While there were some enticing non-conference games, I’m certainly ready to say goodbye to the lopsided match-ups that most of the big-time programs coasted through. Also, the country’s top freshmen no longer get the chance to inflate their stats against cupcake opponents. Here are some things I’m watching for as league play begins:
• There are three top programs that will rely heavily on freshmen and how they respond to the pressure of conference play will go a long way to determine how far they can go in March. Ohio State, Texas and North Carolina all have a chance to contend for the national championship (with Texas being a bit of a longshot) if their freshmen can play with poise. All three have talented freshmen point guards also and if they can excel against veterans in hostile environments there’s no reason why youth should hinder any of those squads from going deep in the tournament. Look at the 2003 Syracuse squad as a blueprint for freshmen success.
• There are rumblings—or in the case of Billy Packer, annoying shouts—that the Pac-10 is the best conference in the country this year. They didn’t play the toughest schedules so it’ll be interesting to see if UCLA, Washington, Arizona and Oregon will avoid being upset by some of the lower-level Pac-10 schools. Excluding UCLA, the conference has a ton of talented freshmen. I think Chase Budinger has what it takes to lead a team but can the likes of Hawes, Pondexter, Porter, Anderson and Gibson ready their respective teams for a postseason run and maintain the conference’s success?
• Finally, it will just be interesting to see how this freshmen class develops. Due to their extraordinary talent and the NBA’s age requirements, this has the potential to be one of the best freshmen groups ever, both at the college level, and in terms of pro potential. There have been plenty of players with talent that didn’t pan out (see Dajuan Wagner) so I want to see which players (especially Oden and Durant) emerge as not just special talents, but winners.
Enough of that, onto the list. If you feel someone got left off or is ranked too high or if you have any clever freshmen perks (I totally underestimated how hard it would be to come up with non-lame perks every week) e-mail me and let me know.
1. Kevin Durant, Texas- A lot can be said of raw talent and physical ability, but what makes players great is often the intangibles that can’t be taught. With the hype surrounding many of the freshmen this year, fans should be sure not to confuse vertical leap and wingspan with the ability to play the game. So I was looking for Durant to show me something, and he did against Tennessee a couple weeks ago. The kid showed an ability in the clutch and a will to win reserved for only the best players and his play late in that game sold me. He’s going to special. The play he made to send it to overtime after Chris Lofton hit that 30-foot dagger showed me much more about Durant than his gaudy stats (which just happen to include 20+ points in all but two games and over 13 boards per game in his last four… I guess the stats are kinda important too).
Stats- 21.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 2.1 bpg, 1.6 spg, 2.8 TO, 47.1 FG%, 34.9 3-PT%, 83.1 FT%
Freshman perk- As part of his “consulting” with the Sixers, Larry Brown has offered to mentor Durant on job stability.
2. Greg Oden, Ohio State- As could be seen Tuesday against Indiana, at this point his dominance is based more on his physical and athletic superiority than anything. It’s probably due mostly to his wrist injury, but it doesn’t seem like his coordination and his post game is 100 percent right now. He’s still going to get his dunks and his massive blocks (i.e. the vicious, game-saving swat on Armon Bassett) and he can shut down a guy like DJ White, but as was evident against Florida, put him up against other talented big men and he’s not going to dominate, not yet at least. I could see Wisconsin (Jan. 9) giving him some problems, but otherwise he’ll feast on the interior of the Big Ten. We’ll see how that prepares him for March, when he’s almost certainly going to face better talent.
Stats- 15.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 0.9 apg, 3.7 bpg, 0.4 spg, 1.1 TO, 67.8 FG%, 57.1 FT%
Freshman perk- In case you missed it last time, once again, no comment necessary
3. Spencer Hawes, Washington- Apparently not too many people go on this site on Fridays so tonight’s big-time match-up between Washington and Arizona will not affect this week’s Freshmen 10. While Washington probably isn’t climbing up any rankings after losses to USC and UCLA, it’s not because of Hawes. In his last seven games he’s been under 20 points just once and is averaging over 21 points per game (which includes games against Gonzaga, LSU, USC and UCLA). Against USC, despite the Huskies’ loss, he showed he’s clutch ahead of his years, knocking down crucial shots in both overtimes and showing the will to win I attributed to Durant earlier. He struggled a bit against UCLA despite his 21 points but few big men have solved the Bruins this year. Hopefully he’ll learn how to rebound from Jon Brockman and the highly regarded Washington interior will live up to their potential.
Stats- 16.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.3 bpg, 0.5 spg, 3.1 TO, 61.1 FG%, 76.0 FT%
Freshman perk- Gheorge Muresan gave him his ID to use at the bars (Google image them both, trust me).
4. Chase Budinger, Arizona- Again, keep an eye on the Arizona-Washington game tonight. Not only will Arizona get its biggest test of the season, but we’ll see if Budinger can finally assert himself in this Arizona offense. I know they have a lot of talented players but I really think Budinger could be the focal point of this offense because of his passing ability and solid decision-making. This guy thinks Budinger is the freshmen of the year so far, but I’ve yet to see the clutch play and aggressiveness Durant has shown. Surely’ the Pac-10 play will give him a chance to assert himself.
Stats- 16.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.6 bpg, 1.6 TO, 55.2 FG%, 37.5 3-PT%, 84.6 FT%
Freshman perk- He can provide high school girls with money and vacations and not be suspended or arrested.
