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Friday, September 27, 2013
Welcome to the year of the freshmen

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

Nigel Williams-Goss is focused.

The bright lights and cheers -- boos once he leaves Seattle -- he'll encounter soon don't preoccupy him now.

He's just maneuvering through the typical transition required by all freshmen basketball players.

He's somewhat homesick, but he's not overwhelmed by his personal responsibilities, such as laundry. Workouts are manageable, and he's jelling with his new teammates.

He's unburdened.

For now.

"I don't really feel any pressure because I still look at myself and my team as underdogs," said Williams-Goss, ranked 19th in the 2013 class by RecruitingNation and headed into his first year at Washington. "We just have a whole bunch to prove this year."

Nigel Williams-Goss
Nigel Williams-Goss will have a lot of eyes on him at Washington. But he's already had that in high school and AAU games, too.

For Williams-Goss and the other decorated freshmen who've collectively become the preseason storyline of the 2013-14 season, the hype storm that has been brewing in recent years could quite easily become a crescendo of criticism if they fail to meet expectations.

Their collegiate tenures -- perhaps years, maybe just months -- will begin today with the first official college basketball practices, two weeks earlier than the mid-October starts of past years because of a new NCAA rule.

Kentucky, anchored by six McDonald's All Americans, could be the No. 1 team in the country once the preseason polls are released. Kansas' prospects were more modest before the best player in the freshmen class, Andrew Wiggins, signed to play for Bill Self. Duke's Jabari Parker, previously the top recruit in the 2013 class, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school. Arizona's Aaron Gordon was the MVP of the USA Basketball U-19 squad that won a world championship this summer.

Mixed within the one-and-done studs are a multitude of players who will be asked to make major contributions and possibly become the respective faces of their programs as freshmen.

Williams-Goss, a McDonald's All American last year, will join a Huskies program that finished 18-16 (9-9 Pac-12) last season and reconfigured its staff as a result. Star C.J. Wilcox is the squad's leader. But Williams-Goss probably will run the offense in his first season.

With that position come additional expectations.

"He's one of the most focused individuals I've ever been around," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "That's on the court, in the classroom. He's just very focused and determined and nothing is going to distract him. I'm more concerned with sometimes the unfair expectations that people place on some of the kids who have accomplished these things before they get to [college]. They still have a learning curve as freshmen. The Kevin Durants and the Michael Beasleys, the Carmelo Anthonys that come in and set the world on fire from the beginning are rare."

Coaches throughout the country will attempt to simmer the expansive buzz that precedes a potentially special freshmen class. Their goal is to help their first-year players progress as normal freshmen.

That's a difficult task. It's nearly impossible to completely protect Division I players from the media coverage, TV exposure, Twitter praise and putdowns and the other elements that make them acutely aware of the marks they're expected to meet.

Coach John Beilein's effort to help point guard Derrick Walton Jr. avoid the hype could be doubly complicated because of the role the freshman likely will play for a Michigan team that could enter the season as a top-10 squad just months removed from a Final Four run.

Some young players are asked to fill shoes. Walton would have to fill a crater to match the success of Trey Burke, who won the Wooden Award last season and was an NBA lottery pick.

Beilein hopes Walton, ranked 30th in the 2013 class by RecruitingNation, will ignore whatever Burke comparisons this season and concentrate on his own development.

"You focus on how you become a very good guard at this level as opposed to how do I replace Trey Burke," Beilein said. "You just don't make that comparison. You say how do I become a complete guard and be a student-athlete at the same time. You preach that process."

Bobby Hurley
Back when Bobby Hurley ran Duke's offense as a freshman he was surrounded by experienced players. He didn't face the scrutiny today's freshmen will.

Walton will be assisted by a core that features sophomore stars Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III.

For freshmen, the transition to the collegiate level is often eased by the presence of veterans. The expedited turnover within the one-and-done culture, however, can strip programs of true experience.

Michigan will boast 13 freshmen and sophomores this season. So the "veterans" who will work with Walton are relatively inexperienced, too.

Kentucky might have the greatest freshman class in NCAA history, but a lack of senior leadership should be a concern for anyone picking the Wildcats to win the national title. Arizona will need multiple young players to shine if the Wildcats intend to conquer the Pac-12. Same for Duke and Indiana in the ACC and Big Ten.

The limited number of upperclassmen on some rosters demands the redistribution of responsibilities and increases the pressure on freshmen.

Former Duke star and current Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley said he didn't feel that pressure because he was surrounded by experienced players his freshman year.

He's not sure how he would've developed if he'd played his first season with a Duke team that didn't have accomplished juniors and seniors, especially because he struggled early.

"It was hard being the point guard on a veteran team as a freshman just because you don't feel like you're really in a position of leadership at the point guard spot," he said. "At the time, I felt like it wasn't my team to lead. I struggled with that because I was always used to having a lot of control over the team and the identity of the team. That was an issue. ... No matter what you did in high school or what kind of competition you faced, it's another big step. Playing in front of those ACC crowds, they were really hard on me. They didn't give me a pass."

Former Louisville star Pervis Ellison was the Most Outstanding Player of the 1986 Final Four. But that Cardinals squad was anchored by three veteran players who averaged double figures. Ellison said he matured at a reasonable pace that season because he didn't worry about being a star when he arrived.

"I actually didn't have any pressure and if it was [there], I was oblivious to it," said Ellison, head boys basketball coach at Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J. "We had three senior captains and all three were starters. Coach [Denny] Crum had a system. We were system oriented. It was more of a team concept. ... So I didn't necessarily feel any pressure. Honestly with the kids coming in now, the one-and-dones, the expectations on those kids are much more."

Pressure on young players also has increased because of the vast exposure they receive before playing their first Division I game.

Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins
Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins stand as two of the biggest names in one of the biggest incoming classes ever. Are they ready for the attention?

Their high school games are nationally televised. They're in magazines and newspapers throughout the country. They're ranked before they can drive.

All of that can lead some young players to believe their own myths.

"I think where it's a problem is for players who have a lot to prove and really aren't at that highest, highest level and they get confused that their path is going to be an unrealistic path," Hurley said. "I think some guys get overexposed who might not deserve it."

But it also helps.

The large crowds, media attention and hoopla are not foreign to the game's top freshmen. Williams-Goss played his prep career at Findlay Prep, essentially a traveling high school all-star team. The Las Vegas-based squad played multiple games on national TV, often against elite opponents.

"Playing with Findlay, everything you do, all eyes are on you every time you take the floor," he said. "We've had games on ESPN with a ton of people watching. You just learn to always prepare the same way all the time and block out the distractions."

Arkansas' Mike Anderson is confident that Bobby Portis, No. 16 in RecruitingNation's 2013 class, will adjust well to college basketball after competing on the elite AAU circuit throughout high school. The 6-foot-10 forward will give Anderson the size his Razorbacks missed last year.

"Playing against some of the best players in the country has really helped him elevate his game," Anderson said. "Now at the collegiate level, you're going to see some of the same things, you're going to see some of the same guys."

Anderson cautioned that Portis doesn't have to be the "savior" of the program.

That's a common response from coaches who don't want their top freshmen to be overwhelmed. The reality, however, is that the best incoming players in 2013-14 will play vital roles this season.

For some, there will be no grace period -- not according to their fan bases, at least. And they have to be prepared for that.

"You try to build a culture that insulates them and also teaches them about this process that all young men must go through from the ages of 18 to 22," Beilein said.