Last season, when VMI guard Jason Conley became the first freshman to lead the nation in scoring, it was not considered a sign of college basketball's changing landscape.
But when four established top 25 programs have freshmen -- Duke's J.J. Redick, Florida's Matt Walsh, Indiana's Bracey Wright, and North Carolina's Rashad McCants -- leading them in scoring more than a month into this season, the nation has noticed the neophytes' impact on the game.
Other freshmen -- including Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony, Illinois' Dee Brown and Notre Dame's Torin Francis -- are also go-to players on what are traditionally top-ranked teams. The caste system of seniority rule in college basketball is teetering on extinction. No longer are freshmen bound to the bench or role slots. Instead, many now have veteran responsibilities.
"At the highest level, you're now going to have freshmen impacting your program, year in and year out," Illinois Coach Bill Self said. ". . . The impact of guys at the freshman level is bigger this year than I've ever seen."
With players eschewing years of eligibility for pro careers, rosters are turning over more rapidly, which affects recruiting and alters the manner in which coaches build their programs.
Project recruits, players who need a couple of years of coaching before they develop, do not entice coaches as much as they once did. Coaches say they have little chance attracting players who will arrive on campus not atop the depth chart.
"They say, 'I can't take that risk.' " Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. "These kids all want to play now. If you have an opportunity to show them playing time, they will come."
Top players now leave school as early as their freshman and sophomore years. In the past three years combined, 117 players at U.S. colleges and high schools have given up some or all of their college eligibility. In 1993, 11 players made that move, only two before completing their junior seasons.
"This is a talented class, but it also shows that there is not a lot of depth in college basketball," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, for whom Anthony is the nation's seventh-leading scorer at 24.7 points per game. "When Billy Owens came in [in 1988], there was Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas there already. So he only averaged 10 points a game. If they weren't there, he would have averaged 20. . . . It's all about opportunities. If [Jared] Jeffries stayed at Indiana, if [Carlos] Boozer, Jason Williams and [Mike] Dunleavy stayed at Duke, we wouldn't even know these [freshman] guys' names."
Recent rules limiting teams to 13 scholarships each and no more than five per recruiting class and, after this season, eight over a two-year period have forced freshmen into key roles.
"There have always been freshmen that impact the game," Self said. But with scholarship restrictions, "there are programs that can't even get full [rosters]. When you've got only 12, someone's got to play."
Before freshmen step onto a college court, they already have significant high-level, over-hyped experience from their high school and AAU background.
"There's always going to be [good freshmen] now," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "Kids play so many more games. Between September in their sophomore year [of high school] and September in their junior year, they're probably playing about 100 organized basketball games. When I was in high school, you probably played 20. That's the difference. Guys are way advanced in terms of game experience."
Intense scrutiny and high expectations rarely rattle today's elite freshmen, who have experienced that before college.
"When guys get to school now, they're not typical freshmen," Self said. "They've been so exposed from a hype aspect that they are more prepared."
Many freshmen now expect an immediate opportunity. Several said that instant playing time is often the deciding factor when weighing recruiting offers.
"The top players want to come in and play right away," Florida's Walsh said. "It used to be that you'd come in and work for two years and then you'd get to play. . . . It's definitely one of the biggest decisions for guys going to college. They want to play right away. Most guys want to put themselves in the best position to get to the NBA, and they want to do it quickly."
Brown, who is Illinois's second-leading scorer and has played the most minutes on his team, said: "Playing time shouldn't be a major factor, but for a lot of guys, they feel that that's the way they have to go because they come from a difficult background" and want to get to the NBA quicker.
As players leaving college early gradually became the norm over the past decade, coaches initially stayed away from recruiting players who appeared likely to leave after one or two seasons.
"Coaches said that before because they couldn't get those guys," Indiana Coach Mike Davis said. "It's an ego thing with coaches. Once you play against a guy who is a one-year guy, who can get you to a national championship or a Final Four, you'll take that guy."
Davis knows this because he thinks he has one such player this season in Wright, who leads the Hoosiers in scoring and has most impressed Davis with the poise and composure of a veteran.
"The way Bracey is playing," Davis said, "I'd be foolish not to think about him making a move, even after this year."
Still, plenty of coaches are wary of recruiting players who will stay for one or two seasons because they can disrupt the continuity of a program.
"I don't know if one-and-done is good for a program unless a guy is off the charts," Self said.
If any freshman this year fits that description, it is Anthony, who flirted with bypassing college altogether. He changed his mind but told recruiters about his plan to stay in college for one season.
Anthony said he was swayed toward college after watching the previous year's prep stars who went directly to the NBA -- Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and DeSagana Diop -- struggle to adjust to the pro game as rookies. Only one high school player was drafted last June -- Amare Stoudemire.
"That was a big part of my decision not to go to the NBA," Anthony said. "They were great players in high school. I played against them. They went to the NBA, and they struggled. . . . I've set an example by going to college. It made me look better. I'm a role model for high school kids who want to go to college."
Davis does not buy that explanation.
"If any of them thought they could be in the league, they'd be there," he said. "The problem I see is a lot of guys just want to be in the NBA, be around the NBA, and getting that money. That's all they care about.
"My question is, do you want to be in the NBA or do you want to be great? You have to play for a coach who is going to help make you great. You look at Tim Duncan. He had great development in college, and that's why he's a great player."
But if young stars carrying their teams is to become college basketball's status quo, a team led by underclassmen must prove that it can win a national title. Even though teams have gotten younger over the past decade, each of the past five champions -- Maryland, Duke, Michigan State, Connecticut and Kentucky -- relied on veteran stars.
"If you're relying on freshmen and ask them to do all the things that a junior or senior would do, you're doing something wrong," said Donovan, who starts seniors Matt Bonner, Justin Hamilton and Brett Nelson along with his two star freshmen, Walsh and guard Anthony Roberson.
Coaches acknowledge a team such as Michigan, which advanced to the 1992 national championship game with an all-freshman starting lineup, was a mirage. Building such a team is now hindered by scholarship limitations and players eager to prove themselves NBA-worthy immediately.
But can a team depend on a freshman to make the key shot late in an NCAA tournament game or lead a team out of a scoreless drought in the second half of a Final Four game?
"It's possible to get to the Final Four or the Sweet Sixteen, but beyond that is tough," Boeheim said. "Veteran teams have been winning championships. There's nothing like big-game experience, and it's hard to measure how important that is. Maybe by the end of the year, the talent can overcome that."