It’s a little scary to imagine a 10-player 2013-14 University of Illinois basketball rotation and realize half would be freshmen. Barring the late addition of a junior college signee or a grad student transfer such as Sam McLaurin, that’s the situation Coach John Groce faces.
We tend not to trust freshmen, thinking of them as physically and emotionally immature and we expect mistakes that come with inexperience. But more and more teams are relying on first-year players and getting results, provided, of course, they are above average on the talent curve.
Kentucky hung a national championship banner last season with elite-level kids one year removed from high school. To see it working this season, look no further than the Final Four and Michigan.
When Michigan takes the floor against Syracuse on Saturday, Coach John Beilein will have a starting lineup that includes three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior.
The freshman starters — Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and Nick Stauskas — combined to score 39 points. A fourth freshman, reserve point guard Spike Albrecht, tacked on seven. So, 46 of Michigan’s 79 points came from freshmen.
The tough thing for Groce is not just the departure of seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey and McLaurin, it’s that he had no scholarship freshman in the program. While other teams have freshmen who will become sophomores, Illinois does not.
Indiana, which won the regular-season Big Ten title, pressed freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell into the starting lineup and it will help immeasurably next year that he averaged 28 minutes, 7.6 points and 4.1 assists a game.
Michigan State’s Gary Harris was terrific as a freshman. Not only did he score and shoot 41.9 percent from 3, Coach Tom Izzo praised his outstanding defense.
Wisconsin had a very good freshman in Sam Dekker, a 6-7 forward who will be the team’s best player next season. Iowa leaned on 7-1 Adam Woodbury and guard Mike Gessell and they’ll be important pieces as Fran McCaffrey continues building the Hawkeyes.
Purdue had one of the most intriguing freshmen in 7-foot, 280-pound A.J. Hammons, who can be a real force in the league if he’s willing to work at it. Six-five guard Rafeal Davis is another good one.
New coach Chris Collins will find he has some freshmen with potential at Northwestern. Guard Tre Demps showed promise and big man Alex Olah gives the Wildcats a physical presence at 7-foot, 275.
Given the national schedule Chicago Simeon played this season, I would think Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate will arrive at Illinois a step ahead in terms of understanding things such as travel, playing in strange venues and dealing with high expectations. How quickly Belleville East’s Malcolm Hill and New Jersey’s Austin Colbert adapt remains to be seen.
And then there’s big man Maverick Morgan from Springboro, Ohio.
Physically, he’s a bit like Michigan’s Mitch McGary. It would be Groce’s dream come true if he could play that way.
Mark Tupper covers University of Illinois athletics for Lee News Service.