Freshmen Hoops Showcase: Memphis-Georgetown & UCLA-Depaul

December 19, 2008

Last Saturday featured three freshmen rated among the top 10 first-year players of this season – Greg Monroe, Jrue Holiday, and Tyreke Evans. In addition, UCLA’s number one-rated, five-player recruiting class was on display. The verdict? Good talent, lots of upside, but some mistakes and growing pains as well.

GEORGETOWN 79, MEMPHIS 70 (Big East v. Conference USA)

This game matched two likely Tournament teams. Last season, Georgetown was eliminated in March thanks to the heroics of Stephen Curry. From that squad, the Hoyas lost two key players to the NBA draft -- star big man Roy Hibbert and scrapper Patrick Ewing Jr. Still, they return a solid core of perimeter players, supplemented by highly-regarded freshman "big" Greg Monroe.

Meanwhile, Memphis had a title in their grasp before letting a nine-point lead slip away in one of the greatest choke moments in NCAA history. Simply put, stars Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts failed to hit their free throws in the clutch. To make matters worse, coach John Calipari lost his top 3 players to the NBA, as Rose, CDR, and Joey Dorsey all were NBA draft picks. Fortunately for Calipari, the Tigers retain some size and athleticism to go along with newcomer Tyreke Evans.

In the first half, Memphis demonstrated one way in which it can compensate for the loss of last year’s offensive stars -- by getting cheap points. The Tigers made a concerted effort to crash the offensive glass, getting multiple second-chance opportunities. By game’s end, the Tigers tallied a whopping 20 offensive boards.

Memphis also manufactured some offense in transition. They often extended their harassing D, leading to turnovers, numbers advantages, and early offense buckets. At half, they held a 38-37 lead.

The second half was equally close, as Hoya veterans DaJuan Summers, Chris Wright, and Austin Freeman stepped up their perimeter game. In the closing seconds, with Georgetown holding a two-point lead, Calipari put the ball in Evans’ hands at the top of the key, and gave him the freedom to create. Evans broke down his man and missed a runner, only to have teammate Chris Dozier tip-in the miss and send the game into overtime.

Once in overtime, the Hoyas pulled away, outscoring the Tigers 13-4 in the extra period. Memphis tried to run its offense exclusively through Evans in OT, but he repeatedly failed to convert his shots. Meanwhile, Georgetown coach John Thompson’s use of the Princeton offense netted contributions from a variety of players, and produced more high-percentage looks.

The game’s 5-minute extra period was particularly noteworthy, as it highlighted the current difference between these two squads at this point in the season.

For Georgetown, they return a fairly solid core of vets capable of taking up the offensive burden. Summers, Wright, and Freeman, are all decent enough at getting their own shot and making good decisions. Thus, the offense does not need to be run through freshmen Monroe possession after possession.

For Memphis, veteran guards Antonio Anderson and Doneal Mack are really complementary spot-up shooters dependent on others to get them open. Upperclassmen forward Chris Dozier also is more of a lane-filling, offensive rebound hustle-type player, rather than a number one option on the block. Therefore, the half-court offense must be run primarily through creator Tyreke Evans, Wesley Witherspoon, or perhaps offensively-skilled big man Shawn Taggart. Last Saturday, Evans struggled under that burden, going 8-24 from the field.

But give Calipari credit here. He knows this team will only go as far as Evans will take it. So he is using a trial by fire approach, in the hopes that some on-the-job-training will season the youngster come March. In line with this thinking, Calipari repeatedly gave Evans the green light in the closing minutes, calling high pick and rolls and some iso’s on the wing for him. Although he made a late 3-pointer in regulation, his final minutes were plagued with misses.

Still, the tools are there. Evans can play the 1, 2, or 3 at the college level because of his good size. He is a good ballhandler, capable of breaking down his man and creating his own shot. Evans also has good court vision, as he set up teammates for several lobs. In addition, he gets after it defensively.

