Freshman Achievement

It's no secret that West Virginia's freshman basketball class has been a big part of the Mountaineers' success this year. But while the group has received much deserved attention for their accomplishments, it's even more eye-opening to compare the group's accomplishments to classes of the recent past.

Before we get started, this isn't meant to denigrate other freshman classes at West Virginia. Many times, players take time to develop, and aren't a big part of the rotation as newcomers. That was certainly the case with a number of the players recruited by John Beilein. Freshmen coming in to a team that's loaded with veterans can likewise find it tough to make an impact early on. And then there's the question of statistics versus overall performance – just looking at the numbers can leave out an important part of the equation. For example, J.D. Collins was outstanding as a freshman at the bottom of WVU's 1-3-1 zone, but there's no stat that measures charges taken or cutters bumped off track.

What a comparison can show is the stunning contributions that Devin Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Darryl Bryant have made to this year's team, and how quickly they have assimilated themselves to Big East play. While expectations for the trio were high (unreasonably so in many cases), there's no doubt, at least from this perspective, that the New York contingent has made one of the biggest freshman impacts in recent memory.

Let's look, for example, at the 2006 freshman class, headed by Da'Sean Butler, Wellington Smith and Joe Mazzulla. Butler was very good as a freshman, averaging 10.1 points and 3.5 rebounds in 23 minutes of action per contest. He shot 48% from the field, nabbed 46 steals and was consistent throughout the year. He had a season that any freshman would take in a second. Mazzulla, in a backup role to Darris Nichols at the point, had a solid campaign. He averaged just three points per game, but learned quickly and provided WVU with a second playmaker. He hit 71% of his three throws and had 32 assists against 23 turnovers. Again, while it wasn't the stuff of SportsCenter highlights, there's no doubt his initial year was a good one. Wellington Smith was the least used of the three, but he still made good contributions off the bench. He made 55% of his field goal attempts and showed the first inklings of his shot blocking ability with 11 rejections. All in all, that class was very good, and stands as one of the best in recent history in terms of first-year performance. But it pales in comparison to this year's trio.

Ebanks has averaged 10.4 points and 7.7 rebounds, landing him a spot on the Big East's all-freshman team. (He should also have been named the freshman of the year.) Jones has made 49.7% of his shots, averaging 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. And Bryant, despite some expected ups and downs, has learned some tough lessons while recording 9.5 points per game to go along with 93 assists and a 75% shooting mark from the free throw line. Add in the fact that Ebanks has taken on far more roles than he was expected to, and that Bryant was thrust into a starting role when it was hoped he could be groomed as a backup, and their accomplishments stand out even further.

Take a look at another group that turned out to be pretty good – John Beilein's first class at WVU. Kevin Pittsnogle averaged 11.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Jo Herber tallied 7.2 points and had a team best 111 assists, and Patrick Beilein came off the bench to add 5.5 points per outing. The aforementioned Collins didn't score much, but put up a better than two-to-one assist to turnover ratio while playing tough defense and running the show. Those players benefited greatly, of course, from Beilein's rebuilding process, in which he bypasses a couple of returning starters (Josh Yeager and Chaz Briggs) in favor of getting the project underway as quickly as possible. They took advantage of those minutes, and started WVU's climb back to respectability, but their performances still don't match the level of this year's group – especially when the debate turns to team success. The 2002-03 team finished 14-15 overall, and just 5-11 in the Big East.

One more look – WVU's class of 1982, which included Renardo Brown, Dale Blaney, J.J. Crawl and Vernon Odom. Brown, one of the most highly-regarded recruits to sign at West Virginia to that point, finished with 4.1 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in a backup role. Crawl played in just more than half of WVU's games that year, and averaged fewer than three minutes per contest. Odom was in a similar role, taking just two three-pointers all season. Blaney was the standout of the bunch, pushing his way into a starting slot during the year and finishing with a 7.0 points per game averaged to go along with 22 steals and 63 assists. This contingent had great success at West Virginia – it's just another illustration of how difficult it is for freshmen to hit the ground running.

There are certainly other freshman classes that we could have used as comparison, and we didn't go back to the days when freshmen weren't eligible. (The sneaking suspicion exists that Jerry West's freshman class would have given this one a run for its money!) There might be some others that had comparable numbers. But when you add everything up, including the level of competition, and it might be difficult to find any group of freshmen that has had a more significant impact in its first year of competition than this class.

What do you think? Join in the discussion on our message boards or send us your opinions in the Mountaineer Mailbox.


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