They haven't played a game, yet the freshmen at the University of Michigan are approaching legendary status.
Think of the great recruiting classes since freshmen became eligible for the 1972-73 season. There was Indiana's class the first season that included Quinn Buckner and Scott May. Sam Bowie's class at Kentucky. Patrick Ewing's class at Georgetown. Notre Dame brought in Kelly Tripucka, Tracy Jackson and Orlando Woolridge in 1977. Last season, North Carolina's group of Eric Montross, Cliff Rozier, Brian Reese and Derrick Phelps was labeled the finest.
History. Now they all must take a back seat to the freshmen in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Basketball observers are calling Michigan's class the best ever, even without waiting for the results from their first season. Chris Webber. Juwan Howard. Jimmy King. Jalen Rose. Ray Jackson. Those are the names you need to remember.
"It's the best I've ever seen," said recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons. "They had four of my top 12-rated players. Nothing like that has ever happened. Last year, (North) Carolina had four of the Top 25."
Webber, a 6-foot-9 forward from Birmingham, Mich., shared Gibbons' honor as top senior with Purdue recruit Glenn Robinson. Webber simply is expected to become the greatest player in Michigan history. Howard was third, King was 10th, and Rose was 12th, on Gibbons' list.
With so much attention paid to recruiting now, it is sometimes difficult to separate the hype from the facts. Praise for the Michigan freshmen is justified, however.
Dick Vitale, college basketball analyst for ESPN and ABC, has seen the Michigan players in several all-star games. He doesn't hesitate to create another category for them.
"Michigan is in a special group," Vitale said. "The Michigan class is, by far, athletically, the best class I've ever seen assembled. These kids are going to play and they're going to make big names for themselves. Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Jalen Rose are flat out big-timers. I rank that class by itself. I love that group."
Even so, Michigan is considered a borderline top 20 team this season. The Wolverines were 14-15 last season and the returning talent is sparse. These freshmen eventually may take Michigan to a national title, but it isn't expected to happen this season. There's a standard theory about freshmen: Coaches like
them a lot better when they become sophomores.
Freshmen cause headaches. Freshmen need upperclassmen to make them better. Freshmen have a lot to learn.
Indiana's Bob Knight has coached his share of big-name freshmen, from Buckner, to Damon Bailey, to this season's Hoosier of impact, Alan Henderson. Knight knows only one approach.
"The first part is to get them to understand there's a big difference between playing in high school and playing in college," Knight said. "I don't care [if it's Chris Webber or] who it is, there's a big difference. If they don't understand that difference, they become careless and sloppy.
"Over the course of their careers, most high school players don't play against five players who are Division I players. Now every night they're playing against a guy they've never heard of. They say, 'This guy didn't play in the McDonald's [All-American] game' and then they just get their [butt] pounded."
How does a coach enlighten his freshmen?
"You just get the point across," Knight said. "You pound away and pound away at it. You don't wave a magic wand. You just hammer it away. Hopefully, kids learn."
Freshmen have fragile confidence levels. Georgetown coach John Thompson knows it can be dangerous to yell at freshmen too much, especially when a team is relying so much on youth. The Hoyas experienced that last season with Joey Brown, Charles Harrison and Robert Churchwell in the starting lineup.
"You can't beat them up," Thompson said, "because they'll lose their confidence. You've got to sit back a little bit and let them grow. You've got to be a lot more patient.
"When a senior plays poorly, you usually leave him in. When you do that with a freshman, that's truly baptism by fire. I always reflect back to Gene Smith, Fred Brown and that crew. There was a lot of speculation about what they could and could not do. As they got older, they started to do it a hell of a lot better."
Thompson and Georgetown emerged on the national scene when Ewing arrived in 1981 along with Ralph Dalton, Bill Martin and Anthony Jones. That ranks as the most significant recruiting effort in Big East Conference history. Jones eventually transferred to Nevada-Las Vegas. But thanks primarily to Ewing, Georgetown won 121 games and a national championship over the next four seasons. The Hoyas went to the title game when Ewing was a freshman, a junior and a senior, winning the title in 1984.
"What people fail to realize is that a young person, regardless of how he is touted coming into college, has still got to develop emotionally, academically and socially," Thompson said. "We tend to think any time a person is a superstar, he should not go through the same maturation process. You think when you see a physical specimen like Alonzo [Mourning], he's already a man."
"They've changed," Buckner said, comparing freshmen of today those of nearly 20 years ago. "They're better, but you've got to handle them differently. Freshmen don't respond as well today. They've been put on a pedestal. I don't think they handle embarrassment as well. They may go into a shell rather than be productive. The ones who can handle periodic embarrassment are unique."
North Carolina advanced to the Final Four last season, but the Tar Heels freshmen could take little credit. Freshmen are not allowed to play a big role in coach Dean Smith's system. Smith was delighted last season when his veterans beat the freshmen by 57 points in a scrimmage.
"[Smith] let them know from the outset that they were freshmen and didn't know as much as they thought they did," said Celtics forward Rick Fox, who was a senior on that North Carolina team. "The only way it gets tough is if they're unreceptive to learning and have an attitude. The five guys we had were not like that."
Yet, even in a respected program such as Smith's, players become unhappy. Rozier, ranked fifth in the 1990 class, felt he didn't play enough and transferred to Louisville.
Knight had the nation's top recruiting class in 1989. Calbert Cheaney, Pat Graham, Greg Graham, Chris Reynolds and Todd Leary are still with the Hoosiers. But the top-rated player in that class, Lawrence Funderburke, transferred to Ohio State, and center Chris Lawson left for Vanderbilt.
Perhaps no freshman had a bigger buildup than guard Damon Bailey, who spent his first season in an Indiana uniform last year. Thanks to praise from Knight in the book "A Season on the Brink" and a Sports Illustrated feature, Bailey became a household name as an eighth grader. Bailey averaged 11.4 points and had 97 assists as a freshman. But no one could have lived up to the expectations that greeted Bailey.
"Bailey has not made the adjustments he has to make to play guard," Knight said. "I was really disappointed last year at how hard Bailey worked. He's a great kid. But I honestly believe that's a product of all the publicity, part of which I'm responsible for. In fact, I'm responsible for more than a little bit of that with him. He just has not yet learned how hard he has to work."
Michigan coach Steve Fisher recently said things are going better than expected.
"It has lifted the attitude of the coaches, I'll tell you that," Fisher said. "I feel pretty good when we walk off the floor."
If Fisher is still talking that way at the end of the season, then Michigan's freshmen truly deserve to be put in a class of their own.