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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Freshmen are leaps and bounds ahead

Freshmen are leaps and bounds ahead
This year's rookie pack is full of aces
By Jim Masilak
Sunday, December 2, 2007

The NBA Draft is still more than seven months away, but the inevitability that the 2008 cattle call will be dominated by a pack of precocious freshmen increases every time Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley take the floor.

When those three dynamic young talents converge on New York's Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night to take part in the Jimmy V Classic, the temptation will be to dispense with the formalities, hold an impromptu lottery and start making selections.

"You could have the first three picks at the Garden in one night," Sports Illustrated college basketball writer Seth Davis said. "All you need is (Indiana freshman guard) Eric Gordon and you can call up (NBA commissioner) David Stern, jump across the street (to the WaMu Theater) and get going."

The NBA's minimum-age requirement means players who would otherwise have skipped college are now starring at universities from Syracuse to St. Mary's and all points in between. That's been the case for a few years. But this is the first time in recent memory, and possibly ever, that such a large group of first-year players has made such a dramatic impact so quickly on the college game.

Whether it's Beasley putting up 32 points and a Big 12 Conference-record 24 rebounds in his debut for Kansas State, Rose flushing a spectacular reverse dunk at Memphis Madness or Patty Mills of St. Mary's dropping 37 points on then No. 12 Oregon, freshmen have been the story of the season thus far.

But that comes as no surprise to anyone who followed the Class of 2007 on the summer basketball circuit in recent years. The legend surrounding this crop of players has been long in the making.

"We've been (aware) for the last year and a half that this class was special. We had big expectations for these guys," said Dave Telep, national recruiting analyst for Scout.com. "We knew this was a good group of guys because of the star power in this class."

Last year's freshman class was notable primarily for two transcendent stars in Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas swingman Kevin Durant. But in terms of top-to-bottom talent, Davis says, that group was no match for the current one.

"Every year there's someone who says, 'This is the best class in a while.' What makes this class unique is just how many impact freshmen there are," Davis added. "One team after another, you're seeing great freshmen, and that's what makes it really incredible.

"This class that just signed, a lot of people might think Greg Monroe is the best player in that class, but he might only be seventh or eighth in this year's class," Davis said in reference to the Georgetown-bound forward from Harvey, La. "That's how good this class is. The next two classes can't touch this one."

How deep is this year's class?

In its 2008 mock draft, NBADraft.net projects nine of the top 10 selections to be freshmen.

Unlike last year, when Oden and Durant were the consensus top two picks, it's uncertain which players will emerge from the crowd as the top choices.

In addition to Beasley, Mayo, Rose and Gordon (who leads the nation with 27.3 points per game), other rookie luminaries include UCLA forward Kevin Love, Texas A&M 7-footer DeAndre Jordan, Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin and Vanderbilt's 6-10 Australian import, Andrew Ogilvy.

"The thing I get a kick out of is all these talking heads trying to debate which one is first," Telep said. "No one's really taken the bull by the horns yet between the top five guys. It's an ongoing debate that will keep going through the season and into June."

Although Memphis coach John Calipari isn't usually one for understatement, he urges caution in regard to overenthusiastic assessments of this year's freshman class. Some of them, he noted, are more mature than your traditional first-year college player.

"It's really too early to tell," he said. "You can talk about this class and that class. ... You've got to let this thing play out."

As the No. 3-ranked Tigers (6-0) prepared to face No. 22 USC (6-1) in the second game of Tuesday's doubleheader -- Beasley will lead Kansas State against Notre Dame in the opener -- Calipari told his players what to expect from the 6-5 Mayo, who is averaging 21.3 points per game.

"He's really talented," Calipari said. "You can play good defense, and he'll get the ball and score anyway."

Telep suspects some of the early-season pyrotechnics have been fueled by the rivalries developed between these players during their high school and AAU careers. Mayo vs. Rose is just one of several high-profile matchups between freshmen this season.

"These guys know each other so well," Telep said. "They read the box scores every night to see what everyone's doing, and they're pretty much playing a game of, 'Anything you can do, I can do better.'"

The hype surrounding this year's freshman class has led some to wonder whether first-year players will continue to dominate the college game.

Even if the NBA retains its minimum-age requirement, Telep predicts the impact of freshmen "will vary by year to year" depending on the quality and depth of each class.

"Savor it while it lasts," Telep said. "It's not gonna be like this every year. I'm not sure that similar crop of freshmen is gonna be seen again anytime soon. It's a heck of a crop."

-- Jim Masilak: 529-2311

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