Their names are prominent on rosters and in box scores and with increasing frequency, in starting lineups. Around the nation, at all levels of college basketball, freshmen are making more of an impact than perhaps ever before.
"You have 22-year-old men playing against 17-year-old kids," Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins said.
Huggins's team, ranked No. 1 in the nation, has two of those kids: Washington-area native DerMarr Johnson, a starting guard, and backup point guard Kenny Satterfield, who often is in the game in critical situations and averages a team-leading 6.3 assists.
In the 1991-92 season, Michigan gained distinction for starting the Fab Five freshmen and going to the Final Four. This season, second-ranked Arizona starts a freshman back court of Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas. No. 5 Kansas and No. 9 Florida each have three freshmen in prominent roles. No. 14 Duke has five freshmen who have started at least once. Arizona State has put five freshmen on the court at times.
Locally, 21st-ranked Maryland, Georgetown and George Washington are depending heavily on freshmen.
A similar phenomenon is occurring in the women's game. For example, last season's Washington Post All-Met girls player of the year, Kara Lawson of West Springfield High, is the second-leading scorer for six-time national champion and No. 2-ranked Tennessee. But the trend is much stronger among the men.
"In general, the rosters of teams are younger than perhaps they once were," North Carolina State Coach Herb Sendek said.
Of all the reasons for the youth movement perhaps the two biggest are the increasing number of top players leaving college early to play professionally and the increasing number of out-of-season events that give high school players chances to improve and prepare themselves for college competition.
In addition, a trend has developed in which players will go wherever they can play immediately, whether that means going to a national powerhouse or a mid-level team that has openings. And players' desire for early playing time has resulted in even more turnover through transfers. Arenas's quick emergence at Arizona, for example, prompted sophomore Ruben Douglas--a part-time starter for the Wildcats as a freshman last season--to announce he will transfer.
Maryland freshmen Steve Blake, the team's starting point guard, and Drew Nicholas, one of three key reserves, said knowing they would play immediately was the biggest factor in their decisions to attend Maryland.
"I'm a pretty competitive person," Nicholas said. "I don't like sitting on the bench that much."
Maryland Coach Gary Williams said the youth movement has created an unsettling environment in which many fans sense that if a freshman cannot play immediately, then the player must not be very good.
"I think the mentality in the country is a little sick because as a freshman, it's okay to come in and gradually feel your way," Williams said. "It doesn't mean you're a bad player if you don't play right away. . . . Just like there's a lot of students that go to colleges that aren't very good students their first semester but end up on dean's list and go to law school."
"I think kids are quicker to disappear or not fight it as hard sometimes if they're not playing a lot early," Williams said. "The high school players get more publicity now from the media and there are more high school all-star games and more written-about high school players than ever before. They feel like they've earned the right to be good right away as freshmen because they've gotten a lot of attention. But sometimes they have to go through a reality check first."
For some players, though, there is no time to learn gradually about their ability to play at an elite level. When former junior college transfer Steve Francis chose to leave Maryland last spring, the Terrapins' only option at point guard this season was Blake. At Duke, several freshmen have been forced to play considerable minutes after three underclassmen--sophomores Elton Brand and William Avery and freshman Corey Maggette--left for the NBA after last season.
Meantime, the nature of recruiting has changed. Coaches must think about how they are going to replace certain players almost as soon as those players appear on campus.
"I think you recruit with the idea each year you go out looking for [replacements for] your junior class and sophomore class," Williams said. "Just because you have a good freshman class doesn't mean they're going to stay."