In the early hours of Thanksgiving last November, Ohio State coach Thad Matta had reason to be grateful. Walking out of Madison Square Garden onto 33rd Street, the coach, who had just witnessed his 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos go for 24 points and nine rebounds in their NIT semifinal win over Syracuse, was asked about Koufos's potential. "You know, it's Nov. 23 and I had no idea how the young team would respond on this stage," said Matta, who was molding a roster depleted by the departures of one-and-done stars Greg Oden and Mike Conley following their 2007 national-title game loss to Florida. "I wasn't expecting this."
Fast forward to December 2008, and Matta is awaiting a breakout performance from his new Next Big Thing. After helping the Buckeyes to an NIT title last April, Koufos followed Oden and Conley's path out the door and into the first round of the NBA draft, where he was selected 23 rd overall by the Utah Jazz. While Koufos is a pro, Matta is determining how freshman 7-footer B.J. Mullens can best fill the void he left. To date, the early returns show that Mullens, the top-ranked player by Rivals.com in the class of 2008, is taking longer to adapt to college than his predecessors. Through six games, the athletic Ohio native who has yet to start a game is averaging 6.5 points per in 16.8 minutes. The good news? The Buckeyes are undefeated, and his best game (11 points, seven rebounds) came in their 67-62 upset of Notre Dame. "He's trying to figure out [what his role is]," Matta said last month. "Well, you define the role by what you're capable of doing."
While Matta preaches patience, he can commiserate with the likes of Memphis coach John Calipari and UCLA coach Ben Howland, who both enjoyed the fruits of one-year stars last winter. In Memphis, Derrick Rose has left the building, but freshman Tyreke Evans, whose shot selection and game management skills need sharpening, has been charged with living up to heightened expectations left by the No. 1 draft pick. At UCLA, Gatorade Player of the Year Jrue Holiday is being held up to the Kevin Love standard while balancing his role of deference to leader Darren Collison with making a difference on his own.
Not all freshmen are underperforming. UConn's Kemba Walker (12 ppg), Louisville's Samardo Samuels (17 ppg) and Georgetown's do-it-all big man Greg Monroe have transitioned well int the college game. Each a highly-touted recruit, they have fit in nicely with their respective Big East schools. Walker has started playing more on the ball with senior guard A.J. Price taking to the two spot.
For Mullens, as with many of his peers, it appears he will be back on campus next fall. If their teams keep winning, then their time on campus, be it one year or four, will be time well spent.
More fresh thoughts
* Looking to identify players who fell through the recruiting cracks? You might want to look at Liberty box scores. There, a skinny, light-skinned shooter with NBA bloodlines recently garnered Big South Conference Freshman of the Week honors. His name? Seth Curry. As the son of Dell and brother of Stephen, he may know a thing or two about evading the prep spotlight only to emerge as a talent on the collegiate hardwood. Having started all nine games, he is averaging 35.7 minutes, 21.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
* Virginia guard Sylven Landesberg started off hot with 28 points in his collegiate debut against VMI, but crashed down to earth in his most recent game. Despite managing just 10 points against Minnesota on 1 of 11 shooting from the field, the McDonald's All-American from New York City is still averaging 19 points a game. Tonight against Longwood, he gets his first chance to bounce back.