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March 9, 2007

Freshman of the Year: It has to be Durant

AUSTIN, Texas - Don't call Kevin Durant a freshman.

The best college basketball player in the nation believes he and his Texas classmates have outgrown that term.

"I think we're all grown up," Durant said last week after the Longhorns' 98-96 double overtime victory over Texas A&M. "I don't even think we have a classification."

Durant certainly doesn't. The freshman forward has proved all year he's in a class by himself.

In a year that will go down in history as one of the greatest college basketball seasons for freshmen, Durant wasted no time proving he's a cut above all the other first-year players.

We're merely declaring the obvious by naming Durant the Rivals.com national Freshman of the Year.

Durant is the nation's fourth-leading rebounder (11.4 per game) and fifth-leading scorer (25.1), which makes him the only player in the nation to rank in the top 10 in both categories.

Before this season, a freshman had scored 30 points in a Big 12 game just nine times in conference history. Durant has matched that total.

Texas coach Rick Barnes predicted this type of season when he was recruiting Durant. He remembers what he told Durant while visiting the five-star recruit's home.

"We knew how good he was," Barnes said. "I said our expectations and your coaches' expectations are for you to be the best player in college basketball."

Durant has lived up to those lofty expectations.

He has averaged 28.9 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in Big 12 competition to help Texas lock up an NCAA Tournament bid with a lineup that features four freshmen and a sophomore.

That rebounding average in conference games has broken the Big 12 record set 10 years ago by Texas Tech's Tony Battie. Durant also is on pace to break former Texas Tech star Cory Carr's Big 12 single-season record of 23.3 points per game.

Durant leads his team in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots (55), steals (54) and double-doubles (18). He already has four more career 30-point games in Big 12 competition than any other player in conference history.

His best performance in this brilliant season came Jan. 31, when he collected 37 points and 23 rebounds in a 76-64 victory over Texas Tech. Durant tied the Big 12 single-game rebounding record that night and also had the highest single-game combination of points and rebounds in conference history.

But the last week illustrated just how many different ways Durant can punish an opponent.

First he tallied 30 points and 16 rebounds in that marathon victory over Texas A&M. Three days later, he scored 25 first-half points before an ankle injury limited him down the stretch of a 90-86 loss to Kansas.

"You can't guard him with a big guy, and you can't guard him with a little guy," Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie said. "It's fun to watch him play. I love watching him play, except when we're playing him."

Indeed, Durant is versatile enough to play any position on the floor. He averages nearly two blocks per game while also shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range.

No offense to Ohio State center Greg Oden or North Carolina forward Brandan Wright, but there's really no debate that Durant is the top freshman of the 2006-07 season. The real question is whether he's the best freshman of all time.

We might need to wait another month to know the answer. After all, some of this sport's most famous freshmen had a way of raising their games in the postseason.

North Carolina guard Michael Jordan made the winning shot against Georgetown in 1982 to give former Tar Heels coach Dean Smith his first national title. Louisville center Pervis Ellison was the 1986 Final Four MVP after rallying Louisville past Duke in the championship game.

But neither Jordan nor Ellison put up the kind of statistics that Durant has compiled this season.

The freshman seasons of former Louisiana State guard Chris Jackson and former Syracuse forward Carmelo Anthony probably offer the closest comparisons.

Jackson averaged 30.2 points per game his freshman year at LSU, but this pure scorer wasn't nearly as complete a player as Durant. Anthony averaged 22.2 points and 10 rebounds per game while also leading Syracuse to the 2002-03 national title.

Only time will tell whether Durant can lead Texas to similar success, but the glare of the spotlight hasn't bothered his freshman-laden team so far.

"We're never scared," Durant said.

Why should the Longhorns be afraid of anyone? The scariest player in college basketball is on their side.

Durant not Longhorns' only fresh face | Rivals.com Freshman All-America Team
How the Class of 2006 Top 10 Fared | Top freshman seasons of all-time

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