Love, Rose and Gordon are superstars with realistic title hopes
John Calipari tried to make this Derrick Rose-Marvin Williams comparison last month.
He worked it hard. He said Rose could do for Memphis what Williams did for North Carolina in 2004-05. That was the season the highly touted Williams came to a team that was already loaded and played a reserve role, became one of the finishers on the court and ultimately turned into the highest draft pick among all the other well-known names on the squad.
Did you watch Rose earlier this week? In two wins over Tennessee-Martin and Richmond, he averaged 19 points and shot 58.3 percent in 25 minutes. Does that sound like a role player?
"He is our horse," Calipari said. "He's what [Marcus] Camby was for us [at UMass in 1996]. He'll break games open for us."
So much for preseason expectations. Prior to the season, Calipari actually thought about bringing Rose off the bench for the first game and starting sophomore Willie Kemp instead. It didn't take too long to change his mind.
"He's too good,'' Calipari said. "I went to Willie and said, 'How do you feel about starting the young kid?' He had no problem with it.''
He shouldn't. Rose, like Kevin Love at UCLA and Eric Gordon at Indiana, is in a unique situation as a freshman. He can join a ready-made team -- which made the NCAA Tournament last season -- and not have to feel the pressure of shouldering the full load. But he, like Love or Gordon, may be that missing piece that helps his team win the title.
Granted, this season's versions of Texas' Kevin Durant -- the superstar freshmen who are the go-to players from day one on good but not great teams -- may be O.J. Mayo at USC and Michael Beasley at Kansas State. And while they may get all the hype, their teams aren't expected to be contenders.
Meanwhile, UCLA, Memphis and Indiana could reasonably get to the Final Four with a freshman as the key player but not that go-to guy, although each rookie could play the leading role for their respective teams from time to time.
"This has worked out well,'' said Rose, who joins a team that returns five starters. "For me, coming here with all these veterans to give me advice on the floor helps. It's way different [than the situations for Durant and Greg Oden]. I'm not sure how they did it. They had to live up to [the hype] and that's one of the reasons I came here. I didn't want to be in that situation.''
Alas, the secret is out. Just check the newsstands and Rose is on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. He also has been the featured Memphis player during the Tigers' first two games in the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. And Rose will be the drawing card late next week, when Memphis headlines the semifinals of the event at Madison Square Garden.
Memphis didn't lose a starter off last season's Elite Eight team. UCLA did. So while Rose is taking a spot that originally wasn't open, Love is filling the void left by wing Arron Afflalo on the Final Four Bruins. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute slides down to small forward and Lorenzo Mata-Real moves down a peg to power forward so Love can become the team's center. Love could be that missing piece for the championship puzzle, easing the burdens on point guard Darren Collison and wings Mbah a Moute and Josh Shipp.
"They're surrounded by other good players and that makes their job easier,'' Howland said of Rose and Love.
"It takes a lot of the pressure off, but with that comes team expectations,'' Love said.
The main sticking point for impact freshmen on teams that are already national contenders will be the overused word: chemistry.
Still, Michigan State's Tom Izzo said establishing and keeping good chemistry with superstar freshmen and proven veterans is paramount to long-term success.
"It's a balancing act. Does the chemistry stay the same?" Izzo said. "Sometimes it's easier when there are freshmen all learning together.''
Love might be in the best situation since he won't have to monopolize the ball.
When Zach Randolph was at Michigan State, it worked out well because he was a freshman big man fitting in with an experienced team coming off the 2001 Final Four, Izzo said. That sounds a little like Love's situation.
"I'll be interested to see how all this pans out,'' Izzo said.
Rose and Gordon will not have the same luxury. They'll have similar roles to that of OSU freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr., who had the ball in his hands last season and arguably had the biggest impact in leading the Buckeyes to the title game.
But none of these freshman superstars will have the pressure of carrying a team by themselves.
Tyler Hansbrough was a high-profile freshman on a team gutted by the NBA draft just two seasons ago. He said he would have loved to have at least one player back from North Carolina's 2005 title team.
"There's added pressure on the teams that lose big-name guys to go in there and perform like you did in high school,'' said Hansbrough, who led the Tar Heels to the NCAA Tournament before losing to George Mason.
"I felt it more as a freshman than I would have had Sean [May] or Marvin [Williams] been there.''
Rose, Gordon and Love will have that veteran experience to lean on. But at the same time, they're shouldering their own high expectations. After the first two games, Calipari is now pumping Rose as a potential player of the year candidate. Howland can't get enough of Love's work ethic in practice, overall impact on the boards and efforts in helping the Bruins' offense run smoothly. Gordon can be the backcourt difference-maker at IU.
So even though the consensus All-American teams didn't have any freshmen, don't be surprised if a rookie sneaks into a first-team All-American slot come March.
Memphis or UCLA, two of the consensus top-three teams, may win the title with the help of a freshman added to an already-loaded team. Those players, Rose and Love, could ultimately be the most valuable players on their respective teams. Who knows, maybe they're the best in the country.
It's a trend that was started by Durant and Oden, and it appears it will continue. The only difference: Neither of those players joined teams that have half the foundation Memphis and UCLA have going into the season.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.