Freshman 10: Eric Gordon Still #1

    
January 22nd, 2008
We’re roughly around the halfway point of the hoops season and, like a cry for help, teams across the country decided to band together for an utterly confounding week full of upsets, parity and upside-down conference standings. The freshmen rankings are just as muddled, with some studs tailing off and other dark horses emerging. And since there are few players that can sustain any type of game-to-game patterns or consistency, I want to highlight what I think are the five best individual freshman performances of the first half of the season. Big game ability weighted heavily.

 

Kevin Love vs. Washington State – Love has been great in Pac-10 play after a bit of inconsistency in the non-conference. There is no doubt that the basketball being played in the Pac-10 is head and shoulders above everything else in the country right now and when the two best teams in that league met January 12, Love was the best player on the court. He had 27 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and just one turnover. He shot 9-12 from the field, 7-10 from the line and even hit two threes. About as flawless an all around game as it gets and against a great Cougars defense that features two tough big men in Robbie Cowgill and Aron Baynes, a man of superior girth to even Love.

 

Davon Jefferson vs. UCLA – Just nine days after a DNP-Coach’s Decision, Jefferson showed why he might be even more confusing a player than his divisive freshman teammate OJ Mayo, scoring 25 points and grabbing nine rebounds in 35 minutes of a season-saving win at UCLA Saturday. And while the 25 and nine were nice, the 35 minutes was the probably most surprising. He’s been in and out of Tim Floyd’s doghouse all season, his short time with the Trojans going unused. The 21-year-old freshman has shown flashes of belonging in the NBA, especially Saturday, displaying unbelievable athleticism, a variety of scoring moves and the ballhandling and slashing ability to get to the rim and finish hard at will. I think Jefferson and Floyd need to see the Bucket List together or something and get this straightened out.

 

DeJuan Blair vs. Duke – Probably the Best Game Everyone Got To See in college basketball this season, Pitt’s last second overtime victory over Duke at Madison Square Garden December 20 was a public relations dream for Blair. Not only did he drop 15 points and 20 rebounds, but he established himself as the always-smiling, always-battling, always-rebounding workhorse who, most importantly, ate the Dukies whole on the interior.

 

Patrick Mills vs. Oregon – This November 20 win marked the explosion onto the scene of both St. Mary’s, arguably the best non-BCS team right now, and the Aussie revolution, led by Mills and Andrew Ogilvy of Vanderbilt. Mills torched a really good Oregon backcourt for 37 on 10-20 shooting, getting penetration at will on the way to 14 free throw attempts (13 makes). He hit four threes and dished out five assists, somehow only turning the ball over once in a fast paced game where he had the ball the majority of the Gaels’ possessions. Only if he drops 38 on Gonzaga will he top this one.

 

Michael Beasley vs. Oklahoma – A great game that flew under the national radar last Saturday, this might have been the best freshman duel of the year, with Beasley’s 32 and 11 leading the Cats to a two-point win at the Sooners, despite Blake Griffin’s 27 and 14. Both players got a nice boost in their respective draft stock (as if Beasley needed it) but Beasley’s emergence against a quality opponent with tough big men, and doing so in a close answered a lot of the questions that his talent couldn’t answer.

 

                Still going to do the regular ranking, albeit a bit abbreviated. Lots of movement from the last few editions, probably some surprises. If you are terrified of change and oppose some of the shocking decisions below, you may e-mail me and I’ll try to get you some help.

 

1.     Eric Gordon, Indiana – After a couple games spent deferring to his teammates, I considered dropping Gordon for the first time this season. But I decided there’s nothing wrong with Gordon, who dominates the ball for an Indiana team deprived of ballhandling, to try and set his teammates up (even if I selfishly want him to drop 40). Considering how easy he gets to the lane, he could be an effective combo guard, instead of a pure wing, if he wants because he’s probably a better passer than people give him credit for. But Gordon must make sure he still provides Indiana with what they need; the kid is an incredible scorer and I’m sure that’s why Kelvin Sampson recruited him. Against Penn State he went back to his regular role so maybe the playmaker streak was just a phase. I mean, considering Indiana hasn’t really played anyone, it’s easy to get bored right?

