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Karnes: Freshmen revamp college hoops (Nov. 22)

Casey Karnes | Thursday, November 21, 2013

College basketball has been in a slump the last few years. Last season was the lowest-scoring in the sport since 1952, the one-and-done rule has led to a lack of consistent stars and conferences have been torn apart due to decisions made with football in mind. Even the NCAA itself acknowledged its product needed a boost by making rules this offseason that restrict contact on defense in an effort to increase scoring.

While it’s too early to tell if the new rules will be a success, one factor has already helped this season become one of the most entertaining in recent memory: an outstanding freshman class. Traditional powers like Duke, Kentucky and Kansas are all spearheaded by diaper dandies who have thus far more than lived up to the hype.

Some basketball players, like LeBron, blow you away with their athleticism and physical domination, while others get by on guile and hard work. Some players work quietly like Kevin Durant, not always wowing you, but always putting up shockingly big numbers in the box score. Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker’s style seems to be to have the most fun possible.

Parker has been the most impressive freshman thus far, not only because he can do everything, but also because he looks like he enjoys doing everything. With 22.4 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game, Parker has immediately become Duke’s alpha dog.

If the Blue Devils need a rim protector, Parker can get six blocks like he did against East Carolina on Tuesday. Need a three-point shooter? Parker is shooting 65 percent on the season and making almost three per game.

And best of all, he does it all with a smile on his face. Even in Duke’s loss against Kansas and fellow freshman phenom forward Andrew Wiggins, Parker was the most impressive player on the court, scoring 27 points before fouling out.

Whether or not Parker can keep up this pace the rest of the season remains to be seen, but he’s already achieved the impressive feat of making Duke likable, so anything is possible.

Over at Kentucky, one-and-done players have been routine the past few years, but never to the extent they are this year. On Sunday against Robert Morris, the Wildcats started five freshmen for the first time in school history, and almost all those freshmen promise to be high draft picks.

Of all their young stars, forward Julius Randle has carried the bulk of the burden so far. A stout 6-foot-9, Randle only has one mode when he’s on the court: attack. Unlike Parker, he doesn’t seem happy to be playing. He seems angry, chasing after the ball like it stole from him. His relentless tenacity has allowed him to average 20.8 points and 13.4 rebounds per game, but has also led to over three turnovers per game for the big man.

But the reward is well worth that extra risk, as Randle showed when he nearly singlehandedly led Kentucky to a comeback win with 27 points and 13 rebounds in a 78-74 loss to now-No. 1 Michigan State last week. In an age when the stretch-four is replacing the traditional post player, Randle has a refreshing throwback style similar to power players like Moses Malone.

Finally, there’s Wiggins. After an offseason where he was hyped as the next LeBron and the no-brainer first overall pick, Wiggins has had a quiet start to the season. He’s averaging “only” 17.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, and hasn’t stood out as much as the previously-mentioned freshmen. Unlike Parker or Randle, no emotion encapsulates his on-court demeanor, and this has led some to question Wiggins’ motor.

Anyone who declares him overhyped, however, is clearly overreacting, because Wiggins’ performance thus far has been just as impressive as any other player’s in the nation. Wiggins’ raw numbers may not be off-the-charts like the other top freshmen’s, but unlike Parker and Randle, he is not being asked to be a ball dominator, because the Jayhawks have enough returning firepower to run a diverse offense.

Furthermore, Wiggins beat Parker head-to-head, scoring 22 points and holding Parker to just eight points in the second half. While Wiggins may not have grabbed hold of the nation’s attention yet like we expected at the start of the year, I have a feeling he’ll be at center stage in March.

All of these players would have been the No. 1 pick in most drafts in the past decade, so it will be interesting to see who is eventually selected first. For now, everyone should sit back and enjoy the show that is this college basketball season. It may be a while before we see another season like this.


Contact Casey Karnes at wkarnes@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.