Freshmen start for Big 12 amid first-year stars

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) From A to Z, Aldridge to Zeno, the Big 12 is bristling with an extraordinary class of high-class freshman. <br/><br/>Less than a year removed from high school, they&#39;re shooting,

Friday, February 11th 2005, 6:39 am

By: News On 6

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) From A to Z, Aldridge to Zeno, the Big 12 is bristling with an extraordinary class of high-class freshman.

Less than a year removed from high school, they're shooting, rebounding and dishing the ball on pace with more experienced veterans, making an immediate impact in a tough league at a time when most kids are still hesitant and wide-eyed.

``There's a lot of good ones,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. ``And our league needs that because conferences are cyclical.''

Everyone expected Texas point guard Daniel Gibson to bring a dazzling array of skills into his first season, and nobody feels let down. Gibson is averaging more than 17 points for the injury-ravaged Longhorns and ranks among the league leaders in several categories.

But 6-9 Joseph Jones, a native of tiny Normanagee, Texas, has also emerged. He's leading all freshmen in rebounding and is playing a pivotal role in the Texas A&M turnaround.

Then there's Baylor's Australian-born guard Aaron Bruce, among the league's leading scorers. Richard Roby, half-brother of NBA star Kenyon Martin, is Colorado's top scorer and has looked at times almost unstoppable.

Nebraska's Joe McCray is one of the Big 12's top 3-point shooters. And people are raving about JamesOn Curry, who only recently broke into Oklahoma State's talented, veteran lineup but is averaging 16.5 points in his last four games.

``I think that's a tribute to the league being very successful. It draws top freshmen in,'' Baylor coach Scott Drew said. ``But with some of the players who have left, it's created vacancies and given some young players opportunities they might not have had until their sophomore or junior year.

``Aaron Bruce is a great player, but in other situations he might not have had the opportunity he's had this year.''

LaMarcus Aldridge, a 6-10 bruiser, was off to a great start for Texas until he was injured last month. One big reason No. 25 Texas Tech is challenging Kansas for the conference lead has been the smooth play of Martin Zeno.

A perfect fit for coach Bob Knight's disciplined system, the 6-5 guard has proven himself one of the league's best shooters, hitting more than 50 percent from the field and 80 percent from the line.

``Our league is so good, I think we attract a high caliber of athletes,'' said Colorado assistant Paul Graham. ``Everybody's got a good freshman.''

Gibson is not the only freshman manning the important point guard spot. So are Clent Stewart at Kansas State and Jason Horton at Missouri.

``That's a tough position for a young man to play coming out of high school,'' Graham said.

Altogether, one-fourth of the Big 12's top 20 point-producers were making plans for their high school prom this time last year.

``It is impressive,'' Texas coach Rick Barnes said. ``You look around the league, it bodes well for the future. Recruiting has improved. It shows you this league's best days are ahead.''

Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson says the Big 12 never had so many standout players arrive in one bunch.

``We've had some big freshmen classes. But I like the freshmen now,'' he said. ``We've got some good kids.''

And those are just the ones who've had an opportunity to play.

``There are some kids who don't get that much chance to contribute because of the people ahead of them, but who are going to be awfully good, too,'' Sampson said.

It was an obscure freshman who stepped out of the shadows to play a key role in what has so far been the most-talked about victory of the year.

Tasheed Carr, who'd been averaging 3.4 points, had 22, including 13 in one span of 3:54, in the 92-80 overtime win against Texas that broke Iowa State's 28-game conference road losing streak.

Then a few days later, Carr's 3-pointer gave the Cyclones the lead for good at Nebraska, sparking a second straight conference road win for a team that hadn't had one since 2001.

``A star is born,'' said a beaming Iowa State coach Wayne Morgan.

But it looks like he's only one of many.

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