UK Men's Basketball

Freshmen becoming uncommonly phenomenal

The 2006 freshman class, led by player-of-the-year types Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, was considered one of the best in college basketball history.

The next year, along came Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, Eric Gordon, O.J. Mayo, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. Everyone thought: Wow! Now that has to be the best class ever.

Hold on just a second.

After a relatively benign 2008 class — at least by standards of the previous two — this year's rookie crop has a chance to become the best yet.

There's Xavier Henry leaping opponents in a single bound at top-ranked Kansas and John Wall doing it all at Kentucky. Texas point guard Avery Bradley has been tougher to catch than a hummingbird, and there's Tiny Gallon scoring and minding the basket at Oklahoma. Derrick Favors has used his pterodactyl-like wing span to dominate at both ends for Georgia Tech.

That's just the start with this year's class. And, thanks to the Internet and a game that seems to get younger every year, more like this could be on the way.

"That class with Blake, Rose, Beasley, Mayo, Love, all those guys, that's the best one I've seen," Oklahoma Coach Jeff Capel said. "But this one's really good. There's been some really good classes, and you're going to see it more and more."

There was a time, not too long ago, when coaches rarely though of starting a freshman, much less making them the focal point of a team. In the days of Wilt Chamberlain, freshmen weren't even allowed to play.

So when Pervis Ellison led Louisville to the 1986 national championship as a freshman, it was a Haley's Comet-like occurrence. When Carmelo Anthony cut down the nets with Syracuse in 2003, it was still treated with how'd-he-do-that awe.

Even a few years ago, coaches were still worried about relying too much on players a few months removed from their senior proms.

"You don't want to put a guy in a situation where he has never been through pressure and now, if he doesn't perform well, he's a primary reason — in most people's eyes — why your team isn't successful," Kansas Coach Bill Self said. "There are exceptions."

Wall is one.

The 6-foot-4 guard has been an unstoppable, mesmerizing force so far this season, a blur who can go baseline to baseline as fast as anyone in the game.

He helped beat North Carolina, the hometown team that spurned him, then held an electrifying Garden party against Connecticut at New York's famous arena.

Wall averages 18.1 points, 7.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 2.8 steals and at least two ankle-turning crossovers per game.

"There's nothing you can do about him," UNC-Asheville's D.J. Cunningham said after Wall had 12 points and 14 assists in the Wildcats' rout. "He does whatever he wants."

So does Henry.

The son of two former Jayhawks who considered going to UK, Henry plays with the confidence of a veteran, stroking three-pointers with ease. He leads the nation's No. 1 team at 18 points per game, is shooting 55.6 percent — mostly from the perimeter — and recently leaped completely over Alcorn State's 6-foot-4 Keith Searcy, inducing a traveling call.

The rest of the country captivated, Henry yawns. He expected to do this all along.

"I just play within what our team does," Henry said after scoring 31 points in 29 minutes in a rout of La Salle. "We have great big men, so it's easy points when we throw it inside. I just pick my spots."

With so many other freshmen playing prominent roles this season, the exception is rapidly becoming the rule.

Gallon is a shooting guard in a power forward's body, 6-foot-9, 296 pounds of touch and talent. He's averaging 11.9 points and 9.4 rebounds while trying to follow Capel's urgings to be more physical.

Bradley has been a whirling dervish for the nation's No. 2 team and plays alongside another talented freshman, J'Covan Brown, Texas' third-leading scorer at 12.1 points per game.

Favors and his 9-foot wingspan have overcome some early-game overeagerness to average 13.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots for the 22nd-ranked Yellow Jackets.

Then there's Washington's Abdul Gaddy, Syracuse's Brandon Triche, and Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton alongside Wall in Lexington. The list seems to go on and on, and the freshman fad isn't likely to end soon.

Kids with even the slightest bit of talent are identified and groomed from middle school. Television and the Internet make them stars before they learn to drive, help them understand pressure beyond playing in a dingy gym in front of two dozen people.

There's little need for a grace period when freshmen arrive on campus — they're ready to go.

"There's so much more exposure for these kids," Capel said. "The mind-set of these guys is so much different than it was 10-15 years ago."

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