In retrospect it was a reckless thing to say, a loose-lips-sink-ships kind of comment. But there it was, on the Internet, where anybody, including a particular freshman at Connecticut, could access it. In a recent Charleston Gazette article previewing the Dec. 3 Big East game between UConn and West Virginia, the Mountaineers' 6'5" freshman guard, Jarett Kearse, referred to the Huskies' 5'10", 200-pound freshman point guard, Khalid El-Amin, as a "little chubby kid" who "lacks foot speed" and was "too short" to guard him. Adding to the disrespect, West Virginia coach Gale Catlett suggested that El-Amin would have trouble against his team's press and that El-Amin would have a long night on the blocks trying to defend against the Mountaineers' big guards.
At the time El-Amin was leading Connecticut in pep talks given and ovations received and was second on the team in points scored. He may have been a freshman, but he was no little kid. And he hated being called chubby. So, as El-Amin personally flushed West Virginia's five-game winning streak down the toilet with a 29-point performance—his second in a row—Kearse, who scored one point in the Mountaineers' 88-75 defeat, learned a lesson that's being taught all over the country: This isn't a good time to underestimate freshmen.
"Before the Fab Five came along at Michigan [in 1991], every freshman in the country came to school thinking he should start," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who is starting two freshmen. "After the Fab Five, the freshmen started coming to school thinking they should start and be immediate superstars. The trend of kids leaving early for the pros has not only created more opportunities for guys to play, it has also created the mentality that freshmen should start, leave for the pros in two years and get a shoe deal."
Bob Gibbons, who publishes the newsletter Star Sports Report and has followed the recruiting scene for 27 years, says it's too early to tell how good this pack of freshmen will become. "The greatest freshman class I can remember was the group in 1979, with Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy and Clark Kellogg," Gibbons says. "Not all of them came in and made an immediate impact though. Some did, some didn't. But this group is going to have more opportunities to play as freshmen."
"We don't have a choice but to play them," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "We're lucky to keep them now. There are at least three great high school prospects right now who are seriously considering the NBA. We live in an instant-gratification society, and these kids want it now, and they want it to be spectacular."
Spectacular is just what a handful of freshmen have already proved to be. Besides UConn, Duke, which has the year's best recruiting class (SI, Dec. 8), Georgia, St. Louis, Tennessee and UCLA are relying on high-impact first-year players and are off to fast starts as a result. "There are a lot of great players in this class," says one of the best, Bruins point guard Baron Davis. "They're popping up all over the place."
Indeed, in their thirst for immediate playing time, top-quality freshmen are spreading out to more schools than in the past. "Players are much more savvy about finding places where they'll fit in," says Georgia coach Ron Jirsa.
One reason El-Amin signed with UConn instead of Minnesota, the school to which he gave a verbal commitment as a high school sophomore, was that the Huskies seemed comfortable last spring when he started barking orders at them in a pickup game—during his recruiting visit. But El-Amin, a two-time Minnesota Player of the Year and a McDonald's All-America, has turned out to be much more than the charismatic, vocal leader Connecticut lacked last year. "I'm not saying he's the best freshman ever to play here," says coach Jim Calhoun, "but Khalid has made, from a numbers standpoint, the biggest impact. He had 58 points in two games, which is phenomenal for a freshman. I don't think there's any freshman doing any more than he's doing right now for his team."
Unless that freshman is 6'5" guard Larry Hughes, whose decision to stay in his hometown has transformed the program at St. Louis. Hughes, who is considered by many to be the cream of this rich crop, declined offers from Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Syracuse to stay close to his mom, Vanessa, and his 11-year-old brother, Justin, who had struggled all his life with a deformed heart until he received a heart transplant last Jan. 2. "Justin may be the only reason I'm here," says Hughes, the first McDonald's All-America to play for the Billikens, "but now that I am here, I want to have fun and see where we can take this team."
At week's end Hughes's wicked crossover dribble and strong, well-rounded game—he was averaging 23 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.5 steals—had carried St. Louis to a 6-0 record, including wins last week over Vanderbilt and Illinois. But those aren't the only fancy figures for which Hughes can claim significant responsibility. Besides the 32,429 fans who showed up at the Trans World Dome to see the Billikens and the Illini last Saturday—the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in Missouri—there's St. Louis's dramatically enhanced shooting percentage. With Hughes and fellow freshman Matt Baniak in the starting lineup, the Billikens were scoring 75.7 points a game and shooting 47% from the field, compared with 57.8 points and 36.6% a year ago. "It's night and day," says junior forward Ryan Luechtefeld. "A lot of the credit has to go to Larry. He makes everybody else better because he draws attention, he passes really well, and he has tremendous confidence and poise. He's come in here as a freshman, and he's not scared of anybody."