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Original Issue

Rough Gems

Their games need polish, but a few freshmen have elevated their teams by fitting in rather than standing out

IN THE two years since the NBA's age-minimum rule took effect, so many preternaturally gifted freshmen have flitted through college basketball on their way to the first round of the draft (24, to be exact) that the recently matriculated class of 2012 suffers by comparison. That's not exactly fair, considering that the recruiting crops of '06 and '07 were two of the best ever, but a quarter of the way through this season, no first-year players have emerged as surefire lottery picks next spring, or even appeared capable of leading their teams to a national title.

"There are five or six guys who are doing well," says Memphis coach John Calipari. "But only one or two [of them] will probably be in position to leave [for the NBA] next year."

Still, this year's freshman crop has its potential gems. Consider Georgetown center Greg Monroe, who has elevated his team by fitting in rather than standing out. In the then 19th-ranked Hoyas' high-energy 79--70 overtime win over No. 17 Memphis last Saturday, the 6'11", 250-pound Monroe put on a remarkable show. Though he struggled from the field, making two of seven shots, he filled out the box score with three blocks, two steals, six rebounds and three assists. Compared with the player he replaced—the lumbering 7'2" Roy Hibbert, since graduated—Monroe seems a mere wisp, but his athleticism has added some much-needed spring to coach John Thompson III's version of the Princeton offense, and his instincts for the system's screening and ball movement have been spot-on.

Indeed, Monroe may already be one of the best-passing big men in the nation. In one nifty sequence on Saturday, with the Hoyas clinging to a 69--68 lead late in the overtime period, he drove to the basket off a pick-and-roll, then deftly delivered a no-look bounce pass to trailing forward DaJuan Summers, who laid the ball in for an easy two. "Most big guys are used to just [staying] in the post," says Thompson, "but Greg can be a playmaker from anywhere on the floor. He's invariably in the right spot, making the right cut. He makes everybody better."

Monroe isn't the only refreshing freshman. Second-ranked Connecticut (8--0 through Sunday) has been buoyed by the slashing, hyperquick play of point guard Kemba Walker, who, despite starting just one game, ranked fourth on the Huskies in both scoring (averaging 12.0 points) and minutes played (28.9). At Louisville, center Samardo Samuels has not only given the No. 9 Cardinals a physical presence in the paint—thus easing some of the pressure on forwards Earl Clark and Terrence Williams—but also has shown a nimble scoring touch, averaging a team-high 17.0 points.

At Memphis, after mentoring last spring's No. 1 overall draft pick, point guard Derrick Rose, Calipari is now shepherding one of this season's top recruits in Tyreke Evans. The 6'6", 219-pound guard has an NBA-ready frame, but his game remains a work in progress. Against the Hoyas, he occasionally flaunted the slashing, ankle-breaking style that will one day make him a dominant player. However, Evans must improve his shot selection and develop a consistent jumper that will serve him better than the bailout fallaway he resorted to against Georgetown. (He finished with 20 points but went a lackluster eight of 24 from the field.) In his defense Evans is still feeling the effects of the right-ankle strain he suffered on Nov. 1 and is "just getting rid of high school habits," he says.

"He's showing signs of 'wow,'" says Calipari. "You'll see a different Tyreke at some point this year. But he's not there yet." Of course, neither is anybody else. But clearly, freshman orientation is in full swing.

A triple dose of Seth Davis: Hoop Thoughts, Mailbag and picks.



BABY STEPS Monroe (10) and Evans (inset) were tantalizing in the Hoyas' overtime win.



[See caption above]