Now we're going to figure out who's for real. The dawning of the new year will bring some clarity to the upper echelon in college basketball. With the non-conference slate in the rearview mirror, conference play begins in earnest. We've already seen a thrilling conference clash out west with Oregon taking down UCLA on a last-second three-pointer by Dillon Brooks. Brooks almost left for the NBA after his junior campaign, ultimately deciding to return, only to have offseason foot surgery. He started off slow for the Ducks, but a huge win over Lonzo Ball and the hyped Bruins puts the Ducks back on the map.
These types of conference matchups will separate the pretenders from the contenders, not only in terms of teams, but also in terms of players. In that regard, let's take a gander at some players who are helping or hurting their cause in this week's College Hoops Barometer.
Jamel Artis, F, Pittsburgh - The senior Artis has been on a scoring binge of late. Artis has poured in 80 points over his last three contests. That includes two 30-plus point efforts, most recently a 30-point barrage in a win over Marshall. The 6-foot-7 Artis has evolved as a scorer. When he came to Pitt, he barely took any three-pointers. Now, Artis takes nearly six treys per game, hitting an impressive 39.7 percent of his shots from downtown. Despite the large increase in attempts from beyond the arc, Artis has not seen his shooting percentage decline overall. In fact, Artis is shooting a career-best 51.6 percent from the floor as a senior. Artis is also creative in getting to the foul line, and he is not a one-trick pony. Artis is averaging 3.5 assist per game for the Panthers as well. Artis has taken his game to new heights in his final season at Pitt.
Dennis Smith, Jr., G, North Carolina State - The dazzling freshman had arguably the best game of his brief collegiate career Wednesday. Smith dished out 16 assists in a 99-71 laugher over Rider. It was the first double-digit assist output of Smith's freshman campaign, though he has scored in double figures in every game this season. The 6-foot-3 Smith is not afraid to get his nose dirty either, as he is averaging 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals per tilt as well. Smith is primed to jump to the pros after just one season in Raleigh due to his court vision, athleticism and scoring prowess. For now, though, Smith will make life miserable for opposing point guards in the ACC.
Jajuan Johnson, G, Marquette - The catalyst for the Golden Eagles, Johnson is averaging career highs in nearly every statistical category as a senior. Johnson has scored in double figures in all but two games this season, he has notched double-digit rebounds on two occasions, and is also averaging 3.2 assists per contest. Johnson also minors in thievery, as he is in the top 20 in all of college basketball in terms of steals. Johnson has struggled against stiffer competition thus far this season, though rebounded with a line of 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in Marquette's last game, a 10-point win over Georgetown.
Jared Harper, G, Auburn - Yes, they play basketball at Auburn. However, the Tigers have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2003, and perhaps have not been relevant on the national stage since the days of the Round Mound of Rebound, Sir Charles Barkley. Yet the Tigers are off to a 10-2 start and have defeated some notable schools in the process. Sure, UConn, Oklahoma and Texas Tech aren't exactly having scintillating seasons, but when your school's last winning season came in the 2008-2009 campaign, you have to revel in these types of victories. Harper is a freshman guard who leads the Tigers in assists, dishing out 3.1 dimes per contest. His scoring has been on the rise of late, though, as he is averaging 21.5 points per game over his last two contests. The Tigers seem poised to finish over .500 for the first time in nearly a decade. Will Harper and company continue to climb? Only time will tell.
Jordan Woodard, G, Oklahoma - The departure of Buddy Hield leaves Woodard as the No. 1 option for the Sooners. Perhaps predictably, though, OU has struggled without the reigning NCAA Player of the Year, even as Woodard has seen an uptick in his individual stats. The senior is averaging 17.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Unfortunately, the Sooners have limped to a 6-5 start, including three-straight losses. To add injury to insult, Woodard missed the last defeat, a 74-70 loss to above-referenced Auburn, due to a leg injury. His status remains up in the air for the beginning of Big 12 play. The timing of the injury could not be worse, as the Sooners will face undefeated Baylor on December 30th followed by Kansas on Jan. 10. Without Woodard, the Sooners would be in deep trouble.
