Talented crop of second-year players takes center stage
Posted: Monday November 06, 2000 1:09 PM
Jason Gardner averaged 12.6 points and 4.8 assists during 34 games last year for Arizona. Brian Bahr/Allsport
By Marc Lancaster, CNNSI.com
All-America status used to be something of a lifetime achievement award for a college player. Remember those lists back in the day? Some of them didn't even list a player's class ("Seniors unless otherwise noted"). You put in your time, worked your way up, and reaped the rewards.
All that nonsense has gone the way of the Chuck Taylor high-top lately. As the talent base has seemingly grown younger and younger, the freshman All-America team can be just as competitive as the "real" one. We all know the reasons for this -- the kids are leaving school earlier and earlier for the NBA, and some are of course skipping college altogether. For the elite players, at least, college basketball has become nothing more than a farm system.
It's rare to see coaches give a talented freshman, say, 20 minutes a game off the bench during his first season as a way to slowly allow him to get acclimated to the college game. If you've got a McDonald's All-American, you're going to get him on the floor as soon as he's comfortable running through the offense and playing decent defense. You have to do it, because you don't know how long you're going to have the kid. Might as well use his skills before he leaves town.
With younger and younger players taking over starring roles on teams, finding a Shane Battier-type is increasingly difficult. The Duke senior is on every All-America list this year, and deservedly so. But check out the players around him and you'll find he doesn't have much company as an upperclassman.
This appears to be the year of the sophomore, actually. Rosters across the country are dotted with guys who stepped in and played crucial roles as freshmen and are expected to be bona fide stars this season.
As you prepare for the upcoming season, make a note to keep an eye on these guys, who will show that age really doesn't matter anymore.
Gilbert Arenas, Arizona
The guy can do it all, from taking it to the basket to nailing the long
jumper. Best of all, he does it with style. He averaged 15.4 points as a freshman and became a go-to guy on the perimeter for the 'Cats. They don't expect to have him for very long, so don't expect Lute Olson and Co. to hold back in getting him the ball. It's scary to think of what Arenas' numbers would be like if he wasn't part of the most prolific starting five in the country.
Brian Cook, Illinois
Unlike many in this group, Cook didn't post eye-popping numbers during his first season. He was eased into an already talented lineup, but quickly became a guy who was difficult to keep on the bench. At 6-foot-10, he has 3-point range on his jumper, though he didn't take many (38) from out there last year. But he can run the floor and is a smooth offensive threat for the Illini. He definitely has the skills to blossom into a marquee attraction, but Illinois doesn't necessarily need that from him yet.
Joseph Forte, North Carolina
People simply don't do what Forte did last year. A freshman had never led the Tar Heels in scoring since the rule change for the 1973 season that made first-year players eligible, but Forte did it last year. Without his 16.7-point average and tendency to come up huge in big games (like 28 points in the regional final against Tulsa), the Tar Heels never would have come close to making a run like they did in March. Only Michigan State's Morris Peterson scored more points in the NCAA Tournament than Forte.
Jason Gardner, Arizona
You just had a feeling Gardner would step in right away and get good results last year. The little guy channeled plenty of Stoudamire in stepping in and taking over a supremely talented team. That's not an easy thing to do as a 17-year-old, but he never wavered. Sure, you say, anyone could average 4.8 assists per game passing the ball to Arizona's lineup, but keeping all of those players happy and setting them up properly is a tough task. If the 'Cats play to their potential and win it all this year, Gardner will be the MVP.
Casey Jacobsen, Stanford
A classic Stanford player, Jacobsen lived up to his advance billing as a freshman. He was expected to be a star who could step in immediately on a deep team and take over, and did just that by leading the team in scoring (14.5 ppg). Jacobsen rarely turned in a huge scoring game, but he contributed in other areas even when his shot wasn't falling. In a game against Oregon State, for instance, he made only one of eight field goals, but still hit 10 free throws, grabbed six rebounds and dished out four assists.
Joe Johnson, Arkansas
The Hogs were loaded with precocious youngsters last year, but they wouldn't have had a prayer of making it to the NCAAs without the most talented of their six freshmen, Johnson. Even though he didn't become eligible until late December, Johnson was a runaway choice as the SEC's top freshman after leading his team in scoring (16 ppg) and rebounding (5.7). He injured his ankle over the summer, but if he is fully recovered, Arkansas expects even more out its best all-around player this time around.
Jason Kapono, UCLA
The Bruins are just happy to have Kapono back. After a spectacular freshman campaign, he decided to throw his name into the NBA draft pool, but pulled out of consideration in the weeks before the draft. That was a relief for UCLA, which heartily welcomes back its leading scorer (16 ppg) and most entertaining player. With a little more national publicity this year, Kapono will be the proud bearer of the most visible headband in sports since Jim McMahon.
Brett Nelson, Florida
Nelson improved as much as any freshman in the country toward the end of the season and was a crucial factor in the Gators' NCAA run in March. He was brought in as one of those standard Jerry West-replica West Virginia point guards, and eventually grew comfortable playing both positions in the Gator backcourt. He didn't start a game last year, but was brilliant in NCAA play. He averaged 7.5 ppg in the regular season and 11.3 in the tournament.
Jason Richardson, Michigan State
Normally, the Spartans would be doing a little hand-wringing over what they need to do to replace a star like Morris Peterson in their lineup. But they just happen to have a clone in reserve, ready to explode on the national scene. Richardson was strictly a reserve on last year's title team, scoring 5.1 points per game, but everyone in East Lansing knows what he can do, and they expect his numbers to soar this year as he takes over the go-to scoring role for the champs.
Jason Williams, Duke
Say this about Williams: He has no trouble adjusting to a new situation. He stepped in and started at point guard from day one with the Blue Devils, reaching double figures in 30 of 34 games last year while also dishing out 6.5 assists per game. His situation is similar to Gardner's in that he has plenty of options when distributing the ball, but that doesn't make what he has done in a year of college ball any less impressive.
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