Different roles for freshmen at programs

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Incoming freshman basketball stars used to have time. They had time to learn from the upperclassmen, mature and improve the physical and mental aspects of their game.

But “The Times They Are a-Changin.” With million-dollar contracts awaiting at the next level and agents and scouts filling their heads with grandeur, players are ditching campus life for more a lucrative one as an NBA player. You just don’t see star players staying in school all four years anymore.

It’s particularly uncommon at big-time basketball programs like Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse, the latter of which will host the Massachusetts men’s basketball team tonight at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.

As usual, SU coach Jim Boeheim features some of the top young talent in the country on his roster. In 2002-03 it was Gerry McNamara and Carmelo Anthony and now it’s Jonny Flynn and Donte Green.

This shift in the college basketball landscape dictates that a program is likely to lose those players’ services after one season – two at the most.

Although that is the norm among the elite basketball programs in the country, the mid-major schools, such as UMass, operate differently.

At schools like UMass, players will typically stay in school until they graduate or lose eligibility. You won’t see many players jump ship early to the NBA, because the majority of the high-profile prospects aren’t at these programs.

Because of this, programs like UMass tend to consist mostly of veteran players and transfers – at least the ones who get the majority of the minutes.

At Syracuse, Flynn and Green are expected to be major contributors the moment the season tips off. Meanwhile on the UMass campus, freshman players like Matt Hill, Papa Lo and Trey Lang will be moved along slowly, sitting on the bench and learning from veterans like Gary Forbes and Dante Milligan.

“If they’re ready to play, throwing them under the fire is the best way to do it,” UMass coach Travis Ford said, regarding how he prefers to handle his freshman players. “But if they’re not ready, they can lose some confidence early. It depends on where they’re at in their development, physically and mentally.”

This season Ford has brought in seven freshmen to the program. Of those seven, only three – backup point guard Gary Correia and reserve guards Matt Glass and Max Groebe – will likely see any substantial minutes.

Through five games, Correia leads the freshman crop with just over 18 minutes per game. Groebe has averaged 12 minutes per night, coming in when the team needs a spark from 3-point range. Glass gets almost seven minutes a game, while the other four – including Sedale Jones – have combined for only 18 minutes of game action this season.

“A lot of kids who are freshman haven’t grasped the system yet, so it’s very difficult to put them in there for significant-type minutes,” Ford said. “But if they understand the system and they’re just not physically ready, you can throw them out there and get them ready.”

That’s precisely what Boeheim did with his duo of Green and Flynn, and with the way they have performed thus far, it appears both are more than ready – physically and mentally – to handle the responsibility.

A 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward, Green has the versatility to dominate the game from anywhere on the floor. He’s a solid outside shooter (38.7 percent from 3-point range) and can post up, rebound and block shots. He leads the team in scoring (20.6 per game), rebounding (8.8) and blocked shots (2.6), not bad for a freshman with five games under his belt.

The coaching staff for the Orange must smile every day in practice, because Green may not even be the best freshman on the team. Flynn has thrived, leading the offense at the point guard spot, mixing in a good dose of scoring (11) while also focusing on distributing the ball to his teammates. Not only has he averaged 5.8 assists per game, he’s done a good job managing the game and limiting turnovers with an impressive 2.42 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Ford is certainly impressed with what he sees out of them.

“They just have extreme talent, first of all. Wow,” he said. “Flynn plays at a really high level as far as how fast he is. He’s always seems like he’s in overdrive. He’s running his team extremely well for a freshman.

“Green, for his size, I love the way he plays,” he added. “I love big guys who can shoot it. He’s 6-foot-9; he can shoot 3-pointers. And he can take you off the dribble, just a very versatile basketball player.”

Coaches of mid-major schools would love to have more players that can contribute right away, but developing players slowly for the future isn’t such a bad way to go.

It certainly worked for Chris Lowe and the Minutemen.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]