CHICAGO -- The Big East normally devours freshmen.
Only the rarest of youngsters have succeeded in it. The ones who have emerged often end up All-Americans and eventually receive massive professional paychecks. The past 10 Big East Rookies of the Year have been Carmelo Anthony, Chris Taft, Rudy Gay, Jeff Green, Dominic James, Scottie Reynolds, Jonny Flynn, DeJuan Blair, Greg Monroe and Lance Stephenson.
And now, DePaul freshman Cleveland Melvin is making a case to add his name to the list.
In a league where even Connecticut’s Kemba Walker could only muster five double-digit scoring games as a freshman, Melvin has been a Big East exception. He’s hit double figures in all four of his first conference games, and it’s not as if he’s barely reaching the mark. He is averaging 22.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in conference. Only Walker and Providence’s Marshon Brooks have put up better numbers this season.
“It’s just so competitive,” said DePaul assistant Billy Garrett, who has been a coach in the conference for seven seasons between the Blue Demons and Seton Hall. “It’s so tough for freshmen because you go from playing high school guys to playing against men.”
What’s especially strange about Melvin’s Big East rise is his conference numbers are significantly better than his non-conference stats. He averaged 12.4 points and four rebounds less during his 12 non-conference games. It’s almost as if someone forgot to tell Melvin playing Georgetown, which he dropped a career-high 29 points on, is supposed to be more difficult than facing CS Northridge, which he had a measly eight points against.
DePaul coach Oliver Purnell attributes Melvin’s conference jump to finally becoming comfortable as a freshman. It’s also benefitted Melvin that he’s playing 20-plus minutes. Not all freshmen receive that sort of playing opportunity.
“I think the biggest thing is experience and understanding the system and what he’s doing,” Purnell said. “I think as that’s happened he’s able to play better. I think sometimes when you have so many things on your mind you’re trying to figure out what to do, and that can really slow you down in terms of just being able to do what you can on the court. Things are freeing up for him, and as a result, his athletic ability is coming to bear, his quick jumper, his quickness off his feet, his ability to score in the post.”
Melvin’s mobility at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds makes him a difficult matchup for most big men. As he displayed against Seton Hall on Wednesday, it doesn’t take much for him to shake a defender on or off the ball and get to the basket. His scoring success rate wasn’t ideal against Seton Hall, shooting just 8 of 21 from the field, but nearly all of his attempts were around the bucket and most of them were the result of him creating open space in the paint.
“I take those shots every time,” Purnell said after the game. “In the first half, he took 14, and I think maybe one bad one.”
Attempting 21 shots on Wednesday also shows where Melvin’s confidence has grown. He attempted an average of 7.8 shots during non-conference and now is hoisting 18.3 shots a game in the Big East.
Melvin’s numbers began to increase one game prior to the Big East slate. He scored what then was a career-high 23 points against Florida Atlantic on Dec. 22. The following week in the Big East opener against Cincinnati, he set a new mark with 24 points.
He hadn’t heard or read of anything negative from Cincinnati’s coaches or players about him, but Melvin assumed the Bearcats disrespected him, and he used that as motivation.
“Cincinnati thought we had no big men,” Melvin said. “I just thought maybe they didn’t know me. I just stepped up. I ran the floor, got the rebounds, just did my part on both ends of the floor.”
A game later, he raised the bar again with 29 points against Georgetown. He’s followed that up with 17 points against West Virginia and 21 against Seton Hall. He’s led DePaul in scoring in all four Big East games and has been named the Big East Rookie of the Week twice in the past month.
With Connecticut up next for DePaul, Melvin could very well have his biggest game yet. Melvin, a Baltimore native, originally committed to the Huskies, but backed out when it became known they were only interested him as a power forward. Melvin envisioned himself as more of a wing, and he went to find another school which thought the same.
“They wanted me to just play the 4,” Melvin said. “[At DePaul], I was going to have the option to play the 3 or 4. I wanted to develop my skills more on the wing instead of just inside. It’ll be really interesting [to play Connecticut.] It’s an opportunity for me to show them what I can do.”
Garrett would like to see some more, too. While he admits Melvin’s freshman campaign has been impressive, Garrett still hasn’t seen anyone come near to what Anthony did in his one Big East season at Syracuse.
“Carmelo was really good,” Garrett said. “Cleveland isn’t close to that. Guys are so much more physically mature in the Big East. Carmelo was physically mature and as a freshman mentally and physically.”
As for similarities?
“They’re both from Baltimore,” Garrett said with a laugh.