Arizona continues to refer to its first-year basketball players as freshmen, but, c’mon, they are no longer freshmen. Not at Arizona’s level of college basketball.
As long ago as 1688 at the University of Cambridge, first-year students were called Fresh Men. That ancient term seems more appropriate for modern college basketball.
By the time Alex Barcello started at point guard in Wednesday’s 91-63 exhibition victory over Eastern New Mexico, he had played 121 high school games, which included made-for-profit showdowns against the leading teams in America — St. Anthony’s of New Jersey, Garfield High of Seattle, Findlay Prep of Nevada, Christ the King of New York and others from Hawaii, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
When not playing for two-time state champion Tempe Corona del Sol, Barcello played for various AAU travel clubs, with maybe 75 games per year, probably 300 total, against guys who now play for Duke, Kansas, you name it.
A freshman? No way. Not the way America thinks of a freshman. When Sean Elliott left Cholla High School for the UA in 1985, the future national Player of the Year hadn’t played even 200 organized games, less than half of Barcello’s game log.
“These guys have traveled more and played so many more games than other generations,” UA coach Sean Miller said Wednesday. “It has really changed college basketball.”
About the only thing Barcello got wrong Wednesday was the pre-game protocol. Instead of running to the “Block A” at center court with other starters, Barcello hesitated, looked around in darkened arena, and then jogged over to shake hands with Greyhounds coach Tres Segler.
Nobody does that.
Arizona started Barcello and first-year players Brandon Randolph and Deandre Ayton against ENMU, which no longer turns heads the way it did in 1973 when Fred Snowden’s Kiddie Korps started four “freshmen” in the first-ever game at McKale Center.
Miller fully expects his Fresh Men to deliver the Wildcats to the place juniors and seniors used to take college basketball teams. The UA’s first substitution on Wednesday was Fresh Man Emmanuel Akot, who earlier this week was named by ESPN the No. 4 small forward prospect in the 2018 NBA draft.
Akot buried his first four shots, including a pair of 3-balls. Times have changed. It took consensus All-Americans Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves a full year to get into Arizona’s starting lineup, and both required four seasons before becoming lottery draft picks.
Impressively, Akot, who bypassed a final year of prep school to play at Arizona, has a plan that many freshmen don’t.
“I’m trying to get better and make it to the NBA,” he said. “I thought here was the place to go.”
Even though the competition wasn’t anything close to what Arizona will face over the next five months, Ayton was so good Wednesday that future UA opponents will shudder when they study the game tapes. Ayton scored 25 points in his first 17 minutes. He’s fluid. He’s fast. He’s fit. He looks like someone you see long-jumping at the Olympics.
The word “freshman” does not fit.
The UA’s five Fresh Men outscored the entire ENMU team, 71-63.
“They approach things almost as if they are not freshmen,” said Miller.
Now that the season has begun, however unofficially, the Wildcats should be able to move past the “Book and Beer” prelude to the season. Assistant coach Book Richardson’s legal troubles and the application to sell beer at McKale Center will now be (temporarily) pushed aside while the community absorbs the talent these Fresh Men have added to an already robustly talented roster.
After two bumpy seasons, after early NCAA tournament exits and the troubles of Elliott Pitts and Allonzo Trier, after the career-ending injury to Ray Smith, the Wildcats seem to be overdue for some good fortune.
Could a victory over an otherwise obscure Eastern New Mexico club be a harbinger of a change in luck?
The only other time Arizona played ENMU was in December 1960. The Wildcats set a school scoring record, 118 points, and seemed poised for a break-out season after three consecutive losing years.
But a day after routing the Greyhounds, UA coach Fred Enke announced he would enter the hospital for kidney surgery and would not be able to accompany the Wildcats on a trip to Iowa and Nebraska. A month later, Enke announced he was retiring.
Arizona crumbled and finished 11-15.
That was a long, long time ago, and things have changed. In 1960-61 no Fresh Man played a minute for the Wildcats.
Let’s just hope Miller’s kidneys hold up to the expectations.