•The battle-tested factor. Thanks to the AAU and summer-camp circuits, today's top high schoolers play year-round against the best competition in major arenas all over the country—sometimes all over the globe. "Freshmen can make the adjustment so much easier now because they're so much more worldly," says Williams. "Twenty-five years ago you'd find kids who had never been out of their home state, and now I'm recruiting kids who have been to Paris and Hawaii."
Gooden, a smooth 6'9" slasher who was the No. 5-ranked Jayhawks' second-leading scorer (11.5 points a game) and top re-bounder (8.0) through Sunday despite coming off the bench, was just such a youthful globetrotter. In high school Gooden made basketball-related journeys to such far-flung locales as The Hague, and once you've hooped at the World Court, the world's courts are a cinch. When the Jayhawks opened the season with three games in as many days in Alaska, Gooden was ready. "The travel wasn't any problem," he says. "In the summers I've always played three or four games a day in AAU ball. We'd go from Vegas to New Jersey to L.A. and back to Vegas again. You're basically away from home for two months playing basketball."
In the process, of course, you're able to gauge yourself against the top players in your class. Kansas freshman forward Nick Collison, who was averaging 6.7 rebounds a game, credits his unflappability to having played the last two years on USA Basketball's Junior World Championship team mat competed in the Dominican Republic and in Portugal. "Playing against quicker, faster, bigger guys has helped a lot, and so has playing for college coaches the past two summers," Collison says. "They ran the practices just like college practices, so I was ready for the intensity when I got here."
•The PG-rating factor. Each year more and more top prospects gain maturity and experience by spending postgraduate seasons at prep schools, either by choice or because of academic shortcomings. For example, Cincinnati's 6'10" freshman guard, DerMarr Johnson, had slipped from No. 1 to No. 30 in one recruiting newsletter two years ago; then he shipped out for a postgrad year at Maine Central Institute. "It was the longest, hardest year he's ever had, but he went to practice every day with a purpose," says UNLV assistant coach Max Good, who was Johnson's coach at MCI. Bulked up with 30 pounds of extra muscle, Johnson has rediscovered his mojo and was the second-leading scorer for the top-ranked Bearcats, averaging 13.8 points a game.
•The who's-recruiting-whom factor. Top prospects are so skilled at finding programs where they can play right away that they could have fall-back careers as recruiting experts. "Nothing escapes them," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "They have media guides from everywhere, they dial up the Internet, and they find out whom coaches are recruiting. Even if they don't do that, other coaches tell them. They know exactly where they can play right away."
One freshman who refused to be an understudy is SirValiant Brown, George Washington's fun-and-gun freshman point guard who was second in the nation in scoring through Sunday with 26.3 points a game. The son of Camelot aficionados Robbie and Marcela—the middle name of SirValiant's brother Cody is SirLancelot—Brown has done everything for GW so far this season except pull a sword from a stone, pouring in 33 points on two occasions (though also amassing a heap of turnovers). Naturally, the main reason he picked the Colonials was that guard Shawnta Rogers graduated last year. "I couldn't sit down for three years," says Brown. "Who would want to do that, unless you ain't a player?"
SirValiant may be proving himself worthy, but that hardly means all freshmen are as ready for the college game as they think. Because more players are having early success, the expectations of many others are laughably overblown. "Now the kids think that if you can't go to the NBA after one or two years of college, you aren't any good," says Villanova coach Steve Lappas.
Sacramento State coach Tom Abatemarco, who was an assistant at North Carolina State in the early 1980s, remembers when the Wolfpack signed Vinny Del Negro and then barely played him for two seasons. "If that happened today, he'd have transferred," says Abatemarco. "You're talking about a 10-year NBA player, and we made him sit. He was comfortable with that, but he wouldn't be today."
Consequently, coaches create opportunities for freshmen in ways they didn't always do before. "These days you find reasons to get players into games that have more to do than with just whether they can help you win the game," says Lappas.
Still, coaches are a conservative lot, and many of them warn that the rookies who are playing so well in early December might have trouble come February. "It will be interesting to see how many of them can keep it up, because I believe that every freshman hits the wall, physically and mentally, usually during the conference part of the schedule," says Marquette coach Tom Crean. "As the season goes on, you learn which ones can overcome fatigue and be productive."