Watching highlights of that Kansas-Kansas State game last week, I saw thousands of fans that, on a weeknight in January, got a similar feeling as I did on Super Bowl Sunday. They got a sports moment that ranks up on their list. With all the time spent rooting for a squad and suffering with its struggles, they found vindication when they least expected it. That’s what keeps us coming back and what draws us to this sport. And many other fans across the country this year will get the same feeling. Whether it’s some kids at a small mid-major that comes out of nowhere to get a bid to the tourney or pull a first-round upset, or it’s the fans of a powerhouse who gets that elusive National Title like Syracuse did in 2003, it’s going to feel great and it’s going to remind us why we watch sports and why we care so much in the first place. For those moments that come along so rarely but are worth so much when they finally do.
Now that I’ve waxed poetic about sports and fandom (for a better, more expansive version of this, read this book), I have some freshmen to rank. For the first time all season there is a shake-up at the top of the ranking and even though I’ve been critical of Kevin Love before, the kid has left me no choice but to honor his absurd play lately. He still can’t jump over a phone book though. And I will still be speaking the Eric Gordon gospel, just a few inches from where that usually occurs.
Oh yeah, and e-mails and all that are good.
1. Kevin Love, UCLA – What Kevin Love has done in the Pac-10 play is not only unexpected to those of us that have kept a close eye on the young man, it seems downright impossible. I mean, the Pac-10, which is by far the best conference in the country, holds that honor because of the big men in the league. The Lopez twins, Jordan Hill, Baynes/Cowgill, Marty Leunen, Jeff Pendergraph, Jon Brockman, Ryan Anderson/Devon Hardin; those are all big time players and many of them will be pros. Love has dominated them all. In league play he is averaging 19.8 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. Over the last six games those averages are at a Beasley-esque 22 points and 14.3 rebounds (including a nice 26 and 18 against hometown Oregon andits hate-filled fans). Not only has he probably locked up Pac-10 Player of the Year, he is now Tyler Hansbrough’s main competition for National POY. And to think, this was a guy who routinely looked out of shape and out of sorts in the preseason (well, that’s a relative statement, he was still better than most other big men). When most freshmen go through considerable drop-off when league play starts – and do so in lesser leagues – Love has elevated to a level of greatness. I will never make a fat joke about him ever again.
Stats- 17.8 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.8 bpg, 0.5 spg, 2.0 TO, 61.1 FG%, 76.9 FT%, 13-31 3-PTs
Featured Link- With his recent performance, a guy who was considered an NBA role player now has to worry aboutonly having a few games left at Pauley Pavilion. (Although Kevin O’Neill isn’t so sure.)
2. Michael Beasley, Kansas State- I finally got what I asked for from Beasley last week – a big performance against a good team; and a win to boot – and yet Kevin Love still usurps the top spot. I’m sure Beasley will get over it. I, like everyone else in the world, didn’t get to see the Wildcats beat the Jayhawks, but by all accounts it was Beasley’s perimeter game (4-4 from three) that shocked the Chalk. Even more impressive was that he played 38 minutes against Kansas and only had one foul. And if you were disappointed because he didn’t try to bang around with Kansas’ bigs in the paint, you’ll be happy to know he had 33 and 15 the game before against a very good Iowa State front line of Wesley Johnson, Jiri Hubalek and Craig Brackins. Oh and he did that in 22 freaking minutes. Unfortunately KSU followed up the big Kansas win witha loss to a diminished Missouri team so I’m not ready to crown this kid as a “winner,” ready to take this young team to a Final Four just yet (like I did with Durant last year). But at the very least I will crown him as the 2008 NBA Draft top overall pick (…of the Philadelphia 76ers).
Stats- 24.9 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.8 bpg, 1.4 spg, 56 FG%, 73.9 FT%, 20-47 3-PTs
Featured Link- Some writer for the Kansas City Star offers a completely obvious, hopelessly inanemethod for KU to have stopped Michael Beasley. Might want to try Plan B. Oh, and now that he is talking to the press, Beasley is emerging as a very candid, articulate and seemingly caring guy (now if we can all just forget about the shadiness that defined his high school career).
