Since they became eligible, freshmen have made an impact

December 01, 1991|By Perry A. Farrell | Perry A. Farrell,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

It's one of Dean Smith's favorite lines: The best thing about freshmen, he says, is that one day they will be sophomores.

Smith, the North Carolina basketball coach, stood by that assessment last season even after he signed what was considered perhaps the best freshman class of all time.

Well, let's go back to 1982.

The place is the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, site of the NCAA championship.

In the closing seconds, a lanky North Carolina freshman named Michael "Not Yet Air" Jordan scored the game-winning basket that beat Georgetown, 63-62. That is Smith's only national title in what has become a Hall of Fame coaching career at Chapel Hill.

Georgetown also had a famous freshman that night -- center Patrick Ewing, who took the Hoyas to the national title two years later.

Then came Louisville freshman Pervis "Never Nervous" Ellison, voted most outstanding player in the 1986 NCAA tournament, when the Cardinals won the championship.

Last season Duke won the title with freshman Grant Hill starting at forward.

So why the rap on freshmen?

Since they became eligible to play varsity basketball in the 1972-73 season, freshmen have made quite a difference at colleges across the country.

They have helped some teams make quick turnarounds (Michigan State with Magic Johnson in 1978, Wake Forest with Rodney Rogers last season) and boosted others to new heights (Georgia Tech in the 1990 Final Four with Kenny Anderson).

Their presence also has created more interest in recruiting and more problems for coaches, made celebrities out of 18-year-olds and allowed the NCAA to reduce the number of available scholarships.

"I would say they've had a tremendous impact in that so many of the top players now have a four-year career rather than a three-year career," said Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote. "There are pluses and minuses. The pluses are the top players are able to move right in and contribute."

Said Western Michigan coach Bob Donewald: "I think they've had a significant impact on the game. There have been a lot of outstanding players who have started their career one year earlier."

The next freshman to make a big impact might be Chris Webber of Michigan, one of five Michigan freshmen considered even better than North Carolina's class of '90-91.

But freshman eligibility has been a mixed blessing. The transition to college is abrupt, with freshmen going directly from high school gyms to national telecasts in large arenas. Expectations -- by fans and players -- often are unrealistic.

"I don't care who the guy is, if he's a great basketball player, it's still a tough adjustment," said Northwestern coach Bill Foster. "It's tougher for the player that's not quite as great, because now he's sitting for the first time and may not understand it.

"It affects his academic work and social life, and things aren't as rosy as they were in September and October when he thought he was going to start, play a lot and contribute and be the go-to guy."

Said Heathcote: "There are very few impact freshman players, but there are a few every year. So many of the superstars do get unbelievable publicity, but there are a lot of disappointed freshmen each year."

Arizona coach Lute Olson thinks the transition might be eased if freshmen were redshirted, giving them four years of eligibility to be completed over five seasons.

"Pressure is a tremendous problem for freshmen," Olson said. "I think there's pressure from people expecting them to immediately be able to step in and play. I think the kid feels pressure from his parents sometimes, I think he feels pressure from his friends. If he can just come in and get his feet on the ground and get stronger and learn the system without having to answer to people why he's not playing more . . ."

When freshmen don't play much, they often think about transferring to another school. Heathcote says just about every freshman thinks about transferring, whether he is playing or not. But Heathcote says he has never felt compelled to play a freshman for fear of losing the player.

"Kids come in and they just don't want to start," Heathcote said. "You can cross out the 'T' -- they want to star.

"The ones that are playing are just playing a role and not the star role. It's a subordinate role.

"There are a number of kids that are disappointed, and instead of analyzing their situation when the year is over, they start thinking about transferring when the season starts or at midseason.

"Then it's hard for them to be productive even at practice. It is a coaching problem. I claim that there is a disease -- transferitis -- that permeates the entire coaching profession.

"Every player as a freshman at some point and time talks about transferring."

Few actually transfer, Heathcote says, but during this delicate time he tries to counsel players.

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