Originally Published: February 4, 2013

Caught in the web of freshman hysteria

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

Baylor's L.J. Rose packed the backseat of his SUV with dirty clothes and drove two-plus hours to Houston, his hometown, about two to three times per month before the season started. There, he dropped them off with a laundering service called "Mom's House."

It was easier that way, it seemed. He had classes and study hall and practice and a social life to master in his first few weeks on campus. Laundry? Mom would take care of it.

"She didn't like that too much," Rose told ESPN.com.

[+] Enlarge
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesL.J. Rose has experienced life as a freshman on and off the court.

He is a freshman on and off the floor. As much as Rose -- and other first-year Division I college basketball players -- seeks success on the court, he's had to navigate the transition off it, too. Both demanded change and a new routine.

Rose eventually learned to separate his colors from his whites. And he's growing as a basketball player through grueling practice matchups against all-Big 12 guard Pierre Jackson. But his numbers barely crack the stat sheet each night. Rose, ranked 63rd in the Class of 2012 by ESPN.com, is playing just 8.9 minutes per game. He's averaging 1.1 points per contest.

Scott Drew, however, believes that Rose will evolve into a talented point guard and leader for the Bears. He witnesses his progression in practice and games each week. So the coach will wait. Others may not.

Rose plays in a college basketball climate that expects -- demands -- immediate contributions from first-year players. Although most develop gradually, the college success of one-and-done prospects named Michael Beasley, Kevin Durant, Greg Oden and Anthony Davis has enhanced presumptions about subsequent freshman classes. Kentucky's run to the 2012 national title only magnified the myth that many freshmen are ready for stardom on Day 1.

"Sometimes we forget that freshmen are still freshmen and that there's still a major transition going from high school to the four-year level," UNLV's Dave Rice said.

It's an unfair level of anticipation that's created by media members searching for the next prodigy, fans who want to win now, coaches who speak prematurely about a young player's potential and an incomplete ranking system that projects more than it accurately assesses current skills.

Most freshmen struggle. At the prep level, the best prospects are bigger, stronger, faster and better than everyone else on the floor. In college, they face mature athletes who've developed their respective skill sets for years.

Everything is different.

"I think we get into the comparison game a lot," Drew said. "A lot of times in the Big 12, we're always comparing everyone to Beasley and Durant and what Blake Griffin were able to do. Those are three of the best players in the [NBA] right now."

The dominance that highly ranked recruits enjoyed for two, three or four years in high school vanishes.

Sam Dekker was unstoppable at Sheboygan Lutheran in Sheboygan, Wis. He earned the state's Mr. Basketball honors and achieved the No. 17 ranking in the 2012 class on ESPN.com. And then he joined the Badgers.

Bo Ryan demanded a defensive fluidity that was new for Dekker. Yes, he's a 6-foot-7 forward with underrated athleticism, but he initially lacked the offensive ease that was beneficial throughout his high school career.

"You're playing against men instead of boys," Dekker said. "As a freshman, it's eye-opening. Watching on TV, you think you can go out there and do what you did in high school. You get there, and it's not what it seems at first."

Dekker, however, is not behind. He's exactly where he should be, where most freshmen belong.

Few -- think UNLV's Anthony Bennett -- prevail early. Those who do last for only a season, perhaps two, before they enter the NBA draft. But most follow a path that's led to success at the mid-major level. Those schools rely on experience, not prep All-Americans.

"For us, our freshmen should come in and play a backup role as a freshman," said Wichita State's Gregg Marshall.

That was the norm in past generations, even with the top programs. Freshmen were not even allowed to play at the varsity level until the 1972-73 season. Nearly 40 years later, the top first-year players come and almost immediately go to the NBA. Their lone season is just an audition for the next level.

They're famous before they graduate high school. Mock draft boards identify 16-year-olds who might be future lottery picks. Projections, however, are often based on unknowns.

Pitt's Jamie Dixon said he didn't pay attention to the preseason buzz surrounding freshman center Steven Adams, because he was one of the few people who'd actually traveled to New Zealand to see him play.

