Michigan started a trend that's omnipresent

College basketball entered a new era on Dec. 2, 1991, at Cobo Arena in Detroit. Five freshmen took the court -- clad in baggy shorts, black socks and instant swagger. The Fabulous Five, from the University of Michigan, was born.

Only three started that night -- Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard. But in the Wolverines' 100-74 win over the University of Detroit, the entire Fab Five accounted for 68 points and 42 rebounds ... along with 24 turnovers.

The Fab Five first shared the floor simultaneously five days later against Eastern Michigan. And when Michael Talley received a one-game suspension in February, the Fab Five became the starting five -- for good -- on Feb. 9, 1992, beating Notre Dame 74-65. The five freshmen scored all 74 points that night.

Just 10 years after that legendary unit split up, it's hard to recall how revolutionary it was. The Wolverines played in a pair of national title games -- and lost both. For a contrast, look at the two teams they lost to:

  • In 1992, Duke started two seniors (Christian Laettner and Brian Davis), two juniors (Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill) and a sophomore (Grant Hill). Its biggest freshman contributor was Cherokee Parks (12.8 minutes per game, 5.0 points per game).

  • In 1993, North Carolina started one senior (George Lynch), three juniors (Eric Montross, Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese) and a sophomore (Donald Williams). Its most "pivotal" freshman was Dante Calabria (7.1 mpg, 1.8 ppg).

    Ironically, this year the Blue Devils feature a Super Six selection of freshmen, four of whom are in the regular rotation -- including second-leading scorer J.J. Redick. And three of the Tar Heels' four leading scorers are freshman -- Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Sean May -- who led UNC to a preseason NIT title before May went down with a foot injury that devastated the team's NCAA Tournament chances.

    Those are just a few of the fabulous freshmen that are impacting college hoops this year more than ever before. Almost all of the top programs across the country feature first-year talent, from Arizona's Hassan Adams to Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony. Florida gets key contributions from three -- Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson and Christian Drejer. Indiana, last year's national runner-up, returned three starters, yet still has a freshman (Bracey Wright) leading them in scoring.

    "'Freshman' is just a label," says Carolina coach Matt Doherty of the new era.

    Before 1972, "freshman" was a label too -- it meant you were ineligble to play varsity ball. How far have they come? Last year two freshmen, VMI's Jason Conley and Texas' T.J. Ford, became the first frosh to lead the nation in scoring and assists, respectively.

    But in a sense, the freshmen trend began with the Fab Five. People called Michigan coach Steve Fisher gutsy for playing them all like he did -- and sitting upperclassmen like Eric Riley, who was the No. 2 rebounder in the Big Ten the year before the Five arrived. But Fisher went with his best talent -- today coaches would be considered gutsy not to play their top recruits right away.

    Which collection of freshmen has made the most impact this season? Don't look on Tobacco Road, but in upstate New York -- at Syracuse. Anthony, the Big East freshman of the year, has received the most hype -- and deservedly so, averaging 22.7 points and 10 boards per game. He dropped 27 points and picked up 11 rebounds in his first collegiate contest against Memphis. But he's had help -- primarily from frosh point guard Gerry McNamara, third on the team at 13.3 ppg and first in assists at 4.6. Another freshman, Billy Edelin, comes off the bench to pitch in 8.4 ppg, and notched 26 in a huge late-season win at Notre Dame.

    The Orange have had some super frosh before under coach Jim Boeheim -- from Derrick Coleman (12 ppg in '86-'87) to Billy Owens (13 ppg in '88-'89) to Lawrence Moten (18 ppg in '91-'92) to John Wallace (11 ppg in '92-'93). But no Orangeman has led Syracuse in scoring -- until now. In fact, Anthony and McNamara are the highest-scoring diaper dandy duo in the country.

    "I don't call them freshmen because they don't play like freshmen," says Boeheim.

    The Big East is chock full of fabulous freshmen -- in fact, every team that made the quarterfinals had an impact player from the Class of 2006.Consider BC's Craig Smith -- who averaged 20 points and eight rebounds this season, yet still finished second in the Big East freshman of the year running to Anthony. So Smith went out and posted 33 points and 11 boards in a quarterfinal win against St. John's -- and he still wears braces.

    "I thought I was just gonna have a decent year, get some defensive stops, grab a few rebounds, make a few plays," Smith says. "This is crazy."

    Not anymore. Yet it's doubtful we'll ever see another group of frosh like the Fab Five, with so many players bypassing college for the pros. Nevertheless, Webber, Rose and co. paved the way for freshmen to get the ball and take the reins as soon as they are ready. And the need for that will only increase. In the last three years combined, 117 American players have forfeited some or all of their college eligibility. In 1993, only 11 players did that, and nine of them were juniors in college.

    And freshmen are not just playing because they're needed to. They're also much better prepared, between prep school experience and AAU participation. They expect to play right away now, and that's often why they decide on a particular school.

    The Fab Five came to an end after Webber called that ill-fated timeout he didn't have, with 11 seconds left against Carolina in the Louisiana Superdome. But even he stayed in school for two seasons. If Carmelo Anthony makes it to this year's Final Four at the Superdome (and even if he doesn't), he will almost certainly have played his last college game.

    Enjoy these fab freshmen while you can.