M College BB
Weekly lineup
 Thursday, February 17
Minutes mount for many freshmen
By Andy Katz

 Duke is giving its team, and especially its freshmen, some time off this week.

If the Blue Devils pushed too hard during a week in which the team has seven days between games, they might mortgage a deep tourney run in March for some short-term gains.

Jason Williams
Duke is counting on Jason Williams to stay strong into the NCAA Tournament.
Freshmen, especially at Duke, seem like they're playing more minutes than ever before, and the chance that they'll hit a mental wall is a concern.

"It's something that we've taken into account," said Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski of the overused, but needed, freshmen starters Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Jason Williams.

"Those guys are playing the majority of minutes, and what we've asked them to do is tough on a senior, let alone a freshman. You never know if they've hit a wall until they get there."

Wojciechowski didn't get nearly the time Williams did at the point as a freshman. Williams would have had his time cut had William Avery stayed in school. The same can be said of Boozer and Dunleavy had Elton Brand and Corey Maggette not bolted early for the NBA, too.

"Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) is great at keeping the guys focused," Wojciechowski said. "But they're all competitors and are proven (in) games. They're already mentally tough."

But the strain on the daily grind, especially picking up the defensive demands (which isn't taught as much in high school) has coaches worried.

"It's a major concern," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Physically, our freshmen are a lot better off to handle it than last year's team. But I'm extremely concerned about the mental makeup. We played 10-12 games and then had a week off. Now, we've got no breaks until March 4. We play every Tuesday or Wednesday and then Saturday or Sunday the rest of the season."

Donovan isn't about to let up in practices, which are still going two hours. But he's stressing concentration during drills -- he doesn't want any lag time.

Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins saw his freshmen wilting last week. But they bounced back and responded with impressive showings against Marquette on Sunday.

"A week ago they were tired," Huggins said of his freshmen guards DerMarr Johnson, Kenny Satterfield and Leonard Stokes. "They're fine now. We played 19 games. We've got 10 more conference games, one non-conference game (Temple), hopefully three in the conference tournament and six in the NCAA Tournament. They're barely halfway through the season."

And that's why Johnson doesn't see himself wilting down the stretch. In fact, he disputed that he hit a wall last week.

"I've never hit one," Johnson said. "I adjusted in the preseason. I got mentally tough at Maine (Central Institute) last year. I'm not even warmed up yet. My peak hasn't come."

The mental toughness that Johnson claims he has can be found in abundance in the Pac-10, where Arizona, Stanford and UCLA have relied heavily on freshmen. If any of their freshmen wilt in March, their seasons could end early.

"Jason Kapono has to play well for us to win," said UCLA assistant Jim Saia of the Bruins' leading scorer. "Look at our league. Kapono, Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas (both of Arizona) and Casey Jacobsen (Stanford) have to have subpar performances for those teams to lose. I don't see them hitting a wall because they've all got postseason hope."

Gardner has shown no signs that he's fading, despite rarely seeing any time on the bench during games. Gardner is averaging 35.9 minutes per game this season, but has seen that total upped to 37.4 in Pac-10 play. He has played the full 40 minutes twice in conference play (against UCLA and Washington State), playing fewer than 36 minutes only once (31 against Washington).

A year ago, the Arizona coaching staff witnessed senior point guard Jason Terry getting gassed late in the year. They don't expect the freshman Gardner to fall.

"I could be wrong, but I don't think it will happen," Arizona assistant Jim Rosborough said. "We'll work Gilbert more at the point during the second half to give Gardner a few minutes of rest. But I've never been around a tougher, lion-hearted kid. It's not like he has had the same supporting cast as Mike Bibby when he was a freshman. He doesn't have experienced guys like Miles Simon or Michael Dickerson next to him."

Jacobsen has had the luxury of not having to carry the Cardinal because of Stanford's deep frontcourt. But he has given no indication that he may not have it in him to last deep into March.

"Casey's a hard nut to crack," Stanford assistant Blaine Taylor said. "Post players might hit more fatigue because of the physical play, but Casey hasn't fatigued."

But no team may need its freshmen to simply get to the NCAA Tournament more than Michigan. The Wolverines rely on three -- guards Jamal Crawford, Kevin Gaines and swingman LaVell Blanchard -- to keep them in every game. The trio averages a combined 44.5 poitns, 15.4 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game while all logging 30-plus minutes a night.

"It's a real concern because the season is so much longer than high school," Michigan assistant Scott Trost said. "I think they'll be all right physically, but the travel, the academics and the length of the season could be a factor soon."

Crawford's next move
Forget about Michigan freshman guard Jamal Crawford transferring. According to the coaching staff, he's never talked about it, and potential destinations Washington (Crawford's hometown is Seattle) and Fresno State (he signed with the Bulldogs in the spring of '98 when he was a fourth-year high school senior) have not heard one word on the subject.

Jamal's a great kid and he's going nowhere but back to Michigan. At one point he was homesick but every freshman is homesick.
Michigan assistant Scott Trost

The only decision Crawford will make in the spring is whether to test the NBA draft -- again -- or stay with the Wolverines.