        Stats- 22.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.6 bpg, 3.6 TO, 48.5 FG%, 85.3 FT%, 42.5 3-PT%

        Featured Link- Nice post on the Gordon-Illinois thing from a great Hoosier blog, Inside the Hall.

 

2.     Michael Beasley, Kansas State – I wasn’t sure how Beasley’s numbers would look when he wasn’t battling the likes of Western Carolina and Winston Salem, Pittsburg State and Savannah State, but he has been very solid in two conference games. More importantly, he’s getting big wins (despite his, um, eccentricities) for a Kansas State team that seemed to have no interest playing with each other, or for Coach Frank “Psycho F” Martin, earlier in the season. Both league games for the Cats were against top 5 teams in the Big 12 in Oklahoma and A & M, and in both cases Beasley went up against front lines full of eventual pros. I expect about 40 against Colorado tomorrow night and he’ll have Wes Johnson and Craig Brackins to deal with Saturday, but the ultimate evaluation for B-Easy comes January 30 when Kansas comes to Manahattan.

        Stats- 24.6 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.9 bpg, 1.3 spg, 3.1 TO, 56.8 FG%, 71.3 FT%, 14-38 3-PTs.

Featured Link- Most people don’t know a lot about this kid, but Grant Wahl at SI decides to find out.

 

3.     Kevin Love, UCLA – It was mentioned above but Love is really playing some amazing ball in conference play. And while he wasn’t great in the loss to USC, there’s no disputing that Love has finally taken his rightful place as the offensive centerpiece for the Bruins (and the resident celebrity look-a-like… or something). He’s using over 27 percent of his team’s possessions, which probably could be lower, but the more he gets the ball in the halfcourt, the more he can facilitate the offense through any number of avenues. We’ll see if he can somehow continue to play at this level without hitting the dreaded freshman wall. (Side note: I’m not sure I buy the “freshman wall” thing. High school players play like 200 games a year, why is two games a week suddenly so difficult?)

Stats- 16.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, 0.7 bpg, 0.6 spg, 2.1 TO, 58.4 FG%, 78.7 FT%, 9-25 3-PTs

Featured Link- I missed this and it’s probably nothing, but that Andy Katz article awhile back about Love and John Wooden raised some eyebrows.

 

4.     James Harden, Arizona State – I am still driving the Eric Gordon Bandwagon, don’t worry, but I am carpooling with members of the James Harden Bandwagon. Harden is the Player of the Year in the Pac-10 right now. Seriously. He’s averaging just over 24 in the Pac-10 in 39.2 minutes per game. As a guard, he’s second in offensive rating among players using over 28 percent of his team’s possessions because he has a good jump shot that he uses to open driving lanes, rather than relying on it like other scores. He hasn’t shot less than nine foul shots in a conference game and is routinely the smartest offensive player on the court. After playing both Washington schools at home, the Sun Devils have a tough three-game road trip of UCLA, USC and Arizona. This is where the Arizona State Revival will have its true test and all eyes will be on Harden.

Stats- 18.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.6 spg, 2.2 TO, 55.4 FG%, 76.3 FT%, 43.5 3-PT%

Featured Link- Along with another great freshman, Ty Abbott, Harden represents an unbelievable turnaround by Herb Sendek.

 

5.     Derrick Rose, Memphis – It’s tempting to dock Rose for the Conference USA Effect that has seen him play no more than 26 minutes in a league game because of repeated blowouts, but I am an understanding person. I probably should just keep Rose at No. 5 the rest of the regular season but hopefully upcoming games vs. Gonzaga and at Houston will provide something worth some attention. I’ve talked about it before, but it seems Calipari is going to use C-USA as a chance to rest Rose, avoiding the fatigue that inevitably affects freshman point guards. Makes sense to me, although teaching the kid to run a title contender should also be a top priority as well.

Stats- 14.1 ppg, 4.3 apg, 3.9 rpg, 1.2 spg, 0.4 bpg, 3.0 TO, 48 FG%, 70 FT%, 15-40 3-PTs

Featured Link- Within this interview with Calipari, even the coach knows Rose is probably one and done.

