Not that Hughes radiates much bravado on or off the court. He likes his clothes big and his music loud, but he's otherwise a low-key guy and an unselfish, unassuming player. "He's brought a lot of life and happiness to this program," says coach Charlie Spoonhour. "The best thing is that the game is now a lot more fun for all of us."
"Larry makes you get up off your seat when he plays," says Billikens assistant Derek Thomas, who coached Hughes for two years at Christian Brothers College High. "After all these years, still get up off my seat when he plays."
People are also leaping to their feet in Athens, Ga., where Jumaine Jones, a 6'8" power forward from Camilla, Ga., has broken into a talented veteran lineup and, at week's end, led the Bulldogs in points and rebounds, with 16.0 and 8.0 a game, respectively. Jones is drawing comparisons with Dominique Wilkins, the last freshman to lead the Bulldogs in scoring, in 1979-80. Like Wilkins, Jones is a bit of a showman: He likes to electrify crowds with an assortment of thunderous dunks, resounding rejections and three-point bombs. "The students love him," says Jirsa. "They want to see SportsCenter in their own building."
Jones, the youngest of 14 siblings, is the first in his family to go to college, but few observers believe he'll stick around Athens long enough to earn a degree. He is too good a pro prospect. " Jones will definitely be in the NBA," says Stanford sophomore forward Mark Madsen, who had to guard Jones as the freshman scored 15 points and had 11 rebounds in Georgia's 76-74 loss to the Cardinal last Saturday. "The only question is when."
These days, that question hovers over all impact freshmen, including UCLA's Davis, the most coveted of this year's point guard recruits. Like most of his classmates, Davis becomes uncharacteristically hesitant when discussing his basketball future. He has seen riches and glory accrue to those who jumped at the right time, but he knows disappointment can be the lot of those who leave school too early. "I have no timetable," says Davis. "At the moment my goal is to graduate. I would like to stay four years. But it depends on if I feel mature enough and feel physically and mentally ready to play against the best competition in the world."
At this point the one clear thing about Davis is his enormous promise. After leading the Bruins in scoring with an 18.3-point average through their first three games, Davis struggled offensively in a 69-58 win against No. 8-ranked New Mexico last Saturday, getting only four points and four assists. So he showcased his cling-wrap defense, helping to hold Lobos guard David Gibson to two points. "Baron has a real passion for the game that you can see on both ends of the court," says UCLA coach Steve Lavin. "His insatiable desire to learn is what really separates him from other players his age."
"It used to be unheard of for a freshman point guard to lead a team to a national championship," says Gibbons. "But then Mike Bibby did it at Arizona last year, and I think that has caused people to say. Well, we better use these kids."
Tony Harris, at Tennessee, is another beneficiary of that thinking. At week's end he led the Volunteers in scoring (15.4 points a game) and steals (2.1), and the Vols were off to their first 7-0 start in 15 years. Harris is happy to be making a contribution, but he doesn't care for the franchise-player label that fans want to hang on him. "I'm not here to be a savior," says Harris, who rejected hometown Memphis to sign with former Tennessee coach Kevin O'Neill in November '96 and had to be re-recruited by Jerry Green when O'Neill left for Northwestern in March. "But I am comfortable with pressure. My number 1 strength is my confidence level. If you don't believe, you're not going to accomplish anything."
What's peculiar about these players who are boldly going where few freshmen have gone before is that they stayed so close to home to do it. El-Amin is one exception. Another is Duke's Elton Brand, a powerful 6'8", 260-pound forward-center from Peekskill, N.Y. Also unlike his fellow freshmen, who have an air of entitlement about them, Brand seems surprised to find himself leading the top-ranked Blue Devils in scoring. That is understandable when you consider that Duke has a stable of star veterans to go along with its top recruiting class. But Brand can play in the pivot, where the Blue Devils most need help, and he has provided it by averaging 15.1 points a game through Sunday. He was Duke's second-leading rebounder as well (5.9). "I thought I'd come here, work hard and come off the bench," says Brand. "I never expected it would all turn into this."
There won't be much more sitting on the bench for Duke's hottest newcomer. Like fans around the country Brand now knows the truth about this freshman class: It's going to get you out of your seat and on your toes.