Elite teams are relying on stud freshmen

Updated: December 22, 2006, 12:52 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

If you want to know how much this freshmen class means to college basketball, sit down with Texas coach Rick Barnes for a reality check.

"Without this class we'd be dead," Barnes said. "Think about it. We lost everybody and had only four returning players. In our situation, we need them."

Kevin Durant
AP Photo/Harry CabluckKevin Durant leads Texas in scoring.
Four of Texas' top five scorers, including 21.2-point scorer Kevin Durant, are freshmen. That was a freshman, by the name of D.J. Augustin, who had 25 in an overtime win over LSU in Houston. And yes, that was a freshman, in Justin Mason, who hit a layup in the final seconds to beat Arkansas on Wednesday night.

"Obviously these freshmen get a lot of exposure with the AAU schedule and all that," said Barnes, who lost P.J. Tucker, LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson early to the NBA draft last spring. "They grow up quicker and are more prepared physically to play."

Ohio State and North Carolina, perhaps the two favorites to win the national title, wouldn't be in the top five in this category without freshmen.

The Buckeyes have three who possibly will lead them to the title -- center Greg Oden and shooting guard Daequan Cook, the top two scorers on the team, and point guard Mike Conley Jr.

Brandan Wright
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeBrandan Wright has been a welcome addition to the UNC big-man corps.
North Carolina doesn't get a sniff of the ultimate goal without forward Brandan Wright and guards Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington (three of the top four scorers) to complement returning sophomore forward Tyler Hansbrough.

"There's no question that this class has had the biggest impact we've seen for a long time," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "I do think that this class will go down as one of the best classes. I really do think it's an unusually talented freshmen class."

The list of teams relying on freshmen to play major roles is becoming endless. If there was ever a year for the chorus to be against freshmen ineligibility in the NCAA it is now (yes this topic has been broached many times within the membership as a way to help with graduation rates but is constantly shot down because of the likelihood scholarship numbers would have to increase from 13).

And don't think for a minute that the only reason is the new NBA draft rule. Sure, Oden, Durant, Lawson, Wright, Kansas' Darrell Arthur, Washington's Spencer Hawes, Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet, Georgia Tech's Thaddeus Young and Syracuse's Paul Harris -- to name a few -- might have skipped college had the NBA not enacted a new rule in the collective bargaining agreement that prevents players from declaring for the draft until a year after their high school class graduates and they turn 19 years old.

The rule wouldn't have changed the overall influence of this class.

Duke's Jon Scheyer, Gerald Henderson and Brian Zoubek weren't going into the league, yet they are integral reasons the Blue Devils had only one loss as of Friday. And yes, that was Scheyer and Henderson making a combined five of six free throws in the final 1:47 of Duke's seven-point win over Gonzaga on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

Connecticut, which is dominated by freshmen and sophomores, might have lost only Thabeet and not anyone else, especially its top shooter Jerome Dyson.

Maryland's Greivis Vasquez, the Terps' mature lead guard, wasn't going to the NBA. Neither was Boston College's Shamari Spears, a power player inside who has been a must-have for giving the Eagles balance up front. Or what about Cal forward Ryan Anderson, a hidden gem out West keeping the Bears afloat with his 17 points a game, especially now that DeVon Hardin is out for nearly three months with a stress fracture? Let's stay in the Pac-10 for a moment and look at where one-loss Washington would be without leading scorer forward Quincy Pondexter? Or how about undefeated Oregon sans 5-foot-6 point Tajuan Porter? Porter started the Ducks rolling with three straight games scoring 27 or more, capped off by 38 against Portland State.

Chase Budinger
AP Photo/John MillerArizona will preview a brutal Pac-10 with one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country.
Arizona's Chase Budinger, the Wildcats' second-leading scorer (17.4 ppg) might have flirted with the idea to declare for the NBA but the odds are unlikely. So, toss him in the mix of having a direct result in whether or not the Wildcats win the national title.

