on the heels of a week in which he averaged 26.5 points, 14.0 rebounds and 54.3-percent shooting, he's the CBS Sports/USBWA Freshman of the Week. 

Gardner's standout games came in losses -- but both on the road. And FOTW is never explicitly predicated on a team winning or losing. ECU fell by six at Memphis and then by 11 at UCF, which is tussling with Houston as the best team in the conference. Against 13-2 UCF and its 7-foot-6 center, Tacko Fall, Gardner was unreal: he had 35 points and 20 rebounds, putting up a stat line that even Zion Williamson probably won't duplicate this season. It's the first time in AAC history that any player has had a 30/20 double-double.

Beyond that, any player score 35 points and grab 20 rebounds is a rarity. There's only been seven instances of the that happening in college basketball in the past eight seasons, none of which came from freshmen. 

The 6-foot-6 Gardner has been one of the true surprises of the American Athletic Conference. ECU doesn't yet qualify as a top-10 team in the league, but if Gardner sticks around for another two years, it's possible his ability and Joe Dooley's coaching can get this team into the NCAA Tournament.

FROSH WATCH 

These are the top 10 freshman performers in college basketball through the season so far.

1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Key stats: 21.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.9 bpg, 41.6 PER

Less than one week after posting a career-high 30 points against Wake Forest in an 87-65 win, Zion Williamson re-upped his own bar by scoring 35 on Monday on 12-of-20 shooting in an overtime loss to Syracuse. Sandwiched in between his career performances was an early exit due to injury against Florida State in which he got poked in the eye and did not play in the second half. Nonetheless, Williamson's earned quite a bit of slack as the No. 1 frosh this season. His sky-high 41.64 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) continues to be the best in the NCAA among all players this season at 41.64.

2. RJ BARRETT, Duke

Key stats: 23.4 ppg, 4.1 apg, 111.7 KenPom ORtg

RJ Barrett scored 21, 32 and 23 points in three games this past week, maintaining his stellar points-per-game average that leads No. 1 Duke at 23.4. He stepped up in a clutch moment, too. When Williamson left Duke's game on Saturday against FSU, he came alive, scoring 32, playing all 40 minutes, and notching an efficient 10-of-19 shooting night. Duke's loss Monday to Syracuse wasn't his best game overall -- he scored 23, but took 30 shots, including a 4-of-17 night from beyond the arc, but he also dished out nine assists and grabbed 16 boards for the shorthanded Blue Devils, who were without Cameron Reddish (illness) and Tre Jones, who left early with a shoulder injury.

3. ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana

Key stats: 18.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.5 apg

As Sam Vecenie of The Athletic pointed out recently, Romeo Langford is the most effective finisher in college basketball. The IU wing is making nearly 80 percent of his shots at the rim in half-court offense. Langford has a knack for angles and spacing, and it's showing. In Indiana's loss at Maryland last Friday, he had 28 points, including 20 in the second half. His 18.8 points per game is best in the Big Ten among freshmen. 

4. ANTOINE DAVIS, Detroit

Key stats: 27.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 112.2 KenPom ORtg

In most weeks, Antoine Davis would be a shoo-in to be Frosh of the Week: He scored 29 points in a win over Green Bay on Thursday, then followed it up on Saturday with a 32 point outburst in a win over Milwaukee. Gardner simply went full-blown heat check to steal it from him. In any case, Davis' season-long steadiness and consistency has earned him a spot full-time in the Frosh Watch. He leads all freshmen in points scored per game and is getting his buckets on an efficient diet of 2-pointers and 3-point field goals; he's shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from 3-point range through 18 games on the season. And as a bonus, Detroit Mercy is turning a corner: The Titans have won five of their last six games after a shaky 3-9 start to the season.

5. KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky

Key stats: 15.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 59.1 eFG%, 119.1 KenPom ORtg

Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson is the consummate NBA glue guy currently being cast as the No. 1 option for the Wildcats, so UK has ebbed and flowed as he's found his way. But certainly, there's been more flow. He's averaging a team-high 15.5 points and making 39.6 percent from the 3-point line on the season, all the while maintaining an efficient 59.1 eFG% that is tops among Kentucky players averaging more than 15 minutes per game on the season.

6. IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS, Michigan

Key stats: 15.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 24.1 PER

Ignas Brazdeikis may be the least-heralded, yet most crucial, freshman for the team he plays on. He leads the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines in points per game (15.6) and PER (24.1), and oh, by the way, Michigan is the only team in the country with 17 wins at the moment, and only one of two unbeaten teams left in the sport.

7. JAYDEN GARDNER, East Carolina

Key stats: 19.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.0 spg, 29.2 PER

Jayden Gardner has been a revelation for East Carolina. He's gone from off-the-radar three-star recruit to the leading scorer in the American Athletic Conference, regardless of classification, as a true freshman. At 6-6, 245 pounds, Gardner is dominating AAC competition with his rare ball skills and shot-creation that is a rare combination from a player his age -- especially one that, according to KenPom.com data, plays primarily at the center position. Gardner capped an overall solid week started by an 18 point, eight rebound game against Memphis by scoring 35 (a new career-high) and grabbing 20 rebounds (also a new career-high).

8. LAMINE DIANE, Cal State Northridge  

Key stats:  23.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 2.4 bpg

Lamine Diane continues to pop up on the Frosh Watch because of his otherworldly overall impact on a nightly basis. He's second among freshmen we're tracking in points scored per game at 23.4, second in blocked shots per game at 2.4, and first in rebounds per game at 11.1. Cal State Northridge has been a bit of a train wreck overall this season, but it is 2-0 in Big West play. In that span, Diane is averaging 20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 blocks per game.

9. CHARLES BASSEY, Western Kentucky

Key stats: 14.7 ppg, 8.9 bpg, 2.4 bpg, 27.9 PER

Western Kentucky is toiling in C-USA, now 1-2 in the league and 8-8 overall. This was not how things were expected to be for Rick Stansbury's team. Despite this,Charles Bassey has been efficient and played up to expectation. He's one of the best rebounders in the conference and is not requiring absurd usage to rack up big numbers. But unless WKU can take the automatic bid, chances are Bassey's college career will be but a blip. 

10. LUGUENTZ DORT, Arizona State

Key stats: 17.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.5 spg

It's been a steady slide for Luguentz Dort, who just over a month ago was No. 3 in the Frosh Watch. He's clinging to top-10 status due to his points and rebounds and defense. But he's also not excelling in efficiency marks. Dort's effective field goal percentage (45.6), player efficiency rating (16.4) and KenPom ORtg (98.0) all rank in the bottom five of the nearly 40 freshmen we're tracking for the Watch. A few really good players are knocking on the door of the top 10, so Dort will need clean games vs. the Oregon schools this week to stay at the table. 

Previous Freshman of the Week winners:

CBS Sports Senior Writer

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

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