Men’s Final Four 6 p.m. Saturday (CBS)

NCAA tournament one for the aged this year

csmith@newsobserver.comApril 4, 2013 

Where have you gone Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose and John Wall?

After several years of one-and-done NBA prospects leading teams on deep NCAA tournament runs, punctuated by Kentucky’s 2012 title, this year’s event has been one for the aged.

It has been upperclassmen such as Louisville’s Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, Wichita State’s Carl Hall, Syracuse’s C.J. Fair and Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr. providing the shining moments as the young-and-done model appears to be, well, temporarily done. Consider that just 10 freshmen started on the Sweet 16 teams, and just four will start Saturday in the Final Four in Atlanta.

Nowhere was the difference between last season and this more dramatic than at Kentucky. The Wildcats started three freshmen last season, and soon after Davis cut down the nets, he and three others bolted to the NBA. The Wildcats replenished their roster and hope with three top-14 recruits – yet lost in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

But the Wildcats’ kittens are part of a season-long trend. Just 25 of the top 40 players from the 2012 Rivals.com class even made the NCAA tournament, and only eight were on teams that earned a No. 4 seed or better.

UCLA grabbed two of Rivals’ top three recruits, including guard Shabazz Muhammad, but was bounced in its NCAA tournament opener by a Minnesota team that didn’t start a freshman.

N.C. State, with No. 12 recruit Rodney Purvis and No. 17 T.J. Warren, lost its second tournament game.

Indiana freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell was the lone top-40 recruit starting for a No. 1 seed, but he was held scoreless and committed four turnovers in the Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse. Touted Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nick Stauskas start for Michigan, but they play complementary roles to Trey Burke and Hardaway.

“I think Kentucky kind of skewed the way people think of freshmen,” former four-year Duke starter and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “What people seem to forget is that they had some older players who helped lead that team to a national championship. … I think the history of it since Carmelo Anthony is having older players help leading the team.

“Had Kansas hit their free throws last season, the narrative would have been senior leadership. That’s the only difference.”

Despite the absence of freshman-led success this season, Bilas isn’t ready to declare the Kentucky model broken.

“I think coaches are going to continue to recruit the best players,” he said. “I think we are going to continue to see freshmen leading teams far into the tournament moving forward. John Calipari has been to the Elite Eight, a Final Four and (won) a national championship. I think his ratios are pretty favorable.”

There isn’t a Davis left, but several freshmen had standout performances during March. Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup featured two: Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon and Michigan State’s Gary Harris.

Mike Krzyzewski said it is difficult to lean on freshmen late in the season.

“It just depends on how that freshman’s played throughout the year,” he said. “Has he been a starter? Has he had significant minutes? What’s his role in March? Is it similar to the role he had during the year? You know, if you’re a freshman that’s played in every game for us, you would have played in 34 games against outstanding competition.

“You should be pretty good. You’re still a freshman, but you should be a veteran freshman.”

This year’s tournament might not have a freshman like Anthony or Davis who will lead his team to a national championship, but with the way the college basketball scene has changed over the past decade, this year might be more of a blip than a changing of the guard.

Smith: 919-829-4841; @RCorySmith

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