To some, this means very little. It’s no different than, “Hey look, snow!” or “Rita’s Water Ice is open again!” (don’t worry if you don’t know what I’m talking about West Coast people). But for me, “Basketball is back” carries far more weight. Since I was six years old, when I watched Michael Jordan win his first title against Magic Johnson (the tapes still inhabit some lost crevice of my parents’ house) the game has been a huge part of my life. The prevailing attraction to basketball is that it’s a game where each player is free to express himself individually without restriction, but must do so in a way that will reap team success.
Collegiate basketball only magnifies this dynamic. Unlike any level of any other sport, college hoops offers the rare opportunity to see the best ever play alongside and against guys who upon graduation will never play another meaningful game. Lew Alcindor needs John Vallely and Kenny Heitz, Michael Jordan is dependent on the likes of Buzz Peterson and Jim Braddock, Kevin Durant shares the ball with Connor Atchley. But amidst all the different talent levels and personalities that collaborate for just one college basketball game, we, the fans, hold our breath for that night where one player proves himself to be on a separate level from the rest. Where we see a superstar develop right before our eyes.
That is why freshmen are so entertaining. While the elite players leave college basketball when it’s clear they shouldn’t be there anymore, the new crop of freshmen arrives with unfiltered talent, ready to test a new level. They represent a newfound hope that we’ll get the first glimpse of a career that will change the way we view the sport. As someone who loves basketball and doesn’t really care about rock n’ roll, watching Kevin Durant play in college must have been like watching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Those moments of brilliance, where I was witnessing something rarely seen (the triple-OT game vs. Oklahoma State being that defining moment), reminded me why I get so excited for basketball to be back.
Writing this column is great because I will always be there for these moments. When Eric Gordon or OJ Mayo go into “hello world mode,” — and it’s not a matter of if, as much as when — I’m not going to miss it. And with the season beginning last night, I’m pretty damn excited; it’s time to start being a witness.
Now that the pseudo-Nike commercial is over, some Freshman 10 housecleaning. This year I’ll also take a look at some upcoming games that might be of interest. This edition won’t take into account potential late-round tournament games. There’s also a featured link on each player that I find to be particularly interesting or informative.
As always, the ranking is cumulative and takes into account team success and overall consistency. With no games on the record yet, I’ll focus on storylines for each player. E-mails are welcome and do check out my Freshman preview for a more comprehensive primer (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
1. Eric Gordon, Indiana – Gordon is going to be unfairly abused by opposing fans all year because of Kelvin Sampson’s shadiness (alright, Illinois fans get free reign, but that’s it). And while ingrates across the Big Ten whip out their cell phones when Gordon is on the line, they will ultimately find that putting a chip on Eric Gordon’s shoulder is a terrible idea. It’s tough to describe his game without coming off as pedaling hyperbole. He will be the most complete, NBA-ready scoring guard in the country, has the “I’m winning this game and you can’t stop me” ability of Durant and could be the most ideal NCAA tournament weapon since Dwyane Wade because when he is on, there is no way to keep him out of the lane or off the foul line (where he shot 89 percent last year). For Sampson, he has put all of his eggs in Gordon’s basket. By putting the program in peril, he raised the stakes to “win-at-all-cost” and is now dependent on Gordon to raise his game accordingly. It seems an unfair proposition for an 18-year old but perhaps Gordon’s greatest quality is his unflappability, his ability to do extraordinary things while acting as though the best is still to come. And it’s that personality that may be able to silence critics.
Stats - None
Featured link – Outstanding Sports Illustrated feature on Gordon’s de-commitment to Illinois, a must-read.
2. Derrick Rose, Memphis – It’s an interesting predicament for Rose. His talents are on par (to some, superior) with Gordon, OJ Mayo and all the other stud recruits but the deserved early season hype will disappear in January when he is relegated to the shadows of Conference USA league play. Memphis has seven non-conference games on ESPN or ESPN2 but zero league games. While true fans won’t quickly forget Rose’s skills, it’s human for a teenager to want the same bright lights reserved for his peers. Just as Gordon has his chip, will Rose develop the same feeling of slight? It would seem best suited for Calipari to keep his 6-4 point guard in check, but a pissed off Derrick Rose finally getting his chance to shine for a No. 1 seed Memphis in the NCAA Tournament is a downright terrifying prospect. A December 4 match-up against Mayo will provide a chance for temporary bragging rights, but we may have to wait until March to truly appreciate his game.
Stats – In a game that just ended, he apparently dominated with 17 points, six boards, five assists and four dunks against Tennessee-Martin.
Featured link – Bizarre, fascinating feature on William Wesley, ubiquitous and shady basketball diplomat and “friend” of Calipari and Rose.
