Fresh Faces

College basketball: Freshmen are making a huge impact on the sport, and that's apparent in Maryland, where nearly every Division I men's program is relying on first-year players.

College Basketball

January 30, 2003|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

They are eager, talented and prone to mistakes. They can exasperate their coaches one minute with a mental blunder and delight them the next with a sensational deed.

Generally more receptive to instruction than their veteran teammates, freshmen have been making a greater imprint on college basketball in recent seasons as the defections of players who believe they are ready for the professional level become more commonplace, creating openings in the lineup.

In major Division I play, first-time collegians such as Baltimore's Carmelo Anthony (at Syracuse) are stepping in with big-time skills and having an immediate impact. They are learning through performing.

Locally, their roles have increased significantly as well, but for different reasons. Of the 29 freshmen on the eight area Division I rosters, excluding Maryland, 23 (or nearly 80 percent) are slotted into one of the top eight positions on their teams. Youth is clearly in full bloom.

The seeds for their opportunities were sown last season, when only one local team, UMBC (20-9), finished with a winning record. The other seven men's squads were a combined 49-153, and when the Retrievers were depleted by the transfers of three starters, positions were at stake everywhere.

Some returning players would have to earn their keep as coaches sought to upgrade the caliber of their teams by whatever means available, including via freshmen. As this season progressed, injuries to players above them in the pecking order gave the new faces even more chances.

"We needed a quick shot in the arm, an instant fix," said Mount St. Mary's retiring coach Jim Phelan, who suffered through his worst of 49 seasons (3-24) in 2001-02. "Necessity forced it on us. We focused our recruiting locally and tried to come up with the best freshmen we could find. And we found some good ones."

Such as starting point guard Chris Sumner from the Washington Catholic League and regular shooting guard Landy Thompson (Archbishop Spalding), the top area freshman scorer and the team's leading scorer at 15.3 points a game, second in the Northeast Conference. And key reserves Charles Cook, a pure shooter, and forward Kiel Butler, both from Prince George's County.

At Coppin State, coach Fang Mitchell began a purge last January of six players he felt weren't compatible with his system and disciplinary methods, leaving him only three notable holdovers.

Now, three freshmen, point guard Raheem Scott, off guard Deke Thompson and forward Darron Bradley, are almost always in the opening lineup. The exception was when Bradley was nursing a shoulder injury.

"I looked into where our program was, and we needed a new influx of talent," Mitchell said. "We were fortunate to get mature people who understand what we're here to do. We're in good shape now.

"If I have seniors not playing up to the program's needs, then I'll go with freshmen. They'll have a long-lasting effect. They have been receptive, especially if you look at the wars we put them through early," he said, referring to a meat grinder of a pre-league schedule on the road.

Towson coach Michael Hunt realized the move into the Colonial Athletic Association last season would require higher-level players and "people with character who could understand that there would be some hard knocks, kids who have been knocked down already and got back up again."

He recruited accordingly, and Hunt has been encouraged by the zeal of the freshmen - but frequently disappointed with the play and approach of his upperclassmen.

"Our freshmen show up early, stay late and do a good job in the classroom and on the campus. These five give us a solid foundation."

Forward Lawrence Hamm is one of the front-runners for the CAA Rookie of the Year Award, and center Jacob McCartney has started every game. Cilk McSweeney, Andrius Petkunas and Stephen Warner receive noteworthy playing time, and Petkunas started four times. In the nine-team CAA, only four freshmen start.

A different direction

At UMES, coach Thomas Trotter decided to go the junior college route in an attempt to beef up an 11-18 record. It didn't work. The Hawks were winless until Jan. 13, and Trotter has taken a different tack.

"We went with the older guys first, but freshmen were making shots from Day One. Aaron Wellington was always outplaying people in practice," Trotter said. "Nobody but Tee [Trotter, the coach's son] could score early. We needed Aaron in there, and he's a rare kid you can get on. He's got a tough skin."

Wellington now ranks in the top 20 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in scoring average at 12.6, and another freshman, Bubby Brown, has taken over at the point to further relieve the pressure from the younger Trotter, who can concentrate more readily on his offense.

At Loyola, coach Scott Hicks has started three freshmen at various times, including Charlie Bell, who's orchestrating the attack after the departure of three-year point man Damien Jenifer.

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