 

6.     Chris Warren, Mississippi – The unknown of the freshman class, Warren is all the way up to No. 6 this week. I haven’t seen him play yet, then again I’m not sure who in the Northeast has, but he has led the Rebels when everyone else thought they would collapse. At 5-11 he is more of a true point but has been called upon to score a lot for Ole Miss this year. He had 24 in a very impressive near win at Tennessee (ironically, for a two-loss team, probably their best performance of the season) but only managed one assist. But then in a two-point win against Florida, he scored just eight points but dished out 10 assists against just two turnovers. Like Jerryd Bayless at Arizona, Warren adapts his role to what his team needs on a given night. And if you’re wondering how a team as overlooked as Mississippi can have this kind of success, look no further than the lightly recruited Warren.

Stats- 15.9 ppg, 5.3 apg, 2.2 rpg, 1.0 spg, 2.8 TO, 40.9 FG%, 71.4 FT%, 37.2 3-PT%

Featured Link-The first line of this AP feature is a welcome one.   

 

7.     Donte Green, Syracuse – Just got done watching the Syracuse-Georgetown overtime heartbreaker where Georgetown’s referees depth trumped Syracuse’s youth. Greene didn’t play a great game, settling for threes against a worthy defender in Dajuan Summers. But more concerning than Greene’s recent disinterest in taking advantage of his mismatch-inducing versatility, is his poor play on the defensive end. He hasn’t been providing much-needed rebounding for the Orange and the back of the 2-3 zone has been porous. All that being said, defenses have focused intently on Greene in Big East play, throwing constant double teams and trying to make Syracuse’s now limited options beat them. If they had gotten a win last night they’d be in great shape but right now it looks like Greene may never play an NCAA Tournament game.

Stats- 18.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.9 bpg, 1.2 spg, 2.4 TO, 45.8 FG%, 75 FT%, 38.8 3-PT%

Featured Link- Greene is a streaky shooter, but to him, the more he shoots, the quicker he gets to the hot streak.

 

8.     Jerryd Bayless, Arizona- Yeah, so it looks like Arizona needs Jerryd Bayless a bit. The Cats went 1-3 when he was out with an injury and then in his first game back he scores 33 and gets nine assists in an important win at Houston. If anyone was worried about his trademark ability to get into the paint after the injury, he shot 20 foul shots that game. He really struggled at Stanford with just nine points on 3-12 shooting, but bounced back to score 24 in a tight win at Cal Saturday. Despite the injury Bayless played 39, 38 and 38 minutes in his first three back. It will be interesting to see if the Selection Committee takes his absence into effect when considering/seeding Arizona because he is obviously more important to his team than most players in the Pac-10.

Stats- 19.2 ppg, 4.4 apg, 3.0 rpg, 1.0 spg, 3.4 TO, 46.2 FG%, 84.5 FT%, 42 3-PT%

Featured Link- I love when this happens. One guy talks trash, the other mercilessly torches him.

 

9.     Nick Calathes, Florida – It’s a pretty balanced attack for the defending champs, but after watching Calathes poise, you realize he’s definitely the leader of the deep freshman class (he’s just like Jalen Rose… kinda). He’s not going to blow you away but for a freshman he is incredibly skilled. The 24 point, eight rebound, eight assist, 17 foul shot and two turnover game against Kentucky Saturday night was considered for top five freshman performances of the season and it was that game where he abandoned the jumper and tried to penetrate at all costs, which is when he’s most successful.

Stats- 15.7 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.9 rpg, 1.5 spg, 2.8 TO, 42.8 FG%, 73.8 FT%, 37.5 3-PT%

Featured Link- Really interesting to see how all these freshmen develop chemistry.

 

10.   Matt Howard, Butler – How the hell do I have this dude above OJ Mayo and Andrew Ogilvy? Consistency my friends, it is a virtue that can go a long way in sports. In the past five games, Howard is averaging 18.8 points per game, never dipping below 16 in that span. I mentioned James Harden’s offensive rating among players using 28 percent of his team’s possessions, listed at KenPom.com, earlier; Howard is the only player rated higher than Harden. He is the quintessential mid-major star in many ways, except of course his age. Most of Howard’s damage is done in the paint but he does it with a variety of quick, crafty moves that also utilize his tremendous touch around the basket. He is also relentless on the boards, especially the offensive glass where he is 30th in the country in offensive rebound rate. You probably haven’t heard of him just yet, but now that Howard is a starter, get used to finding a freshman star in an unlikely place.

