Freshmen playing huge roles in SEC

Forty years ago, college basketball was a different game. The shorts were shorter. The shoes weren’t as flashy. There wasn’t a 3-point line and the lane was skinnier than Perry Stevenson.

And, to the amazement of many modern college basketball fans, freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity ball.

Freshmen became eligible in 1972, but now, as four-year stars are going the way of short shorts and the set shot, they’re dominating college basketball like never before, and coaches are still debating about how much of a load freshmen should bear.

One thing seems clear: First-year players like Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, Memphis’ Derrick Rose and Indiana’s Eric Gordon are dominating the college landscape.

“The extensive travel league schedule they play in the spring and summer is the No. 1 reason,” said Jerry Meyer, a recruiting analyst for “They’re used to traveling; they’re used to playing in front of college coaches and against other top talented players. When they step out on the college court, it’s not nearly the adjustment it once was.”

The AAU leagues that have become prominent havens for high school players in the summer and fall have increased the amount of games players are playing. Meyer said players often play as many as eight times in a weekend and 25-30 games each month during the height of the AAU season.

But the question remains: Are freshmen still subject to lapses in production as the season wears on?

Meyer said the top freshmen aren’t, but the second-tier players are still susceptible to the late season crash and burn.

“I still think they hit a wall. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Meyer said. “The upper-echelon guys aren’t. The intensity on the defensive side of the ball and the team play on defense and the schemes on defense, they’re not going to see that in travel ball.”

That’s still a topic for debate in the Southeastern Conference, which has been overrun by freshmen this season. UK, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Florida are among the conference’s NCAA tournament contenders that are depending largely on the play of freshmen.

UK’s top freshman, forward Patrick Patterson, has only gotten stronger as the season has worn on. Patterson was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday, the third time he’s earned the honor this season.

“I’ve never believed in anyone hitting a wall if their mental framework was right and their mindset was right,” head coach Billy Gillispie said. “I’ve always been a big believer that your legs … are only determined by how strong your mind is.”

Patterson is second among SEC freshmen in scoring and rebounding, and he’s the leading SEC freshman in minutes per game at 35.7. He’s scored in double figures in 12 consecutive contests, has nine 20-point performances and six double-doubles.

Thus far, other SEC coaches haven’t seen their freshmen produce less as the season goes on either.

Vandy center A.J. Ogilvy averaged 15 points per game in his past four games. LSU forward Anthony Randolph has scored at least 10 points in 15 of his past 16 games. And guard Chris Warre­­n, whose Ole Miss team visits Rupp Arena tonight, is averaging more points in conference play (16.5) than he has overall (15.2).

Coaches will have plenty of time to figure out their stances on relying on freshmen, because the influx of talented first-year players isn’t going away anytime soon, Meyer said.

With the NBA mandating that all players wait a year after their high school graduation to enter its draft, the best players have no choice but to suit up on campus for at least a season.

“The college game is more and more being dominated by freshman, and I think that’s only going to increase,” Meyer said. “The talent level and the comfort level are just going to a higher and higher level. If they can’t play in the NBA, they’re going to play somewhere.”