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Super sophomores

A sneak peek at 10 second-year players who are ready for their close-ups

Posted: Tuesday November 25, 2003 5:47PM; Updated: Tuesday November 25, 2003 6:07PM
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I'm not sure who first uttered the phrase, but Dean Smith coined it: The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.

It's still as true as ever in college basketball. No matter how well or how poorly he performs as a freshman, a college player almost always makes his greatest improvement between his first and second seasons. There are three basic reasons for this:

1) Physical growth. Most 18-year-olds are ill-prepared for the rigors of big-time college hoops, but their bodies go through drastic changes between years one and two.

2) The speed and complexity of the college game. In high school, the plays develop more slowly and the systems are simpler than they are at the college level. The increased speed and complexity can be tough to adjust to at first, but by the second time around the players usually get it.

3) Seniority. Even when a freshman is physically and mentally ready to contribute, he often has to wait until an incumbent upperclassman graduates or leaves for the NBA.

As a result, every season a handful of sophomores burst onto the scene following nondescript freshman years. Most fans have to wait until the season is in full swing to find out who is among the next breed of stars, but as an avid reader of Hoop Thoughts, you deserve to know ahead of time. Here, then, are 10 sophomores to watch in 2003-04. Keep in mind these are not necessarily the 10 best second-year players in the country. They're simply 10 young guys who are ready for their close-ups. Herewith:

De'Angelo Alexander, Oklahoma. A smooth player with good size, the 6-foot-5 guard has become the Sooners' primary scoring option now that last year's star, Hollis Price, has graduated.

James Augustine, Illinois. The 6-10 forward started every game last year and finished third in the Big Ten in shooting percentage, but he didn't get much notice because he was teamed up front with conference player of the year Brian Cook. A hard-nosed rebounder, Augustine is now the Illini's main man in the middle.

Denham Brown, Connecticut. Opposing defenses will have to key in on Huskies guard Ben Gordon, which will leave lots of scoring opportunities for Brown, a 6-5 forward who last summer was the leading scorer on a Canadian national team that included Steve Nash.

Christian Drejer, Florida. The Denmark native surprised people by choosing college over the NBA last year, but his season was derailed by injuries and depleted confidence. The 6-9 guard/forward has since bulked up his muscles and reduced his body fat, and his passing wizardry will turn heads.

Francisco Garcia, Louisville. Garcia was named Conference USA's freshman of the year last season, but most of the national attention was lavished on senior Reece Gaines. Garcia, a 6-7 forward who combines great shooting range with acrobatic athleticism, is better than Gaines was. He isn't on a lot of preseason All-America lists, but by the end of the season it might be a different story.

John Gilchrist, Maryland. Gilchrist's two fellow sophomore teammates, Nik Caner-Medley and Travis Garrison (both forwards), could have also made this list, but as a point guard the 6-3 Gilchrist will be more of a factor in determining Maryland's fortunes. He has great quickness but needs to master the nuances of the position. After watching Steve Blake for a season, I'm guessing he has.

Carl Krauser, Pittsburgh. Krauser also observed a great point guard play ahead of him last year in the form of Brandin Knight. He's not as good a floor leader or defender as Knight was, but the 6-2 Krauser is a much better scorer (as evidenced by his 21-point performance in the season opener against Alabama).

Sean May, North Carolina. Few injured players received more attention last year than did May, whose season was basically ended by a broken foot he sustained in late December. Conventional wisdom says the 6-8 forward needs to stay healthy for the Heels to have a good year, but that's not enough. He also has to be in great condition and stay out of foul trouble. If he can manage all of that, UNC will be awfully tough to beat.

Steve Novak, Marquette. This long-armed sharp-shooter was Conference USA's best from three-point range last year and won the league's Sixth Man award. The 6-10 forward hasn't gotten off to a great start this season (he shot 5 for 21 from the field in his first three games), but now that Dwyane Wade is gone, Novak is the Golden Eagles' most potent offensive weapon.

Shelden Williams, Duke. Much has been made of fellow sophomore forward Shavlik Randolph's increased bulk and return to health, but I think Williams, who started 23 games last season but disappeared for long stretches, will make the bigger jump. The 6-9 forward is a tenacious offensive rebounder, and with freshman forward Luol Deng attracting double teams in the paint, that should translate into a lot of easy points.

Villanova phones it in

It wasn't surprising that Villanova was upended on Monday by that well-known giant slayer, Chaminade, in the first round of the EA Sports Maui Invitational. The Wildcats have been subjected to crazy scheduling and had to shuffle their roster after beginning the season with five players serving out suspensions that were handed down at the end of last season when the players abused a university-issued phone card.

