This has been a fun year of college basketball so far, despite the fact that both of my favorite teams, Duke and MSU, are in the midst of rebuilding years. The dominant theme so far? The impact of the freshman class. When the NBA passed their rule that a player had to be in college for one year before going pro, you knew it would bring an enormous, though short lived, infusion of talent into college basketball; that has turned out to be true in spades. This year’s freshman class may be the best ever and they’re having a huge impact on the game.
Greg Oden was the consensus #1 player in the class coming in to the year; he would have been the #1 pick in the draft if he had been able to declare for it after his junior year in high school. And despite sitting out the first few weeks of the season and still being limited by last year’s wrist surgery to the point where he has to shoot with his left hand, he’s pretty much lived up to the billing. When he’s able to use his right hand fully, perhaps by the time the NCAA tournament comes around, he’s going to be pretty much impossible to stop, one reason why Ohio State is one of the top contenders for the championship.
But make no mistake about it, the star of this class has been Kevin Durant of Texas. He’s having a season that is nothing short of astonishing. Hell, it would be a season for the ages if he was a senior; for a freshman, it may be unrivaled in the history of the game. Think of the great freshman in the history of the game: Michael Jordan, who hit the game winning shot in the 1982 championship game; Carmelo Anthony, who led Syracuse to a national title; Chris Webber and the Fab Five at Michigan; Magic Johnson. None of them have dominated the way Durant has.
For the season, he’s averaging 25 points and 11 rebounds a game. But in league play, in one of the toughest leagues in the country, he’s been destroying the opposition, averaging 34 points and 14 rebounds a game. In his first give Big 12 games, he put up 3 of the 4 highest scoring games in the history of the conference. In conference play, he’s shooting 47% from 3 point range. And did I mention that he’s 6’10 and has a wingspan of 7’5?
This kid is scary good in every phase of the game. He can handle the ball like a guard, he can go inside, he can shoot the three, he can take you off he dribble, he can block shots and he’s a beast on the glass. I know the voters are going to be reluctant to give the Wooden Award to a freshman, but I can’t see how anyone could justify a vote for anyone else. Just look at his last five games, 3 of them on the road: 28 points, 15 boards; 32 points, 9 boards; 37 points, 23 boards; 34 points, 9 boards; 26 points, 15 boards. Unbelievable numbers for anyone, but for a freshman? Unheard of.
But he and Oden aren’t the only freshmen having great seasons. Heck, he’s not the only freshman on his team having a great year. Texas starts 4 freshman and a sophomore, with DJ Augustine playing brilliantly at the point for them. North Carolina has a great trio of first year starters in Brandon Wright, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. In addition to Oden, Ohio State has Mike Conley, who is only leading the Big Ten in assists. Chase Budinger has looked great for Arizona, as has Darrell Arthur at Kansas.Georgia Tech has two terrific freshman in Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenden. Duke’s Jon Scheyer has stepped right into the starting lineup and played great, which surprises me; I thought Gerald Henderson would be the star of their freshman class. Spencer Hawes in Washington is averaging 15 points and 6 boards a game. All in all, this is a tremendous freshman class.
So who are the all-Americans at this point in the season? Durant is hands down the player of the year, so he’s obviously on the team. Alando Tucker is also a no-brainer for the first team, leading Wisconsin to a 22-2 record so far, including a big win over Ohio State. Tucker has done it all for the team, averaging 20 points and 5 rebounds a game. The only knock on him is that he doesn’t shoot well from 3 point range, but he scores in every other possible way. He’s not a shooter, he’s just a scorer.
The point guard would have to be Acie Law of Texas A&M. He’s led a marginally talented team to their highest ranking ever, averaging 17 points and 5 assists, shooting over 50% from the field and over 42% from 3 point range. And in the space of 48 hours he led them to huge wins over Kansas (23 points, 7 assists) on the road and at home against Texas (21 points, 15 assists). Honorable mention at point guard would go to Drew Neitzel of MSU, who has taken on a much bigger scoring role this year and is lighting up the Big Ten, and to Aaron Brooks of Oregon.
Tyler Hansborough of North Carolina was a favorite for player of the year before the season started, and while Durant has pretty much lapped him in that regard he’s still having a very good year. He’s averaging 19 points and 8 rebounds a game for the Tar Heels. And next to him on the blocks, I’d put Mario Boggan of Oklahoma State. He’s averaging 20 points and 9 boards for the Cowboys and had that brilliant duel against Durant, with 37 points, 20 boards and the game winning shot.
It’s hard to make that list without at least one player from Florida, the defending NCAA champions, but that team is so balanced that no one sticks out. Their top 4 players – Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer – all average between 12.4 and 13.8 points a game and you never know which one is going to dominate in any given game. That makes them a real championship threat, but it limits their individual case for all-American honors. But they’re all great players and this still may be the best team in the country.
Enough about individual players, let’s talk about teams. I think the top 3 teams are pretty clear: North Carolina, Florida and Ohio State. The next 3 are Wisconsin, UCLA and Kansas, all of whom are talented enough to win it all but I’m just not sold on them as complete teams the way I am on the first three. The top 3 teams are strong at every position without any obvious weaknesses. They’ve got size, quickness, outside shooting, great coaching, and everything else you need to win a championship.
Florida obviously has the edge in experience, returning their whole starting five from last year’s championship team. It’s as good a starting five as you could have, all of them capable of putting up 30 on any given night, but they haven’t fallen victim to taking star turns. They just play great team basketball and take turns dominating. North Carolina and Ohio State are much younger, relying on multiple freshmen in both cases, but they’re both arguably deeper and more talented than Florida.
Carolina has 3 freshman starting and among their top 4 scorers. Ty Lawson is lightning fast at the point guard spot and can break down pretty much any defense at will. Wayne Ellington is a silky smooth guard shooting over 40% from 3 point range. Brandan Wright is averaging over 14 points a game on better than 63% shooting, a perfect complement to Hansborough in the frontcourt. Add in senior Reyshawn Terry, a bench full of talented bench players who could start for most any other team, and a hall of fame coach in Roy Williams and you’ve got a serious contender.
Ohio State only has 9 players that play any minutes, but all 9 of them can play. Oden is a beast in the middle, as talented a true center as the game has seen in a generation. He’s averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks a game with, almost literally, one hand tied behind his back. As his right wrist continues to heal and get stronger, he’s only going to be more dangerous. They’ve got great point guard play from Mike Conley and a whole raft of outside shooters if you try and collapse on Oden in the paint. They also play very aggressive defense because Oden can erase mistakes if someone gets past them; that’s a recipe for a championship.
I would put my money on one of those 3 teams to win the championship at this point, with the other three teams as serious contenders as well. Want some sleepers? Texas A&M could certainly do some damage. They’ve got great point guard play and a smothering defense (teams are shooting under 36% against them for the season). Memphis is a young, athletic team that could get on a roll. And Marquette is a team that can be scary, with great guard play led by Dominic James, as tough a player as there is in the country. And keep an eye on Oregon, another team with great guard play.