3. Eric Gordon, Indiana – Seeing Gordon in this spot almost brings a tear to my eye. The early season dominance and jaw-dropping offensive game hasfallen off a bit in conference play and worse even, he’s disappeared against good teams. UConn and Wisconsin confused the hell out of Gordon, first sending multiple players at him as soon as he began to drive and later frustrating him into settling for jumpers. After beginning the season with absurd shooting numbers for a guard, he is now taking bad shots and getting to the foul line far less frequently (I’m sure that wrist injury hasn’t helped matters). But we aren’t going to dwell on all that because Gordon is playing in the most anticipated game for any individual player this season tomorrow night when he goes to Illinois. And even though it’s against an inferior opponent, this game will tell us all we need to know about Gordon. People HATE this kid at that school and the Illini are going to want this more than any game this season. This game is different than any other Gordon has played and it’s up to him to treat is as such. I know Gordon can score a bunch of points and shoot the lights out, but I want to know about his heart, and this game will provide ample opportunity to find out about that.
Stats- 21.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.5 spg, 0.7 bpg, 3.4 TO, 48.3 FG%, 85.1 FT%, 41.2 3-PT%
Featured Link- I liked this look by the Indy Star’s Terry Hutchens at the complete insanity surrounding the Indiana basketball program as told through theEric Gordon wrist saga.
4. Jerryd Bayless, Arizona – I’m not going to penalize Bayless for his sub-par game against UCLA because he is certainly not the first player to be stifled by the Bruins. I am more impressed with the way he didn’t get caught up in the whole Mayo v. Bayless thing against USC and deferred to his teammate Chase Budinger, who had the best game I’ve ever seen from him that night. And also the 23 he scored against a very good Washington State defensive backcourt, that was pretty impressive too I suppose. Hopefully he doesn’t get caught up in the Harden v. Bayless thing (he missed the first meeting, which the Sun Devils won) this Saturday against Arizona State because the Cats really need that game and the home match with Cal next week to get back into the top four seed discussion. And in case you haven’t noticed, Bayless holds they key to Zona’s success.
Stats- 18.9 ppg, 4.4 apg, 2.7 rpg, 0.9 spg, 3.2 TO, 48.1 FG%, 82 FT%, 43 3-PT%
Featured Link- Yeah, how did Budinger make the Wooden Award final 30 and Bayless didn’t?
5. Derrick Rose, Memphis – Like I said last time, I’m pretty content with just leaving Rose at No. 5 the rest of the season, maybe moving him up or down a spot depending on how he does in the Tennessee game. Although he was pretty incredible against Gonzaga, nearly notching a triple-double, I’m still not sure how I’m supposed to evaluate him in these nightly blowouts. That Zags game was a nice glimpse at what we might see in March. That was certainly a Derrick Rose that looked a lot more comfortable running this team than he did a couple weeks before and also more under control than I’ve seen him, finally realizing his athletic ability alone isn’t going to be enough to dominate like it was in high school. There’s still room for improvement but the whole “C-USA play is like Rose’s training wheels” theory I wrote about earlier in the year might be more accurate than one would think.
Stats- 14.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.4 bpg, 3.0 TO, 47.1 FG%, 67.6 FT%, 16-47 3-PTs
Featured Link- Within this interview with Dan Wolken of the Memphis Commercial Appeal by the fine folks at Storming the Floor way back in October, I thought Wolken offered an interesting, almost prophetic take on Rose.
6. Patrick Patterson, Kentucky – It’s been long overdue for Patterson to be on here. His previous snubs were under the “Not A Good Enough Team” reasoning but I just couldn’t ignore his play any longer. I like to reward players who are leading successful teams but I realized any of the minor success Kentucky has had this year (wins over Vanderbilt and Tennessee) is due almost solely to its freshman. Unlike some of the other freshman bigs this year, Patterson is a banger. He’s got a nice shooting touch but his game is based on outworking the other guy, overpowering the other guy and outrunning the other guy. On both ends of the court. And despite that style, he played all 50 minutes (!) against Vandy, putting up 23 and 12 and completely dominating the Dores’ freshman stud Andrew Ogilvy. In his last six, including that game, he is averaging 41.5 minutes per game. There are only 40 minutes in a college basketball team, in case you were curious. And don’t look now but the Cats have won three straight in a wide open SEC. As bad as they have been, if they get healthy their season isn’t over just yet and if Patterson can will this team to even Bubble consideration he should be a lock for SEC Freshman of the Year.
Stats- 17.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.4 bpg, 1.1 spg, 2.2 TO, 58.9 FG%, 75 FT%
Featured Link- After reading this story following the South Carolina-Kentucky game earlier in the season, I’m convinced Patrick Patterson is the reason Dave Odom retired
7. James Harden, Arizona State – Like Patterson, Harden is being dropped because his team has lost five straight games. Now that’s not Harden’s fault so it’s a bit unfair but no one said the Freshman 10 was anything but cruel. Despite battling a nagging groin injury, he scored half of ASU’s points against USC and nearly half of its points against Washington State but he struggled against UCLA and has another tough match-up against a good Arizona defense on Sunday. And I believe this game will actually be on TV for most folks so the Sasquatch-like myth of Harden’s smooth mid-range game will finally be realized. It’s a crucial game for the Sun Devils who looked to be a lock for the NCAAs a few weeks ago and are now in some trouble.
Stats- 18.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.6 spg, 2.4 TO, 55.4 FG%, 77.1 FT%, 44.1 3-PT%
Featured Link- I really don’t think people realize how good Harden has been this year. If he were in a conference without three other national stars, he would be getting as much attention as any other freshman.
8. Donte Green, Syracuse – I finally saw
Greene in person when the Cuse
played Villanova Saturday. I think what’s most impressive about him is how easy
it is to forget that he’s 6-10 when you watch him play. On the one hand, he
shoots, handles and runs like a guard and generally plays the game with a
Durantian ease. On the other hand, he barely sniffs the paint on offense. And
that’s the issue with Greene: Can his unbelievable talent trump the fact that he
doesn’t always use it the right way? Because of his length and athleticism, he
could be a very good rebounder, defender and post player, which are exactly
things that Syracuse needs right now. So even though he makes a lot of them, why
does he shoot over seven threes per game? At 6-10 he’s taken one more
three-pointer than two-pointers this year. But all that being said – and it’s
probably selfish of me to want more out of a guy getting 18 and 7 per game for a
– Jesus, he is an incredible talent. And that’s why he’s on here; right now he
can be the best player on the floor
based solely on
raw skill. And
in Boeheim’s notoriously freewheeling offense, whether or not Greene tailors his
game to what the Orange need is probably up only to him.
Stats- 18.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.9 bpg, 1.2 spg, 2.5 TO, 43.5 FG%, 74 FT%, 37.6 3-PT%
Featured Link- I’m not the only one that has the occasional issue with Greene’s shot selection.
9. OJ Mayo, USC – When I put Mayo back in the Freshman 10 I felt like a girl inviting an abusive boyfriend back into her life. Part of me said I’ll just get hurt again but I simply can’t give up on him.
The “USC Loses When OJ Mayo Shoots 17+ Times” thing continues to hold true. In the four games since the last Freshman 10, the Trojans are 3-1; he shot 23 times in a loss to Arizona and 12, 16 and 11 times in the three wins. It seems over the past few weeks he has made a hint of an effort to be a playmaker instead of just chucking jumpers (key word being “hint;” he’s still averaging over nine threes a game over his last four), but he hasn’t been able to adopt that attacking, playmaking style with any consistency. Wasn’t that supposed to be the brilliance of OJ Mayo in the first place? Oh and for the record, if anyone calls OJ Mayo a “thug” — like, as this solid ESPN Magazine piece proves, so many idiots have before — because of this Nuggets tickets nonsense, that person is also an idiot.
Stats- 20.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.4 bpg, 3.8 TO, 44.1 FG%, 77.2 FT%, 36.8 3-PT%
Featured Link- Really great breakdown of Mayo from Andy Glockner. Still perpetuates his divisiveness though.
