- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Behold the Year of the Freshman.

With an assist from David Stern, college hoops has scored perhaps the most impressive crop of newcomers in the game’s history.

From Ohio State manchild Greg Oden to the top-10 North Carolina trio to Connecticut’s nine-rookie clip, the game’s freshmen are set to make the kind of sudden impact that would make Clint Eastwood cower. Prepare to see departure-ravaged teams instantly transformed into NCAA tournament locks and solid tournament teams instantly elevated to Final Four favorites.

“I think this would have been as strong a freshman class nationally as I’ve ever seen even without the NBA rule. Now, once you add the handful of kids to the college game who would have gone pro, wow, it’s just exceptional,” said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who lost all five starters from a team that finished 30-4 last season and actually thinks he has more talent in Storrs this season.

“I know we’re the quickest team I’ve had in 21 years. … I know [7-foot-3 freshman center] Hasheem Thabeet can make as big an impact as any first-year player I’ve ever had. I know that [Rockville native and freshman guard] Jerome Dyson over the last several days has done some very special things that only a few guys in the history of Connecticut have been able to do as a young player. And we have a lot of depth. In all honesty, I think we’re as talented as we were last season. We’re just young.”

That battle cry could well follow a couple of teams all the way to the Georgia Dome in March. The No. 2 Tar Heels and the No. 7 Buckeyes were ranked near the top of the Associated Press preseason poll based largely (UNC) or almost entirely (OSU) on freshmen.

Sure, the Tar Heels return last season’s national freshman of the year in center Tyler Hansbrough (18.9 points, 6.8 rebounds). But UNC didn’t secure the nation’s No. 2 slot because the media were wowed with the supporting cast that left Hansbrough single-handed in the Tar Heels’ humbling second-round loss to George Mason in last season’s NCAA tournament.

Nope, the Tar Heels are picked to march all the way to the Peach Pit thanks to a gaudy recruiting haul that includes three of the nation’s top eight incoming freshmen (forward Brandan Wright and guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington).

Wright, who will start opposite Hansbrough in the paint, is a 6-10 forward who handles like a guard and dropped a team-high 19 points in 16 minutes on St. Augustine’s in UNC’s final exhibition. Coach Roy Williams says Ellington has the most advanced skills of any freshman guard he has coached. And Lawson, a 5-11 blur with the basketball, is a transition terror for opposing teams.

“Free throw line to free throw line, I’ve never seen anybody as fast as Tywon,” said UNC senior guard Wes Miller, who has played with and against some pretty speedy sorts in Raymond Felton and Chris Paul.

Amazingly, considering they swiped nearly half of the blue-chip elite eight, North Carolina’s claim to the game’s top recruiting class is debatable.

That’s because of the extraordinary quintet Ohio State coach Thad Matta cajoled to Columbus. The so-called “Thad Five” or “Cinco de Matta” have been termed the strongest cluster of recruits in history, outstripping Michigan’s Fab Five from 1991 (Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson). That group of Wolverines, of course, advanced to consecutive Final Fours, establishing a high bar for this group of Buckeyes.

“I’d really like to get the Final Four of the BCA Classic, which means we have to beat VMI [in Friday’s opener],” said Matta, who has done all he can to keep the inevitable spotlight off his fivesome. “People need to remember this team will always be a work in progress.”

Like the Fab Five, this Ohio State bunch is a convenient complete set: point guard Mike Conley Jr., shooting guard David Lighty, swingman Daequan Cook, power forward Othello Hunter and center Greg Oden. Aside from Hunter, a 6-9 JUCO dunkosaur, each of Ohio State’s newcomers was ranked among the consensus top 30 high school players in the nation. But all talk about the Buckeyes begins and ends with Oden, a polished 7-0, 280-pounder who has inspired more man-crushes among NBA general managers than any player since Magic Johnson.

“He’s the real deal,” Marquette coach Tom Crean said. “You talk about a big man with skills and versatility. He’s got the chance to be very, very special.”

Unfortunately, Oden had surgery to repair injured ligaments in his right wrist in June and isn’t expected to debut until the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener at Indiana (Jan. 2).

But the big man from Indianapolis is precisely the type of player who wouldn’t be on a college campus if not for the NBA’s age-restriction policy.

Starting with Kevin Garnett in 1995 and ending with the record group of 10 high school players in 2005, 39 high school players were selected in the NBA Draft. And one NBA scout estimated that as many as a dozen members of this year’s freshman class would have been selected.

Suitland native Kevin Durant, a 6-9 freshman forward at Texas, told The Washington Times several months ago he probably would have entered the draft if not for the age-restriction policy.

“Yeah, I probably would have turned pro, and I don’t think it was a [fair] rule,” he said. “I think we were just as good as the previous class that went to the NBA, but it’s all right. I’m happy at Texas.”

This season’s top high school player, 6-5 Huntington (W.Va.) swingman O.J. Mayo, has made rumblings that he might legally challenge the NBA rule. But for this season at least, the college basketball world will get to enjoy an unprecedented infusion of freshman talent … and perhaps an unprecedented infusion of freshman hype.

“I know it’s exciting, but I think it has been overplayed a little,” said Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, whose fourth-ranked Panthers join top-ranked Florida among the elite teams who won’t rely on a freshman phenom. “I think there’s always too much talk about the incoming guys and what they did in high school. Some freshmen do live up to the hype but not many.

“The NBA’s new rule is likely to add a couple of instant superstars to the college game, but that’s it — a couple. I think people are going to be surprised at how little difference it makes to the landscape as a whole.”

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