Skip your classes on Thursday. Call in sick to work on Friday. For the next few weeks, park yourself in front of the nearest TV and don’t leave until the nets have come down in Atlanta. You won’t want to miss a single game of the 2007 NCAA Tournament – the “Greatest Basketball Show on Earth” – because you may never see so much talent in the world of college basketball ever again. The biggest stars will almost certainly be playing for the Atlanta Hawks or the Boston Celtics next year in the NBA – and most of them won’t even be 20 years old yet.
Yes, thanks to NBA Commissioner David Stern’s new age limit, which basically forces would-be pros to play a year of college ball, the big storyline of this year’s tournament won’t be the ascendance of the mid-majors (who garnered a measly six at-large bids just a year after George Mason’s miracle Final Four run), but the primacy of the freshmen.
Need proof? Just take a look at the Big 12 Tournament. In the semifinals – a must-win game for Oklahoma State – Texas super-freshman Kevin Durant singlehandedly kept the Longhorns competitive during an early Cowboy run, pouring in his team’s first 13 points and later hitting a key three-pointer to seal a win for the Longhorns. Impressive, right? Not nearly as impressive as Durant’s performance the week before, when, playing at Kansas against a scary Jayhawk team, he was good for 25 points – in the first half.
The small forward topped that total the day after his Oklahoma State performance, leading all scorers in the Big 12 championship game with 37 points while pushing a much deeper Kansas squad to overtime. A forward, he leads his team both in points and rebounds per game, while shooting an impressive 42 percent from three-point range. Durant is virtually a shoo-in for player of the year honors. Yet to some, he isn’t even the best freshman in the country.
His chief rival for that honor (the Patrick Ewing to Durant’s Michael Jordan, if you will) would be Ohio State center Greg Oden. Oden, who would have been the top overall pick in last year’s NBA draft had he been allowed to enter, was touted as a once-in-a-generation talent when he came to Columbus last fall. The 7-footer has quite literally dominated conference opponents, leading the Big 10 in blocks and rebounds despite playing with a surgically repaired right wrist that is still heavily bandaged.
He’s brought to the Buckeyes the inside presence that last year’s team lacked, recording a ridiculous 19 rebounds against Purdue in the Big 10 semifinals and averaging 3.5 blocks per game to bring the Buckeyes to the top of the AP poll for the first time in 45 years. Just how dominant has Oden been this year? A unanimous all-Big 10 selection, the only controversy attached to his name stemmed from the award he didn’t win: conference player of the year, which went to Wisconsin senior Alando Tucker.
But that’s not to say that this freshman class is a two-man show. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even Durant and Oden have received significant help from fellow first-year point guards. Texas’s DJ Augustin and Ohio State’s Mike Conley Jr. both lead their conferences in assists per game. Both can find the open shooter, and also shoot pretty well – Augustin has hit 46 percent of his three-point attempts this season, while Conley’s running jumper beat then-No. 2 Wisconsin in February. The two lead a talented crop of freshman point guards that includes Georgia Tech’s Javaris Crittenton and Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds, both of whom have led their teams to late-season surges that should continue through the tournament.
Yet the best freshman class might very well be the top seed in Georgetown’s own East tournament region, the North Carolina Tar Heels. This year’s squad returned lead scorer Tyler Hansbrough and forward Reyshawn Terry, leaving three starting spots to freshmen Brandan Wright, Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington. The three freshmen all average more than 10 points per game, and, like Oden and Durant, Wright turned in a dominant conference tournament performance to win most valuable player in the ACC conference.
In the past, teams loaded with freshman talent, such as Ohio State, Texas and North Carolina, were vulnerable to early March exits as first-year talent struggled to cope with the pressure of a national audience. That shouldn’t be a problem for players like Ellington and Lawson, who played each other in a nationally televised high school game last year. In the past, it was exceedingly rare for a freshman to garner Final Four most outstanding player honors; this year, it would perhaps be more suprising if a freshman didn’t win the award.
Durant. Oden. Conley. Augustin. Wright. Likely all these players will be one-hit wonders in college, playing in a single edition of the tournament before bolting for the dollars in the draft. But oh, what a wonderful tournament it’ll be.
Brendan Roach is a freshman in the College. He can be reached at roachthehoya.com. THE LOSING STREAK appears regularly every other Tuesday in HOYA SPORTS.