10. Matt Howard, Butler – As I type this, Howard just struggled through a foul-plagued first half that saw the Bulldogs down to Valpo and Florida’s Nick Calathes had a great first half to give the Gators a surprise lead at Tennessee, so I apologize for the snub in advance. Sorry, the list was set before those games began. And it’s not like Matt Howard had done anything prior to last night that would warrant being dropped from this spot. This kid is on my list because of efficiency and consistency, and he continues to provide that. In his last four games he’s averaging 18 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 67 percent and he has been Butler’s leading scorer in seven straight games (a streak that will end against Valpo). And while he lost his coveted spot over at KenPom as the top rated offensive player using at least 24 percent of his team’s possessions, he’s still No. 2, behind Kevin Love. With a ranking in the top 500 in every possession-based stat at KenPom (and top 125 in five of them), Howard has to be the most underrated freshman in the country, right? And I’d have a more detailed analysis of his game if he would stop fouling Valparaiso players.
Stats- 14 ppg, 6 rpg, 1 apg, 1.3 bpg, 0.6 spg, 1.4 TO, 60.4 FG%, 81.4 FT%.
Heading out - Chris Warren, Mississippi
Honorable mention -11) Nick Calathes, Florida 12) Jonny Flynn, Syracuse 13) Blake Griffin, Oklahoma; 14) DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh; 15) Kyle Singler, Duke; 16) Chris Warren, Mississippi; 17) JJ Hickson, NC State; 18) Patrick Mills, St. Mary’s; 19) Andrew Ogilvy, Vanderbilt; 20) Bill Walker, Kansas State; 21) Davon Jefferson, USC; 22) Austin Daye, Gonzaga; 23) Herb Pope, New Mexico State; 24) Kalin Lucas, Michigan State; 25) Manny Harris, Michigan.
Freshman-Related Games to Watch (February 4 to February 18)
Indiana at Illinois, February 7 (9 ET, ESPN) – Well this should be fun. It’s rare in college basketball to have a game where an entire fan base hates one player. And in this case, it’s all directed toward a 19-year-old who has never played a game against his haters. Unfortunately for Illinois fans, Gordon doesn’t have any weird idiosyncrasies or hobbies - like JJ Redick’s poetry – to serve as fuel for their rantings. It has been a brutal season for Illinois but I have got to think this is their Super Bowl; a win here and all will be right. Should be interesting.
Pepperdine at Gonzaga, February 9 (8 ET) – Pepperdine stinks but they have a nice freshman wing, Tyrone Shelley, who is the team’s leading scorer. Gonzaga’s Austin Daye is one of the more talented freshman in the country and is just starting to get some solid playing time. He is an inside-outside guy and at 6-10 is a great shooter and has outstanding touch in the mid-range game. Because of the match-up problems he can cause, Daye is Gonzaga’s postseason X-factor.
Arizona State at Arizona, February 10 (2:30 ET, FSN) – In yet another great Pac-10 match-up of freshmen, it’s Harden v. Bayless. If you’re keeping score at home, Mayo got the better of Bayless when they matched up, although Arizona won. Mayo and Harden both played great Saturday head-to-head but USC won. Kevin Love outplayed all three of them in the respective meetings. I like both players because they have outstanding mid-range games for their age and don’t rely just on the three. (Unlike another freshman guard out there.)
Kentucky at Vanderbilt, February 11 (9 ET, ESPN) – Kentucky’s Patrick Patterson dominated Vandy’s Andrew Ogilvy in the first meeting, sending Ogilvy into a bit of a tailspin where he struggled against athletic big men. Patterson is a one-man show on Kentucky at this point but has been able to will them to a couple nice wins. It’s not crazy to think the Wildcats can make the tourney in an inconsistent SEC and if they get a win here, they might be back in the picture. Stranger things have happened this season.
UCLA at USC, February 17 (10 ET, FSN) – I think it’s safe to say the Bruins are going to want a bit of payback in this one. Kevin Love has played out of his mind ever since that game and I think it will continue. Mayo will be better served to take a playmaker role like he did in the first meeting, but that effort might depend on the other USC frosh, Davon Jefferson, who had 25 in the first game, stepping up again (you know, if he even gets off the bench).
Boston College at Duke, February 9 (1 ET, CBS)
Michigan State at Purdue, February 11 (7 ET, ESPN)
Baylor at Oklahoma State, February 13 (8 ET)
Iowa State at Oklahoma, February 13 (8 ET)
Michigan State at Indiana, February 16 (9 ET, ESPN)