We’ve reached the point in the college basketball season when freshmen aren’t really freshmen anymore.

The game starts slowing down. They start getting comfortable with their roles. And they start playing with more confidence and fluidity.

It’s a growth that has helped add new elements to veteran teams at the top of the ACC standings while providing some hope for the future to a couple of teams down near the bottom.

The abundance of freshman talent around the league this season should also make for an interesting competition for the ACC’s Rookie of the Year award as we approach the turn into the 2nd half of the conference schedule.

There’s no clear-cut favorite. But plenty of candidates.

Here are a few:

Markus Burton/Braeden Shrewsberry, Notre Dame

Burton has been great all season for the Irish, but that’s no surprise. He was Mr. Basketball in Indiana last year and came to South Bend as the crown jewel of new coach Micah Shrewsberry’s first recruiting class. The 5-foot-11 guard leads Notre Dame in scoring (15.9 ppg), assists (4.1) and steals (1.5).

Shrewsberry, the coach’s son, is one of those freshmen whose light is just now beginning to come on. The 6-3 shooting guard had a breakout 25-point performance, in which he made 5 3-pointers, in an overtime win against Georgia Tech on Jan. 9. He has scored in double figures in 5 of his last 6 games while shooting 45% from beyond the arc.

If both youngsters stick around, they’ll make a solid foundation for Shrewsbury, the coach, to build a program around.

Baye Ndongo/Naithan George, Georgia Tech

Similar to Shrewsberry at Notre Dame, 1st-year coach Damon Stoudamire has a pair of fantastic freshmen to provide a distraction and a little excitement to a building season that’s going nowhere fast.

Ndongo has been the Yellow Jackets’ version of Burton and their strongest Rookie of the Year candidate. He ranks 3rd among ACC freshmen in scoring at 13.3 points per game. He’s also the top rebounder – both on the team and among the league’s rookies – at 8.6 per game to go with 24 blocked shots.

George, a 6-3 point guard, has been a solid playmaker who ranks 2nd in the league at 5.1 assists per game. But the young Canadian has begun to find his shooting touch of late. Starting with a 17-point performance against Duke at Cameron, he’s posted double-figure efforts in 4 of his last 5 games while making 11 of his 26 3-point attempts over that stretch.

Bub Carrington/Jaland Lowe, Pitt

Carrington burst onto the scene by recording 18 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the Panthers’ opener against NC A&T to become the 1st ACC player to record a triple-double in his 1st college game since Georgia Tech’s Dennis Scott did it in 1997. The 6-5 shooting guard has continued to play well, averaging 13.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists.

But if Pitt is going to turn things around and get back to the postseason for the second straight year, Lowe could be the catalyst. After hitting for double-figures only twice in his first 16 games, the 6-3 sharpshooter has gone off for an average of 16.5 points, to go along with 4.0 assists, in his past 4. He punctuated Pitt’s huge upset of Duke at Cameron with a dagger of a 3-pointer late in the shot clock to put the Panthers up by 4 with 45 seconds remaining.

Jared McCain, Duke

Like the other teams mentioned, the Blue Devils have multiple freshmen who have made significant contributions. McCain, however, has stood out. His numbers are reason enough for him to be mentioned among the ACC’s top freshmen. He’s averaging 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists while shooting 42% from 3-point range.

But it’s his poise and ability to rise to the occasion in key spots that have helped him fit right into coach Jon Scheyer’s veteran lineup and keep Duke in its familiar spot in or around the top 10 in the national polls.

McCain’s value to the team was on full display against Clemson on Saturday. He scored more than half of his game-high 20 points over the final 12 minutes, including a long 3 as the shot clock ticked down, and recorded 3 steals in the final 2½ to help the Blue Devils survive an upset bid and come away with a dramatic 1-point win.

“Jared just has a special belief about him,” Scheyer said afterward. “When things get tough, you just feel like Jared is going to make a play. It doesn’t matter if he’s a freshman. It doesn’t matter if he’s never been in a situation like this before. He just has a belief his team’s supposed to win. It’s more his spirit, just finding a way to win.”

Elliot Cadeau, North Carolina

Cadeau was the preseason pick for Rookie of the Year. And he’s been solid, especially considering that he should still be a senior in high school and that he’s the only freshman of consequence on one of the nation’s most experienced teams.

The 6-1 point guard has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the ACC at 2.4–to-1. And even though he’s had some issues with his shooting from beyond the 3-point arc and free throw line, he’s been an effective driver scoring at a 7.5-point per game clip.

He picked up his scoring production over his past 2 games with 14 points in a win against Wake Forest and a career-high 16 on Saturday in a come-from-behind victory at Florida State. His greatest value to a Tar Heels team that has won 10 straight and risen to No. 3 in the nation, however, has been the impact he has had on his teammates.

His pass-first mentality and ability to break down defenses have created open shots for others. Senior RJ Davis, the ACC’s leading scorer, acknowledged Cadeau’s role in his standout season after the game in Tallahassee.

“He does a great job of setting people up, and also does a great job of being aggressive, getting down
the lane,” Davis said. “He’s a special player, a special talent and he’s going to be needed for us the rest of the season.”