"I think the catchphrase 'one-and-done' ... It's nice copy, so it gets overused," he said. "The beginning of the year, there are 50 one-and-dones. By draft time, there's four. I think the past success of one brings hope on many. There's always been a few that have been able to immediately impact [a team], very few at the high level."

For some young players, there's so much information and exposure that the buildup can become an exaggerated vision most athletes can't meet.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/James CrispIsaiah Austin and Nerlens Noel both entered the season with incredibly high expectations.

Isaiah Austin recognized the hype before he reached Baylor's campus. He'd earned multiple national accolades during his high school career. And the 7-1 center's start -- he's averaging 14.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game -- suggests that he'll confirm the assumption that he'll be a lottery pick next summer. But he's not free from scrutiny.

The latter is constant in a society that embraces social media. Austin and his peers hear from naysayers whenever they underperform. It's a nonstop stream that players who competed just a decade ago were not subjected to.

"I got a lot of people that hate on me," Austin said. "[They] tell me on Twitter that I shoot too many 3s or I'm soft and all that. It's just like fuel to the fire."

Added Rose: "It's just crazy some of the things that people will say."

Allow me to confess my own hypocrisy.

I've been just as impatient as the rest. I'm confused by Kentucky's struggles. With all of the NBA-level talent, what's wrong? I expected more from Iowa's Adam Woodbury, Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski and North Carolina's Marcus Paige. I've failed to consistently stress the patience that this column is advising. I get caught up in the hoopla, too.

That kid who's a top-10 pick on a mock draft board? Yeah, I'm disappointed if he's not a consistent contributor by January because I'm wrapped up in this, too. But the bar is usually too high and unrealistic for the 18- and 19-year-olds who join collegiate rosters each season.

We're waiting for miracles.

And many of them are just hoping that Mom will still help them with their laundry.

THE RUNDOWN

Raw freshmen with bright futures:

Mitch McGary (Michigan): The 6-10, 250-pound center looked lost throughout the nonconference season. But McGary has used his energy and physicality to contribute on one of the top rosters in the country. His effort in Saturday's loss at Indiana was a testimony to his growth in recent months. He finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block. He's a factor right now for a Michigan team that relies on multiple big men. But he could evolve into a monster this offseason and enter 2013-14 as a more complete player.

Steven Adams (Pitt): The 6-10 center from New Zealand was ranked sixth in the 2012 class by RecruitingNation. But he's certainly had a multitude of early hurdles in his first season at Pitt. Big men face the toughest transition from high school to college, because power forwards and centers are so much stronger and tougher than everyone else at the college level. Adams, however, has been comfortable around the rim in recent weeks. He had 8 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in his team's 65-55 win over No. 6 Syracuse on Saturday. Adams didn't back down from the moment, a good sign for a young player who could take another step within the next month and make a major impact in the NCAA tournament.

Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky): The center is fifth in the SEC with an 8.25 block percentage. He's certainly a work in progress on the offensive end, but his potential is very high. That's why he's a projected lottery pick on multiple draft boards. He's already a defensive talent with a gift for blocking and altering shots. Now he just needs work to become a more consistent and diverse contributor on offense. His defensive tools, however, should help a young Kentucky team as it makes a push toward the NCAA tournament. If the Wildcats crack the field, Cauley-Stein will be an important element of John Calipari's postseason plans, assuming he's healthy.

Marcus Paige (North Carolina): When Paige reached North Carolina's campus, expectations were high. He's a McDonald's All-American who had offers from some of the top programs in the country. But he also faced more pressure due to the Tar Heels' point guard pedigree. Kendall Marshall, Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton & Marcus Paige? Well, Paige has progressed more slowly than some of those standouts. He also doesn't have the talent that they did. Still, the freshman may have turned the corner on Saturday when he scored eight of his 19 points in overtime of North Carolina's victory against Virginia Tech. Can he lead the Tar Heels in the coming weeks and into the future? He certainly looked like a leader against the Hokies.

