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Class Consciousness

As freshmen get more precocious, observers wonder how much experience matters

March 15, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

The old theory said you don't win the NCAA championship with freshmen.

Carmelo Anthony turned it on its head.

Until Syracuse won the title last season in Anthony's one-and-done star turn on his way to the NBA, the idea was that it took experience to win it all.

Exhibit A was Michigan's Fab Five, who made it to the Final Four as freshmen in 1992 and returned as sophomores, but left without winning a title.

The theory was that in the pressure-cooker grind of the three-week NCAA tournament, maturity and cohesiveness win out over impetuous talent and the kind of brain lock Chris Webber had when he called the timeout Michigan didn't have in 1993.

"I still think experience is the big key," said Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, whose 2000 team led by toughened veterans was willed to the title by point guard Mateen Cleaves, a college star whose pro career has slipped all the way to the National Basketball Development League.

"Duke, us, Connecticut, Maryland, for the most part those teams had juniors and seniors leading the way," Izzo said.

"Last year was an anomaly. I don't see that happening a lot. There aren't that many Carmelo Anthonys around, either."

Does that mean a veteran and tournament-tested team such as Kentucky, Pittsburgh, Stanford or Gonzaga will cut down the nets April 5 in San Antonio?

Or will Duke freshman Luol Deng slash his way to the title and then become a lottery pick in a reprise of Anthony's whistle-stop tour of college basketball?

Deng has more old hands to help him than Anthony did.

Syracuse started two freshmen and two sophomores, yet beat a Kansas team led by Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, two seniors who had played in the Final Four the year before.

Deng and sophomore J.J. Redick are Duke's leading scorers. (Redick is first.) But the Blue Devils' senior point guard, Chris Duhon, started for the 2001 NCAA championship team, and Coach Mike Krzyzewski says that in this era of college basketball, the Blue Devils are hardly young.

So which is it, in a generation when the stars rarely become seniors and the best players often leave after one or two years if they stop on campus at all?

Is experience at a premium because so few teams have lineups with three or four seniors who have played together for years, getting to know each other's games and the unique demands of the NCAA tournament?

Or does a truly exceptional freshman have a better chance, simply because the other great players are already in the NBA?

"The great freshmen that can just play -- the lottery picks, the sure-fire pros -- used to become juniors and seniors," Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery said.

"But they're not staying around. So a freshman can have that same influence -- a guy like Carmelo Anthony -- because the players like him never became juniors and seniors."

It isn't all about looking down a roster for the designations "Jr." and "Sr."

Sometimes, there is hidden experience.

Consider the interesting case of Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys start three juniors and two seniors.

But look closer, and you see that this transfer-laden lineup is even older than it looks, with two 21-year-olds, a 22-year-old, and a 24-year-old. Nevertheless, they're in their first year all playing together.

Daniel Bobik, a junior guard, is the old man, married with a young son. Bobik served a two-year Mormon mission after graduating from Newbury Park High School, then played two seasons at Brigham Young before transferring and sitting out last season at Oklahoma State as required by transfer rules.

Joey Graham, 21, a junior forward, transferred from Central Florida and also spent an extra year practicing with the team as a redshirt.

Tony Allen, 22, a senior guard, played at two junior colleges before arriving.

Only senior forward Ivan McFarlin, 21, started his career at Oklahoma State.

But the most crucial player is Baylor transfer John Lucas, 21, the junior point guard who is the son of the former NBA player and coach of the same name.

Lucas didn't sit out a season, because transfer rules were waived for players who left Baylor after the killing of Patrick Dennehy last summer.

But he came in and played phenomenally well to help lead the Cowboys to the Big 12 title, earning first-team all-conference honors along with Allen.

"There was a big question mark as to how all these players would blend together," Coach Eddie Sutton said. "And there was a question with John coming in how the players would adjust to him and welcome him. Well, they embraced him."

Sutton talks about maturity more than experience. But there's a lot more to advancing than having a roster of grown-ups.

"In order to progress, you have to play solid defense, understand shot selection, take care of the basketball, not make mistakes, and play with a lot of intensity," he said.

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