- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Only eight times in the last 25 seasons has a freshman point guard led his team to the Final Four. Among those rookies, only two -- Arizona's Mike Bibby in 1997 and Syracuse's Gerry McNamara in 2003 -- completed the journey and won a national championship in their first college season.
Ohio State's Mike Conley Jr. hopes to become the third freshman point guard to accomplish the rare feat. The mission continues when the Buckeyes play Georgetown in the national semifinals Saturday night at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. The winner of the other Saturday semifinal -- defending national champion Florida against 11-time NCAA king UCLA -- awaits in Monday night's national title game.
Conley Jr. was the lone heralded freshman point guard to survive the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina's Ty Lawson, Texas' D.J. Augustin and Georgia Tech's Javaris Crittenton all fell short of guiding their teams to the Final Four. Conley won't be the only inexperienced point guard playing on college basketball's biggest stage this weekend, though.
UCLA's Darren Collison is in his first season as a starter after replacing Jordan Farmar, who last season led the Bruins to their first Final Four appearance in 11 years. Hoyas sophomore Jessie Sapp, who handles the basketball as much as anyone in Georgetown's Princeton offense, averaged only 16 minutes in 2005-06 before stepping into the starting lineup this season.
As far as experience, Florida figures to have a decided advantage with junior point guard Taurean Green. The son of former UNLV star Sidney Green has played in 108 games during his three-year college career, including 76 starts the last two seasons.
If Conley becomes the third freshman point guard to win a national championship, he might have to do more than the rookies who played in the Final Four before him, each of whom had plenty of help around them. Alvin Franklin was a freshman point guard on the 1983 Houston team that lost to Jim Valvano's North Carolina State team at the buzzer, but the Cougars were led by Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon.
Bobby Hurley was a freshman on the 1990 Duke team, which lost to UNLV by 30 points in the NCAA Tournament final. Hurley was still in a supporting role on a Blue Devils squad led by Phil Henderson and Christian Laettner. Georgia Tech freshman point guard Kenny Anderson led the Yellow Jackets to the Final Four that same season; Anderson was only one-third of the Yellow Jackets' "Lethal Weapon 3" (with Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver).
Two years later, Jalen Rose led Michigan's "Fab Five" to the 1992 NCAA Tournament finals, where he received plenty of help from fellow Wolverine rookies Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Juwan Howard.
In 1997, Bibby's Arizona team was led by Miles Simon, who scored 30 points in Arizona's 84-79 overtime win over Kentucky. And McNamara played with Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony, who scored 20 points and added 10 rebounds and 7 assists in the Orangemen's 81-78 victory over Kansas in the 2003 NCAA championship game.
"I think one of the biggest keys that people probably forget is usually when freshman come in and help take a team to the Final Four, there's a bunch of veterans coming back," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "We had one starter coming back on this basketball team. In essence, we've added seven or eight new guys to the roster. I think [the freshmen] have had a tremendous impact, maybe unlike anybody's ever had before with the job they've done."
Conley has been overshadowed by teammate Greg Oden, the Buckeyes' dominating freshman center, who played with Conley at North Lawrence High in Indianapolis last season. But Conley has helped carry Ohio State through the NCAA Tournament, while Oden often has been saddled by foul trouble. Conley averaged 19 points in the last three NCAA Tournament games and scored 11 points in overtime during the Buckeyes' 78-71 victory over Xavier in the second round.
"Mike will bring so much to the table besides points and assists," Matta said. "Defensively, his activity off the ball has been terrific. He gets his hands on so many balls. But the stabilizing factor is what I love about him. If the team is pressing us, once we get the basketball in his hands, I'm like, 'Yeah, we're in good shape here.'"
Green produces that same stability for the Gators, who have four potent scorers in forwards Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah and shooting guard Lee Humphrey. It is Green's job to set the pace and distribute the basketball, as well as provide scoring and perimeter shots when opponents focus their attention on defending Horford and Noah.
Green was named Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional after scoring 17 and 21 points in the Gators' victories over Butler and Oregon, respectively.
"The guy that's unsung for them is Sidney Green's son," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "He's one of the best point guards in the country. Their point guard, he's terrific."
Howland should know how dangerous Green can be for the Gators. In the 2006 NCAA Tournament finals, when Florida blasted the Bruins 73-57 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Green had eight assists and only one turnover. Green had nearly twice as many assists (23) as turnovers (12) in six NCAA Tournament games last season, helping lead the Gators to their first national championship in the sport.
Green struggled shooting in last season's NCAA Tournament, making only 27.5 percent of his shots, including 9-for-35 on 3-pointers. He was off to another slow start in the Tournament this year, shooting a combined 4-for-18, including 3-for-15 on 3-pointers, in the Gators' victories over No. 16 seed Jackson State and No. 9 seed Purdue in the first two rounds, but rebounded in the last two games.
Green knows the Gators will face a stiff test against UCLA's suffocating pressure defense.
"We don't really like to pressure, and they like to get out and put some heat on the ball," Green said. "We're just going to have to do a good job of going against the pressure and initiating our offense. We need to take care of the ball and be patient."
Collison, the son of two former world-class sprinters from Guyana, will be the player applying the most pressure on Green. In his first season as a starter, Collison has averaged 12.8 points and has nearly twice as many assists (194) as turnovers (102). He doesn't look to shoot as much as Farmar, who averaged 13.5 points last season while taking 420 shots -- including 189 3-pointers. Collison has attempted 298 field goals -- 144 fewer than All-American guard Arron Afflalo -- and is shooting 49 percent from the floor. He has 46.3 percent accuracy on 3-pointers.
"The biggest difference for them is Jordan Farmar is now playing in the NBA, and Darren Collison has come in for him," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He has taken over that lead role at the point and has done a terrific job. He's a big-time player."
Collison's mother, June Griffith Collison, was ranked No. 10 in the world in the 400 meters in 1979 and represented Guyana at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. His father, Dennis Collison, was a 200-meter sprinter and ran in the Pan American Games. Collison said he never considered following his parents into track and instead focused on basketball while growing up in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
"I didn't run track," Collison said. "I didn't have the patience for it. I felt like my parents accomplished what they did in that sport, and I wanted to do something different."
But Collison still finds ways to use his speed on the basketball court. He is an ultraquick point guard with fast hands, who can penetrate and shoot from the perimeter. With five steals in the Bruins' 68-55 upset of No. 1 seed Kansas in the West Regional finals, Collison passed former guard Baron Davis with 78 steals this season, second-most by a UCLA player in a season, behind Cameron Dollar's 82 in 1997.
"I'm going to use my speed to my advantage," Collison said. "I feel like my parents gave me a gift and I'm going to use it. When we're playing defense, coach Howland tells me to use my speed and that's what I'm going to do."
Sapp is the closest thing the Hoyas have to a point guard. He leads the team with 124 assists (forward Jeff Green and guard Jonathan Wallace are close behind with 115 and 112, respectively), but has fewer turnovers than Green and Wallace, and brings the basketball up the court most of the time. The 6-foot-3 sophomore from New York has been a stabilizing presence for the Hoyas, who lost starters Ashanti Cook and Brandon Bowman from the team that advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2006.
Sapp leads the Hoyas in steals and assists and is a stout defender -- he limited Lawson to only five points in Georgetown's 96-84 overtime upset of No. 1 seed North Carolina in the East Regional final.
"Those guys control the team," Green said of Sapp and Wallace. "They bring the ball down the floor, call the plays and make sure everybody is where they need to be. In the previous games we had in this tournament, those have been the guys who have kept us in the games. They step up when they need to."
Whichever point guard steps up this weekend might be the one cutting the nets Monday night.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.