Remember when college freshmen used to shag towels for the varsity and speak when spoken to?
Now, they're being asked to lead national championship charges.
Look around. Georgia Tech guard Stephon Marbury scored 23 second-half points Jan. 7, leading the Yellow Jackets to an 86-81 victory at Duke.
"One of the best halves I've seen at Cameron [Indoor Stadium], against us, in my 16 years," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Marbury's performance.
North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, a dean from the old school, is starting two freshmen--Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison--and getting significant minutes from another, Ademola Okulaja.
Yet, the Tar Heels remain a national force. And Clemson won its first 11 games starting three freshmen.
It's a fact: freshmen are dominating the college stage. The standouts are Shareef Abdur-Rahim at California, Paul Pierce at Kansas, Jelani McCoy at UCLA, Damion Walker at Texas Christian, Louis Bullock and Robert Traylor at Michigan, Chauncey Billups at Colorado and Ron Mercer at Kentucky.
McCoy has already blocked 11 shots in a game, Billups has already recorded Colorado's first triple-double and Cal's Abdur-Rahim already leads the Pacific 10 Conference in scoring.
Why the sudden impact?
Coaches cite two factors:
--Freshmen are better than they used to be. Players are developed and scouted at an earlier age and are battle-tested after the barrage of summer leagues and all-star tournaments.
"They have better training," said Kansas Coach Roy Williams, who plucked Pierce from Inglewood High. "They're not wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. They're much more worldly to the pressures and attention of big-time college basketball."
--With star players leaving early for the NBA, freshmen are getting more opportunities.
"They're stepping into big voids, big shoes, and taking advantage of it," Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Cremins said.
Once, Dean Smith would rather have run naked across the Duke campus than start freshmen. In 1987, Smith turned to rookies Rick Fox and Pete Chilcutt in the Tip-Off Classic, but only because J.R. Reid and Steve Bucknall were serving suspensions for an off-season fight.
This season, Smith had little choice after his two stars, Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, left for the NBA after their sophomore seasons.
Smith had recruited Jamison, Carter and Okulaja "thinking we still had Stackhouse and Wallace returning."
--Smith cites a change in NCAA rules that allows coaches to meet with freshmen twice weekly for 5O-minute sessions of instruction when they arrive on campus.
--Williams of Kansas thinks the increasing pace of the college game has put a premium on recruiting athletes who can play right away.
"Being athletic is extremely important," Williams said. "You either have it or you don't have it."
--Duke's Krzyzewski says freshmen are having more success because they are competing against fewer quality upperclassmen.
"It's not like they're coming in and playing on a lot of teams that have juniors and seniors," Krzyzewski said. "That's the changing face of college basketball right now."
There is a down side. Felipe Lopez, the former freshman phenom who came billed as the the savior of the program at St. John's, is now a struggling sophomore.
Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino prefers to break freshmen in slowly. Mercer, for example, is averaging only 22 minutes a game.
"The tough year is the following season," Pitino said. "[Sophomore] expectations are really high. Ron Mercer will be allowed to grow in the normal fashion."
But what about freshmen who develop so fast they never become juniors?
There is already talk that Marbury, Georgia Tech's whiz kid, will leave for the NBA after one season. He already has an entourage and cult following.
If Marbury goes, however, rest assured that there is a high school senior out there ready to replace him.
We just don't know his name yet.
Final boarding call for the University of Arizona Wildcats.
Phil Martelli, first-year St. Joseph's coach, is seething over Arizona's decision to skip out on last Saturday's game in Philadelphia.
Citing bad weather in the East, the Wildcats refused to board their plane Friday morning.
The flight, connecting through Chicago, landed on time in Philadelphia on Friday evening.
The weather in Philadelphia over the weekend?
Sunny and clear.
It was the Wildcats, Martelli contends, who had the cold feet.
The coach is convinced that Arizona bailed out because St. Joseph's had taken No. 1 Massachusetts to overtime before losing earlier in the week.
"If we had lost by 15, 20, 25 points to UMass, they would have mini-vanned to Philadelphia," Martelli said. "But it became a dangerous game, in a tough setting, with some difficulty in traveling. That's clearly the reason they didn't come, and no one will ever change my mind otherwise."