With all the focus this week on potential future Wilcats visiting for Midnight Madness (or Big Blue Madness, if you must) on Friday, it seems a good time to address a topic that has been sticking in my craw for some time.
There is a sentiment among a certain segment of fans that Tubby Smith's up-and-down recruiting success is at least in part due to his reluctance to play freshmen solid minutes in their initial tour of duty. This is also rumored to be a familiar negative recruiting tool used by opposing coaches. But, you see, it's simply not true.
Prompted by an intrepid message board poster, I ventured a look at how freshmen have fared under Smith, and whether there was any value to the assessment that Tubby's kids ride pine in favor of established -- and possibly less talented -- upperclassmen. What I found was surprising insomuch as it was nearly the exact opposite of what folks had been saying.
As it turns out, Smith's track record with freshmen at Kentucky is remarkably positive. Since the All-SEC Freshman team has existed as an award (1987), Smith has produced five first-teamers, more than Rick Pitino did, and far more than one would expect given Smith's so-called "recruiting problems" and the outstanding perceptions mentioned above.
Taking an even closer look (thanks again, Jon Scott) shows just how much Smith has relied on rookies to keep his teams fresh and his rotations deep. Since his arrival in 1998, Tubby has had eight of his freshmen play in all of a particular season's games, and on several occasions had freshmen miss only 1-3 games.
Among his more heralded recruits, Tubby got major contributions from Tayshaun Prince (5th in minutes played, played in all 37 games in 1998), Keith Bogans (All-SEC Freshman first-team, 5th in minutes, all 33 games in 1999), Jason Parker (All-SEC Freshman first-team, all 37 games in 2000) and Rajon Rondo (4th in minutes, All-SEC Freshman first-team, all 34 games in 2005) to name just a few notables.
Looking past even the McDonald's All-Americans above, some of Tubby's 'diamond-in-the-rough' recruits have had similarly strong freshman campaigns. Top-100 power forward Chuck Hayes (All-SEC Freshman first-team) broke through on a loaded squad to start most of the SEC season, while a little-known spring signee named Gerald Fitch came on to make a huge impact as a rebounding guard, in addition to the first-team All-SEC freshman team.
So where does this perception that Tubby doesn't play his frosh come from? I can only assume it has to do with Smith's notoriously quick hook, or possibly from the ineffectiveness of the 2003 and 2006 freshmen, who were simply not ready for prime time. In 2003 and 2004, the effect wasn't as noticeable since both clubs were upperclass-laden.
Rookie Kelenna Azubuike played the most for the 2003 Cats, but he couldn't break into a rotation that won 26 straight games. Understandable. The 2005-06 Cats could have used Tyler Hansbrough, who instead played his way into the national All-American team for North Carolina. But the guys that did arrive -- Jared Carter and Adam Williams -- were simply not prepared or developed enough to get the job done.
So will the newest 2006-07 Wildcats be in the Bogans-Fitch variety in terms of impact or the Sheray Thomas-Adam Williams vein? it's impossible to know, but one thing seems clear to me -- the idea that Tubby Smith doesn't play his freshmen is a myth, pure and simple.
Maybe it has something to do with how much talent, hustle or defensive presence a player displays, but despite popular misconception, it doesn't have anything to do with them not getting the chance to play.