Forty Years of Freshman Eligibility
by
Jun 06, 2012 -- 11:01am

   It had been an accepted practice for decades - college freshmen didn't play varsity sports.  Period.  It made for some interesting scenarios, like when Lew Alcindor's freshman team at UCLA crushed the varsity in a scrimmage in 1965.  The Bruins were defending NCAA champions!  Or at LSU during the 1966-67 season when the fans would pack the gym for the freshman game and leave before the main event.  Their night was complete, having seen the sensational "Pistol" Pete Maravich play.  The thought of next year was always tantalizing.

     At Maryland, during the 1970-71 season, the freshman team led by Tom McMillen and Len Elmore routinely beat the competition by 40.  Watching those guys play made you truly believe coach Lefty Driesell's pitch about turning Maryland in to the UCLA of the east.  It would just have to wait until McMillen and Elmore became sophmores.
     As super sophs, they took the first step by beating Niagra by 31 points to win the National Invitational Tournament, when only 25 teams made the NCAA tournament.  Finally, as juniors, McMillen and Elmore appeared poised to take the Terps to the Lefty-promised land.  Not only was most of that NIT title team returning, a new NCAA era was about to begin.  Freshman were now eligible to play on the varsity.
     Some wondered how it would be possible to make the giant leap from high school to center stage.  That question was quickly answered in that fall of 1972 when freshman running back Archie Griffin started tearing it up for Ohio State.  But how about basketball?  Surely it would take time to crack a lineup, especially on a veteran team.
     So when the Maryland basketball team opened practice for the start of the 72-73 season, it was assumed the point guard duties would be handled by senior Howard White with help from Billy Hahn, who had started on Maryland's last-ever freshman team.  Wrong assumption.  Enter freshman John Lucas, who had offers to play just about everywhere, but chose Maryland because he would also be allowed to play on the tennis team.  Eventually he became an All American in both sports.  
     Lucas not only became the starting point guard from day one, he became the instant leader of that veteran team which also started seniors Bob Bodell and Jim O'Brien with juniors McMillen and Elmore.  He was in complete control on the court, leading the Terps to win after win, including an upset of third-ranked North Carolina, led by Bob McAdoo in late January at Cole Field House.  Maryland lost three times to North Carolina State, including the final of the ACC tournament, but it didn't matter.  NC State was ineligible for the NCAA tournament because of the illegal recruting of David Thompson, so Maryland went to the big dance (they didn't call it that in those days) for only the second time in school history.  They wound up losing in the second round to Ernie DiGregorio and Providence, but finished the year ranked number eight by the Associated Press.  
     The following year, with only four losses during the season, Maryland lost that classic overtime game to NC State in the ACC tournament and didn't get to compete in the NCAA's.  So impactful was the loss, that it led to the NCAA expanding the tournament to 32 teams, with at-large berths awarded to teams that didn't win conference championships.  But, as Lucas and others proved, freshmen could indeed contribute.  And in some cases, dominate.  Brad Davis arrived as a freshman in 1974 and joined then juniors Lucas and Mo Howard to form a three-guard offense that took the Terps to the Elite Eight.
     Albert King and Buck Williams arrived as freshman in back-to-back years at Maryland in the late 70's and made instant impacts.  Across town, Patrick Ewing's freshman season ended with a loss to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.  Joe Smith and Keith Booth as freshmen during the 93-94 season, got Maryland to the Sweet 16.  Yinka Dare put George Washington instantly on the map when he showed up at Foggy Bottom as a freshman in 1992.  The Colonials made it to the Sweet 16.  And who could forget Allen Iverson, just months removed from prison, showing up as a freshman at Georgetown in 1994 and created a basketball sensation that this area has never seen and may never see again.
     Former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who played on a freshman team at Maryland, and later coached freshman teams at Maryland and Lafayette, wonders whether the old way may have been the better way.  Even though he had no problem starting freshman like Smith and Booth and later Steve Blake and Greivas Vasquez, Williams believes doing away with freshman eligiblity may solve problems for both college basketball and the NBA.  Athletes would be able to make a smoother adjustment to college life and players would come in to the pros at least two years after graduating high school, instead of the current one.  He conceeds it won't happen, but 40 years after the change, at least it's worth talking about.
 
The Script Flips
 
     After seeing what I saw, 35 years ago, I should have known better than to shoot my mouth off and declare the eastern and western finals over with in the NBA when the Spurs and Heat had 2-0 series leads.  Now each of the early leaders is a road loss away from making me look like a complete fool. 
     Back in 1977, the Philadelphia 76ers seemed to have all you needed to win a title.  The 1976-77 season was the first after the merger with the ABA.  Even though the Nets were one of the four ABA teams that survived and advanced to the new NBA, their cash-strapped owner was forced to deal superstar Julius Erving to Philadelphia.  He would join another ex-ABA star in George McGinnis, former number one overall pick Doug Collins, steady Steve Mix and a gunner who had legally changed his name from Lloyd to "World B" Free.  Role players included the first to go from high school to the NBA in Darryl Dawkins and a guy who went by the name "Jellybean", who would later have a more famous son named Kobe.  Certainly a whacky, but talented bunch.
     Defending champion Boston had taken the 76ers to seven games in the eastern semifinals, but they took of Moses Malone and the Rockets (yes Houston was in the east in those days) in the eastern finals.  Their NBA-finals opponent would be the Portland Trail Blazers, who had finished behind the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers in the Pacific division, but had swept LA in the western finals.
     To the surprise of no one, the 76ers won the opening game of the finals by six and game two by 18.  They figured after a quick trip out west, they might be coming back to Philadelphia, NBA champions.  They figured wrong.  The Bill Walton gang flipped the script and won the two games at the Rose Garden, 129-107 and 130-98.  Two games won by a combined total of 54 points!  The 76ers never recovered, losing game five at home and the series in six at Portland. 
     History may be repeating itself in both the eastern and western finals.  I should have seen it coming.
 
 


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