While the recent trend in college basketball has slid toward immediate success for incoming freshman classes such as those at Kentucky and Duke, the 2015-’16 season is calling to mind the 2014-2015 season’s penultimate game, and its most memorable event.
Last season, in the second national semifinal, experience prevailed: A seasoned Wisconsin team knocked off a Titanic-like and supposedly unsinkable Kentucky team with freshman and sophomores. Yes, Duke’s freshmen beat Wisconsin two nights later to win it all, but Wisconsin did end Kentucky’s dream of making college basketball history at a supreme height (40-0).
This season, while freshmen are preforming at a high level, and there is little drop-off in the talent of the class, teams which are reliant on these freshmen are not having the degree of success other teams have enjoyed in recent seasons. Outside of Kentucky and Duke, this has been a nationwide trend.
Some of this may be because this year’s class was fairly spread out. Many of these first-year players may not get to showcase their talents in March.
The prime one-and-done freshman example everyone is pointing to is Ben Simmons, and rightfully so. Simmons is one of the most athletic and polished dribble-drive slashers to play college basketball. While he has a couple of flaws that can be cleaned up in time, Simmons was clearly a can’t-miss, blue-chip prospect. However, LSU as a team has been a disappointment this season. Simmons may not get to do what every college player dreams of and play for a title in March. Well, anything above an NIT title, to be specific.
It is not just Simmons who may be on the outside looking in.
Four of the top 10-rated freshmen in the country (as ranked by CBS Sports) may not sniff the Dance as well. Jaylen Brown, Henry Ellenson, and Malik Newman are all in question.
With Cal having a strong freshman class, including Brown and Ivan Rabb (just outside of the top 10), big things were expected from Cuonzo Martin’s squad in the Pac-12 this season. While the Bears are 8-2 thus far in the non-conference portion of the slate, they have only one quality win over St. Mary’s and have fallen to San Diego State and Richmond, and still have Virginia and a strong Davidson team on the schedule.
The Bears rely heavily on Rabb and Brown, as they score a combined 27 points per game and pull down over 13 boards per contest. In a deep Pac-12 Conference, Cal could be a team that is just too young, as only two other players — Jordan Matthews and Tyrone Wallace — are averaging in double figures in points.
Entering the weekend at 8-2 in a similarly deep conference, Marquette and Ellenson appear to be in the same boat. The 6-foot-10 freshman has been outstanding for Marquette, averaging 16.5 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game on 46.5 percent shooting from the floor.
Marquette has a win over a marginal but improving Arizona State team, and then over LSU. Otherwise, crickets. The Golden Eagles will have to make some noise in the deep Big East in order to make the Dance.
Finally, consider Mississippi State and Ben Howland. After claiming a blue-chip prospect in Newman, expectations skyrocketed for the Bulldogs. However, they currently sit in dead last in the SEC with a 4-5 mark. This includes losses to Southern and Missouri-Kansas City. Newman has not helped his own cause, though under adverse circumstances. The freshman is clearly playing hurt and is shooting just 38 percent from the floor. Even through all of this, Newman is still the third leading scorer on the team.
Elsewhere in the CBS rankings, there are two Kentucky players, Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere; Brandon Ingram from Duke; Cheick Diallo from Kansas; Dwayne Bacon from Florida State; and Jalen Brunson working in a backup role for a veteran Villanova squad.
While much of this current decade (“the teens”) has been a clearly successful run for one-and-dones, 2015-’16 may bring that reality down to earth.
At least for one season, it may be the year of experience in college basketball.