Originally Published: December 3, 2012

No Matter The Era, Veteran Leadership Still Crucial

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

The end of Kentucky's 55-game winning streak at Rupp Arena -- following Baylor's 64-55 road win over the Wildcats on Saturday -- actually began in New Orleans last April.

Before this season's concerns became doubts. Before John Calipari said, "That's what happens when you have a bunch of freshmen out there."

As I walked toward the press room at the Superdome, I heard a beep from an approaching golf cart. I paused, swerved and barely avoided a collision as the vehicle cruised through the venue's corridors following the national title game. Kentucky senior Darius Miller sat on the back of the buggy with the championship trophy in his arms and a "Man, this feels good" smirk on his face.

The headlines rarely captured his full effect. Calipari's collection of NBA-ready freshmen was the focus of the buzz surrounding the program. Not even future pros Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb defined last season's Wildcats as much as Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague did.

Those youngsters, however, recognized their elder. In the buildup to the Final Four, they talked about winning one for Miller, the glue guy who'd arrived in Lexington as a wide-eyed teenager and left as a man.

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AP Photo/James CrispIsaiah Austin has plenty of veteran players to turn to on the court at Baylor. Fellow freshman Nerlens Noel? Not so much.

Against Baylor on Saturday, the new Wildcats needed a Miller-like presence as the fog thickened on the program's lofty preseason prospects. It was their second consecutive loss against a team with more experience and poise.

As Kentucky fumbled in the final minutes, Nerlens Noel looked at his equally bewildered teammates for answers. But without the veterans -- Lamb and Jones had reached the Final Four in 2011 -- that tend to ease the transition for talented young players even in this one-and-done climate, they were all lost.

But Baylor freshman Isaiah Austin (11 points, 5 rebounds) relied on Pierre Jackson (17 points), Brady Heslip (10 points) and A.J. Walton (11 points), three upperclassmen who've protected him from some of the pressures that his contemporaries across the court began to the feel the moment they arrived.

"It'd be very similar to when you're younger, and you go somewhere with your mom and dad, you just feel more comfortable because they've been there, they know where they're going, they know what to expect," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "I think it's the same thing with experienced players. Just how they conduct themselves the night before a game to how they conduct themselves in a shootaround. … It's a calming influence."

The NBA's age limit has made college basketball a bona fide farm league for the pros. Since the best freshmen could probably compete at the next level, we're inclined to assume that they'll dominate once they arrive. And that's not always the case.

Those who do, however, have a much better chance of achieving that early success on teams anchored by experienced contributors. Kentucky isn't the only team that proves as much. Michigan State is struggling without Draymond Green's voice in the locker room. Ben Howland pulled in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, but Shabazz Muhammad & Co. must lead now too, and that's not a role that they likely anticipated with Joshua Smith, David and Travis Wear and Larry Drew II on the roster when they signed. And life would be easier on Wisconsin freshman Sam Dekker with former All-American Jordan Taylor in the backcourt.

Hey, the value of veteran leadership is easy to overlook. When Carmelo Anthony & Co.'s national championship run in 2003 is discussed, senior Kueth Duany is usually mentioned last. The showdown between Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1979 national title game became the subject of books and documentaries. But Greg Kelser, a senior, was the leading scorer and rebounder on Michigan State's championship squad.

The Fab Five and other freshmen-laden squads rarely win championships. Not alone. Even though some 18-year-olds enter the collegiate ranks with abilities beyond their years, most struggle. While they're balancing life on campus, pop quizzes and girlfriends, they're also placed on a stage and asked to perform for thousands.

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AP Photo/Julie JacobsonUNLV forward Anthony Bennett (left) is tops among freshman in scoring at 18.7 points a contest.

And that's where the tutelage of veterans helps most. They offer relief.

"It's a lot easier sometimes being the Robin instead of being the Batman," Drew said.

He doesn't separate the success of Austin from the models established by Walton, Jackson and Heslip. Michigan's highly touted freshman Mitch McGary hasn't blossomed yet, but he's playing on a Wolverines squad that didn't need him to look like a first-rounder in November. UNLV's Anthony Bennett (18.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) is one of the most productive freshmen in the country. Ask Dave Rice about his furious start and he'll note that the Canadian rooms with junior Mike Moser on road trips, a plus for the first-year star.

"I've always felt like talent is critical in college basketball, but there's no substitute for experience," Rice said. "There's always a learning curve any time you move up a level."

It's not unfair to expect a team such as Kentucky to make a run in March. It's a long season and it's still early for a roster that features a couple of future NBA rookies.

But the leadership void that is now a reality in Big Blue Nation may ultimately lower the ceiling on this team's potential.

Coaches can recruit talent, but leaders are often retained. And once members of the latter group exit and the next class of talent enters, the program may encounter trouble if it lacks the cohesiveness that UK enjoyed a year ago.

The most impactful photos from the Wildcats' run to the national title last season featured a beaming Anthony Davis, the Final Four's MOP, cheering and yelling on the elevated court. But there weren't many cameras tracking his teammate, Darius Miller, on that short trip to the postgame podium in the Superdome.

Though it seemed inconsequential eight months ago, it's possibly the most significant image now.