Speculation on Crawford transferring came about after he walked out of three practices and made a statement that he was committed to Michigan for this season, but gave little indication about the future.

"But Jamal Crawford did not mention the word transfer once, not once," Michigan assistant Scott Trost said. "Jamal's a great kid and he's going nowhere but back to Michigan. At one point he was homesick, but every freshman is homesick."

But not every freshman has tried to enter the draft before attending college. Crawford sent in the paperwork to the NBA last May but it got to the league office a day late. The tardiness prevented him from being on the early-entry list. Had the letter made it in time, Crawford would have been in the draft and unable to attend a four-year school -- even if he withdrew his name at a later date. Crawford was apparently unaware of the rule that forbids high school or junior college players from attending four-year schools if they officially declare for the draft.

Michigan didn't even know Crawford had sent the paperwork into the NBA, but was obviously relieved when it didn't make it in time. The coaching staff won't be surprised if Crawford tests the draft process again, but is expecting him to realize that he wouldn't be a first-round pick and should announce his plans to return to Michigan.

Crawford has exceptional offensive skills but his defense has been lacking during Big Ten games. Crawford is only 18 and played only two years of high school basketball before this season.

Deserving a chance in Buffalo
Buffalo's win over first-place Akron on Monday came on a fluke play when Akron's George Phillips tried to outlet an errant pass under his own basket. With only 6.1 seconds left, the ball hit the outstretched hand of Buffalo's Mike McKie, flew over Phillips' head and into the unexpecting hands of Buffalo's Louis Campbell for a layup. The Bulls won 84-83, beating the first-place Zips in the Mid-American Conference.

When you add in Buffalo's win over Western Michigan on Wednesday, that brings the Bulls' conference win total to three. That's quite an accomplishment under interim coach Reggie Witherspoon, the Erie (N.Y.) Community College coach who took a leave of absence to replace Tim Cohane, who officially resigned amid potential NCAA violations on Dec. 4.

Witherspoon's Bulls showed poise and composure during the Akron game. They are no longer an easy win and seem to play with more of a purpose. But Witherspoon is still on an interim status. One win over the first-place team doesn't guarantee him the job. In fact, the leave of absence allows him to return to Erie if he doesn't get the full-time gig.

"It's only one game and he's going to have to interview and compete for the position," said Buffalo athletics director Bob Arkeilpane. "We've always known that Reggie is an outstanding teacher and good X's and O's guy. I'm not surprised the team looked poised. But coming from the level he came from he's inexperienced in some other areas. He hasn't had to recruit at this level."

That's true. But Witherspoon's coaching should be a recruiting tool. If he surrounds himself with able recruiters, he should be able to make the transition. Going from a junior college to a Division I isn't that rare. BYU's Steve Cleveland went from Fresno City (Calif.) College to the Cougars and has them in contention for a NCAA Tournament berth three years after taking the job.

Arkeilpane believes he would get high-profile candidates. Maybe. But Buffalo could use some consistency, and if Witherspoon can continue to show progress, he should be given a chance after coming in under extremely difficult circumstances.

"There's no question that Reggie is a viable candidate," Arkeilpane said. "Will the job be handed to him? No. But he's a legitimate candidate. Reggie has taken advantage of an opportunity presented to him in short notice. He wouldn't have been a candidate otherwise, but now he's in the mix."

Weekly Chatter

  • Minnesota has asked the NCAA to speed up its investigation and give the school a ruling by early summer.

    The NCAA isn't due to hand down its final decision until October. But the coaching staff has requested that it know its fate early to help with recruiting, not just to the university but also in keeping players who are currently on the team from leaving. Any decisions that could include further postseason bans could send a high-profile player like center Joel Przybilla to the NBA.

    The Gophers are expecting to be hit hard when the final NCAA ruling comes down.

  • Minnesota coach Dan Monson witnessed firsthand the intense rivalry between point guards Scoonie Penn (Ohio State) and Erick Barkley (St. John's) when he was an assistant on the World University Games team last summer. So he wasn't surprised to see Penn's elation when he blocked Barkley's attempt on a last-second 3-pointer last Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

    Penn was the starting point guard for the U.S., a move that apparently angered the competitive Barkley. But Barkley got his chance when Penn was ill for the semifinal and final. Barkley started and led the team to the gold medal.

  • More words have probably been written about Lester Earl the past five years for a career that never amounted to much than anyone in college basketball history. A highly touted high school phenom at the center of a heated recruiting battle, Earl was ticketed for stardom before he got to college.

    He went to LSU, accepted illegal benefits, got the school on probation and fled to Kansas. Since his arrival in Lawrence, he has had problems with his knees and the law.

    The latest bout -- a driving while under the influence arrest -- led coach Roy Williams to indefinitely suspend him. Knee problems limited his effectiveness and kept him mostly on the bench in street clothes this season. Oddly enough, he received an extra year of eligibility to play this season.

    Williams took a chance on Earl and it didn't work out. But he has successfully filled the hole left by Earl's absence with freshmen Drew Gooden and Nick Collison, leaving Earl to be nothing but a nuisance when he gets into trouble. Hopefully, Earl will get his degree and be more productive in life than he was as a player in college.

    Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball runs Thursdays throughout the season.


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