The comparisons started early for Vanderbilt sophomore forward Matt Freije. After signing him to a scholarship in 2000, Coach Kevin Stallings said Freije would remind folks of Commodore great Dan Langhi in his ability to shoot and handle the ball as a tall player. (Quite a lot to place on an incoming freshman.)
In Freije's freshman season, Kentucky point guard Saul Smith told writers Freije reminded him of "a young Dirk Nowitski"-- a reference to the German-born 7-foot forward-center for the Dallas Mavericks. (Freije may resemble Nowitski with his blonde hair, but is about 20 pounds short of Nowitski's 245.)
But the strongest comparison for Freije to date came in the wake of his 29-point outburst in Vandy's 73-67 win over Auburn last Wednesday.
''He's not Superman,'' Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said after the game, ''but by golly he played like him tonight." For his efforts in the Auburn and South Carolina games Freije was named SEC Player of the Week.
Indeed, Freije's performance vs. Auburn was a Picasso, one worthy of saving inside a time capsule. The 6-foot-9 Kansas native scored from inside, outside and the free-throw line (three 3-pointers, four 2-pointers, and 10-of-12 from the stripe) despite being guarded by Auburn's best defenders.
His lights-out night had Auburn coach Cliff Ellis raving. "We put everybody we possibly could on him, from small to big," Ellis said. "It didn't really matter. Our defense was there like every game, but Matt Freije stuck his head up and took over the game.
"He's a great player," Ellis continued. "It was the best offensive performance against us this season. He had his way and we had no answer for him."
Commodore fans, who have witnessed Freije's ability to take over a game at any given moment, have been puzzled this year by the fact that he waited halfway through the season before erupting with his finest performance. Stallings says he has been somewhat puzzled too.
"Matt is our most talented player, and a guy who can score in a variety of ways," says Stallings. "His athleticism can set him apart. He's 6-9 and can shoot it from the perimeter and put it on the floor a little bit. We've seen him make really good plays, have practices where he dominates. It's a performance that we've expected of him, and frankly we've been surprised that it took this long to get to it."
Unlike Stallings' first year, when senior Dan Langhi was unquestionably the Commodores' go-to scorer, Stallings doesn't want to place too much of the offensive burden on Freije's narrow shoulders just yet. In Chuck Moore, Brendan Plavich, Sam Howard and others, this year's Commodores have other proven scoring threats.
But Stallings isn't above occasionally doing things to maximize Freije's ability to score. Against Auburn, Stallings started both of his big men, Brian Thornton and David Przybyszewski, a move which pushed Freije to the 3-position and created severe matchup problems for Auburn.
"I want Matt to take offense when offense comes to him," says Stallings, "but I don't want him to feel like he has to necessarily carry us on his back. He has to play well for us to win-- but he doesn't have to score a lot every night for us to win."
The fair-haired Freije is a bit of an enigma. He doesn't exactly interview well-- he always seems uncomfortable, as though he's trying to get them over with as quickly as possible. But according to Stallings, inside there burns an intense competitive fire that doesn't always come across when he's being interviewed as the "American Ace Player of the Game."
Stallings, who unquestionably molded Langhi into a better player his senior year, last year set forth three areas in which he'd like to see Freije improve: (1) more game off the dribble, (2) a better post-up game, and (3) improved defense against the bulky inside players which proliferate in the SEC.
"[Matt] slides his feet pretty well," says Stallings. "He's a pretty good perimeter defender, and he's a pretty good post defender, but if a guy outweighs him by 20 or 30 lbs.-- which can happen at his position-- it creates a different set of circumstances and problems for him.
"Because of his lack of physicality last year, he reverted to a bunch of fallaways, because that's all he could get off. He wasn't physical enough to make a turn and make something good happen. He's made a lot of improvement in that area.
'"I've never coached a guy that tries to be as much as I want him to be on a daily basis. The kid will absolutely exhaust himself in the first drill of practice. He saves nothing.''
Stallings has referred several times to Freije as the most "coachable" player he's ever coached on any team. "There are very few guys that you can just absolutely blister, and never ever do they take it either the wrong way, or personally," says Stallings. "They don't pout. I'm telling you what-- Freije can take it, and he can take it, and he can take it, and I know, because I've given it to him.
"He never changes his expression, he never changes his demeanor," Stallings says. "He just tries harder to do what you want. I've had guys who would get mad, who would try harder to do it to spite you-- which is fine too. But he just tries harder and harder and harder.
"I told him one day, Matt, if every guy was as coachable as you are, I wouldn't have this job, because somebody smart would have it. He is just so coachable, and yet such a great player."
Stallings says Freije's strong work ethic and quiet determination to improve has had a big impact on his teammates.
"It helps tremendously, because he's kicking those other post players' behinds in practice regularly," says Stallings. "I'm not sure they don't take as many butt-chewings from him as they do from me. He just won't let guys not work hard. He's just a terrific guy to coach.
"There's not a guy in this league who wouldn't like to have him on their team. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying he'd be the best guy on every team, but sheeesh! I'm glad I have him."