3. Michael Beasley, Kansas State – It’s a modern college hoops recruiting folk tale. All-Everything recruit uses the seedy AAU scene to select a college, inexplicably signing with Charlotte to follow his coach Dalonte Hill. Bob Huggins, purveyor of shadiness, leaves Cincinnati after DUI, takes job at struggling Kansas State. In order to regain clout, Huggins hires Hill, who brings All-Everything recruit with him. Jerk head coach then leaves new program, which has already served its purpose as a springboard to greener pastures. All-Everything recruit then questions his commitment, wanting to follow coach. Program, fearing return to irrelevancy, promotes Hill to top assistant and equally shady and woefully inexperienced assistant Frank Walker to head coach, so Mr. Everything will stay. In Part 2, All-Everything recruit drops 42 and 12 on Marquette in first scrimmage and 35 and 14 in exhibition, dominates NCAA and leaves for NBA after one freaking season with a wake of indiscretions and favoritism going undisciplined.
Stats – None
Featured link – Rarely do you get such as candid look at the personality of an incoming freshman as this Washington Post feature.
4/5. Kevin Love, UCLA; OJ Mayo, USC – I remember a column by ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons where, upon watching the McDonald’s All American game, he predicted a heated, racially motivated, good vs. evil rivalry between UCLA and USC, Mayo v. Love. First off, Mayo’s performance in the McDonald’s game and his arrogant career-ending dunk was deplorable and yes, a disturbing example of young, me-first players. But in the confines of a regular game setting, especially one dictated by no-nonsense coach Tim Floyd, Mayo’s court vision and passing ability could be his finest quality. He really is a point guard, even if he doesn’t always play one on TV. At some point, though, he will have to make a decision — get mine or get wins — and that choice will reveal what type of player he is. Given his past intentions to declare out of high school, it seems possible that this season will be an extended NBA tryout for Mayo (this NY Times feature on how Mayo recruited USC is a bit troubling). But to assume he has already sided with selfishness is ignoring what got Mayo all this attention in the first place: he is an outstanding all around player. How much of that all around game Mayo will show us is yet to be determined. As for Love, the same types of preconceived notions are being perpetrated. If I hear another damn word about his outlet passes I’m going to puke. His outlet passes are valuable but compared to the rest of his game could be considered a novelty. He has amazing post moves for his age, good range on his jump shot and is extremely athletic. But for the media to laud such a fundamental aspect of his game — not to mention the assumption that he has some divine pursuit of knowledge of the game — drives him further away from Mayo-type players and strengthens a manufactured dichotomy that makes for divisive columns. OJ Mayo and Kevin Love are going to fuel one of the best rivalries in sports this year but it will be predicated more on what they have in common — talent well beyond their years — than how they are different.
Stats - None
Featured link – A much fairer depiction of the Love/Mayo dynamic.
6. Donte Green, Syracuse – Greene’s story isn’t about recruiting battles or Hollywood or shoe deals. His story is about true perseverance. He came from a broken home, moving from place to place, even country to country with his mother (there is a great Baltimore Sun piece on Greene but it’s archived). One morning he found his mother dead of a heart attack and it led to two suicide attempts within the next year. His father moved him back to Baltimore where he followed in the embattled footsteps of, you guessed it, Carmelo Anthony, and that’s where the comparisons began. They are from the same town, share the same incredible skills (Greene was hands down the best player at the 2006 Nike Camp) and both headlined a great freshman class. But what Greene will have that Melo did not is unrealistic expectations of success. Because Melo set the precedent, by sheer circumstance, Greene must be held against it. I truly believe he has the potential to be better than the top five on this list but I hope he is held to reasonable standards and can just be Donte Greene. It might not be Melo but Cuse fans should find it to be quite enough.
Stats - None
Featured link – Not Greene’s entire story, but still interesting.
7. Kyle Singler, Duke – Let’s make this clear: being a white, high-profile sharpshooter from a privileged family that plays for Duke is not a good way to make friends. If that isn’t enough to send Maryland and UNC fans into a frenzy, Singler has the severe inconvenience of being very good and very competitive. I hate Duke as much as the average Terp, but it’s hard for me to dislike the versatile Singler as much as I did the one-dimensional JJ Redick. In fact, Singler may be too good. People hated players like Wojo, Redick and Scheyer because the only discerning quality those players had, it seemed, was motivation and Duke privilege. “He looks just like me, if I had the same motivation and resources as that pipsqueak, I could ball too.” The problem with Singler is that he’s nothing like you. He’s 6-8, can shoot, handle, pass and rebound. He can dunk. Hard. He’s got the kid next door look but he’s got the NBA game. As long as he doesn’t take up poetry he won’t get the Redick treatment.
Stats- None, but he destroyed their exhibition schedule.
Featured link – This piece is in a clumsy PDF form but is a great look at Singler’s personality.
8. Kosta Koufos, Ohio State - Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News is no slouch and he thinks Koufos could be the No. 1 pick in the 2008 Draft. So why is he No. 8 on this list and often left out of discussion on the nation’s top rookies? Xenophobia (yes, that’s a real word). For fans and media, it’s a known fact that all European big men are stiffs that only make it because they are big and mysterious. To tout one is to risk looking foolish if he’s the next Nikoloz Tskitishvilli (I know, I have him at No. 8, guilty as charged). The thing is, Koufos is a Greek American. He played for Greece in the U-18 European Championships and absolutely dominated but played high school ball in America. I honestly think Koufos is a better college player right now than Greg Oden was but it sounds crazy because he’s not as hyped. There just aren’t 7-1 centers who can run the floor, shoot threes and bust out grown man post moves. Oden’s ceiling is higher and his defense is obviously outstanding, but Koufos can still be an elite shot blocker in college. Once he drops 25 and 10 in a game with Chad Ford around, maybe people will start paying attention.
