Months ago it started. This was going to be, without question, the Year of the Freshman.
How could it not? The talent was undeniable, and the marquee had four big names right there at the top: Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Duke's Jabari Parker, Kentucky's Julius Randle and Arizona's Aaron Gordon.
These were the six best freshmen in this, the Year of the Freshman.
They likely won't be around long, so it became necessary to enjoy their college careers while possible. This past Saturday was the rare day, one of just two this season (the other will be Feb. 22) when all six would take the floor on the same day.
We followed along, watching these six talents through their eyes and those of others on a riveting day when six freshmen, four games and one day owned college basketball.
Syracuse, N.Y. -- Jack Rose is a college freshman, Syracuse Class of 2017.
The Los Angeles native is loving college life, even if he did sacrifice Cali sunshine for Central New York rock salt. Life is fun and relatively uncomplicated, even as he navigates the tricky tightrope of the first blush of real independence and responsibility.
On Saturday afternoon, he stood about halfway up in the student section at the Carrier Dome with some of his friends hoisting a sign, "Our freshman is better than your freshman. #11>#1.''
Rose, who has eyes on a journalism career, rattled off stats and arguments to support his sign's case that Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis is better than Duke freshman Jabari Parker. All had merit, and then I reminded Rose that he and Ennis were classmates, both going through their first year of college at Syracuse. Ennis, the object of Rose's sign and adoration, was down on the court, playing in front of 35,446 insane fans, in front of a national television audience, in a game for the ages. It was an epic Saturday pitting college basketball's two winningest coaches against one another, with two of the nation's top freshmen in this, the Year of the Freshman, on the floor together. And here was Ennis, in charge of an undefeated Syracuse team.
While Rose was in the stands watching, holding a sign.
"Oh my God. I can't even imagine that,'' Rose said. "I can't play basketball, but even if I could, I'd be so afraid.''
That's the thing about these terrific freshmen: They are transcendent talents with grown-man bodies or grown-man wisdom, but they are kids.
Ennis is 19; Parker is still 18. When they don't play like kids, we shrug because that's what they're supposed to do; when they do, we question their abilities, and almost always, we forget just how young they are.
The Syracuse-Duke game was a microcosm of all that is this Freshmen Focus. One played like a grown-up, the other more like a kid.
Ennis, who looks like he's 14, played like he was 34. In a well-played, anxiety-filled overtime game, Ennis was on the court for 40 of the 45 minutes. He scored 14 points, dished out nine assists and committed only two turnovers.
Certainly it is easier to perform on your home floor, but this was no ordinary home floor. The record crowd pushed some people to seats that offered a view that looked more like it was shot from an overhead blimp than inside the Carrier Dome.
"I've gotten used to the Dome by now,'' Ennis said. "But [the crowd] was even more than usual. I looked around and noticed how many people were there. I saw the difference between 30,000 and 35,000.''
He might have seen the difference, but he never acted like it mattered. In the overtime, recognizing that Amile Jefferson and Parker were both out of the game, Ennis made the game very simple. He passed it inside to Jerami Grant. Grant scored the Orange's first six in OT.
Afterward, Ennis' Hall of Fame coach offered high praise.
"There's nobody better, I don't think, in end-of-the-game situations, making plays and great decisions,'' Jim Boeheim said.
Meanwhile, Parker looked a lot like an 18-year-old. Trying to score inside against the Syracuse zone, he was defiant to the point of stubborn, bound and determined to do it his way even if his way wasn't working.
With 14:13 left in the first half, he drove under the hoop but was met on the way up by Christmas. Jump ball. Possession: Syracuse.
At the 4:20 mark, he tried a baseline dunk and was snuffed again.
Then, in the final ignominy, Parker took off on a fast break late in the second half. He managed to swing around Ennis on the way to the hoop, but Christmas was there to greet him again and swatted the ball away.
"Yeah, I remember that play,'' Christmas said with a smile. "I knew he was going to try and dunk it, and I didn't want to let him.''
Parker played just 26 minutes before fouling out on a questionable offensive foul. He scored 15 points but took 16 shots to get there.
To his credit, Parker never backed down, never showed even a hint of bad body language.
But afterward, his Hall of Fame coach offered some suggestions instead of praise.
