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.
"A lot of bad things have been written about junior-college players over the years, about how undisciplined they are, how they don't play defense, but I think Larry and Stacey show that the stereotype is all wrong," says Tarkanian, whose team is banned from this year's NCAA tournament.
And Carnesecca, who in one stretch took more transfers than a Queens bus driver, has varied the way he builds his teams. Two years ago, he started three freshmen.
"Sometimes, you need a quick tuneup," says Carnesecca. "It depends on who the freshmen are. They have to have some substance. It's not as uncommon as it used to be for a freshman to come in and dominate."
Three of the premier guards in the country last season -- and possibly three of the top players period -- were freshmen. Along with Anderson, whom Carnesecca calls "the best guard ever to come out of New York," there was Southern Cal's Harold Minor and Ohio State's Jimmy Jackson.
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. There is several roads to choose from,and no one route is less traveled than the other.
"My major at Indiana is basketball," Bailey recently told USA Today. "That's why I'm here. That's what people expect."
THE TOP FIVE TEAMS
* Nevada-Las Vegas: The Runnin' Rebels, lame-duck national champions, are in a class by themselves. Because they can't play in this year's NCAA tournament because of probation, maybe they can compete in the NBA playoffs. They have future first-round draft choices Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, as well as Final Four MVP Anderson Hunt back.
* Arkansas: Same cast, just a year older. With the backcourt of Todd Day and Lee Mayberry, the Razorbacks figure to run through the SWC before they join the SEC next season. Coach Nolan Richardson also probably learned something in semifinal loss to Duke.
* Arizona: If Brian Williams can match some of the expectations that accompanied his arrival from College Park two years ago, the Wildcats should have the best frontcourt in college basketball and one of the best swingmen in Kentucky transfer Chris Mills, he of Emery Express fame.
* Duke: The Blue Devils lost a slew of talent in guard Phil Henderson and forwards Robert Brickey and Alaa Abdelnaby, but they have even more coming back. Sophomore point guard Bobby Hurley should be more under control, and freshman Grant Hill is likely to be ACC Rookie of the Year. Oh yes, junior center Christian Laettner is the best big man in the conference.
* Georgetown: The big question mark is the guards, but if freshman Charles Harrison is as good as people say, the Hoyas could make a run at the national championship. Georgetown still doesn't have the kind of wingmen it had during the Ewing Era, but Dikembe Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning will compensate if they can get the ball inside.
FIVE TEAMS TO WATCH
* Virginia: With everybody back, including senior point guard John Crotty and junior forward Bryant Stith, plus a couple of good freshmen, first-year coach Jeff Jones should have a pretty good rookie season.
* Arizona State: After being nearly respectable during Bill Frieder's first season, the Sun Devils could challenge Arizona in the Pac-10.
* Kentucky: You didn't think it would take Rick Pitino that long to rebuild after the Wildcats were put on probation. Jamal Mashburn is the freshman to watch.
* Texas: The Longhorns have one of the nation's top point guards in Joey Wright, but they will need some outside shooting. Former Maryland player Teyon McCoy could make a difference if he relocates his jumper.
* James Madison: He's baaaaaaccckkk. Now in his third year, Lefty Driesell has the best team in JMU history. The Dukes are led by former Maryland guard Steve Hood, last season's Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year.
FIVE TEAMS THAT BETTER WATCH OUT
* Wake Forest: The Demon Decons had another good recruiting year, grabbing Rodney Rogers of Durham, N.C., right out of Duke's backyard. But there still appears to be some potential problems, and the loss of Sam Ivy is going to hurt more than many expect.
* Connecticut: The loss of Nadav Henefeld and Tate George might have taken the heart and soul out of the Huskies, especially on defense. The early-season meeting with North Carolina could be a good indication for both teams.
* St. John's: The Redmen were interested in Walt Williams because they needed someone to replace Boo Harvey. If they don't find someone to get the ball inside, and if Robert Werdann continues to have foul problems, it could be a long year for little Looie Carnesecca.