Evans does need to improve his outside stroke. He also needs better decision-making when reading the defense. At a minimum, his decisions should improve with game experience during the normal course of the season, as Rose himself went through such a learning process last year.

Meanwhile, the 6’10” Monroe was the most impressive freshman on the court. Although he could improve his strength, Monroe gives the Hoyas a true interior presence on the floor. He can rebound in traffic, and is an intimidating, shot-blocking help defender down low.

Offensively, Monroe displayed some nice skills. On one first half play, he caught the ball at the high post, faced-up, and then did a 360 spin into an up-and-under pivot move, drawing a foul. That play alone showed his mobility and excellent footwork. Later, in the second half, Monroe established good low post position on the block, and made a nice bank in crunch time.

But what really separates Monroe are his intangibles. He plays with poise, intelligence, and passion. Most important, he is a thinking man out on the floor. In one first half sequence, Monroe snagged a board, snapped a nice outlet pass, and then filled the lane on the break. When he got the return pass, he immediately dropped a touch bounce pass to a trailer who had not yet crossed his field of vision. Monroe essentially anticipated the play in advance, and it led to a fast-break basket. That excellent passing ability was also seen on the interior throughout the game. Overall, Monroe is in a good situation because he can grow at his own pace.

UCLA 72, DEPAUL 54 (PAC-10 v. Big East)

The John Wooden Classic featured one team hoping to reach a fourth straight Final Four, and another that would be happy enough just making the NIT.

No team in Division 1 lost more talent than UCLA, as three of its players were NBA Draft picks, including two in the top five. Ben Howland still has plenty of talent leftover, as vets Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, James Keefe, and Alfred Aboya all return. In addition, Howland brought in the country’s best recruiting class, a five-deep group consisting of three guards and two bigs. The jewel of the class is guard Jrue Holiday.

As for Depaul, oh how the mighty have fallen. Depaul used to be a consistent national power due to its location in talent-rich Chicago. But the days of Mark Aguirre and Rod Strickland are long gone, with many Chicago youngsters like Derrick Rose now choosing to go elsewhere. Worse yet, Depaul plays in the NCAA’s deepest and most brutal conference – the Big East. As such, their chances of making the Tourney are slim at best.

UCLA wasted no time establishing its dominance Saturday. The Bruins put their trademark defensive clamps on Depaul, and led 35-19 at the half. The second half was more of the same, as the last few minutes consisted of extended garbage time. Overall, UCLA had a 31-21 rebound advantage, and held Depaul to 41% shooting.

What was interesting was how Coach Howland juggled his rotation. Of the freshmen, only Holiday starts. Howland’s two primary substitutes are veterans Nikola Dragovic, a forward, and Michael Roll, a sharpshooting swingman. Thus, Howland is trying to bring the other four freshmen along slowly, giving them spot minutes here and there. Of those four, it appears that forward Drew Gordon, and guards Jerime Anderson and Malcolm Lee get the most PT. Center J’Mison Morgan’s minutes have been less consistent.

Because Howland has some returning frontcourt depth, as well as two creative perimeter scorers in Josh Shipp and Darren Collison, he can afford to bring those four along slowly. As for Holiday, however, he is just too good to keep off the floor.

Holiday showed a variety of offensive skills. First, he showed some range, nailing two threes from the new NCAA line. Second, he displayed a good first step, as he repeatedly was able to get by defenders and into the paint. Third, Holiday demonstrated good athleticism when he elevated on a second-half tip dunk. Fourth, Holiday proved versatile. The combo guard showed ballhandling good enough to play the point, as well as the ability to defend 2’s at the college level.

But what separates Holiday are his intangibles. He is very poised and relaxed on the floor, as he is content to get his points within the offense, rather than forcing shots.

Ultimately, all three of these great freshmen will have their ups and downs. We look forward to seeing their progress come March.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald

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