5. Brandan Wright, North Carolina- His game isn’t quite as flashy as some of the other guys on this list, but it’s remarkably efficient. With all that is made of Oden’s field-goal percentage, Wright’s is even higher, and he’s done it in more games. He’s been in double figures in every game this season but he could have a bigger impact on the defensive end. His steals and block numbers are decent, but remarkably he’s only had more than two fouls in a game once. That’s amazing for a freshmen (just ask Oden) and it’s a huge luxury for Roy Williams if he only has to worry about one of his stud big men fouling out.
Stats- 15.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.7 bpg, 0.9 spg, 1.6 TO, 67,2 FG%, 60.6 FT%
Freshman perk- His friends treat him like Shaq, but refuse to say whether it’s because of his size and skill or the fact that he shoots better from the field than the foul line.
6. D.J. Augustin, Texas- With the many impressive freshmen point guards around the country, Augustin has emerged as perhaps the best so far this year. It’s hard enough to be a freshman point guard at a big time program like Texas, but it’s even harder when the team consists of mostly freshmen. Plus, add in the fact that he’s only a little over a year removed from being hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, and it’s even more amazing what Augustin has been able to do. He needs to watch his turnovers and be a little more trustworthy from beyond the arc, but it’s hard to argue with 20 and 13 against Tennessee and over 50 percent from the field this season for a point.
Stats- 13.5 ppg, 6.4 apg, 2.7 rpg, 1.4 spg, 3.6 TO, 52.3 FG%, 45.2 3-PT%, 86.2 FT%
Freshman perk- Because the Longhorns are so young, the freshmen formed a mutiny and started pre-emptively hazing senior Craig Winder.
7. Ryan Anderson, California- Cal has really been affected by the loss of DeVon Hardin, getting blown out by Arizona and DePaul recently, but Anderson has maintained his surprisingly stellar play. He had 24 points and 16 rebounds against DePaul but no other Bear had more than 11 points or three rebounds. He’s a hair behind Ivan Radenovic for the lead in scoring in a stacked Pac-10 this year. He had a solid game against the Lopez twins last night, but more important Cal got a much needed road win.
Stats- 17.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.9 bpg, 0.3 spg, 1.1 TO, 52.0 FG%, 43.8 3-PT%, 77.8 FT%
Freshman perk- Even at the most routine of photo shoots, Golden Bear groupies still show up to flash Anderson and show their support.
8. Brandon Costner, NC State- The Freshmen 10 does not discriminate so even though Costner redshirted last year, I’m acknowledging him as a freshman. He didn’t really give me much choice with his 27-point, 19-rebound performance against UNC-Wilmington. The Wolfpack haven’t really beaten anybody and I tend to shy away from putting players on bad teams on this list, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Upcoming games against BC and Clemson should shed some light on how legit Costner’s numbers are. Rated the 20th best prospect of the 2005 high school class, Costner has shown a versatile game both inside and out (which fits well in that weird Herb Sendek offense) and could give NC State a fighting chance at a tourney bid.
Stats- 16.7 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.0 bpg, 0.7 spg, 3.1 TO, 51.6 FG%, 37.1 3-PT%, 61.6 FT%
Freshman perk- He’s not a freshman so no perks for him, he’ll get over it.
9. Daequan Cook, Ohio State- He’s falling down the list because his production has been down since Oden got back. It doesn’t really make sense though, I figured the attention and double teams given to the big fella would give Cook a lot of open shots, ones that he’s proven he can knock down. I still think come March, Cook could be the X-Factor for the Thad Five (…and company… by the way I hate the phrase “Thad Five”) but right now this is Conley and Oden’s team.
Stats- 15.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.4 bpg, 2.0 TO, 56.8 FG%, 51.7 3-PT%, 69.0 FT%
10. Stephen Curry, Davidson- Behold! A player from a non-BCS conference on the Freshmen 10?! Your eyes do not deceive you. At 12-3 Davidson has played well this season and has a good shot of winning the Southern Conference and making the tournament so he gets my Freshmen-on-a-good-team-bonus. Plus it helps to average almost 20 points per game including three games of 29 points or more. Oh, and it helps when your dad is Dell Curry, who had not only one the quickest releases in NBA history but also one of the greatest fades as well. He’s played like his dad, although in a point guard’s body (he’s had four games with at least 10 3-point attempts), but he might be the non-BCS freshman of the year so far.
Stats- 19.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2.3 spg, 3.5 TO, 43.9 FG%, 41.3 3-PT%, 81.6 FT%
Freshman perk- He is the most popular player on his floor, not because he was on the basketball team, but because everyone wanted the Currys to take them out to dinner on parents’ weekend.
Heading out- Darrell Arthur, Kansas; Taj Gibson, USC
Honorable mention- Mike Conley, Ohio State; Wayne Ellington, UNC; Bill Walker, Kansas State; Javaris Crittenton, Georgia Tech; Thaddeus Young, Georgia Tech; Paul Harris, Syracuse; Wesley Johnson, Iowa State; Robert Mitchell, Duquesne; Quincy Pondexter, Washington; Tajuan Porter, Oregon; Ishmael Smith, Wake Forest; Patrick Beverly, Arkansas; Jerome Dyson, UCONN; Jonathan Rodriguez, Campbell; Eugene Harvey, Seton Hall.