Kentucky Freshman Surprise

    
December 3rd, 2006
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No McDonald’s All-Americans. No future lottery picks or sure-fire NBA All-Stars. The 16th best class in the country, according to Rivals.com. Only two prospects ranked among the top 40 in their class, and one more prospect not even ranked among the top 150.

So why the fuss about the University of Kentucky freshmen this year?

Well, to start with, somebody forgot to tell the four fresh faces that they’re not supposed to be contributing right away. Unless your name is Brandon Wright or Kevin Durant, you’re supposed to struggle early on, right? Wrong.

UK’s freshmen class of Derrick Jasper, Jodie Meeks, Perry Stevenson and Michael Porter are doing exactly what incoming freshmen need to do- put their high school accolades behind them and try to fill a role as they adjust to the college game. They all have shown flashes of their potential early on, and as their roles continue to expand throughout the season, they will send fans home from Rupp Arena with a smile.

For his part, Stevenson has already shown he can send something else out of Rupp- opponents shots. Through seven games, he has blocked 16 shots, including seven in one game, tying the third best single-game effort in school history. A very lithe 6’9”, it would appear that he would have to be soaking wet holding a cinder block in each hand to match the 185 pounds he is listed at, but his small frame has yet to be a problem. A good athlete, he has great timing, and may well provide UK with their best consistent shot-blocking presence since Jamaal Magloire roamed the paint.

Jasper’s play meanwhile, already has some fans calling for junior Ramel Bradley to be moved off the ball so Jasper can run the offense. At 6’6”, he has terrific height for the position, and his long arms will make him a nightmare match-up for most opposing guards. He also has shown an uncanny passing ability and a willingness to crash the boards, two things that have seemingly been in short supply for UK in recent years.

Meeks, who will likely be on the receiving end of many of Jasper’s passes in the coming years, has brought a scorer’s mentality off the bench so far. While his shot selection could use some work, the coaches have to be pleased with his fearless nature on the floor, and his ability to drive the lane and take contact. A sturdy 6’4”, he has the strength and athleticism to guard some small forwards, as well as both backcourt spots.

However, the surprise of the group has to be Porter. The wiry 6’2” guard out of California wasn’t considered an elite prospect by many outlets, and some doubted whether he would even see the floor. Yet while UK’s lack of backcourt depth forced him into action early, it is his play that has kept Tubby going to him. Porter has shown a soft touch from the perimeter, and a tough attitude on defense. He may not win any dunk contests, but his heady play and willingness to fit a role ensures that he will play a part in any success the team enjoys.

Not to say the freshmen are without their faults. Stevenson’s strength will be tested nightly in conference play against the likes of Al Horford, Glen Davis and Richard Hendrix. Jasper hasn’t yet faced a defense like Florida or Alabama, who deny every passing lane. Meeks likely hasn’t seen defenders like Corey Brewer or Garrett Temple, and Porter might find it a little tougher to get open looks if Ronald Steele is locked onto him. In fact, the heralded freshmen class of UNC just outscored them 44-5 in a big home victory for the Heels.

But the future looks bright for the Cats. The national headlines may go to the one-and done stars at UNC and Texas, but UK fans should be pleased with this class. It doesn’t appear that any of them have one eye on the NBA, and the cohesiveness they establish this year should only make them better in years to come.