Burlison: Nation's Elite Sophomores

UNC's Tyler Hansbrough was the consensus choice as the country's top freshman last season. But will he be the top sophomore this season? There are plenty of challengers for the Tar Heel to hold off, and some of those aren't exactly household names (like Mbah a Moute)...at least not yet...

The most nationally publicized of last season's college freshmen was, without a whole lot of debate necessary, Tyler Hansbrough of the University of North Carolina.


The 6-foot-9 low-post specialist was a first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection while averaging 18.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and will be a consensus first-team All-American once all of the magazine, newspaper, Internet and Associated Press prognostications have been accumulated.


Josh McRoberts of Duke, the MVP of the 2005 McDonald's All-American Game, came into the season with more notoriety than Hansbrough. His numbers – 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds – were probably along the lines of what should have been legitimately expected out of him with the fact that eventual first-team All-Americas J.J. Redick (the John R. Wooden Award winner) and Shelden Williams were going to be such dominant offensive presences in the Blue Devils' lineup.


And, although he came to Milwaukee underrated in some talent evaluating circles, Dominic James had a splendid season for Marquette coach Tom Crean, averaging 15.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.6 steals per game. He was the top freshman in the Big East Conference and, like McRoberts and Hansbrough, has a shot at being a first-team All-American as a sophomore.


Even with all of those credentials, it's a bit dicey to project Hansbrough, McRoberts and James as clearly the best sophomores the 2006-07 season has to offer.


In fact, the best freshman in the country last season may have been a player not among the above threesome.


Let's take a glance at some of the other sophomores to pay close attention to in the coming season – including the guy who may have had the best college debut in 2005-06:


Rodney Stuckey (6-4, Eastern Washington)

His USC team played against six Pacific 10 Conference players who were NBA Draft selections in June and also had a December victory in Los Angeles over North Carolina.


But who did Trojans' coach Tim Floyd call "the best NBA prospect we played against last season"?


It was Stuckey, who missed 11 of his 17 shots from the floor when his team lost to the Trojans in the Great Alaskan Shootout.


Stuckey averaged 24.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. And his scoring average in seven games against teams that played in the NCAA Tournament was 20.4.


Stuckey (who is from the Seattle suburb of Kent) could lead Coach Mike Burns' team past Montana and Northern Arizona in the Big Sky Conference and into the NCAA Tournament.


How many representatives of NBA franchises will be in the stands when the Eagles visit the University of Washington on Nov. 24? Oh, about 20-plus or so.


The Pac 10 is well represented

This sophomore class, it could be argued rather persuasively, is as deep as any the conference has had in a long while.


Six-seven Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (6-7) was the conference's Freshman of the Year while helping UCLA win the regular-season and tournament titles, as well as advance to the national championship game.


And Marcus Williams of Arizona is getting mention in some circles as being a strong Pac 10 Player of the Year candidate this season.


Are they the two best sophomores in the conference?


Not necessarily.


Jon Brockman of Washington, a 2005 McDonald's All-American, will team with freshman Spencer Hawes to give Coach Lorenzo Romar the best 1-2 post punch in the West.


But the guy triggering everything for the Huskies will be another sophomore, point guard Justin Dentmon, who was an unsung (at least, nationally) reason the program advanced to its second consecutive Sweet 16.


And Darren Collison, Jordan Farmar's backup last season, is a prime reason why the UCLA Bruins may successfully defending their Pac 10 bragging rights and make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.


He'll be one of the conference's most improved players and certainly one of its two or three best playmakers.


Six-ten Jeff Pendergraph will be Arizona State's leading scorer this season. And that would have been the case even if Kevin Kruger hadn't transferred to UNLV to play for his dad as a senior.


And, although twin McDonald All-Americans Brook and Robin Lopez are expected to be immediate starters (and impact performers) at Stanford, Coach Trent Johnson's sophomore class – Mitch Johnson, Lawrence Hill and Anthony Goods – will have to come through in a big way if the team is going to finish in the upper half of the conference standings.


The Kansas Class of 2009

The Jayhawks' second consecutive first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament (sorry to bring it up, Bill) didn't obscure the kind of freshmen seasons turned in by Brandon Rush (13.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game), Mario Chalmers (11.5 points, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals per game) and Julian Wright (8.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, along with .564 shooting from the field) turned in.


Their individual numbers might not improve a whole lot – remember, Bill Self has a whole lot of scoring options to turn to on this squad – but each of the three will be a more polished and complete player as a sophomore. And that's why the Jayhawks will be on a very short list of Final Four contenders this season.


They'll blossom in the Big East

Between them, Sam Young and Jeff Adrien started four games for Pittsburgh and Connecticut, respectively, last season.


That being said . . . each of the 6-6 forwards might be among the 10 best players in the Big East this season.


But are they better than another sophomore forward in the conference, Wilson Chandler, who averaged 10.6 points and 7.2 rebounds last season for DePaul?


Eric Devendorf averaged 12.2 points per game as a freshman and the 6-3 guard could be Syracuse's top scorer this season.


Marquette's perimeter isn't just about Dominic James. Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews combined to average 20 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.


And let's don't neglect . . .

*The Alabama duo of 6-8 Richard Hendrix and 6-6 Alonzo Gee. Ronald Steele and Jermareo Davidson are Coach Mark Gottfried's best players. But Hendrix and Gee make up the foundation of a pretty solid supporting cast.


*Chris Douglas-Roberts is going to help ease the sting of the loss of Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams and Darius Washington for Memphis and Coach John Calipari.


*Forward Jamelle Cornley (11.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game) of Penn State was the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year.


Is he the conference's top sophomore? There are those who would suggest that it is Jamar Smith (8.0 points per game) of Illinois, who is one of the conference's – and we'd better extend that to the country's – elite pure shooters.


*Two future – as in as soon as this season – Southeastern Conference stars are forward Tasmin Mitchell (11.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game) of LSU and guard Jamont Gordon (13.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game) of Mississippi State.


Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame in April, 2005, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.frankhoops.com

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