Featured link – In a world of darkness, allow Andy Katz to show you the light.
9. Herb Pope, New Mexico State – Pope’s amazing story leaves a lot of question marks for the upcoming season. He considered de-committing this summer after Reggie Theus left for the Sacramento Kings and is still feeling the lasting effects of nearly fatal gunshot wounds suffered in April, which caused him to lose 37 pounds. He’s a bit of a loose cannon, but seemingly just a good kid with a very troubled past. And if you’ve ever seen footage of Pope play or read about his game, he may have more raw talent than any player in the WAC. He’s 6-9 but can score from anywhere on the court, has great handle for a big man and says he is now 100 percent. The problem is, Pope is still dealing with eligibility issues and can’t practice. It seems like another setback should be routine for this guy, but he’s still a teenager. Let’s just hope this is resolved by the Nov. 12 date with Duke on ESPN2 so the country can see this kid.
Featured link - Check out this outstanding NY Times feature if you want even more info on Pope.
10. Anthony Randolph, LSU – He is 6-10 and 190 pounds. Glen Davis was 290 when he left LSU. Yet expectations in Baton Rouge are that Randolph will match Big Baby’s production in an up tempo system catering to the Tigers newfound athleticism. The 20 and 15 he had in LSU’s exhibition is more stats per pound than Davis could muster (he would have had to average roughly 300 points per game to produce a similar ratio). If LSU does push the ball he will be a terror. There is no one in the country that can run and jump at 6-10 like he does and I’ve always thought it’s easier to hide a lack of strength in college. It’s hard to box out a guy who jumps over you.
Freshman perk- There hasn’t been a lot written about Randolph, so I give you this. Chilling.
11) Andrew Ogilvy, Vanderbilt ; 12) Jerryd Bayless, Arizona; 13) Chris Wright, Dayton; 14) Patrick Patterson, Kentucky; 15) James Harden, Arizona State; 16) Jonny Flynn, Syracuse; 17) DeAndre Jordan, Texas A & M; 18) Corey Fisher, Villanova; 19) Chris Allen, Michigan State; 20) E’Twaun Moore, Purdue; 21) Austin Freeman, Georgetown; 22) Davon Jefferson, USC; 23) Corey Chandler, Rutgers; 24) Bill Walker, Kansas State; 25) Matt Howard, Butler
Games to Watch (November 5 thru November 19, excludes later round tourney games)
Tennessee-Martin at Memphis, November 5 (7 ET, ESPNU, THE SEASON BEGINS!!!) – Much-anticipated debut of Skyhawks freshman forward Andres Irarrazabal. I’ve been waiting all summer to see how he looks against college competition… oh and some guy Derrick Rose on Memphis might play a little. Heard he’s not bad either.
New Mexico at Duke, November 12 (7 ET, ESPN2) – You mean I get to watch Duke lose at home on national TV less than a week into the season?! It will be like Christmas and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. Big match-up between Herb Pope and Kyle Singler should provide an early look at how both stack-up on the college level. Really excited for this one, not gonna lie.
Virginia at Arizona, November 17 (10:30 ET) – This game should be as good as last year’s season-opening three-point Cavaliers win over the Cats. Obviously the big match-up is Jerryd Bayless v. Sean Singletary where we’ll see if the veteran can muscle around the young buck, but also look for Jamelle Horne occasionally matching up with Virginia’s prized freshman Jeff Jones. We also get a look at Cavs frosh guards Sammy Zeglinski and Mustapha Farrakan, who look to replace JR Reynolds.
LSU at Oklahoma State, November 19 (5:00 ET, ESPN2) – This is the nightcap of a solid Maui Invitational first round. Hopefully Randolph will be matched up with rook Martavius Adams, which would be an interesting battle. While the athletic Randolph can dunk from anywhere on the court, the 260-pound Adams could probably devour him whole. Either outcome should be entertaining. The Cowboys top recruit, swingman James Anderson, will be hounded by veterans Garrett Temple and Tasmin Mitchell.
Montana at Gonzaga, November 11 (1:00 ET) – One of the better early, non-conference mid-major match-ups and one that should be closer than people think. Zags will introduce another top 25 recruit in forward Austin Daye, but he will match-up against two of the top five returning Big Sky scorers in Andrew Strait and Jordan Hasquet, not to mention 6-10 freshman Derek Selvig, one of the highest-rated Grizzlies’ recruits ever. Plus add the fact that Josh Heytvelt may start licking the floor at any moment and this game should be outstanding.
Houston at VCU, November 15 (9:00 AM ET, ESPNU, Puerto Rico Tip-Off)
Rutgers at Florida, November 17 (7:00 ET)
Michigan at Georgetown, November 15 (7:30 ET)
UAB at Florida State, November 16 (8:15 ET)
USC at South Carolina, November 17 (7:30 ET)