The way some see it, the day is fast approaching when high-level NCAA basketball will be defined first by its newest players, then by everyone else.
“College basketball has been, in my judgment, the quality of the game overall, the landscape, has become more and more dependent on the quality of the freshmen class,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said during a November teleconference.
This isn’t entirely a good thing. Even the best freshmen often are inconsistent as a season unfolds. Off the court they’re particularly prone to distraction by college life’s cornucopia of temptations.
No matter. Where once freshmen were expected to gradually find their way, media members now think nothing of voting them to All-America squads before they play a college game.
Last season, Mitchell Wiggins of Kansas was an Associated Press preseason choice for All-America. This go-round Duke’s Jahlil Okafor won the same designation, becoming the third freshman so honored within the past five years.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski repeatedly has shared his expectation that Okafor will leave for the NBA following this season. The center’s immediate status as an All-American, and its easy acceptance, reflects growing appreciation of the poise and skill today’s most-talented high school players bring to campus.
“I think AAU basketball, the exposure that these young men get at an early age puts them on the big stage a lot quicker,” says Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, once a top recruit himself. “You pay attention to it a little more now because of one-and-dones and things of that nature.”
But let’s be honest – popular acclaim for freshmen also reveals a preference for the new over the old, the promised over the realized, the ideal vs. the imperfect. It’s much the same orientation that makes following college recruiting a sport in itself.
“There is a fascination with freshmen, and you know most of the freshmen nowadays are more worldly,” says North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “Their game is much more evolved.”
The need for seasoning
Just five years ago Tar Heels newcomer Harrison Barnes was a preseason All-American; one outlet even dubbed him the prospective 2011 national player of the year. At the time the choice seemed breathtakingly presumptuous. And so it turned out, as Barnes didn’t make first team All-ACC, let alone first-team All-America.
That Barnes never quite lived up to the hype wasn’t his fault. Only eight freshmen have made first team All-ACC, 11 the second team (Barnes among them) in the 42 seasons they’ve been eligible for varsity competition. That’s 3.8 percent of all first-team selections by the media since 1972-73 (eight of 210), 4.5 percent of the top-10 picks (19 of 420). Three freshmen made first team in this century, when quick jumps to the NBA are increasingly prevalent.
After all, even great talents are like great food and need a bit of seasoning. Just think of the past two freshmen chosen first team All-ACC: Duke’s Austin Rivers (2012), who had a difficult time blending with teammates, and Jabari Parker (2014), a notably inconsistent defender. (The other 21st-century freshman first-teamer was UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough in 2006.)
Freshmen began competing on the varsity in football and basketball in 1972, the same year Virginia Tech basketball coach Buzz Williams was born. Doing away with freshman teams such as Duke’s Blue Imps, N.C. State’s Wolflets and North Carolina’s Tar Babies was billed as a cost-saving measure.
Sanctioning the leap from high school to high-profile competition defied the wisdom of those who believed freshmen need a year to adjust to college.
“There’s no question in my mind they would have been better served educationally to have been ineligible for varsity play as freshmen,” UNC basketball coach Dean Smith said years later. “Almost all of the problems of intercollegiate athletics – excessive commercialism, compulsion to win and the whole success/failure ethos – impinge directly upon the talented freshman student-athlete.”
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and other reform-minded groups continue to advocate a return to freshman ineligibility. Unfortunately that’s about as likely as the NCAA agreeing to place men and women on the same basketball squad to promote gender equity.
A two-year stay
These days the collegiate status of male freshmen is more dependent on NBA draft rules than on academic considerations.
“We’re in a different era,” says TV analyst Fran Fraschilla, a former head coach, pointing to “the dearth of great players in college because of the one-and-done rule.” That stricture, imposed by the NBA in 2006, requires a player to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school to be eligible for the pro draft.
According to Forbes magazine, the NBA recently discussed with its players’ association a rule requiring a two-year stay in college, an adjustment that Krzyzewski has been advocating for quite some time. This not only would further education and elongate some pro careers but also bring greater stability and experience to college play.
“I still believe that, in professional sports and in college sports, that your veterans make your team,” says Manning, the 1988 national player of the year at Kansas and then a 15-year pro. “In college it’s your juniors and your seniors and your experienced sophomores. Professionally it’s your guys that have been in the league for some time and had some things figured out.
“Whenever you add a new player to the mix, he can be talented and he can be one of the better players on your team, but you’ve still got to have that glue from the veterans.”
Concerns about the impact of one-and-done players, including their quick integration into a squad, tend to be limited to a handful of programs, nationally and in the ACC.
Fifteen freshmen have departed after a single ACC season and were taken in the first round of the NBA draft. (Clemson’s Skip Wise, chosen first team All-ACC as a freshman in 1973, was not drafted after jumping to the American Basketball Association’s Baltimore Claws.) Georgia Tech (six) and Duke (five) have lost the most freshmen. Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis and Duke’s Parker, a first-team AP All-America at season’s end, were one and done in 2014.
“This year’s freshman class is really good, but it doesn’t seem to have the same name recognition before the players step on campus as last year did,” Bilas says. “Last year it seemed like we had some built-in buzz for the game because of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, those guys. I don’t feel that same thing out there this year – it’s more team-related.”
The well-publicized wave of high school All-Americans that inundated the Blue Devils and Tar Heels this season might distort local perception of the importance of freshmen. Intensifying that impression, four of those touted teens became instant starters, including three at Duke.
When a game hangs in the balance, no coach cares if it’s a freshman who has the ball, as long as he’s capable. Krzyzewski surely will turn to Okafor, “a once-in-every-five-years player,” according to Fraschilla. Just as UNC’s Smith, philosophical objections notwithstanding, set up freshman Michael Jordan to take the decisive jump shot against Georgetown in the 1982 national championship game.