"What you hope is you use a shot fake and get to the foul line,'' Mike Krzyzewski said. "They block shots. That's something they do every game. And when it's over and over, you have to look for a kick [pass] because the kicks are open on offensive rebounds. You might get an open 3. For Jabari, it's a good learning experience for him. It's a good growing experience.''
Which is what your freshman year is supposed to be about: growing, learning, being on your own.
That's how it's been for Jack Rose. His biggest pregame worry on this attention-filled Saturday was trying to figure out the right message for his sign -- something that was clever, topical and would get him on television. Life isn't quite that simple, though, for every freshman, at least not the ones named Tyler Ennis and Jabari Parker.
Austin, Texas -- The problem with too much publicity?
Opponents hear it, too.
Word had long trickled over to Texas on how talented Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins and center Joel Embiid were and how high they'd potentially go in the NBA draft. The Longhorns ingested everything they heard and had finally gotten sick from it. And Saturday, the day when the big-name freshmen were on courts across the nation, Texas stood face-to-face with two of them.
"I think I've always been the type of player that -- I haven't been highly ranked or anything like that -- so I've always had a problem with stars and the way people treat them," said Texas guard Demarcus Holland, who was matched up with Wiggins in Texas' 81-69 win. "So I came into the game knowing that he bleeds like I bleed. He's going to have to make shots over me, and I'm not going to back off of him just because of his name."
Holland, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, typically gets the Longhorns' toughest defensive assignment. He got the 6-foot-8 Wiggins on Saturday.
Holland's pregame study of Wiggins was no longer or more detailed than that of any other opponent. Video clips revealed all the moves and tendencies he needed to know, but what Holland really locked in on was how opponents defended Wiggins.
Too many times, he noticed it was with kid gloves.
"I feel like a lot of people who try to guard him, they're afraid of him because of his name," Holland said.
On this day, there was no fear in Texas.
Not from Holland, and definitely not from Texas center Cameron Ridley, who spent most of his game going head-to-head with Embiid.
Ridley's first three shot attempts over Kansas' 7-foot center showed that he was both aware and bothered by the size disparity. The 6-foot-9 forward altered his shot twice to try to score over Embiid, then watched his third shot get swatted to start a Jayhawks fast break.
When finesse didn't work, Ridley resorted to muscle.
The moment the game changed came when the 285-pound Ridley grabbed a rebound and Embiid's right arm was locked inside of his. As Ridley pivoted, he unintentionally, but very forcefully, slammed Embiid to the court.
The motion was so violent, the thud of Embiid hitting the floor so shocking, the game literally stopped. Guard Isaiah Taylor, who ran to grab the ball from Ridley, stopped and walked. Even an official seemed to blow his whistle inadvertently.
No foul was called.
Embiid was not the same after the play, and neither was Ridley, who offered that the Longhorns respected Wiggins and Embiid but did not fear them.
"Guys like that, they deserve the credit that they have because of how well they were playing up to this point," Ridley said. "But when the ball went up for the game, we weren't going to let them do what they're known for doing on our court. So we just really focused on locking those two guys down and playing our game."
Embiid shot 3-of-9 from the floor and had eight points to go with 10 rebounds and two blocks. Ridley didn't shoot well, either, going 3-of-7 with nine points, 10 rebounds and four blocks.
Ridley said he didn't watch any film on Embiid. He didn't have to. The two faced off at adidas Nationals last summer, and Ridley figured he'd use his strength to keep him from getting to the areas he liked.
"Earlier in the summer, I was a lot stronger than him because my year of college that I played, but now that he's got that strength, he's turned into a really good player," Ridley said. "I just worked on keeping my position on defense and not letting him get angles to score."
Holland kept hearing about what would be "his biggest challenge," but Wiggins never challenged him. He didn't post up Holland to take advantage of his height. He had been at his best when getting to the rim. Against the Longhorns, he pulled up for jumper after jumper.
Like when Wiggins curled off a pick on a catch-and-shoot, or used a ball screen and instead of driving, picked up his dribble to launch a long 2. When he got the ball off a steal and headed down the floor with full steam, he missed a layup in traffic off the back rim.
Texas coach Rick Barnes mixed in the use of zone to keep Kansas out of an offensive rhythm. Holland said he didn't sense any frustration from Wiggins but did feel that he was hesitant.