* Missouri: The Tigers recently went on NCAA probation, and the loss of guard Anthony Peeler (academically ineligible) is bound to hurt. This is a team that has been living under a cloud, and despite senior forward Doug Smith, there could be a continuous downpour in Columbia this season.
* Illinois: See Missouri.
Five best players in the country
Larry Johnson, Nevada Las-Vegas: Second coming of George McGinnis, pre-76ers. Johnson destroyed Christian Laettner in the NCAA final last year and tore apart the Russians in an exhibition last week. Would likely have been the No. 1 pick in the draft if he had come out this year, which, considering UNLV's probation, he probably should have.
Kenny Anderson, Georgia Tech: The Rocket Ismail of college basketball. The most electrifying player in the game since Magic Johnson. Slight of body -- he's a wispy 6-1 -- but Anderson was the force behind Georgia Tech's run to the Final Four last year. Will certainly see more junk defenses thrown at him this year, but he's too good to be bothered.
Stacey Augmon, Nevada-Las Vegas: Best offensive-defensive player in college basketball. Sometimes overshadowed by Johnson or some of his other more flashy Runnin' Rebels teammates, but NBA scouts are drooling over Augmon.
Steve Smith, Michigan State: Has to play in the perennial shadow cast in East Lansing by Magic Johnson, but is starting to emerge as a star in his own right. Probably the best shooting guard in the country, and is a terrific rebounder from the backcourt. Was Big Ten's leading scorer last season.
Billy Owens, Syracuse: Has played second banana to Derrick Coleman (as well as Stevie Thompson and Sherman Douglas) for two years. Now, the Orangemen are Owens' team. Certainly, it's going to add some pressure, because the talent isn't as good as it has been the past five years. But Owens is the type who can elevate other people.
Five of the country's most underrated players
Georgia guard Litterial Green: Has played in the shadow of Chris Jackson in the Southeastern Conference, and now Kenny Anderson, but Green is a Dawg in nickname only.
Virginia forward Bryant Stith: Now a junior, he has been a star since his freshman year. He plays inside and out, and is likely to be a big guard in the NBA.
USC guard Harold Miner: He is called "Baby Jordan" for his tongue-flapping style, but he doesn't put on any airs about being the best Trojans guard since Gus Williams.
Texas guard Joey Wright: Listed among the top point guards in the country, he could be as good as Gary Payton was last year for Oregon.
Five of the country's most overrated players
Louisville guard LaBradford Smith: Came out of Bay City, Texas, with a lot of hype about his jumping ability and his jumper. The guy can still jump, but can he shoot?
Notre Dame forward LaPhonso Ellis: The joke going around the Midwest last spring was that Illinois was glad it didn't spend $80,000 for Ellis.
Syracuse forward LeRon Ellis: No relation to the aforementioned LaPhonso. Now people are wondering if he isn't the second-best player in his family (father is former St. John's star LeRoy Ellis).
North Carolina guard King Rice: Just take a look at where the Tar Heels have gone the past three years to get an idea about Rice.
Temple guard Mark Macon: A Wunderkind as a freshman on a great Temple team, Macon's game and confidence have nearly evaporated ever since.
Five games you won't want to miss
Princeton at UNLV, Dec. 19: This game could be either for the basketball purist or for the masochist.
Missouri at Illinois, Dec. 19: NCAA probation special. No truth to the rumor that UNLV-Maryland is the second game of this doubleheader.
LSU at Duke, Feb. 10: Meeting of two of the best big men in the country, Shaquille O'Neal vs. Christian Laettner.
Georgia Tech vs. Arizona (at the Meadowlands), Feb. 17: This game might not have been as good earlier in the season, but the young Yellow Jackets should have matured by then. Plus, any time Kenny Anderson is on national TV, it's worth watching.
Arkansas at Texas, March 3: This rivalry might be the most intense in college basketball right now, plus it is a matchup of two of the best backcourts in the game.