It’s also a chance to see freshmen get some real tests. Last year we saw the statistics of most non-Durantian freshmen decline and with the gaudy numbers put up this season, merely treading water will be an impressive feat for most folks. So rather than just continue to rank the top 10 freshmen as the “second season” begins, I welcome conference play with a big ol’ primer – complete with a nifty little boxing gimmick – examining the impact freshmen and handicapping the rookie of the year awards in each BCS league and on the non-BCS landscape. The regular ranking comes at the bottom, minus snarky elaboration, with the usual games to watch following.
My New Year’s Resolution is to not develop an unhealthy proclivity toward one freshman which could severely cloud my judgment, taste and smell like I did last year so send anti-Eric Gordon e-mails before it’s too late.
The Champ – DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh
You could make a good case for Blair as Player of the Year for the Big East in the non-conference, but that is thrown out the window now that the Big East grind has begun. He’s an absolute animal on the boards as everyone saw in that epic battle with Duke, but with Levance Fields’ uncertain status, Blair’s ability to score the ball, handle the double teams and, more importantly, stay on the floor, will be key to the Panthers league title hopes. He’s been huge in big games this season so he’s not going to sneak up on anyone anymore. All of a sudden it’s DeJuan Blair’s team, we’ll see how far he can take them.
The Contender – Donte Greene, Syracuse
If Syracuse can avoid self-destruction after yet another injury to a veteran starter and finish in the top five of the Big East, Greene will have a shot at POY for the league. But if they don’t, you know, keep their opponents from scoring 150 points, Greene’s efforts will be overlooked. He is the best offensive player in the conference and will get 35 minutes and at least 15 shots a game so the numbers will be there, but like Beasley and, to an extent Blair, the story will be his ability, as a freshman, to lead a team in victory, not just the box score. At 6-10 and extremely athletic, he could be the anchor of the 2-3 zone – much like Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick were – if he wants to, but it’s not easy to convince a freshman to exert that type of defensive energy (even for Boeheim, who, due to his complete mismatch of a wife, must be very persuasive).
The Undercard – Malcolm Grant and Corey Fisher, Villanova; Austin Freeman, Georgetown; Dar Tucker and Mac Koshwal, DePaul; Jonny Flynn, Syracuse
Flynn was a national hero early in the season due to his Preseason NIT exploits but he’s come back to Earth and assumed his role as the Orange’s humble floor leader. And because of that role, on an up-tempo team that needs a solid quarterback, he’s probably going to have a bigger impact than the others listed here. Since the first game of the season, I have been saying Malcolm Grant, the least heralded of Nova’s three freshmen, is the best of the trio and when he gets the minutes, he does me a nice little favor in making me look like a genius. He single-handedly beat LSU with 13 of his 18 points in the final three minutes of a 21-point comeback and dropped 22 on Pitt Sunday, only the fourth time he’s played 20 minutes all season. It’s a crowded Nova backcourt and Corey Fisher has been productive in 10 more minutes per game, but I want to see more Grant and less Scottie ‘John Starks Junior’ Reynolds. JT3 has handled Freeman very well this season, letting the highly-touted guard ease into minutes on a veteran top 10 team, and he now appears ready to be a crunch time contributor and big beneficiary of the attention that will be given to Hibbert and Summers. I look for Freeman’s numbers to actually go up in league play. And as for Tucker and Koshwal, someone forgot to tell them DePaul was supposed to suck this year. Because of their contributions (12 and 6 for Tucker, 11 and 8 for Koshwal), the Demons could be this year’s Big East spoiler.
The Champ – Eric Gordon, Indiana
I’m not right often (thanks NC State and Herb Pope) but Gordon has exceeded even my lofty expectations. My Amazing Eric Gordon Stat Du Jour? He’s averaging 1.84 points per shot. That’s insane. That means every time he shoots the ball, Indiana is getting nearly two points. That’s more than even Tyler Hansbrough (1.83), who is probably Gordon’s best competition, along with DJ Augustin, for National Player of the Year. He even has good numbers defensively (1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks), although his on-ball defense has been questioned. Like I said earlier, I am sensing an eerie similarity to Durant’s season last year, where I didn’t really want to watch any other players in the country and I defended every play he made, but I promise I will try to show some restraint. And if he busts out a couple of those mid-week, primetime, in-conference takeovers, it’s going to be hard. Maybe he’ll have like 10 turnovers against Michigan tonight or Illinois fans will put laxative in his Gatorade Sunday or something.
McNeely – Kosta Koufos, Ohio State
Speaking of being right… I was not on Koufos. On second thought, he isn’t better than Greg Oden and probably won’t be the No. 1 pick in the draft. And some very underwhelming performances against Tyler Hansbrough (4 points) and Texas A & M’s frontcourt (4-16 shooting) probably proves that. He’s young and can’t be expected to shine against those guys, even though Oden held his own against top competition all of last season. Clearly the comparison is unwarranted. Sorry. That being said, Koufos is still really freaking good. He’s got a mix of inside-outside scoring ability and ballhandling that no other big man in the conference has, so there will be nights where he dominates. But it’s consistency that Koufos needs to prove, going out and asserting his superior talent every night, even if vets like Hunter and Butler have seniority. If he does that, not only will the Buckeyes contend in the Big Ten, but I’ll probably start making crazy predictions again that will ultimately turn out incorrect. And that’s just fun for everyone.
The Guys On Those ESPN Fights No One Watches – Kalin Lucas, Michigan State; Manny Harris, Michigan; Scott Martin, Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, Purdue
For some reason, the Big Ten doesn’t release their preseason media rankings past the No. 3 spot (or at least I couldn’t find it), but I’ve got to think Purdue wasn’t in the top half. But they have been surprisingly solid this year, and are doing it despite four of their top five scorers being freshmen. The most was expected out of Moore and he has been solid, but instead, leading the way have been Martin and Hummel (22 points and 10 rebounds per game between them), who look like they should be the pipsqueaks that frantically run the folding chairs out on the court during timeouts, not leading the team to a possible NCAA bid. Harris is a big-time scorer and the go-to guy for a Michigan team that rarely could use a go-to guy for more than a few minutes a game And Lucas, is the one I really have my eye on. Besides his outstanding 2.4 assist/turnover ratio, his brilliance doesn’t really show up in the box score. Defensively he’s been great and more importantly, he’s been running the team fluidly so Neitzel can move off the ball. His game against Texas (18 pts, six rebs, six assists, one turnover) was one of the better I’ve seen from a freshman this season. Might be the X-factor in the Big Ten race this year.
Yesterday's Matches: ACC & Big 12
The next bout: Pac-10 & SEC