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The notion that freshmen can’t win a title is wrong

Oct 19, 2011, 7:17 PM EDT

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All week long, the folks over at Grantland are running a series featuring writers pen 4,000 word arguments as to why their favorite team will win the national title.

Matt Jones, the brains and the brawn behind Kentucky Sports Radio and the leader of the cult known as Big Blue Nation, was picked to provide a homer’s view of why Kentucky hang their eighth banner this year. And while much of the article reads like the sermon given at a Big Blue pep rally, Jones does make a crucial and important point, one that he will — and should — make many times throughout the year: winning a national title with elite freshmen is not only possible, its been done before.

In the last two decades, there have been five years were one team was able to land a powerful recruiting class that included at least three of the top 15 high school players in the country — Michigan in 1991 (the Fab Five), Ohio State in 2006, and Kentucky in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

  • In 1991, Michigan started five freshmen — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson — and while they struggled during the regular season, earning a six seed, the Wolverines clicked during the NCAA Tournament. The Fab Five made it all the way to the national title game, where they lost by 20 to Duke.
  • In 2006, Thad Matta brought in Mike Conley, Greg Oden, Daequan Cook and David Lighty. Despite Oden battling injuries throughout the first half of the season, the Buckeyes were still able to earn a No. 1 seed in the tournament and a trip to the national title game.
  • In 2009, Kentucky’s recruiting class was so good that four players — including one kid that couldn’t get off the bench — were picked in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft. But as talented as John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins were, they couldn’t get past West Virginia in the Elite 8.
  • Last season, Kentucky played with blue-chip freshmen in Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — Enes Kanter was the best recruit of the group, but he never got cleared to play. Regardless, even without Kanter, Kentucky was able to play their way to the Final Four, upsetting Ohio State (who started a freshmen at point guard and center) and North Carolina (who started a freshman at point guard and small forward) along the way.

In the previous four instances where a team has relied heavily on a vaunted freshmen class, there have been two No. 1 seeds, a trip to the Elite 8, a trip to the Final Four and two appearances in the National Title game. That’s impressive. And that’s successful. The worst case scenario in this (extremely) small sample is winning both SEC titles, earning a No. 1 seed and making a trip to the Elite 8.

What coach in the country wouldn’t take that?

But there’s more.

In 2002, Syracuse brought in a well-regarded recruiting class that was headlined by one uber-recruit named Carmelo Anthony. Anthony went on to have one of the best freshman seasons in the history of the NCAA, averaging 22.1 ppg and 10.0 rpg while being named a second-team all-american and leading Syracuse to the national title. Joining him in the starting lineup that year? Freshmen Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin. McNamara averaged 35.3 mpg, which was second only to Anthony’s 36.4 mpg. That group of freshmen accounted for three of the Orange’s top five scorers in 2002-2003. Of their top seven scorers, three more were sophomores, meaning that of Syracuse’s seven-man, title-winning rotation, six were freshmen and sophomores.

There’s an even more recent example. Last season, Kemba Walker took over March. He led UConn on a five-games-in-five-days run through the Big East Tournament. After six more wins in the NCAA Tournament, UConn went back to Storrs with a national title. He was a junior, which means most people will ignore UConn on this list. But the Huskies need to be on here. Last season, five different freshmen started a total of 104 games for the Huskies. The freshmen averaged an even 100 out of a possible 200 minutes per game. In the national title game against Butler, UConn got 111 minutes out of freshmen. Freshman Jeremy Lamb became the team’s clear-cut No. 2 scoring option, the biggest reason teams were unable to double team Kemba. Freshman Shabazz Napier matured enough to hold down the point guard position, allowing Kemba free-reign to be a scorer. Alex Oriakhi, UConn’s enforcer inside and the guy that allowed a team that started (freshman) Tyler Olander or Charles Okwandu to dominate the offensive glass, was only a sophomore. In total, almost three-quarters of the minutes played by UConn Huskies last season were provided by freshmen and sophomores.

The UConn example is all the more reassuring for Kentucky fans because there is a good chance the Wildcat’s first two options offensively won’t be freshmen. John Calipari is notorious for using his words in the media to manipulate, but he said over the summer that Doron Lamb would be the best player on this team. Terrence Jones was the best player on the team last year before he lost his confidence. There’s a legitimate possibility that these hyped freshmen end up being the most highly-recruited role players in the country.

No one said that winning a national title with a roster chock full of talented underclassmen would be easy.

But winning a national title isn’t easy, period.

The best way to win it is by putting as much talent as possible on the floor. If you can’t compete with the blue bloods for top 20 recruits, than you have to build your program around development and upperclassmen. If you can compete for the best high school players in the country, then, by all means, recruit them and hope that things break your way during the season.

Because, eventually, Calipari is going to break through and win a national title. And when he does, this silly notion that experience is the only way to succeed in March will finally be thrown out the window.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

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