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The fabulous freshmen: Talented and prepared

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PHOENIX (AP) From Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz out West to Dennis Smith Jr. and Kentucky's future NBAers back East, the players who will likely be one and done have dominated the college basketball spotlight.

So how do freshmen who are 18 and 19 years old play so well so quickly?

Talent, obviously. But preparation might also play a big role.

Many of the top incoming freshmen have been groomed for immediate success through years of high-level coaching and competition, being in the public eye from a young age and playing year-round schedules.

They often arrive on campus with a basketball age much higher than their actual age.

''The freshmen are no longer freshmen,'' North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. ''I think they're more worldly and more competitive. They've had more opportunities.''

There was a time - we're talking back to the Lew Alcindor days at UCLA - when freshmen were not even allowed to play on the varsity team.

Freshmen began to fill more prominent roles through the years. Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to a national title and Pervis Ellison did the same at Louisville. Texas' Kevin Durant became the first freshman Naismith and Wooden Award winner. The Fab Five led Michigan to the 1992 national title game.

Freshmen have taken starring roles more often in recent years and this season they have been among the headliners.

John Calipari annually produces recruiting classes filled with future NBA talent at Kentucky and this season has been no different with De'Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk, who scored 47 points against North Carolina in one of the year's best performances.

The do-everything Ball has put on a show just down the road from Hollywood while leading No. 8 UCLA. Washington has been mediocre this season, but Fultz has not; his 23.4 points per game puts him on pace to be the first freshman to lead the Pac-12 in scoring since California's Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 1995-96.

Arizona's Lauri Markkanen has been one of the country's best players. Josh Jackson has thrived at No. 2 Kansas. Smith has been unstoppable at times at N.C. State. Miles Bridges has been superb at Michigan State, Jonathan Isaac at Florida State, Justin Patton has made a name for himself at Creighton - the list seemingly goes on and on.

''These guys are 17, 18 years old and we are putting them in positions that are extremely stressful and many are demonstrating an ability to deal with it at high levels,'' said Mark Hollis, chair of the NCAA's Division I men's basketball committee and Michigan State's athletic director.

In a way, it's as if these precocious freshmen have been preparing for this stage all their lives.

Basketball, as much as any sport, identifies young talent at a very early age.

Young players who show potential are tracked and graded from middle school on, in some cases. Once they've been identified, they are groomed by club-level coaches, invited to elite camps to hone their skills. The players at the highest end of the spectrum are then brought into the USA Basketball fold, receiving instruction from some of the best coaches in the country while facing the best competition in the world.

They also play LOTS of basketball, sometimes far more than even college players. And not just in their own backyard - across the country and the globe.

''I can remember 100 years ago I recruited a kid and said once every four years we'll take you to Hawaii, and now high school teams go to Hawaii,'' Williams said. ''I mean, geez, they've got more exposure and play against better competition. I recruited one kid who played 61 games in the summer. We used to never see that.''

But with all the grooming, some aspects of the game do slip past them. Players who have had everything laid out in front them face a bit of an adjustment at college, where some things are taken care of but the demands are higher and self-sufficiency is required.

''In my generation, we learned other valuable lessons when we grew up on the playgrounds or attended camps or clinics that taught the fundamentals of the game,'' Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. ''On the playgrounds with our buddies, the losers had to sit and sometimes, if you lost, you'd have to sit for an hour. It taught us that every possession mattered and every game mattered.''

These fabulous freshmen are far from finished products in many areas. Just watch as coaches like Calipari or Arizona's Sean Miller light into one of their star freshmen for making an, um, freshman mistake.

Even so, their foundations are solid, putting them in position to succeed on the big stage of college basketball right away and, in some cases, get even better.


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