Stats- 13.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.3 bpg, 0.5 spg, 1.5 TO, 58.8 FG%, 80.2 FT%

Featured Link- Credit to Reggie Rankin at ESPN Insider for getting on Howard a couple weeks ago (even though I played him up before the season started; where’s my damn Insider label?)

 

Heading out- OJ Mayo, USC; Andrew Ogilvy, Vanderbilt

Injured- Blake Griffin, Oklahoma

Honorable mention

11) OJ Mayo, USC; 12) Andrew Ogilvy; 13) Patrick Patterson, Kentucky; 14) Davon Jefferson, USC; 15) Kyle Singler, Duke; 16) DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh; 17) JJ Hickson, NC State; 18) Patrick Mills, St. Mary’s; 19) Jonny Flynn, Syracuse; 20) Bill Walker, Kansas State; 21) Kalin Lucas, Michigan State; 22) Austin Freeman, Georgetown; 23) P’Allen Stinnett, Creighton; 24) DeAndre Jordan, Texas A & M; 25) Ty Abbott, Arizona State

 

Freshman-Related Games to Watch (January 22 to February 3)

Nevada at New Mexico State, January 24 (9 ET) – Herb Pope plays! He made his debut Saturday against Louisiana Tech after a year eligibility issues, DUIs and of course gun shot wounds, scoring five points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out four assists in 23 minutes. With his addition, the Aggies are suddenly in the WAC race and will need him to contribute if they want to beat former league stalwart Nevada, which is down this year but feature a nice freshman point guard, Armon Johnson. Oh, and Pope will be on TV this Saturday against Utah State at 6 on ESPN2.

 

Vanderbilt at Mississippi, January 30 (8 ET) – The battle for second-best in the SEC will be largely predicated on the performance of both squads’ freshman leaders. Andrew Ogilvy has struggled lately against athletic big men (see: Patterson, Patrick and Crews, Duke) and he’ll have a tough battle against Dwayne Curtis. Chris Warren will have to play with poise and take care of the ball in a fast-paced game.

 

Syracuse at Villanova, February 2 (12 ET, ESPN) – I picked this mainly because I’m going to this game. It will be a huge one for both teams, specifically Syracuse, who will look to keep Donte Greene out of foul trouble (fouled out in 23 minutes Saturday vs. Nova) and get a nice road win. Jonny Flynn matched up with Corey Fisher and Malcolm Grant of the Cats should be great match-ups of lightning quick guards. Nice move scheduling this one early, so the Cuse and Nova fans can’t get drunk enough to brawl at the Wachovia Center.

 

Arizona State at USC, February 2 (10:30 ET) – Mayo v. Harden should be outstanding with Harden getting a chance to show how well he stacks up to a lottery pick. The two players have very different games which should make the match-up pretty entertaining. Robins to their respective Batmans (or is it Batmen? Ah, who cares), Ty Abbott and Davon Jefferson could be the key though. As you can see below, this is the end of a three-day stretch where Bayless, Mayo, Love, Harden and Jefferson will all be facing each other in a quasi round robin. I’m sure all the games will be on TV!

 

Gonzaga at St. Mary’s, February 3 (11 ET, ESPN2) – Game of the Year in the West Coast Conference and thank God, it’ll be on ESPN. Lots of sleep will be lost on this one. Mills gets his first shot at a real American hoops rivalry and this will be the point in the season where Zags’ frosh role players Austin Daye (who is really freaking good) and Stephen Gray need to emerge as major contributors.

 

Honorable Mention

Gonzaga at Memphis, January 26 (12 ET, ESPN)

Syracuse at DePaul, January 30 (8:30 ET)

Arizona State at UCLA, January 31 (10:30 ET)

Arizona at USC, January 31 (10:30 ET, FSN)

Arizona at UCLA, February 2 (9 ET, ESPN)