Greg Hansen: This year’s Final Four favorites have one thing in common — they’re Freshman-Free

By Greg Hansen
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

Dayton’s Obi Toppin rises up for a basket against Virginia Commonwealth at UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. Dayton won, 79-65. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images/TNS)

Feb. 26–Here’s a potential Final Four no one would have predicted: Dayton, Baylor, San Diego State and Gonzaga. What they have in common goes far beyond winning percentage.

Check it out:

The Dayton Flyers are 25-2 and ranked No. 4 in college basketball. A freshman has not stepped onto the court for the Flyers this season. Not for a second.

The Baylor Bears are 24-2 and ranked No.2. Freshmen? None. Look it up. No freshman has played for Baylor this season.

The San Diego State Aztecs are 26-1. Freshmen have played a total of 133 of 5,400 available minutes for the Aztecs. No starts. That’s a 2.4% split.

Here’s one more: the Gonzaga Bulldogs are 27-2. Freshmen have started nine games for the Zags and have played 17% of the team’s minutes.

In the 109 cumulative games played by Baylor, Dayton, SDSU and Gonzaga, freshmen have played 961 of 21,700 minutes. That’s 4.4% of the time.

The inescapable formula at the highest level of college basketball has become an “FF” that doesn’t stand for Final Four. It stands for “freshman-free.”

The Bears, Flyers, Aztecs and Zags have filled 445 spots in their starting lineups. Freshmen have been granted nine of those starts. That’s 2%.

You know where I’m going with this. Freshmen have played 49% of Arizona’s minutes this season. That’s more minutes by freshmen than any team in this week’s AP Top 25.
You do not have to be Einstein to figure out why Arizona is no longer in the Top 25. Too many freshmen.

This isn’t meant to impugn the contributions and skill of UA freshmen Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji, Josh Green and Christian Koloko. Who wouldn’t want to have them on their roster? It’s just that when you overload your lineup with freshmen — when you don’t have a seasoned “glue guy” at crunch time — you lose games the way Arizona lost to Oregon a few days ago.

In Arizona’s four Final Fours, a freshman occupied just one of 16 starting spots. That was Mike Bibby in 1997 — and there are no Mike Bibbys on this Arizona roster, freshman, sophomore, junior or senior.

In Arizona’s last Final Four appearance, 2001, the Wildcats had just one freshman on the roster, seldom-used guard Travis Hanour. He didn’t get off the bench in 16 games and played just 343 minutes — or 3% of the team’s total.

Ask yourself: Why is Arizona State in first place in the Pac-12?

Much of it is that coach Bobby Hurley hasn’t had to rely on freshmen to carry any type of a burden. Freshmen Jaelen House (443 minutes) and Jalen Graham (275) have combined to make two starts. They have played 13% of the Sun Devils’ available minutes.

The Sun Devils have won because they have a glue guy, junior point guard Remy Martin, who is second only to Oregon senior Payton Pritchard among Pac-12 players you want to have the ball in a close game.

Colorado is in the late stages of what looks to be its most successful season since 1968. There’s little mystery involved. One freshman has stepped on the court for the Buffaloes this season. Introducing Jakub Dombek. He has played five minutes.

On the television broadcast of last week’s Arizona-Oregon State game, former UA forward Richard Jefferson spoke about what it meant to him as a freshman, 1998-99, to play opposite senior All-America point guard Jason Terry.

“He was like my mentor,” said Jefferson. “He’d been through a Final Four and an Elite Eight, and we just followed his lead.”

The best thing about freshmen in college basketball used to be that they would become sophomores a year later. Now, at an upper-tier basketball school like Arizona, they become pros.

Check out the freshman minutes distribution for Arizona during the Sean Miller era:

  • 2019-2020: 81 starts, playing 2,669 minutes (49% of the UA’s total minutes);
  • 2018-19: 21 starts, 918 minutes (14%);
  • 2017-18: 43 starts, 2,332 minutes (32%);
  • 2016-17: 92 starts, 3,048 minutes (41%);
  • 2015-16: 21 starts, 1,066 minutes (15%);
  • 2014-15: 32 starts, 1,774 minutes (23%);
  • 2013-14: 44 starts, 1,348 minutes (28%);
  • 2012-13: 58 starts, 2,158 minutes (30%);
  • 2011-12: 45 starts, 2,138 minutes (31%);
  • 2010-11: 0 starts, 573 minutes (7%);
  • 2009-10: 64 starts, 2,917 minutes (45 percent).

Arizona is giving more playing time to freshmen this year than any time in school history except 1972-73. That was a transition season, the first for coach Fred Snowden, the first at McKale Center, and it became historic because four freshmen were starters.

Coniel Norman averaged 24 points per game, Eric Money 18, Al Fleming 13 and Jim Rappis eight. The freshman-laden team was so immediately adored in Tucson that they acquired a nickname — “The Kiddie Korps” — that has endured for almost 50 years.

What most people don’t remember is that Arizona went 16-10 and was swept by Arizona State, which won the WAC championship and reached the Sweet 16. The Sun Devils of ‘72-73 deployed just one freshman, Gary Jackson, and were led in scoring by two seniors, Mike Contreras and Jim Owens.

Baylor’s Jared Butler (12) passes the ball against Kansas State’s Cartier Diarra (2) in the second half at Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas, on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images/TNS)

Arizona didn’t get to the NCAA Tournament for another three seasons, when its starting lineup included seniors Fleming and Rappis, juniors Bob Elliott and Herman Harris and sophomore Phil Taylor.

No freshman on that Elite Eight team averaged more than 0.6 points per game.

Yes, times have changed. Or have they?

The last time Lute Olson had a shot at the Final Four, 2005, with a 30-8 Pac-10 championship club that was one possession shy of stunning No. 1 seed Illinois in the Elite Eight, the Wildcats went through the season without a freshman starting a game.

Freshmen played just 572 minutes in 2005 — or 7% of the available minutes.

Keep that in mind as Arizona moves forward, hoping to overcome strong evidence that a freshman-laden roster is often just good enough to get you beat.

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