One of the first things North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith did during preseason practice this year was scrimmage his returning players against the country's most highly touted group of freshmen.
One of the next things Smith did was to make it known that the Tar Heels who had returned from last season's 21-13 team -- North Carolina's worst season in two decades -- had beaten this bunch of phenoms by 23 points during a 16-minute run.
"If you spread that over 40 minutes, it's a 57-point difference," Smith said. "That should wake them up."
Smith was talking about the freshmen, led by 7-foot center Eric Montross. But, given Smith's abhorrence for preseason rankings, it might have been a not-so-subtle jab at those who had picked the Tar Heels fifth in the country and first in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Smith has been hesitant to give prominent roles to freshmen, starting only five on a regular basis in the 18 years since they've been eligible, but the trend in college basketball these days is to let the young guns play.
"I think a lot of these players are ready," says Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who should know, having the ACC's top freshman in six of the past eight years.
A year ago, Cremins and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski handed over the reins of veteran teams to freshman point guards. All Kenny Anderson and Bobby Hurley did was help their respective teams to the Final Four in Denver.
This season, freshmen will have an impact all over the country, and one or two might find themselves playing for a national championship at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis come March.
Among those who are expected to get the most attention are Duke's Grant Hill, an all-purpose player who can be used at several positions, including point guard; Shawn Bradley, Brigham Young's 7-6 center, who had 23 points and 14 rebounds in his debut last week; and Indiana guard Damon Bailey, perhaps the most-watched high school player since Albert King.
"What's happening is that the freshmen these days don't think or play like freshmen," says UCLA coach Jim Harrick, whose plans for this season were altered drastically when freshman Ed O'Bannon tore up a knee during a pickup game this fall. "If he doesn't play a lot, he thinks he's a failure."
Harrick says several factors contribute to why freshmen are playing a bigger role than ever before. One is the year-round competition they receive in high school. Another is the emphasis on weight training. And a third is the rising salaries in the National Basketball Association.
"They see the pot at the end of the rainbow," says Harrick. "That sounds a little like a bit of a cliche, how it's nice to play in the NBA. But these kids see how they can be financially set for life as a lottery pick. It's just incredible."
Some freshmen will be filling the tube, not to mention the hoop, this winter, but others still might be just filling a uniform while mostly sitting on the bench. Smith is not alone in his belief that leadership roles should be played only by upperclassmen.
Still, it is difficult not to play freshmen these days. There are pressures on coaches to play blue-chippers, whether they are ready or not.
"It's OK for a great college player not to play much as a rookie in the NBA," says Maryland's Gary Williams. "But if some high school All-American isn't playing, the people back home want to know why not."
Says Harrick: "It used to be that your fans would want to know if you got a couple of good players, and all you'd have to tell them is, 'Yeah, they'll probably help us in a couple of years.' Now, they know everything about these kids from watching them on television or reading about them in the papers. It puts more pressure on the players and on the coaches."
It is all part of putting together a team and chasing that often-elusive goal of reaching the Final Four. There is no magic formula, mysterious potion or even a current trend for success.
"Good coaches have the same system, but they change some of the things depending on the personnel," says Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "There are going to be some subtle differences. But if there was magic to
this, we'd all be doing it the same way."
They are not. Some coaches, such as Jerry Tarkanian of Nevada-Las Vegas and Nolan Richardson of Arkansas, have built their teams on junior-college talent. Others, such as Lou Carnesecca at St. John's, often rely on transfers homesick for New York. And many just stick with the same players for four years.
If ever there were a team that proved it could win with junior-college transfers, it was UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels went all the way to their first National Collegiate Athletic Association championship last season behind two of them, seniors Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon.