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Freshmen play significant roles for some of the title contenders.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published March 15, 2007
Ohio State center Greg Oden and fellow freshmen, guards Mike Conley and Daequan Cook, have been reminded time and time again that youth isn't usually served in the NCAA Tournament.
They don't want to hear it anymore.
"We just go out and play," Oden said Wednesday.
"History is history."
As in, he and the Buckeyes 30-3, the top seed in the South Region, who open play tonight against No. 16 Central Connecticut State (22-11) at Rupp Arena, are shooting to make some of their own.
But then that also is true for North Carolina, the ACC tournament champion and No. 1 seed in the East, which starts three freshmen: forward Brandan Wright, point guard Ty Lawson and guard Wayne Ellington.
Texas is another title contender dominated by freshmen with forward Kevin Durant, point guard D.J. Augustin, forward Damion James and guard Justin Mason. Georgia Tech relies on point guard Javaris Crittenton and forward Thaddeus Young. Duke counts on freshman guards Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson as well as freshman forward Lance Thomas. Arizona relies on forward Chase Budinger. The list goes on and on this year.
"Freshmen are becoming more and more important each and every year because they're coming in more experienced," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
"They're more worldly now than they were 15, 20 years ago. They're not in awe of everything."
Consider: Arizona won the 1997 national title with freshman point guard Mike Bibby running the show. Syracuse won it all in 2003 behind the play of freshman forward Carmelo Anthony. And back in 1992, Michigan reached the finale with an entire starting lineup of freshmen, the "Fab Five" of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.
But those have been the exceptions, not the norm, in March.
"Rarely are you going to have what we had, five freshmen starting, and have a good team," said former Michigan coach Steve Fisher, now at San Diego State. "You can have young kids playing. But usually if you're playing three, four and five all the time, you're not going to be a great team and you're not going to get the notoriety of going to the Final Four."
"Freshmen had had an effect for many years and will continue to have. But it's still very difficult (to win it all), particularly when the other best player (point guard Gerry McNamara) on the team is a freshman, too," added Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "I think that was the biggest accomplishment or surprise or most noteworthy thing about us winning."
Of the champs since then, only Connecticut in 2004 started a freshman, forward Josh Boone, and he was a complementary player. Juniors (and future NBA lottery picks) Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon were the stars.
The Buckeyes, Tar Heels and Longhorns are far different.
The children lead them.
"It is a unique class," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "It's a very talented freshman class across the country, and that lends itself to the talk about the roles that freshmen are going to play and have played this year. But as I told our team a couple months ago, 'I don't really care what classification you are. I need basketball players in Buckeye uniforms.' "
He got good ones, capable of playing beyond their years, thanks in part to a new rule that prohibits anyone under 19 from entering the NBA draft. Had that not been in effect, some of that group would be pros today.
Oden isn't the typical freshman. Nor is Durant. They could be the first two picks in the NBA draft if they elect to bolt. At last week's ACC tournament, Wright became just the fifth freshman to earn the MVP award. The others? Phil Ford, Sam Perkins, Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Williams.
"Ever since the ACC season started, we haven't felt like freshmen," Wright said of he, Lawson and Ellington.
"I don't look at our team now as being freshmen," echoed Texas coach Rick Barnes. "They've played. They've watched enough games. I just won't let them use youth as an excuse."
But this is a different time. Lose in February, and there's another game in a few days. Lose in the conference tournament, and, at least for teams such as Texas and Duke, there's another, bigger tournament to come the next week. Lose today, and you're done for a year.
"They don't know anything," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski of freshmen on the eve of the NCAAs. "The excitement takes on a whole other level, and sometimes that's perceived in a good way. But sometimes it's perceived in a pressure way. It's nice if you have upperclassmen who've been there before who can help the guys through it."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who starts a pair of freshmen and will rely on two others off the bench in today's opener against Stanford (which has dominant freshmen in twins Brook and Robin Lopez), said defense, clutch free-throw shooting and "understanding what pressure is all about" is the key in March.
He had that combination in 1996 at Kentucky.
"Ohio State's got a lot of young players," he said. "That doesn't mean they can't win it or North Carolina can't win it. But there are some experienced teams out there. I think the key to every great basketball team, the team we had when we won the championship (had experience). If I had my druthers, I'd rather have experience."
Conley, for one, insists he and his fellow freshmen at Ohio State have got that, too.
"We've grown as a team from the beginning of the year, playing against Florida and North Carolina," he said. "We've gotten a lot better and a lot more mature. And we've been through a lot of different situations that are really going to help us out as we go down this six-game stretch. It can be done. We have the utmost confidence in ourselves."