Justin Jackson, F, North Carolina - Jackson has had a rollercoaster ride of a December, parlaying outstanding outputs with absolute duds. Jackson had just seven points on 3-of-15 shooting in a narrow 73-71 win over Tennessee on December 11th. Jackson shot 0-for-6 from three-point land in that contest. However, Jackson has scored at least 28 points in two of the last three tilts for the Tar Heels since that time. Jackson nearly matched Malik Monk of Kentucky in that 103-100 thriller in the middle of December. Jackson managed 34 points in that game. He subsequently scorched Monmouth for 28 points in a 102-74 blowout victory. The versatile Jackson is capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways, though it's been a little bit of feast or famine with Jackson in terms of scoring this month.
Taurean Thompson, F, Syracuse - The Orange are loaded in the frontcourt, but it's been the freshman Thompson that has been outplaying his more experienced counterparts recently. Thompson is averaging 14 points and 5.8 rebounds over his last five contests. That included a career-high 22 points against Boston University on December 10th. Thompson has cut into the minutes of seniors Tyler Roberson and DaJaun Coleman. Coleman in particular has battled injury and inconsistency throughout his time at 'Cuse. The Orange still have Tyler Lydon roaming the paint, but it's been the freshman Thompson who has come on strong in recent games.
Daryl Macon, G, Arkansas - A junior-college transfer, Macon is a scorer by trade. An exceptional shooter, Macon cashes in at the foul line when he draws contact from opposing defenders. He is 41-of-45 from the charity stripe so far this season, including a stellar 14-for-14 performance in a 77-74 win over Texas earlier this month. Macon has also proven a capable passer, though, leading the 11-1 Hogs in assists with 2.9 per contest. Add in some rebounds and steals, and Macon has shown the ability to wreak havoc for Arkansas. SEC play will be the real test for Macon, though, as Arkansas played a rather easy non-conference schedule.
Grayson Allen, G, Duke - You didn't think I'd go an entire article without talking about Allen and his latest antics, did you? I don't know Grayson Allen personally. He drew a lot of ire even before this incident that was perhaps unwarranted and solely based on his status as the next hateable Duke star in the mold of Christian Laettner or J.J. Redick. Allen's latest trip, at least the third during his time at Duke, and subsequent temper tantrum got him suspended indefinitely by Coach K. Allen was struggling with his shot prior to the incident, though, hitting career lows both from the field as well as from three-point range. The Blue Devils certainly have enough talent to manage without the mercurial Allen, as it remains to be seen how long his "indefinite" suspension will last. However, Allen was picked by many as the preseason Player of the Year. Though this writer warned of a possible letdown by Allen, he is still an incredibly gifted and important player for the Dukies. Controlling emotions is an underrated aspect of being an athlete. Grayson Allen may just need to find his "happy place" a la Happy Gilmore.
Jalen Adams, G, Connecticut - Injuries have forced Adams to take on the lion's share of the offensive load for the Huskies this season, but an ailment of his own has sent Adams to the bench. A concussion has sidelined the sophomore floor general, as Adams missed Wednesday's 16-point loss to Houston. The Huskies managed a putrid 46 points in that contest. Clearly, the Huskies are lost without their leader. It remains to be seen if Adams will be able to suit up at Tulsa on Saturday, but it is safe to say that this season has not gone as planned for the Huskies. Still, when healthy, Adams is a standout contributor across the board, averaging 16.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per tilt.
Corey Sanders, G, Rutgers - The Scarlet Knights have lost two games in a row, and may now also be without the services of their star player. Sanders tweaked his ankle in Tuesday's loss to Wisconsin, and had to be helped off the court. He was unable to return to the game following the injury. Sanders actually did not start the contest either, as he missed his flight back from Christmas break. He shot an abysmal 1-or-11 from the floor prior to the injury. Still, the more pressing concern is the status of the ankle, as he is one of four Rutgers' players scoring in double figures, and is the leading assist man on the squad, managing 3.8 dimes per contest. Rutgers plays Penn State on New Year's Day, which will be the next opportunity for Sanders to return to the hardwood.
Udoka Azubuike, C, Kansas - The Kansas frontcourt has been in a constant state of flux to begin the season. Senior Landen Lucas has been shuttled back and forth between the starting lineup and the bench, though it had been the freshman Azubuike who had been getting most of the starts as the season had worn on. Carlton Bragg had some legal issues that put his status in doubt, though those have since been cleared up. When it finally seemed as though the dust had settled, Azubuike tore ligaments in his left wrist during practice, and will miss the remainder of the season. If coach Bill Self preferred smaller lineups even with his big men healthy, he should certainly go that route now that he will be missing the big body of Azubuike in the middle.