"Chase has been one of the most impact freshmen at the early stage of a career here," Olson said. "Sean Elliott had a tremendous impact right off and obviously Mike Bibby for us. But Chase has impacted us a lot."

There are plenty of sleepers around the country, maybe no one more so than Stephen Curry of Davidson, son of former NBA guard Dell Curry. Curry was averaging over 20 points a game heading into a weekend tournament at Arizona State. The ACC schools missed on Curry and now Davidson's chances of winning the Southern Conference are directly affected by Curry's decision to be its lead guard.

Did the NBA draft rule have an affect on Curry? Hardly. His play this season (32 in a 10-point loss at Michigan, 30 in a 12-point win at Chattanooga) should show the depth of this class.

That was freshman Jodie Meeks, another unheralded member of the class, scoring 18 points in 21 minutes of a 12-point win for Kentucky over Louisville. And don't think it will be too long before Derrick Jasper is making a major impact for the Wildcats as a lead guard before the SEC season isn't too old. And while Perry Stevenson has tapered down a bit with seven blocks in the past nine games, he did start the season with 11 in the first two for the 'Cats.

It's these types of role-playing freshmen, the ones having the major impact on NCAA-bid contending teams, who show the depth of this class.

"Look around and you'll see the impact. We were a team that was off the radar but our two freshmen [forward Luke Harangody and guard Tory Jackson] are making a major impact."
-- Notre Dame coach Mike Brey

"Look around and you'll see the impact," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "We were a team that was off the radar but our two freshmen [forward Luke Harangody and guard Tory Jackson] are making a major impact."

Harangody's numbers (11.9 ppg and 5.6 rpg) have been solid for the upstart Irish (wins over Maryland and Alabama). And while Jackson's aren't eye popping (5.0 ppg), his role continues to develop (he had five steals in the win over the Terps in D.C.).

Brey said the summer programs allowing the freshmen to go to school and work out on campus have made a huge difference in the development. So, too, have the individual instruction coaches can give their players a few hours a week as soon as school starts.

"We've got a four-to-six week start of lifting, playing pickup and individual work that gets them ready for Oct. 15," Brey said. "The freshmen now are more ready by Nov. 1 than Jan. 1, which was when they were in the past [before the recent rule of allowing players to go to summer school and giving coaches individual instruction time in the early fall]. They used to wet their beds on Oct. 14, not sure what the head coach would do and scared to make their first layup. Now they're ready to roll when practice starts. Eventually the NCAA will probably let us work with them in the summer, too."

The maturity factor is there for these freshmen, too, certainly with Vazquez.

"He knows the game and that sets him off a bit," Maryland's Gary Williams said. "He's not afraid to be put out there playing basketball. We want him to make aggressive mistakes. He is special."

That word "special" is tossed around quite a bit with this class. Olson uses it with Budinger. Who doesn't use it when referring to Oden and Durant? Heck, in the preseason, Kansas' Bill Self wasn't sure how much Arthur would help since he wasn't keen on going inside. Well, check the stats and Arthur is leading the Jayhawks in scoring (13.7) despite playing the least amount of minutes (21) of the five starters.

Bill Walker
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelBill Walker was a surprise -- and welcomed -- addition to Kansas State's freshman class.
The class is so good that two players tried and were successful getting into it a year early -- USC point guard Daniel Hackett and Kansas State's Bill Walker.

The Trojans wouldn't have had a point if Hackett didn't speed up his graduation process. And Walker, who was told he already had played too many semesters of high school in Ohio, sped up his degree requirements to get eligible last week. Walker scored 15 points in his first game against Kennesaw State as he transforms K-State into a NCAA-bid contender.

"It's a great freshmen class," Kansas State coach Bob Huggins said. "But I'm biased because Bill is here."

No, sorry Huggs, there is nothing partisan about this class. The viewpoint on the impact of this class isn't debatable. There doesn't even seem to be a minority view. This is more of a landslide result than Reagan-Mondale.

This freshmen class will have more of an impact on the chase for bids and ultimately the title than maybe any other.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com