Step aside, kids, the adults are here to reclaim the NCAA tournament.
If the next three weeks follow the pattern from the regular season, seniors – dinosaurs of a bygone college basketball era – will rule the bracket.
The top player on three of the four No. 1 seeded teams – North Carolina, Kansas, and Virginia – is a senior. The fourth No. 1 seed, Oregon, has three seniors among its five top scorers.
A year after Duke won the national title with a freshmen-oriented lineup, young is out and old is in for the “Year of the Senior.”
Seniors are everywhere. There’s North Carolina’s Brice Johnson, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Kansas’ Perry Ellis and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield to name a handful of the best.
You throw in Michigan State’s Bryn Forbes, UNC’s Marcus Paige, Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell, Iowa State’s Georges Niang, West Virginia’s Jaysean Paige and Oregon’s Elgin Cook and CBS’s “One Shining Moment” is almost guaranteed to be a senior moment.
“There’s so many of them,” ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. “The seniors have taken charge this season. I think it’s great for the tournament, and as someone who loves college basketball, great for the game.”
Brogdon (ACC), Valentine (Big Ten) and Hield (Big 12) each won their conference’s respective player of the year awards. It was the first time since 2003 that a senior won the award in each of those power conferences.
Virginia’s Brogdon, a fifth-year senior who was the ACC player of the year, said he has been keeping up with fellow senior stars this season.
“You see those guys on TV and they’re having terrific years,” Brogdon said. “My hat goes off to them. I like watching them play.”
Brogdon will have plenty of viewing options when the tournament begins, including Thursday in Raleigh at PNC Arena where UNC and Virginia will begin their Final Four march.
Less brand-name appeal
Older has been better this season, particularly in the power conferences, but there has been a certain lack of buzz about this college basketball season.
Without an influx of talent in the freshmen class like the past two years, which sent Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell into the NBA after “one and done” college stops, there has been less name-brand appeal.
The freshmen who were expected to pick up the baton this season either fizzled (Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere) or drowned in ESPN’s hype (LSU’s Ben Simmons).
Duke forward Brandon Ingram and Oregon guard Tyler Dorsey have the best chance to steal some tournament thunder from the seniors.
But the younger crop of freshmen was outpaced during the season by the seniors, who for the most part were relatively unheralded coming into college.
Hield and Valentine were both ranked in the 80s by Rivals in the class of 2012 (Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel were at the top of the class). Johnson (No. 49) was ranked behind former UNC teammate J.P. Tokoto and Syracuse’s DaJuan Coleman, among others.
“You have to give these guys credit for the way they have developed,” Vitale said. “They’re talented and experienced. Experience doesn’t matter if you’re not talented.”
A bunch of good teams
The throwback season hasn’t been for everyone. Despite some rule changes that have helped improve the game, particularly in scoring and pace, ratings for games on all ESPN channels are down by 11 percent, according to Sports Illustrated. A lack of one monster team, like Kentucky’s regular-season juggernaut last season, could be to blame for the drop.
Instead of just one great team this season, there there have been a bunch of good teams. Six different teams have spent time at No. 1 in the rankings. A dozen teams enter this tournament with a legitimate chance to win six games.
That means experience, like it did before the best players left early for the NBA, could be the determining factor in the tournament.
Miami coach Jim Larranaga led an upstart George Mason team, with three seniors, to the Final Four in 2006. He has been able to accumulate veteran talent at Miami, winning the ACC title in 2013 with a senior team and he has three seniors on this year’s team, which is the No. 3 seed in the South.
“I think the greatest teacher is experience,” Larranaga said. “Anytime you’re going through any situation, if you can look back on a previous experience, it helps you prepare and do well in the next experience.”
To see these seniors, who are thinking about winning a championship, that’s refreshing to see. It warms my heart.
N.C. State assistant and former player Dereck Whittenburg
Experience points to Michigan State, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, making another deep run. The Spartans lost in the Final Four last year to Duke. The Blue Devils and Kentucky lost their best players to the draft, most of them freshmen. Those national programs each have reloaded this season with first-year players, with Ingram and Jamal Murray (Kentucky) poised to be high NBA picks in June, but they can’t match Michigan State’s experience.
The Spartans have three seniors back from last year’s Final Four team in Valentine, Forbes and forward Matt Costello. The Spartans have been hot, too. Since losing four of seven games in January, when Valentine was dealing with a knee injury, they have won 13 of 14 games.
After after an 88-69 thrashing of Indiana, the regular-season Big Ten winner, on Feb. 14, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said: “Our three seniors were the difference in the game and you kind of hope that’s the way it’s supposed to be, especially this year when it seems like seniors have been doing a lot more for a lot of teams.”
That was the case in the ACC tournament for UNC, too. Paige, after an uneven senior season, was outstanding in defending Brogdon in the Tar Heels’ 61-57 ACC title game win over Virginia on Saturday night.
Johnson, the team’s leading scorer on the season, was held below his scoring average (12 points) but chipped in five assists and was the top rebounder (nine) in a physical game which netted UNC its first ACC title since 2008.
One and done rule
Seniors being the difference in March used to be the norm but the makeup of the game changed with Kevin Garnett’s jump from high school straight to the NBA in 1995 and then again with the advent of the one-and-done rule after the 2005 draft.
Garnett was the first player in 20 years to go directly from high school to the pros. He started a trend of the best of the best players (Kobe Bryant and LeBron James) who skipped the college game altogether.
The NBA changed its entry rules after the 2005 draft to require high school players to wait at least one year from high school graduation to enter the draft.
The “one and done” rule put the best high school players back in college but only required them to stay for one year.
Duke had three freshman – Okafor, wing Justise Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones – stay for one year, lead the Blue Devils to a national title and go on to be first-round draft picks.
Kentucky, which has had 15 “one and done” players in John Calipari’s six-year tenure, won the 2012 title on the talents of three freshmen who were first-round picks the same year.
Good players left early in the 1980s and pre-Garnett in the 1990s, but it was usually after three years.
“That’s just not the way it is now,” said former N.C. State player and assistant coach Dereck Whittenburg. “Guys get to college and they’re thinking about the NBA. That’s the mentality. To see these seniors, who are thinking about winning a championship, that’s refreshing to see. It warms my heart.”
Whittenburg looks at Valentine, a fellow product of the great DeMatha High program in Hyattsville, Md., and sees a familiar focus. Often lost in the magical element of N.C. State’s improbable run to the 1983 national title was the fact that the Wolfpack was led by seniors – Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe and Thurl Bailey.
There is an urgency with seniors, Whittenburg said, that you can’t fake.
“You get to your last year and your time runs out,” Whittenburg said. “You don’t take that for granted; you cherish it.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio