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Singler highlights another crop of elite freshmen

After Greg Oden and Kevin Durant departed to the NBA last year, college basketball experts were left abuzz over one of the best freshman classes in recent memory.

That freshman class, however, is already a distant memory after what this year's crop of newcomers has accomplished. Headlined by National Player of the Year candidate Michael Beasley at Kansas State, eight of this year's current freshmen are projected to be taken in the top 10 picks of the NBA draft by ESPN.

Duke's Kyle Singler, the ACC Freshman of the Year, has been as impressive as any youngster, making his presence felt from the very beginning of the season. In his first month on the court, Singler earned MVP honors while leading the Blue Devils to their fourth Maui Invitational title.

Unlike some of the other high-profile newcomers, though, Singler is not a "one-and-done" player with his eye on the NBA draft.

So how does Singler stack up in relation to his peers? While NBA scouts have not given real consideration to the forward, Beasley-who is the current consensus top pick in the upcoming draft-believes Singler is just as dangerous as anyone in the country.

"I've played against Kyle so many times," Beasley said. "He's inside-out and he's smart, quick and a tough defender. He's a great player."

Singler and Beasley aren't the only freshmen making headlines this season. Memphis point guard Derrick Rose has dazzled college basketball with his brilliant offensive repertoire on his way to leading the Tigers to a 33-1 record. And out west, UCLA freshman center Kevin Love has been nothing short of spectacular. Love has averaged 17 points and over 10 rebounds per game on his way to being named Pac-10 Player of the Year.

Love and Singler are already familiar with one another, as they were separated by a 260-mile stretch of Highway 5 attending high school in Oregon. In 2006, Love led Lake Oswego to a state championship, defeating Singler and South Medford 59-57. Singler exacted revenge the next year by leading his squad to a 58-54 win in the state finals.

If things work out in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament, where UCLA and Duke are the top two seeds, Singler and Love could rekindle their high school rivalry with a Final Four berth on the line.

"He compares favorably to any freshman in the country," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said of Singler. "The ACC was ranked the No. 1 conference in the country, and he was Freshman of the Year in that conference. That's pretty solid."

Singler and his fellow freshmen have also handled the jump from high school to college with relative ease. Beasley has remained levelheaded, knowing that despite being constantly praised, he can still improve aspects of his game, such as defense and decision-making.

Singler has been just as mature and poised, something that has not escaped the attention of his teammates.

"Everyone has been impressed," sophomore center Brian Zoubek said. "You can see it every single day in practice that he's really mature and has handled everything really well."

In other ways, however, these freshmen still display some of the youthfulness expected from first-year players. For example, Beasley discussed how travelling to away games was one of the best things he found about the college experience.

Singler, who rarely displays emotion on the court, was thrilled at the prospect of being a part of March Madness.

"I've just had a blast playing with the players, having the opportunity to be coached by such a great coach," Singler said. "It's March, we should be the most excited that we've ever been. It's just a new experience for me. Right now, we're having a great season."

In March, these freshmen are expected to continue carrying the load, as they have all season long.

That year-long burden may be wearing on Singler, who has struggled down the stretch of the season. In Duke's ACC Tournament loss to Clemson, the forward was just 1-of-9 from the field for a season-low two points. In the previous game against Georgia Tech, the freshman picked up two quick fouls in the opening minutes and spent most of the first half on the bench.

But critics forget that Durant and Oden also had stretches where they struggled. After all, freshmen are susceptible to making mistakes simply out of inexperience.

Nevertheless, Singler's overall impact on this year's Blue Devil squad has not been diminished. He still has the confidence of analysts, his peers, and most importantly, his coach and teammates.

"Even Laettner had Ferry. Grant Hill had Laettner and Hurley," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "When [Zoubek] had this injury-filled year, it created more pressure on Kyle to produce. And he has. We've had a hell of a year and so much of it is because of Kyle."

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