Kentucky freshmen raise the bar

As college basketball fans wandered (or stumbled) down Bourbon Street during the Final Four last month, Nerlens Noel walked the infamous New Orleans strip without causing a stir.

No one yelled his name. No one approached for autographs. No one seemed to notice the forward who's ranked No. 1 in ESPNU 100's 2012 recruiting class.

That rare calm for the defensive sensation and future NBA lottery pick, however, did not last long.

Soon after he unveiled the "UK" logo carved into the back of his high-top fade on ESPNU's national signing day show, Noel became the heir to a throne that Anthony Davis apparently established a month ago.

Noel and Co. -- another elite recruiting class for Kentucky -- entered signing day atop a platform of expectations that previous freshman crews had largely avoided.

The wave engulfed UCLA, too. Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker have a great charge on the West Coast, too.

Can incoming freshman (potential) stars Isaiah Austin (Baylor) and Kaleb Tarczewski (Arizona) elevate their respective programs in (only) Year 1? If they don't, they'll be criticized.

Kentucky's freshman-led push to the national championship increased the pressure that recruits next season and beyond will encounter as soon as they sign. For next season's top freshmen, reaching Atlanta, site of the Final Four in 2013, won't impress. National championships are the expectations now.

Before Kentucky won the program's eighth national title, freshmen had proved that they were elite and capable of winning it all.

The Fab Five should have done it twice. Carmelo Anthony starred in Syracuse's national title game victory over a veteran Kansas squad in 2003.

But the NBA's age limit changed the bar. Coaches grabbed talented prep kids who had no plans to stay beyond one season. Here, and then, gone. No time to jell. No time to fix the kinks. Only in-season development plans, because they knew these stars weren't coming back.

Some of those young teams came close. Others missed the mark.

We've witnessed some amazing one-and-done gems. Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, John Wall and Michael Beasley all dazzled during their six months on campus.

Whether they joined forces or went solo, the most talented freshmen of the one-and-done era had left abruptly and empty-handed.

That's how the myth grew.
"In the one-and-done era, freshmen aren't equipped to grab gold."

They'd always approach the ultimate team achievement in college basketball, many assumed, but lose to more experienced squads. They had few reasons to expect another outcome.

Then, last season's Wildcats showed up.

Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague anchored one of the most talented Division I teams in the sport's recent history.

We were reminded of the potential within this new era, one that finally offered an assembly of underclassmen who possessed the chemistry and bravado to blaze through the NCAA tournament.

And now … we want a repeat.

Davis recently proclaimed of Noel, a 6-foot-10 shot-blocking savant: "I think he is better than me." That might be true.

And with top-15 recruits Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin joining him in Lexington, John Calipari should compete for his second national title next season.

But it won't be a given.

Kentucky had a special brand of swagger and togetherness. It just clicked in ways that past young groups hadn't.

Unless next season's Kentucky and UCLA teams possess similar traits, they'll meet the same fate as past one-and-done squads.

Noel should be a great defensive presence. But what about his other skills? Can he handle the ball like Davis? Is he as versatile on both ends of the floor?

Plus, Kidd-Gilchrist was one of the five most talented players in America. Who fits that bill on Kentucky's current roster?

And it's not just about the Wildcats.

Parker, Muhammad and Anderson made UCLA a top-10 team when they joined forces like "The Avengers" on national signing day. Their merger seemed to erase recent memories of UCLA's tumble down the standings and out of the Top 25 polls last season.

Perhaps the freshmen will make the Bruins a contender again. But it's always a crapshoot with teams that rely on freshmen. Things tend to fall apart, not come together, in the postseason.

So I won't assume anything about the 2012-13 recruiting class or future freshmen -- although I expect both UCLA and Kentucky to contend for the crown. Two potential victories in Atlanta, however, are a different matter.

One coach has found the winning formula, but relying on first-year stars rarely results in titles.

That's because experience, chemistry and self-composure -- characteristics typically attained by young players over time -- always matter when the lights come on. Even the most mature, skilled freshmen tend to struggle in the final chapter of the college basketball season.

If the Wildcats had failed to win a national title in New Orleans, Noel would have entered the 2012-13 campaign as another highly touted prospect. But Kentucky's national title prompted an increased level of expectation that incoming recruiting classes won't escape, even if it's an unfair standard.

It's not "you can" win it all. It's "you should" win it all.

Even Noel can't swat away that speculation.