Rarely do freshmen dominate in college basketball. For every Fab Five, Khalid-El Amin and Lew Alcindor, thousands of first-year players are restricted to learning the ropes of playing against a much higher level of talent than high school.
Joe Crispin began his college career like so many others when he enrolled at Penn State.
Two years ago, the freshman guard was fresh off a stellar high school career in Pitman, N.J. Lions coach Jerry Dunn was going to let Crispin watch and learn his first season, and maybe his second.
Then starter Dan Earl got hurt, and Crispin was inserted into the starting lineup.
“Earl got hurt and, to Joe’s credit, he stepped in and did about as good a job as you can do in asking a freshman to play that position,” Dunn said. “Here’s a kid who came out of high school where he was largely dependant upon running the team and scoring 25 or 30 points for his team just to have a chance to win. You don’t just shed that overnight.”
Now Crispin is a junior, and he has shed the foggy illusions of trying to make the leap from high school to being a quality starter in college.
He was named Big Ten player of the week following last week’s showings against Illinois and Wisconsin. Both nights Crispin scored at least 30 points, the first time since 1964-65 that a Lions player has done so.
“Whoever guards Crispin (most likely Terrance Simmons) better pack a lunch and dinner because it’s a full-day job,” Minnesota coach Dan Monson said. “He can score in bunches and he has lots of help. He can create his own shot, and that makes you capable of scoring 30 points.”
In a fantasy land, dealing with Crispin wouldn’t be a nightmare, if only he didn’t have help.
Enter Jarrett Stephens.
The 6-foot-7, 255-pound man in the middle is healthy for the first time in two years. He averages 18.4 points per game and leads the Big Ten with 11.4 rebounds per game.
“I haven’t seen much of him, but I know he’s a great player having a great season,” said sophomore center Joel Przybilla, who wasn’t around for Stephens’ big games two years ago. “They’re surprising a lot of people.”
After slowly working his way into the starting lineup his second year, Stephens blew up in ’97-98. Stephens led his team in scoring and steals, and averaged six rebounds per game that season. That includes a 27-point, 11-board performance against Minnesota.
At the end of that season, Stephens was the victim of a flagrant foul against Georgia. The result was two free throws, the ball and a torn ACL. He tried to come back last season, but the pain was too much and he redshirted after two games.
Stephens didn’t practice this week after the death of a family member, but he was expected to be back in State College yesterday and play tonight.
Przybilla and Dusty Rychart will have their hands full with Stephens, but the dwindling production from Minnesota’s guards will need to do an about-face to handle Crispin.
“We have to be careful as a team,” Monson said. “The best analogy is our free-throw shooting, where one (loss) leads to another. We’re vulnerable when we don’t play together, but we have good, young kids who are being tested.”
Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments [email protected]