If this really is a Year of the Senior in college basketball, Friday could very well drive home that point better than any other day on the calendar.
Thursday’s regional semifinals featured some fantastic veteran-laden teams, with a national player of the year candidate (Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield), a well-constructed core (Villanova) and teams burnished by the transfer wire (notably Maryland and Miami) all in play.
But a peek at the eight rosters in the spotlight Friday include seven with significant senior centerpieces and an eighth featuring the most tested juniors in the country.
No. 1 North Carolina
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Why are the Tar Heels a decent bet to make the Final Four? Well, the elimination of the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds in the East regional didn’t hurt any. But the reason Carolina is this good (and was expected to be this good) centers around Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.
Johnson enjoyed a breakout season last year, particularly in conference play. Now? He’s only one of the top post players in the country, delivering 21 double-doubles (including seven in the last 11 games) in his uniquely emotional style.
Paige is a player who has been so important to his team for so long that it’s so easy to get caught up in what he hasn’t done so well this year (outside shooting) that it becomes easy to overlook his overall accomplishments.
His assist-to-turnover margin is stellar (3-to-1), he’s one of two players to rank in both the top 20 in points and top 10 in assists in North Carolina history (Phil Ford is the other) and there’s virtually nothing outside of a Final Four he hasn’t seen. Paige is a tremendous asset for the Tar Heels as they seek their first Final Four trip since 2009.
No. 5 Indiana
Guard Yogi Ferrell will start his 137th consecutive game Friday, extending his own school record. He’s 39 points shy of 2,000 for his career, and while it is a bit much to expect him to reach that plateau in one game, he’ll definitely close in on that number if he helps the Hoosiers knock off North Carolina.
He’s shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range in three consecutive years. Same goes for hitting at least 82 percent of his foul shots. He’s the guy who would have the ball in his hands in a tight game and probably attempt a crucial shot if it comes down to one. There are other capable pieces on Indiana’s roster (Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams among them), but the Hoosiers will go as far as Ferrell takes them.
No. 6 Notre Dame
Zach Auguste is the latest product of the Mike Brey big man factory that turns both semi-useful players and deep reserves into significant contributors by the time they become juniors and seniors. With Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant graduating last year, Notre Dame could have regressed. Instead, Auguste averaged 14.3 points and 10.9 rebounds.
The last ACC three players to match those numbers over a full season? Maryland’s Jordan Williams, Duke’s Shelden Williams and Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan (thrice). That’s decent company for a college player, and indicative of just how valuable Auguste is to the Irish.
No. 7 Wisconsin
All right, the Badgers are an outlier. Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are juniors, not seniors, but the list of players nationally who have experienced quite the crucible these two have is a short one.
Hayes played 37 minutes in last year’s national title game. Koenig, whose 3-pointer Sunday against Xavier lifted Wisconsin into the regional semifinals, logged 31 minutes on the last day of the season in 2015. The general premise of the value of seniors is they own a reservoir of knowledge about countless situations and have gradually developed their game. Hayes and Koenig exemplify that even in their third seasons.
No. 1 Virginia
Malcolm Brogdon is the ACC’s player of the year and its defensive player of the year. Anthony Gill is, like Brogdon, a fifth-year senior whose performance particularly shines through with the help of advanced metrics. Seniors Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey are the Cavaliers’ top frontcourt reserves.
While it is fun to imagine just how filthy Virginia would be if Justin Anderson had remained in school for his senior year (there’s no blaming him for leaving, of course), the Cavaliers have coped quite nicely without him. Virginia isn’t going to fade away anytime soon, but this year might mark the end of this particular three-year championship window.
After a couple premature tournament exits, this Brogdon-led bunch is plenty capable of navigating the Midwest regional and landing the Cavaliers back in the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
No. 4 Iowa State
Many coaches can claim they inherited a bare cupboard. Steve Prohm is not one of them. Upon taking over at Iowa State for the NBA-bound Fred Hoiberg, Prohm got to field a lineup in which five of his top six players are juniors and seniors.
It didn’t help to lose Naz Mitrou-Long to injury early in the season, but the Cyclones still have Georges Niang to function as a focal point. Jameel McKay (his meanderings into Prohm’s doghouse not withstanding) and Abdel Nader provide Iowa State two more veteran presences as it tries to reach the national semifinals for the first time since 1944.
No. 11 Gonzaga
It didn’t work out for Kyle Wiltjer at Kentucky. Things have gone smoothly for him at Gonzaga, where he is part of one of the nation’s finest frontcourts along with Domantas Sabonis.
Toss Wiltjer in the Hayes/Koenig category. He’s played in a national title game (2012). He’s been part of a team that didn’t live up to expectations (2013 Kentucky). And he’s re-emerged as a pivotal figure on one Gonzaga team that made the Elite Eight (2015) and another with a decent chance to get back there. On a team that lost much of its backcourt production from last year, Wiltjer was on the spot to deliver this season. He did.
No. 10 Syracuse
Trevor Cooney logged time in a Final Four game three years ago. Michael Gbinije arguably reinvented his game more in the last 15 months than any player in the college game.
Both are fifth-year seniors, and neither had the smoothest path to this point. Cooney slumped through his junior year when everyone in the gym knew he was Syracuse’s best outside threat. Gbinije began his career at Duke, transferred quietly after a season and finally emerged as a high-level starter late in his junior year.
It’s evident to all who saw Syracuse this year that the Orange needs to make outside shots to have a decent chance against anyone remotely good. And that ultimately means Cooney and Gbinije need to have good shooting nights. Like just about everyone else playing Friday, Syracuse needs stellar nights from its seniors to move along to a regional final.