Rico Gathers (Baylor): The freshman is a 6-8, 260-pound athlete who's registered multiple highlights in his first season with the Bears. Thus far, he's been a solid -- albeit inconsistent -- contributor for Scott Drew's program. But he has the building blocks for a successful collegiate career, especially since he's physically equipped to compete with anyone as a freshman. Most players need a year or two to develop their bodies. Gathers doesn't have to do that, but he has to expand his game. He needs a jump shot. He has to evolve into a versatile defender who can stick with small forwards if necessary and put a body on big men, too. And he has to make some major strides at the free throw line (48.2 percent). Give it a year. Gathers might be the next breakout star in the Big 12.

Chris Obekpa (St. John's): We know Obekpa can block shots -- he's second in the country with 4.5 blocks per game. But just imagine what the 6-9 Nigerian center could become in a year or two. I like St. John's as a sleeper to win the Big East tournament. That program is stacked with talent and athleticism. And when it all comes together & wow. Obekpa is a special defender on a team with a high ceiling. His offense is still light years behind his defense. He's essentially a guy who's impactful only when he's next to the rim on offense. But he's growing. He could mature and enter next season as a more efficient and effective player.

Other freshmen who could blossom: Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), Jerami Grant (Syracuse), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana)

The Weekly Forecast

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

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

Kansas

Hot: Kansas State has won two in a row and 10 of its past 12. The Wildcats have excelled in the Big 12 with a defense that's ranked 31st in adjusted efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They have the top scoring offense in the Big 12 (60.5 ppg). They'll face Iowa State and Texas Tech prior to a Feb. 11 road game against Kansas that could send the Wildcats to the top of the standings.

[+] Enlarge
USA TODAY SportsIt doesn't take many losses for Bill Self to feel the angst of Kansas on his neck.

Cold: It's been a rough stretch for a pair of nationally ranked programs in the state of Kansas. The Jayhawks had their 33-game winning streak at Allen Fieldhouse snapped by Oklahoma State on Saturday. And Wichita State has lost back-to-back Missouri Valley Conference games to Indiana State and Northern Iowa. The Shockers have been doomed by foul trouble (Carl Hall against the Sycamores last week, Cleanthony Early against the Panthers on Saturday). Kansas has been on the ropes in multiple home games this season. The Pokes were just the first crew to make the Jayhawks pay for their inconsistency. No time to panic for either squad, though. Kansas could win every remaining game on its slate, and the Shockers are still a serious contender for the MVC crown.

"Hawk"

Hot: Remember when Lehigh's season was supposed to end after NBA prospect C.J. McCollum suffered a foot injury that could end his season? Well, the Mountain Hawks didn't get that memo. Not only have they defeated Bucknell, a team many expected to run away with the crown, they've won six of their seven Patriot League games. They'll play Bucknell again on Feb. 18. That's a prime-time matchup for both programs.

Cold: Iowa has lost three of its past four games. The Hawkeyes are now 3-6 in the Big Ten after squandering a late lead in a Sunday loss to Minnesota. Fran McCaffery's squad has played some of the Big Ten's toughest teams in its first nine games. But Iowa has failed to finish in multiple close matchups. The Hawkeyes have to turn the corner at some point. Their last nine games are not as challenging as their first nine. Wednesday's road trip to Wisconsin will be Iowa's first chance to move in a different direction.

No. 1

Hot: Ken Pomeroy's No. 1 team, Florida, might be America's best. The Gators are playing in one of the weakest conferences in the country, but they're dominating the SEC. Florida has defeated its past 10 opponents by 14 points or more. Not one team in the conference is on the same level as the Gators. And if we're talking about the present, they're arguably America's most powerful program right now.

Cold: Michigan played tough in Bloomington but couldn't overcome an Indiana squad that attacked inside and outside, while maintaining a defensive effort that limited Michigan's offense. Sure, the Wolverines will lose their No. 1 slot in the Associated Press poll. But take a look at their next three games (Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan State). They can't get Saturday back. The Wolverines, however, need to stay focused to avoid a rough stretch in their next three matchups.

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?