Freshmen make early impact

Deron Williams just let the phone ring.

After all, he knew the consequences of answering.

Last year, Williams told Colony High (Texas) basketball teammate Bracey Wright that Indiana, where Wright had committed, would fall to Duke in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. Then he promised that Indiana didn’t stand a chance against Oklahoma in the Final Four.

But after the Hoosiers made a run at the national title, losing to Maryland in the championship, Wright was cashing in on bragging rights.

“Anytime I tried to call,” Wright said, “(Williams) wouldn’t answer the phone because he knew what I was going to say.”

Now, Wright, an Indiana freshman guard, leads the Hoosiers in scoring, while Williams has found a steady role with Illinois.

They are just two among a cluster of freshmen who have made an impact this season.

Wright, branded the next Isiah Thomas by some, has impressed so far, averaging 19.1 points. He and fellow freshman Marshall Strickland will give Indiana a new look in the backcourt.

“I said it from Day One (that) we would have the best backcourt in the country,” Indiana head coach Mike Davis said. “They ended up coming in and acting like they had been around forever.”

While Williams hasn’t enjoyed a stellar start like his former teammate, he’s dishing out 4.5 assists per game.

And then there is undefeated Duke, which has reloaded despite losing Mike Dunleavy and Jay Williams to the National Basketball Association. Freshman J.J. Redick has shot 41 percent from 3-point range and ranks second on the Blue Devils in scoring with 15.5 points per game.

“He’ll be a great player, another All-American,” said Virginia coach Pete Gillen, who heavily recruited Redick, a Virginia prep star.

Alongside Duke and Redick in the ACC, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Sean May have resurrected a once-flagging North Carolina program.

McCants has hit more than 50 percent of his shots while averaging 18.5 points. Meanwhile, May (12.1 points) and Felton (6.8 assists) have aided the Tar Heels to ten wins, already surpassing last year’s total of eight.

The Tar Heels’ freshman trio took a hit when May broke his foot in a 65-56 loss to Iona on Dec. 27.

“It’s a lot leaning on these guys to carry the burden,” UNC head coach Matt Doherty said. “They’ve handled it very well coming in with the most unfair expectations.”

This season’s freshman craze is hitting nearly every major conference.

Georgia Tech’s Chris Bosh, Arizona State’s Ike Diogu, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson of Florida, Texas A&M’s Antoine Wright and, of course, Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony, have drawn national attention.

Illinois assistant coach Norm Roberts attributes freshman success to younger players having more experience.

“They play so much AAU ball and other leagues,” Roberts said, “that they’re ready to take on the challenge of big-time basketball.”

But Roberts, who recruited freshman point guard Dee Brown, said dominating in high school doesn’t necessarily translate into collegiate success.

But Wright, who plays more minutes per game (35) than any other Hoosier, hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He’s led his team in scoring seven times, including 20 in a loss to Ohio State.

“Right now, I feel I’m in the best condition,” Wright said. ” I don’t feel that … I’m going to hit a wall anytime this year.”

That’s bad news for Williams, who heads to Bloomington, Ind., on Saturday to play his old teammate.

“Even in high school,” Wright said, “we couldn’t stop each other’s moves.”

But this time, if Indiana wins, Wright won’t need to call.

No saving grace

Grace Bible College, a Division II school in Grand Rapids, Mich, canceled its remaining 13 games after four players were declared academically ineligible. Only three remained on a squad that started the season with 11 players.

Two other players left the school, which has an enrollment of 150 students, when it became apparent that the season couldn’t continue.

“We tried everything we could think of to keep the season going,” athletics director Mike Riemersma told the Associated Press. “This is the last thing we wanted to have happen.”

Alumni support

UCLA, one of the most storied programs in college basketball, has suffered one of its worst starts in team history. The Bruins dropped to 4-7 with an 80-65 loss to St. John’s, and rumors began circulating that head coach Steve Lavin’s job was in jeopardy.

On Monday, Lavin denied a Los Angeles Times story that reported he considered stepping down.

Despite all of the negativity surrounding Lavin, USC coach Henry Bibby, who graduated from UCLA in 1972, threw his support to the UCLA coach.

“You hate to see one of your fellow coaches take the heat,” Bibby said. “I still think that Steve can bounce back and make things happen.”

Up and coming

With perennial favorites USC and UCLA struggling, keep an eye out for Arizona State (11-4) in the Pac-10. Freshman Diogu (18.2 points per game) provides a solid low-post presence while displaying an uncanny knack for the three (41 percent). That has opened up lanes for senior Curtis Millage (13 points per game) to shine.

He said what?

“What might be a good thing is for Temple to fire me. Then I’d get some rest. I’m not going to quit, so they’re going to have to fire me.”

— Temple coach John Chaney after Richmond downed Temple, 61-42. The Owls dropped to 3-11 with the loss.

This and that

No. 24 Oklahoma State upset No. 5 Oklahoma on Monday, 48-46, after OSU guard Victor Williams hit a short bank shot with 3.6 seconds remaining. Replays showed that Williams didn’t get the shot off before the shot clock expired. … Wake Forest freshman guard Justin Gray underwent surgery on Monday after fracturing his jaw in a loss to Duke on Sunday. … Nolan Richardson III resigned last week as head coach of Tennessee State after bringing a handgun to campus. He is the son of former Arkansas head coach Nolan Richardson.

This article originally ran in the January 5, 2003 edition of The Daily Orange.

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