Thanks to the NBA's new age minimum, which will require players to be at least 19 and out of high school for a year before being drafted, colleges will harvest a bumper crop of freshmen next season. The surprise is how many first-year players are having an impact this season. Four of the nation's Top 25 teams start at least two freshmen. Top-ranked Duke's offense is run by rookie point guard Greg Paulus, who at midweek was dishing out more than five assists per game, many to fellow freshman Josh McRoberts, a forward who was averaging 8.2 points and 4.7 boards. The inside-outside freshman tandem of forward Jon Brockman and point guard Justin Dentmon (19.8 points combined) helped No. 10 Washington get off to an 11-0 start. At No. 25 North Carolina, freshman starters Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus Ginyard and Bobby Frasor, plus reserve Danny Green, had combined for 40.9 points a game.
The team benefiting most from the youth movement is No. 4 Memphis, whose three freshmen and two sophomores make up the youngest starting lineup in the country. Before the Tigers stumbled on Monday against No. 15 Texas, losing 69-58, they had rolled through one of the toughest preconference schedules in the nation, chalking up 10 wins-including an 83-72 victory over No. 8 Gonzaga on Dec. 27-and just one defeat, to Duke 70-67. "To be 11-2 against that schedule with all these freshmen and sophomores is amazing," says Memphis coach John Calipari. "But then, when we started working with them this summer, we realized this team could be really good."
Though sophomore point guard Darius Washington Jr. (SI, Oct. 17) and hyperathletic senior sixth man Rodney Carney are back from last season's 22-16 squad, this edition of the Tigers bears little resemblance to that crisis-plagued bunch. Gone are star forward Sean Banks, who scuffled with a teammate last January and was later declared academically ineligible, and guard Jeremy Hunt, who was arrested for an alleged domestic assault and later dismissed for breaking team rules. Calipari is relieved and impressed, though not shocked, by the team-first attitude of this year's group, particularly its five heralded freshmen. Four of them-shooting guard Antonio Anderson and forwards Kareem Cooper, Robert Dozier and Shawne Williams-played together last year at Laurinburg (N.C.) Prep, where they were part of what some experts consider the best precollege team in history.
"We all knew what we were capable of, so everyone was in a big rush to get here," says the 6'9", 225-pound Williams, who through Wednesday was averaging 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. Williams also had produced untold defensive stops-he held Gonzaga star Adam Morrison scoreless for the final nine minutes of their matchup-and is considered by many to be the best freshman in the nation. Meanwhile, Williams's classmates and fellow starters, Anderson and guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, were combining for 17.4 points a game.
Williams says the Tigers are especially proud of their defense (at midweek, they were holding foes to 37.7% shooting) and their passing (their 16.3 assists per game ranked second in Conference USA). "That's how we have fun-we look for each other," he says. "If Rodney hits a three, we want to see him hit another."
After its brutal early schedule, Memphis should have an easier road in the depleted C-USA, which lost five teams to the Big East and two to the Atlantic 10. "Our challenge now," says Calipari, "is to play our best in March."
1 Michigan State has a rugged opening road in the Big Ten. The gantlet the No. 7 Spartans must run: at No. 6 Illinois, at Wisconsin, home against No. 16 Indiana and at No. 18 Ohio State. Plus, Michigan State faces the conference's three weakest teams-Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue-only once. Did coach Tom Izzo offend someone in the league office?
2 Gerry McNamara needs to regain his range. Syracuse's senior sharpshooter has been uncharacteristically off the mark, shooting career-low percentages for field goals (32.6) and three-pointers (33.3).
3 Mike Jensen's return makes Washington better. The 6'8", 250-pound senior forward missed nine games following shoulder surgery, but as his fitness improves, Jensen will provide the Huskies with an experienced big man who can rebound and score.
• More from Kelli Anderson at SI.com/collegebasketball.
Rookies Dentmon and Williams (inset) have provided points and poise.