Those fabulous freshmen at Duke arrived after another first-year group had already set the trend.
But although they were too late to get the slick nickname and accompanying hype of Michigan's Fab Five, their timing has otherwise been impeccable.
Three members of its standout freshman class of four led Duke to an 80-67 victory over Syracuse Friday night in the South Regional semifinals before 40,589 at Tropicana Field. Duke plays Kentucky, which defeated UCLA in the other semifinal, for the regional championship Sunday.
And Duke (32-3) is playing in its eighth regional final since 1986 because freshman guard William Avery, and forwards Elton Brand and Shane Battier, don't play like newcomers.
"This was a great night for the freshmen," Brand said. "Sometimes it's a great night for the seniors, but tonight we stepped up and helped."
The youngest Blue Devils were too much for the Orangemen, taking control of the game during a pivotal stretch in the second half. With Duke struggling offensively and the score tied, 49-49, they combined to score 11 consecutive points. The Blue Devils took a 60-49 lead with 7 minutes 22 seconds remaining, and changed their teammates' facial expressions.
"Just watching those guys play the way they did got everyone else pumped up," sophomore forward Chris Carrawell said. "We needed a lift, a spark, because Syracuse was right there, and those guys took over.
"That's the thing about those three freshmen, they have come through all season. You better not think you can rattle them--because you can't."
Syracuse (26-9) came close to rattling Duke, but Avery, Brand and Battier had a calming effect on their more experienced teammates.
Duke controlled much of the game with their superior talent and depth. Relying on their standout perimeter shooters--and Brand inside--they led, 40-30, at halftime, and maintained comfortable leads early in the second half.
Syracuse's 2-3 zone wasn't a problem for the Blue Devils. They got the shots they wanted, but then became too comfortable.
"It seemed easy, like we could do whatever we wanted to," senior point guard Steve Wojciechowski said. "But they are a great defensive team, and they really picked it up."
Duke failed to score during 3:12 stretch in the second half. Syracuse tied the score with 12:21 left behind the play of swingman Todd Burgan (20 points, 10 rebounds) and point guard Jason Hart (15 points).
So Duke turned to its freshmen.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski changed his lineup, inserting Avery at the point. He quickly passed to Brand for consecutive layups, putting Duke ahead, 53-49. A three-point basket by Avery, sandwiched between jumpers by Battier, provided what Duke needed to relax again.
"I don't want to take anything away from anyone else, but the play of William Avery was extremely critical," Krzyzewski said. "He penetrated the zone and he set some things up for Elton and Shane. He was exceptional."
Brand led Duke with 20 points and 14 rebounds, Battier had 14 and seven, and Avery had 11 points and six assists. Center Chris Burgess, the other member of the standout freshman class, failed to score in four minutes.
"You know, I know they are freshmen, but we don't look at them that way," Wojciechowski said. "Especially William, Elton and Shane. They have made big play after big play all season. They have been through all the tough moments, so they are a lot more than just freshmen."
Syracuse can attest to that.