Mark Story: Title would make Kentucky's the best freshman class ever

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 1, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — They don't have a catchy nickname like Michigan's Fab Five.

No one has launched a Dance Craze like John Wall or become a larger-than-life personality like DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins.

Yet Kentucky's Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer are one win away from doing something extraordinary: Forming the nucleus of an NCAA championship team as true freshmen.

If Kentucky claims its eighth NCAA title Monday night by subduing the game and gritty Kansas Jayhawks, UK's four freshmen — three starters and a key reserve — will have a claim on having produced the greatest season by a freshman class in college basketball history.

"It would be special, really special," Kidd-Gilchrist said of UK's freshman-class legacy. "But we have to win the (Kansas) game first."

If Kentucky does win, however, what freshman class has ever had the one-year impact on college basketball the current UK freshmen have enjoyed?

Last year's Connecticut national champs had five freshmen in their top seven players, but Jeremy Lamb was the only real first-year standout. Besides, that was junior star Kemba Walker's team.

When it claimed the 2003 NCAA title with a surprise run through March, Syracuse started two freshmen. In Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara, however, the Orange had a superstar (Anthony) and a hot-shooting first-year guard more than a dominant freshman class.

With their baggy shorts, black sneakers and general swagger, Michigan's famed Fab Five in 1991-92 clearly had a bigger impact on the culture of the game than the current Cats freshmen.

That Michigan team, which by the end of the year was starting five freshmen, including Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and Chris Webber, also made the NCAA finals.

Yet those Wolverines went 25-9, finished third in the Big Ten and were routed in the 1992 NCAA championship by Duke, 71-51.

UK goes into Monday night's NCAA championship with a 37-2 record, an undefeated Southeastern Conference regular-season title behind it and the favorite's role in the national title game.

Even with senior Darius Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb back from last season's UK Final Four team, the numbers say the current UK freshmen have been at least as productive, and maybe more so, than the 2010 UK freshman class that had four of its members selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.

In 2010, Kentucky freshmen Wall, Cousins and Eric Bledsoe led John Calipari's first UK team to a 35-3 season, one that ended with an upset loss to West Virginia in the round of eight. Freshman big man Daniel Orton was the team's sixth man.

That team got 58.4 percent of its scoring, 49.7 percent of its rebounding, 71 percent of its assists, 64.5 percent of its steals and 54.9 percent of its blocked shots from freshmen.

The current Cats are getting 53.2 percent of their points, 56.7 percent of their rebounds, 62.2 percent of their assists, 55.4 percent of their steals and 73.3 percent of their blocked shots from freshmen.

It was last year at the McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago when the four current UK freshmen bonded and started talking about doing something special this year at Kentucky.

"We always thought we could win because we are all good players," said Wiltjer. "From the start, we talked about trying to get to the national championship because that's the peak of college basketball."

With a difficult game against Kansas looming, the UK players were, understandably, not fielding many "legacy questions" Sunday.

"We don't talk about that at all," said Teague. "We're still playing. We're still focusing on trying to win a championship. We don't really focus on that other stuff at all."

The current Kentucky freshman class has produced the near-consensus national player of the year (Davis), another who made some All-America teams (Kidd-Gilchrist), a point guard (Teague) good enough to direct a team to the national title game and a valuable spot-up shooter (Wiltjer) off the bench.

With a national title, do the Cats' freshmen think they would claim the mantle of best season ever by a freshman class?

"That's for you guys to decide," Davis said when I asked him.

OK, beat the Jayhawks, and the answer is yes.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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