The NBA Draft is finally behind us, where half of this year’s top dozen picks were freshmen. 2008 looks to be no different, with the likes of one-and-doners Derrick Rose, OJ Mayo and Michael Beasley in all likelihood hearing their names called early.
But of course, not all incoming freshmen are already fielding calls from would-be agents. In fact, not every member of the stellar Class of 2007 is even going to the so-called “Big Six” power conferences. Many are going to be thrilling fans at the mid-major level as well.
On a side note, just for the purposes of this column, I will not classify either Gonzaga or Memphis as “mid-major” programs. The two schools have become perennial Top 25 stalwarts, have consistently been a top 3 seed or better in the Tournament in recent years (with the notable exception of last season for the Zags) and have run roughshod over their respective conferences. Memphis has the fourth ranked incoming class of 2007 according to scout.com, while Gonzaga is in the top 20 as rated by rivals.com.
These are not the normal recruiting traits of so called “non-BCS” schools.
With that said, here are some of the best prospects coming to a mid-major school near you this fall.
Manuel Cass, UTEP
Cass is one of the premier talents in this class to come out of Illinois. He lead Carbondale to the Class AA state title game in 2005, went on to star at Boys to Men across town, and averaged 15.7 points and seven rebounds last season on a South Kent (CT) team that had eight players offered scholarships at the Division I level.
At the same time, Cass was kicked off the team at Carbondale for unspecified reasons and has reportedly had academic and discipline issues throughout his prep career. He de-committed from DePaul, despite the fact that Coach Jerry Wainwright was one of the first coaches to show interest in the prospect. Cass claimed he simply no longer wanted to play in an urban environment. However, possible NCAA penalties against the Blue Demons as a result of Wainwright allegedly visiting Cass during a no-contact period might have played a larger role in the decision.
Regardless, Coach Tony Barbee’s first recruiting class has been impressive, with Cass joining big men Claude Britton and Wayne Portalat as well as guard Randy Culpepper. Should Cass continue to develop, and mature, he should emerge as the dominant scorer of a newly dangerous Miner team.
Keenan Ellis, UAB
The lanky 6-10 power forward needs to add a few pounds, but has all the traits of a future superstar who will have an instant impact on his team next year.
Ellis will also be a part of something of a resurgence by the disappointing Blazers, as Coach Mike Davis will compliment Ellis with a freshman class that includes Terrence Roderick and Aaron Johnson. This is in addition to the arrival of transfers Robert Vaden, who followed Davis from Indiana, Walter Sharpe from Mississippi State and guard Channing Toney from Georgia. Davis will also have star guard Paul Delaney back in the lineup, who had a breakout year last season.
But Ellis should have no trouble fitting in with all the new talent. After all, he did play alongside OJ Mayo and Bill Walker at North College Hill (Ohio) High. With his help, UAB just might be the only team with a chance of preventing a possible top-ranked Memphis team from running the table in the conference once again.
Beas Hamga, UNLV
Coach Lon Kruger is definitely making a name for himself in Sin City. Coming off an improbable MWC Championship and Sweet Sixteen run in just his third season, Kruger and his staff should continue their success in 2007 thanks to a first-rate recruiting class, anchored by 7-footer Beas Hamga.
Hamga, originally from Cameroon, averaged a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) his senior year. However, more impressive is his shot blocking ability, using his standing reach of 9 feet, 6 inches to swat away seven shots a game.
Originally committed to Iowa, Hamga rescinded it when Coach Steve Alford left for New Mexico. He chose the Running Rebels over New Mexico (where his high school teammate Darrington Hobson committed) as well as the likes of UConn, Indiana, Kentucky and Georgetown.
Darrington Hobson, New Mexico
There is no doubt Hobson is a premier talent with a world of potential. When he transferred to Decatur Christian in Chicago - his third school in three years - the Chicago Sun Times gushed that he was “the most highly touted out-of-state transfer since Kevin Garnett left South Carolina and landed at Farragut in 1994.”
Well, that might be a bit much. Still, the 6-7 self-proclaimed “triple-double threat” has shown he can dominate, scoring nearly 20 points and pulling down a dozen rebounds a game during his final year at Decatur. He should immediately have an impact on the Lobos, who will also add Dairese Gary to the backcourt, a highly touted guard who backed away from his commitment to Iowa to follow Coach Steve Alford to Albuquerque.
However, there’s a question as to how long he may stick around – possibly jumping to either the NBA or to another program. In addition to his frequent stops during his prep career, Hobson also had verbally committed to both Wyoming and Pepperdine before finally signing with the Lobos.
In a revealing interview with rivals.com he explained why he seems to have trouble sticking to one team: "I hate sitting on the bench. I want to play. If I don't start, I'd like to go somewhere that I can get some good minutes.” He also added that “I don't think a lot of people know what I can do. That's why I want to go somewhere that I can play as much as possible."
Of course, every player wants minutes. You don’t bust your hump every day in practice to get a courtside seat during the games. Still, players that put such an emphasis on their “PT” that they will bounce around from school to school have had a tendency to not put the interests of the team ahead of their own. Hopefully that won’t be the case here.
Matt Howard, Butler
Thanks for the dream season, Bulldogs. Can we have another one?
That seems to sum up the sentiment of Butler fans as newly hired Coach Brad Stevens looks to continue their remarkable success from last season, where they made it to the Sweet Sixteen, and set a conference record for having 16 consecutive weeks in the Top 25.
That will largely depend on 6-7 forward Matt Howard, a leave-it-all-on-the-floor bruiser who will look to start immediately for the Bulldogs. Despite his relatively small size for a forward, Howard recently held his own among some of the top recruits from the region, putting up 12 points and 9 boards in 18 minutes in the Indiana-Kentucky All-Star game, which features the best high school players from both states.
With Howard joining the returning backcourt of Mike Green and potential All-American AJ Graves, as well as fellow freshman Zach Hahn, Butler basketball fans should be able to look forward to another great season, and a possible return to the NCAA Tournament.
Check Back Tomorrow For Part Two of the Nation's Diamonds in the Rough.. including Xavier's Dante Jackson and NMSU's Herb Pope.