THE RUNDOWN

A look at 10 highly touted freshmen who have benefited from playing alongside at least one veteran teammate:

Arizona: Brandon Ashley, with Mark Lyons -- Ashley (11.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg), like the rest of the Wildcats, is a beneficiary of playing with veteran guard Lyons (14.0 ppg, 2.4 apg), who played any plenty of huge games at Xavier.

Baylor: Isaiah Austin, with Pierre Jackson -- The 7-1 Austin and 5-10 Jackson have combined to average 33.6 ppg for the Bears this season.

Butler: Kellen Dunham, with Rotnei Clarke -- With Dunham (10.1 ppg), a freshman, and Clarke (18.0 ppg), a senior who transferred from Arkansas, Brad Stevens has one of the Atlantic 10's strongest backcourts.

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Brian Spurlock/US PresswireJordan Hulls and Yogi Ferrell have worked seamlessly so far for the top-ranked Hoosiers.

Duke: Rasheed Sulaimon and Seth Curry -- Both Sulaimon (12.9 ppg) and Curry (15.1 ppg) can torch Duke's opponents with their scoring abilities.

Indiana: Yogi Ferrell, with Jordan Hulls -- Both can play point guard, but Tom Crean isn't afraid to use Ferrell (team-leading 4.8 apg) and Hulls (12.1 ppg, 4.0 apg) together.

Kansas: Ben McLemore, with Jeff Withey -- McLemore leads the Jayhawks in scoring (14.9 ppg) and senior Withey (14.6 ppg) is second, while maintaining his monster presence defensively.

Michigan: Glenn Robinson III, with Tim Hardaway Jr. -- Trey Burke is the offensive catalyst but any team that faces the Wolverines has to focus on the potent duo of first-year standout Robinson (12.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Hardaway (16.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg), too.

Pittsburgh: Steven Adams and Tray Woodall -- Adams (6.0 ppg, 1.6 bpg), a freshman from New Zealand, still has a lot to learn but Woodall (12.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg), a senior point guard, will help him develop into a player who can handle a bigger load once Big East play begins.

UCLA: Shabazz Muhammad, with Larry Drew II -- The Bruins have had plenty of struggles but both Muhammad (16.0 ppg) and Drew (8.5 apg, second in the nation) are off to promising starts.

UNLV: Anthony Bennett, with Mike Moser -- The Canadian freshman (18.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Moser (12.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg) anchor one of the nation's top frontcourts.

The Weekly Forecast

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

A quick look at the temperature of college basketball as we head into a new week:

Coaches

Hot: Wichita State made a smart move when it restructured coach Gregg Marshall's contract in March. He's making seven figures now. But will that be enough to stop a bigger program from making another run at him, now that he's led the Shockers to an 8-0 start (wins over VCU, Iowa) despite losing most of his top contributors from last season? Bigger question: Will he listen?

Cold: UCLA assumed it had made a smart move when it boosted Ben Howland's salary in 2008 (he'll make $2.3 million in 2014-15), following three consecutive runs to the Final Four. Howland, however, has done little to quiet ongoing speculation about his job status this season. The Bruins have the top recruiting class in the country but two players, Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb, have already transferred and they've already lost three games.

Conferences

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AP Photo/David StlukaUVa did what few teams do: win at UW's Kohl Center. Now it's time for a home game versus Tennessee.

Hot: How about the ACC? The conference tied the Big Ten in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge last week. Duke looked like a possible No. 1. Virginia Tech, Miami and Virginia also scored significant wins and proved that the ACC might not be as top-heavy as it appeared to be a couple weeks ago.

Cold: What's wrong with the CAA? The league, sans VCU, is clearly a one-bid conference now. George Mason is decent, but hard-luck Drexel is 2-5, Delaware is 2-6 and Old Dominion is 1-6. Not a good start for the conference.

Buzzer-Beaters

Hot: Cincinnati beat a solid Alabama squad Saturday on Cashmere Wright's last-second shot. And he hit it even though Crimson Tide big man Moussa Gueye put a hand in his face. He'd struggled all night before he knocked down that game-winner. Had he missed the shot, the matchup would have gone into overtime. Can't fault that shot.

Cold: You can fault Tennessee's late-game execution against Georgetown. Yes, Skylar McBee (38.7 percent) was the right guy to take the shot. But why set up a 3-pointer against a Hoyas zone that stifled the Vols all night, with four seconds to play in a one-point game? It was an ugly night for both teams, but UT didn't have to end it that way.

Freshmen

Hot: UNLV's Anthony Bennett has averaged 19 points, 7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in his last three games. Dave Rice's program already has one of the country's top frontcourts with Bennett and Moser together. And remember, Khem Birch will be eligible this month.

Cold: Kentucky forced 19 turnovers in its 64-55 loss to Baylor at Rupp Arena, but the young Wildcats couldn't overcome 30 percent shooting and saw an end to their 55-game home win streak. Nerlens Noel was 3-of-14 from the field.

No. 1s

Hot: Both Duke and Indiana have made strong cases for the No. 1 slot in the polls. The Hoosiers toyed with North Carolina in an 83-59 victory in Bloomington last Tuesday. But the Blue Devils responded with a 73-68 win against Ohio State the next day, setting up an intriguing battle for the top spot.

Cold: Georgetown achieved a different No. 1 Friday night. Its 37-36 win over Tennessee was the first time the program had registered 37 points or fewer in a win since beating Catholic during the 1945-46 season. It wasn't pretty, folks.

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