Freshman 10: NCAA Tournament Edition
Ok, you get the point. March Madness is unequivocally my favorite time of the season but this entire tournament has been pretty darn weak. The teams that barely made it in have stunk, the high seeds have ruled to the point where UNLV is being pawned off as a “Cinderella,” the refs have been suspect and we are still stuck with James Brown.
But regardless of the poor play thus far, I am still obligated to chronicle the country’s freshmen, which have been prominent for both good (three of the top-five scoring performances are by freshmen) and bad reasons on college basketball’s biggest stage. Here’s an Ebert and Roper-esque look at the freshmen, both studs and awkward losers, in their first Big Dance.
E-mails and suggestions welcome. The Freshman 10 will be absent next week due to Spring Break. I’d write from there (actually, no I wouldn’t) but it would be rather incoherent. Once the tournament is done, we’ll have a big fancy edition wrap-up edition.
THUMBS UP: Kevin Durant, Texas- Alright let’s get this out of the way. Everyone is blaming Rick Barnes for being completely unprepared to coach a team with someone like Durant on it. While he deserves some blame, nothing Barnes did could’ve won that game for the Horns. They admittedly didn’t play hard (not really sure what more motivation they need than a chance at a national championship) and for the first time, showed their inexperience.
Ok, that being said, Durant did little to tarnish his image in scoring 57 points, shooting well from both the field and foul line, carrying them over a tough New Mexico State team and doing whatever he could against USC. In most situations like this, I would urge Durant to jump to the pros, but for the first time, I’m not sure. The college game allows him to showcase so many more of his skills than the NBA would. In the NBA his game will be reduced to isolations, spot-up threes and fadeaways while in college he gets a chance to create for his teammates, score against any conceivable defense and play inspired basketball for a winning team (instead of “I’m getting a buttload of money” basketball for an Eastern Conference team). I usually want the best players to play on the best stage, but I’m not so sure about this one.
THUMBS DOWN: DJ Augustin, Justin Mason, Damion James, Texas- The USC game was just a nightmare for these three, especially Augustin. I don’t think the whole season should be judged on this one game, but hopefully they don’t forget it come tournament time next year. The three combined for 14 points and nine turnovers (six by Augustin) and looked completely lost on offense and in their ability to get the ball to Durant in positions to score. I know it’s got to be tough to play big-time minutes for a program like Texas just a year after high school and I know there’s a wall that freshmen have to hit at some point, but if you can’t get more hyped for a tournament game than one of CBS’ announcers (the completely insane Gus Johnson), go to the NIT.
THUMBS UP: Greg Oden, Ohio State- He deserves two thumbs up just for getting away with that body slam (around :48 mark) at the end of the Xavier game (just kidding, in a tournament void of storylines, that is getting blown way out of proportion). But even more important than his two double-doubles and his surprisingly adequate foul shooting, is the fact that Ohio State is still alive. It seems like people are just waiting and waiting for the Buckeyes to lose just so they can start thrashing Oden for his offensive deficiencies and lack of post moves but just by winning, he’s keeping the critics mouths shut. And if you don’t think he’ll be the single most important player to his team this weekend, you’re crazy.
THUMBS MORE UP: Mike Conley, Ohio State- Conley has made more big plays for his team than anyone else in this tournament and yet he still gets overlooked in favor of Oden. While Ron Lewis got the Buckeyes five more minutes on their season, it was Conley that got them to the next round with his seven straight points to start the overtime. Now it’s his job to manage the Tennessee full-court press and keep Ohio State in the game long enough for him to make some more big plays down the stretch.
THUMBS DOWN: All Duke freshmen, Duke: Well, you know what they say about karma. Most people are pretty happy the Dukies got what they deserved at the hands of VCU and their heralded freshmen were instrumental in that loss. Only 19 points between Henderson, Scheyer and Thomas to squander McRoberts/ Paulus’ 47, not to mention a complete inability to stop the Rams three-headed guard attack (which became four if you add Jamal Shuler’s 14 points off the bench) which scored 48 points (62 with Shuler). If the loss wasn’t enough, Tyler Hansbrough, despite not looking like him anymore, is playing like Hannibal Lecter since the flying elbow. And what’s even more surprising is Billy Packer has agreed to keep calling games this tournament even though the Devils were bounced. We are so lucky.
THUMBS DOWN: Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young, Georgia Tech- Even though I picked UNLV through to the Sweet 16 correctly (and to the Elite 8, too bad I’m still losing my pool to someone who picked Butler because it was “her swim coach’s last name”), I thought Young and Crittenton could have had their way with the Rebels. Vegas’ undersized guards should have had a problem with Crittenton and their lack of size on the wing should’ve been a green light for Young but they both blew it. They combined for just 16 points on 7-23 shooting and besides a brief second-half wake-up call by Crittenton, both players looked completely unready for March basketball. Word is, Young can’t wait to bolt for the NBA but if I’m an NBA GM I have to wonder about a guy who disappears in big games.
THUMBS UP: Stephen Curry, Davidson- I really thought Curry would struggle with DJ Strawberry on him all game but he really proved himself Thursday, albeit in a losing effort. I thought Gary Williams underestimated him a bit, as Curry got a lot of open looks I didn’t think he’d get, but there were also a lot of buckets the little guy really had to work for against a much bigger Strawberry. It would’ve been nice to see Davidson pull the upset but I think Curry proved although he looks like a ninth-grader, he can play with the big boys.
THUMBS DOWN: James Brown, CBS- I know life is meaningless without football but take up golf or something JB.
THUMBS UP: Edgar Sosa, Louisville- Not sure exactly where this came from, but any time a freshman almost single-handedly carries a team over a national title contender, as Sosa nearly did against Texas A&M, he deserves some props. Even more amazingly than the 31 he dropped was that 15 came from the foul line. It’s not like the Aggies perimeter defenders are slouches. Unfortunately the two foul shots he missed late might tarnish one of the better performances of the tournament thus far. I think Rick Pitino will admit his team’s national title hopes are a lot stronger for next year than they were this year, but it has to be nice to see Sosa assert himself and show he can take a game over.
THUMBS DOWN: Chase Budinger, Arizona- In the 8-9 game everyone got wrong, Budinger was exceedingly unspectacular. He did lead the Cats in scoring but that’s about as impressive a first-round feat as being Long Beach State’s best defender. Everyone, including pro scouts, seem to be very high on him but I’m beginning to wonder. He has this tendency to be a space cadet in certain games and his turnovers/bad decisions are higher than they need to be. It will be tough to not leave if he thinks he’s a top 10 pick but if I’m Chase I’m hanging around for at least another year. Another guy not quite ready for the Big Dance.
Greivis Vasquez, Maryland
Raymar Morgan, Michigan State
Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, UNC
Tajuan Porter, Oregon
Duke Crews, Wayne Chism, Ramar Smith, Tennessee
Taj Gibson, USC
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
Scottie Reynolds, Villanova (hear me out, 6-18 FGs and a ton of bad decisions)
Patrick Beverley, Arkansas
Robin Lopez, Stanford