"He just kept ducking his head down and trying to drive in a straight line," Holland said. "He never changed directions or anything like that. As long as you beat him to a spot, you're good, and that's what we did."
Wiggins didn't score a basket until 12 minutes were left and finished the game shooting just 2-of-12 from the field for an uneventful seven points.
"He shot 2-for-12. I know that's pretty low for a guy considered a lottery pick," Holland said. "I know we have to play them again. You never know if he had a bad game or not. I'm not going to take any credit away from myself, either. It felt good knowing that I could bother him a bit."
When it was suggested that Wiggins has talent that should not be bothered, Kansas coach Bill Self said, "that's not a fair statement at all."
"He knows he's just an 18-year-old kid. He should be a high school senior," Self said. "We talked about the ups and downs. This is something that obviously he won't like -- having an off day -- but, certainly, everybody deals with that."
Saturday was that rare occasion this season when both Wiggins and Embiid had to deal with it at the same time.
Columbia, Mo. -- Whatever Jabari Brown does with the rest of his basketball career -- whether he stays on his NBA-level trajectory, or decides his true passion is in woodworking, or anything in between -- he'll always have that time he dunked on Julius Randle.
The play's genesis was simple enough: Coming out of the under-eight-minute timeout in the second half, Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson began the possession with a quick pass to Brown on the left wing. Clarkson followed his pass and set a little brush screen, and it was all Brown needed to leave his defender, James Young, flailing. Brown turned the corner in an instant -- so fast he didn't really have time to think about it, he would later say, so fast he barely saw the only player standing between him and the rim.
"I didn't really see him there until I already decided what I was going to do," Brown said. "And when I got past, I think it was Young guarding me, and turned the corner, I knew."
It was one of the few times all eyes weren't on Kentucky's frontcourt star Saturday afternoon. It was certainly the last.
Brown's soaring, right-handed dunk on Randle's head cut Kentucky's lead to three and sent Missouri fans into the appropriate fever. For a moment, the Mizzou Arena JumboTron picture went black, as if the energy in the building caused it to short circuit.
But Randle came alive just as quickly: He hit a short jumper in the lane at the 6:26 mark, giving Kentucky a 70-63 lead. He grabbed a defensive rebound a possession later. He plowed into Missouri's defense to earn a foul (and make both free throws) at 5:18.
Two minutes later, Randle bossed the glass in a rebound-miss-rebound-tip combo that pushed Kentucky's lead to 74-68. In the final minute, after Brown's 25-foot 3 turned into a four-point play that closed the lead to four, Randle responded with another timely touch finish. After Aaron Harrison made a baseline layup, Randle's interior defense kept Clarkson from cutting the lead to a single possession and finished the game then and there.
"Aaron makes his layup, and then Julius -- who played shaky most of the game -- comes up with the block and a rebound, because we made the guy drive left," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "And he blocks it and rebounds it. It's the biggest play that basically ended the game."
Before Brown's dunk, Randle was a bit shaky. He still drew a ton of attention from Missouri's defense -- attention he used to whip a series of crisp passes that led to open shots for Young and Harrison along the perimeter -- but he also floated at times, relying too much on his predictable spin move and guilty of the occasional matador screen.
Clearly, Brown's dunk woke him up. Right?
"Um, yeah," Randle said. "I guess."
When a reporter asked Randle about the dunk -- whether he had indeed become more engaged after Brown put him on a proverbial poster -- Randle gave a confused look. Huh? What dunk?
It was a comical bit of feigned confusion. It was also a brief flash of the too-cool approach Calipari has often ascribed to his team this season. The Wildcats coach has begged his players to do the little things, to invest themselves in team outcomes, to play every game with enthusiasm and energy, often to the point of exasperation. But Randle, with minimal exceptions, has been the lynchpin of the Wildcats' bruising interior attack, the tip of Kentucky's offensive arrow. Even when the Wildcats play disjointed, hesitant offense, Randle's ability to clean up offensive misses and bruise his way to field goals and foul shots has established UK's baseline performance. It's why Randle is a likely top-five pick in this summer's NBA draft.
Brown might one day play his way into that league, especially if he keeps up anything close to this torrential scoring pace. Eye-popping highlights like Saturday's certainly won't hurt his case.