Intent on keeping his team in the Maui Invitational, Villanova coach Jay Wright decided to schedule two games against Division III schools on the West Coast prior to the Maui tournament. That, however, did not sit well with Temple coach John Chaney, who absolutely, positively had to play his team's annual game against Villanova on Nov. 21, the first day that Division I teams were allowed to begin competing in non-exempt games. Wright agreed to give Chaney his game -- but only if the teams tipped off at midnight local time last Friday. That would enable Villanova to take an a.m. flight to California on Friday, where the Wildcats were to play a Saturday game before catching the last plane to Maui on Sunday afternoon. Even though Villanova only had eight available players for its opener (two of whom were walk-ons), they thrashed Temple 73-48. "It was strange, eating our pregame meal at 8 o'clock and leaving for the game at 9:30, but once the game started it felt like it could be any time of the day," Wright told me as we talked via cell phone the next day while he stood in the security line at the Philly airport. "We certainly played better than I thought we would."

Villanova also struggled against the University of the Redlands on Sunday before losing to Chaminade. The Wildcats will play two games in Maui's consolation bracket, and Wright is allowed to shuffle his lineups so he has a quorum for each game. By the time Villanova returns home it will only have two players with games left to serve. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, one of the those players is sophomore guard Derrick Snowden, who is out with a knee injury and won't return until at least the end of December. (Those missed games don't count toward his suspension, so Snowden will still have to sit out three games once he's healthy.) To make matters worse, sophomore forward Jason Fraser, who was not suspended as part of the phone-card scandal, is out with a stress fracture in his foot and won't be back for another few weeks.

Other than that, Villanova is at full strength.

Other Hoop Thoughts

*I am still getting over the shock of hearing that Wisconsin freshman Brian Butch is redshirting this season. I know Butch is only 215 pounds, but at 6-11, with great skills and coordination, he could certainly help the Badgers contend for a Big Ten championship this season. As a McDonald's and Parade High School All-America, he may be the best-credentialed player ever to voluntarily redshirt. (Indeed, it's odd that Butch is putting himself on a five-year plan when most people didn't expect him to stay in Madison for four years.) I'm not disparaging Butch's character, but this decision does make me question his competitiveness.

*Kenny Taylor was a shooting guard at Baylor, but now that he has transferred to Texas he's looking more like a point guard. If he can settle in permanently at that position, it would allow Royal Ivey to slide over to his natural spot at shooting guard -- and it will make the Longhorns that much more dangerous.

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*Speaking of point guards, it looks like UConn is going to have a doozy of a tussle at that position. Taliek Brown is the senior incumbent and is thus an automatic starter, but he has looked horrendous in the early going. Meanwhile, freshman Marcus Williams has played very well, and he's already a crowd favorite at Gampel Pavilion. Can you start a freshman over a senior captain when you're ranked No. 1?

*Point guard Randy Pulley is still not eligible to play at Missouri because of questions arising from his junior college transcript. This is not being treated as the big news that it is. Point guard is the only position at which the Tigers are questionable. Sophomore Jimmy McKinney, who can play the point but is more comfortable on the wing, will now handle floor leader duties fulltime. If Pulley doesn't become eligible it will seriously hinder Mizzou's Final Four prospects.

*The cupboard may be bare at Georgia right now, but believe me, it won't take long for the Dawgs to win -- and win big -- under Dennis Felton.

*Kris Humphries took a lot of flak for pulling out of his commitment to Duke and signing with Minnesota, but given his impressive start you have to admit he made a smart decision.

*Speaking of great starts by a freshman, be sure to check out Utah forward Andrew Bogut this week during the preseason NIT. This guy has phenomenal hands and NBA-ready post moves. He also pulled down 18 rebounds against Minnesota last week.

*Indiana's Mike Davis pulled off a great recruiting coup in signing 6-9 forward Josh Smith, but Davis knows as well as I do that Smith will not play a minute of college basketball.

*You could live to be 100 and never see another Division I basketball team go 1 for 17 from the foul line like Bucknell did against Michigan State on Saturday.

*People never seem to know exactly who is playing for Oklahoma State and Purdue, but you know those programs will be good every year.

*Here's another item from the Sean May department. I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at a quote that May gave to my colleague Grant Wahl regarding May's father, Scott, who played for Indiana's 1976 championship team: "Last year he had a lot to say about the way practice was run. But when I saw him two weeks ago, he said, 'I have no complaints. That was one of the greatest practices I've seen from a coaching standpoint. You're in good hands.'" Kinda gives you added insight as to why Matt Doherty was run out of Chapel Hill, doesn't it?

Sports Illustrated staff writer Seth Davis covers college basketball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Davis' first book, Equinunk, Tell Your Story: My Return to Summer Camp, is available through Chandler House Press.

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