Wall, Henry lead strong freshman class

The 2006 freshman class, led by player-of-the-year types Kevin

Durant and Greg Oden, was considered one of the best in college

basketball history.

The next year, along came Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, Eric

Gordon, O.J. Mayo, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. Everyone thought:

Wow! Now that’s GOT to be the best class ever.

Hold on just a second.

After relatively benign 2008 class – at least by standards of

the previous two – this year’s rookie crop has a chance to become

the best yet.

There’s Xavier Henry leaping opponents in a single bound at

top-ranked Kansas and John Wall doing it all at Kentucky. Texas

point guard Avery Bradley has been tougher to catch than a

hummingbird, and there’s Tiny Gallon scoring and minding the basket

at Oklahoma. Derrick Favors has used his pteradactyl-like wing span

to dominate at both ends for Georgia Tech.

That’s just the start with this year’s class. And, thanks to the

Internet and a game that seems to get younger every year, more like

this could be on the way.

“That class with Blake, Rose, Beasley, Mayo, Love, all those

guys, that’s best one I’ve seen,” Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said.

“But this one’s really good. There’s been some really good classes

and you’re going to see it more and more.”

There was a time, not too long ago, when coaches rarely though

of starting a freshman, much less make them the focal point of a

team. In the days of Wilt Chamberlain, freshmen weren’t even

allowed to play.

So when Pervis Ellison led Louisville to the 1986 national

championship as a freshman, it was a Haley’s Comet-like occurrence.

When Carmelo Anthony cut down the nets with Syracuse in 2003, it

was still treated with how’d-he-do-that awe.

Even a few years ago, coaches were still worried about relying

too much on players a few months removed from their senior

proms.

“You don’t want to put a guy in a situation where he has never

been through pressure and now if he doesn’t perform well, he’s a

primary reason – in most people’s eyes – why your team isn’t

successful,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “There are

exceptions.”

Wall is one.

The 6-foot-4 guard has been an unstoppable, mesmerizing force so

far this season, a blur who can go baseline to baseline – wall to

wall? – as fast as anyone in the game. He helped beat North

Carolina, the hometown team that spurned him, then held an

electrifying Garden party against Connecticut at New York’s famous

arena.

Wall averages 18.1 points, 7.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 2.6 steals

and at least two ankle-turning crossovers per game.

“There’s nothing you can do about him,” UNC-Asheville’s D.J.

Cunningham said after Wall had 12 points and 14 assists in a

Wildcats’ rout. “He does whatever he wants.”

So does Henry.

The son of two former Jayhawks, Henry plays with the confidence

of a veteran, stroking in 3-pointers with ease. He leads the

nation’s No. 1 team at 18 points per game, is shooting 55 percent –

mostly from the perimeter – and recently leaped completely over

Alcorn State’s 6-foot-4 Keith Searcy, inducing a traveling

call.

The rest of the country captivated, Henry yawns. He expected to

do this all along.

“I just play within what our team does,” Henry said after

scoring 31 points in a rout over La Salle. “We have great big men,

so it’s easy points when we throw it inside. I just pick my

spots.”

With so many other freshmen playing prominent roles this season,

the exception is rapidly becoming the rule.

Gallon is a shooting guard in a power forward’s body, 6-foot-9,

296 pounds of touch and talent. He’s averaging 11.9 points and 9.3

rebounds while trying to follow Capel’s urgings to be more

physical.

Bradley has been a whirling dervish for the nation’s No. 2 team

and plays alongside another talented freshman, J’Covan Brown,

Texas’ third-leading scorer at 12.1 points per game.

Favors and his 9-foot wingspan have overcome some early-game

overeagerness to average 13.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocked

shots for the 22nd-ranked Yellow Jackets.

Then there’s Washington’s Abdul Gaddy, Syracuse’s Brandon

Triche, and Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton

alongside Wall in Lexington. The list seems to go on and on, and

the freshman fad isn’t likely to end soon.

Kids with even the slightest bit of talent are identified and

groomed from middle school. Television and the Internet make them

stars before they learn to drive, help them understand pressure

beyond playing in a dingy gym in front of two dozen people.

There’s little need for a grace period when freshmen arrive on

campus – they’re ready to go.

“There’s so much more exposure for these kids,” Capel said.

“The mindset of these guys is so much different than it was 10-15

years ago.”