But even if Brown somehow never finds his way to an NBA arena -- maybe he makes a nice career for himself in Europe, or decides to become a technology blogger, or develops a stand-up routine and starts hitting the late-night comedy clubs, or whatever -- he'll always be able to tell people about that one Saturday, when the nation's top freshmen were all on stage, when he put one on one of the biggest college basketball stars in years. Even if he wasn't feeling much like talking about it Saturday.
"It was a momentum play for us, but it didn't amount to much, because we lost the game," Brown said. "But it was definitely a nice play. It felt good."
Berkeley, Calif. -- He was both proud and disappointed.
Thomas Fang joined Cal's fans as they celebrated Saturday's 60-58 victory over No. 1 Arizona on the floor at Haas Pavilion, the first time the Golden Bears had defeated a top-ranked team in that building. But the former Cal walk-on hated to see Arizona freshman star and friend Aaron Gordon and the Wildcats suffer their first loss of the season.
"I'm very conflicted because I love the Cal program, but I'm very close and connected with Aaron," Fang said as Cal fans screamed around him after the game. "I have to give it up to the Cal program -- [coach] Mike Montgomery, especially. They did a great job. They did what it took to beat Arizona today. It's amazing. I didn't expect this to happen. It's been very bittersweet."
Fang played basketball at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, Calif., with Gordon's brother, Drew Gordon, so he's watched Aaron's transformation from lanky kid with oversized shoes to McDonald's All-American and likely NBA lottery pick.
Although he struggled from the field against Cal, Gordon showcased a multitude of skills in a game attended by 21 NBA scouts. He finished with 8 points (4-for-14), 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 1 block.
But the night did not end well for Gordon's squad. Arizona suffered a defeat via Cal senior Justin Cobbs' last-second shot, and it also lost standout Brandon Ashley for the season after he injured his foot early in the game.
So Fang didn't know how to feel.
He wore a red sweatshirt to represent Arizona, but he sported his Cal jersey underneath it.
Just moments before he'd stormed the floor with the rest of the Cal fans, he watched the end of the game in the stands next to Gordon's parents.
Throughout the night, he wrestled with his emotions from his seat in Section 19, proven in a series of in-game text messages to ESPN.com.
ESPN.com: [After some early missed shots by Gordon] Is Gordon forcing things right now?
Fang: I think Arizona has to find an offensive rhythm as a team. Need to get Gordon some looks in the high and low post to get things going.
ESPN.com: Yep. Losing Ashley didn't help.
Fang: Not at all. The best thing about Gordon is that he's so versatile and willing to play any role to help his team win.
ESPN.com: Yep. Egos will kill any team. Has he always been like that?
Fang: Always. Definitely comes from his parents.
ESPN.com: [Later in the game, after one of Gordon's athletic dunks] I don't know if anyone in America can jump with him.
Fang: Not many people in the NBA can. He's an incredible athlete with a high basketball IQ. Hard to find.
When it was over, Fang just stood on the court and shook his head. He'd come to support his alma mater and Gordon in what most expected to be an easy win for the Wildcats. Then chaos ensued.
And Fang found himself in a perplexing position as both a former Cal player and a longtime friend of the Gordon family.
After he'd basked in the fiesta that followed the upset victory, however, Fang wasn't focused on the highs and lows he'd just experienced. By then, he'd turned into a coach.
"I think they need to get him the ball more," he said. "They looked a little uncomfortable. They really didn't have a great rhythm. And every time that Aaron got the ball in the high post, something good happened. You know, I'm not a coach. I think they need to use Aaron a little more. That's just my opinion."
The opinion of a man who's known Gordon most of his life. Fang said he always knew Gordon would blossom into a special player, and Saturday's effort, even in a loss, confirmed what he'd envisioned for the freshman years ago.
"It's been a great experience," Fang said. "When he was 13, he was playing [on an advanced AAU team]. He was wearing Size 14 shoes, playing point guard on a team that was two grades older than him. Just to see him develop into the player he is now ... that makes me feel happy. He's been such a great player in terms of development, and his parents have been so instrumental. He's a story that sports and the basketball world need right now. He's going to be a great player. He's going to be a great NBA player, and I wish him the best of luck."