Top freshmen headed for blue-chip battle
By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Two of the top freshmen in the country won’t have a whole lot of time to get acclimated to college basketball before squaring off in an early season showdown.
Try just four days each.
Andrew Wiggins is the headliner for the most heralded class at Kansas in years, while Jabari Parker is the biggest name headed to Duke. The two of them will face each other Nov. 12 at the United Center in Chicago as part of a doubleheader that also features Michigan State-Kentucky.
Two more programs boasting a slew of stellar freshmen.
In an era of one-and-done superstars, the first-year players hitting the hardwood this season may trump any other year. Along with Wiggins and Parker, there’s Kentucky’s class of Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, James Young and the Harrison brothers, Aaron and Andrew. There’s also Noah Vonleh at Indiana, Aaron Gordon at Arizona and Kasey Hill at Florida.
All of them have the potential to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft next year. In the meantime, all of them will be trying to deliver an NCAA title.
“We can be great, the best team in the country,” Wiggins told The Associated Press. “We have a young team, the chemistry is really good. The first couple weeks of practice were hard for the freshmen, but everything is coming easier now, more fluid. So the potential is there.”
Potential is a dangerous word in college basketball. There are no sure bets. Plenty of highly touted players have flamed out before they ever earned a dime. It happens every year.
But perhaps never before has a group of freshmen promised to make such a statement on the national stage. Just about every program with a chance to compete for a national championship this season will be counting on at least one first-year player to make an immediate impact.
In the case of Kansas, it’s more than one.
Wiggins may be the most recognizable name, but combo guard Wayne Selden and raw 7-footer Joel Embiid have the potential to be lottery picks. They’re joined by a group of freshmen that includes sharpshooters Conner Frankamp, Frank Mason and Brannen Greene.
“There’s as much hype around this year as any,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said, “and I think it’s a large part because of the unknown. We’ve had other good players and other good teams return and this team hasn’t proven itself at all. But the unknown has everyone excited.”
Kansas opens the season against Louisiana Monroe on Nov. 8, the same day Duke opens its season against Davidson. The two blue bloods — and their blue chippers — collide four days later.
On the same floor that night will be Kentucky coach John Calipari’s latest bumper crop, which some pundits believe could be the best recruiting class in college basketball history.
Randle is a bruising forward who can also play the wing. The Harrisons should form a dangerous backcourt. Johnson is a talented, athletic center. Young is the quintessential wing scorer.
Just like the newcomers at Kansas and Duke, though, they’ll have to get accustomed to playing with each other in a hurry. The Wildcats play UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky before they head to Chicago for their high-profile date with the Spartans.
“Let them get on the court,” Calipari said. “We’ve got some tough games early. We’ve got one of the best schedules in the country. We’ve got one of the most inexperienced teams in the country. So it will be interesting.”
Vonleh, a 6-foot-9 forward, should give the Hoosiers a bruising inside presence as they chase their second straight Big Ten title. He’ll compete with Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr., the heir to guard Trey Burke, among others for the honor of the league’s best freshman.
Out in the desert, the 6-8 Gordon is already drawing comparisons to Blake Griffin — much to the chagrin of Arizona coach Sean Miller, who is trying to temper expectations just a bit.
“He’s extremely focused. He’s somebody that is tireless in his own approach to be great,” Miller said. “But yet, at the same time, because of how he plays the game and conducts himself, he’s a fun guy to have as a teammate. He’s a fun guy to have as part of your program.”
As high as expectations are for Gordon — California coach Mike Montgomery called him “just a monster” — they’re just as high for Hill, who is expected to take over for Kenny Boynton and run the point for Florida. He’ll join a veteran team that includes forward Patric Young.
“What you can do as a coach when you have an unknown — you’ve never coached a guy, you’ve never been in a game with a guy, never been in a huddle with a guy — I don’t know how he’s going to respond in certain situations,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s going to really have to be able to understand there is going to be a lot on him, but I don’t need to overwhelm him.”
Good luck with that, Billy.
Then again, considering all the touted freshmen who’ll be playing important minutes for their teams this season, there are a whole lot of coaches worrying about the exact same thing.
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