Precocious freshman guards are making their points across the country
Chris Thomas remembers the moment precisely. He was seven years old and playing in the championship game of a youth league in Indianapolis. With his team trailing by one point and only a few seconds remaining, Thomas was fouled and awarded two free throws. League rules permitted players to shoot from a kiddie line a few feet inside the regulation stripe, but Thomas took his attempts from the grownups' line. He drained both shots, and his team won. "I wanted to prove I didn't need somebody to give me an advantage because I was young," he says.
The same precociousness has been evident this season at Notre Dame, where Thomas, now a freshman point guard, was second in scoring for the 12-5 Irish with a 15.6-point average through Sunday while quarterbacking the team with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 3 to 1. As good as Thomas has been, he is just one of many stellar freshman point guards, along with Texas' T.J. Ford, Alabama's Maurice Williams, Marquette's Travis Diener and Kansas' Aaron Miles, not to mention UCLA's 6'6" Cedric Bozeman, who recently returned from missing seven games with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee and might be the best of the bunch. West Virginia's Jonathan Hargett and Louisville's Carlos Hurt got off to promising starts before injuries sidelined them. "As a group, this year's crop of freshman lead guards is as impressive as any I've seen in the last 20 years," says recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons.
Like Thomas, who is the first Indiana Mr. Basketball to play for Notre Dame and in his first game had the first triple double in Irish history, Ford arrived on campus accompanied by prodigious hype. That could have created jealousy among his teammates, but it hasn't been a problem thanks to Ford's predilection for sharing the ball. "I've had to tell him to shoot, and that's something you rarely have to do with a freshman," Longhorns coach Rick Barnes says of Ford, who was averaging only 9.3 points but was leading the nation in assists with 8.4 per game. "I've never had a player like T.J. He's a true throwback."
Ford immediately earned the respect of his teammates and coaches by exhibiting leadership and savvy well beyond his years. After the Longhorns' first practice, on Oct. 13, during which Barnes was riding redshirt freshman Jason Klotz, Ford playfully grabbed his coach and told him, "You know you're going to have to give Jason some love now, don't you?" A bit taken aback at first, Barnes agreed and privately told Klotz that he was only trying to make him a better player. The next day during the third hour of a rigorous practice, Ford stopped during one drill, threw the ball to Barnes and said, "That's it, we're done." Several players seconded the notion, and Barnes agreed to call it a day.
The Crimson Tide's Williams (10.2 points per game) may be the most gifted of this group, but he needs to improve his shooting (38.4%) as well as his ball handling (53 turnovers to 88 assists). Still, with Alabama 16-3 and ranked 14th, Williams led his classmates in the most important category, wins. Says Tide coach Mark Gottfried, "He gives us a dimension we've lacked the last couple of years."
As good as this year's class is, some observers think next season's may be even better. "This group is very good, don't get me wrong," says analyst Dave Telep, who runs theinsidershoops.com recruiting network, "but everybody is waiting to see the 2002 crop, with players like Raymond Felton [who has committed to North Carolina], Daniel Horton [ Michigan] and Anthony Roberson [ Florida]. About 20 programs got themselves a really good point guard."
Big Ten Leader Ohio State
Nothing Flashy But the Results
While most coaches obsess over taking their team to "the next level," Ohio State's Jim O'Brien is only trying to get his Buckeyes to find a middle ground. "It's all about not doing anything in excess," O'Brien says. "We'll take the highs, but we don't want to put ourselves on an emotional roller coaster, either."
O'Brien's rallying cry—Let's get out there, men, and find that even keel!—is hardly Lombardiesque, but it has been effective. Last Saturday, Ohio State, which no prominent preseason publication picked to finish higher than sixth in the Big Ten, took sole possession of first place with a 73-67 win over Indiana. The No. 20 Buckeyes, who are 14-2 overall and 5-0 in league play, scored only eight fast-break points against the Hoosiers, but they showed an impressive cohesiveness, which wins games even if it doesn't make the evening highlight shows.