Perhaps, in this era of college basketball that has come to be characterized as “One and Done”, what we really need for this year’s Final Four is a cool saying. Maybe something like, “Four Means More,” or “Upperclassic”.
Or how about, “Senior Moment”?
Ok, sure, the slogans probably need some work, but now that the Final Four is set, there’s no denying that in this era of highly touted, highly publicized freshmen who use one collectively-bargained year in college as a professional stepping stone, experienced seniors have played major roles for all of the teams that will battle for the championship. And for this March’s biggest star of all, the consensus favorite to take home the Wooden Award in just a few weeks time, the man who just dropped 37 points to lead Oklahoma to their first Final Four since 2002, none of this would have been possible without a faithful, (and for some, puzzling) decision to return for one last year.
“It’s been pretty special,” explained Buddy Hield following the victory that clinched a trip to the national semifinals, “We worked all summer. We had a bad taste in our mouth last spring, and we wanted to work hard… Coach was always on us seniors. So hats off to the senior class for leading us.”
The tendency for college basketball to mythologize and celebrate upperclassmen at the expense of one-year wonders has never completely made sense. Carmelo Anthony’s incredible run to a national title, Derrick Rose’s electrifying run at Memphis, Kentucky’s 2012 championship, none of these incredible stories were somehow less than, simply because they had freshmen at their center. And yet, in a world of impatience and instant gratification, it’s impossible to deny the appeal of the Sooners’ long road to glory, not just for Hield, but for senior teammates Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins, who have started 104 consecutive games alongside him.
“I think the biggest thing is we know where each other’s going to be on the court,” explained Spangler, who has benefited from all the attention focused on Hield, to the tune of 54.8% shooting for the season, “We know what each other’s going to do. We can be accountable for each other, and so it’s good.”
“Team camaraderie and just learning about each other really helps in the game,” noted Cousins, “Especially in situations where we need each other. When teams go on their run, we just come together and just keep fighting.”
For Hield, who returned to Norman despite being projected by many as a potential first round pick in last year’s NBA Draft, the long-standing rapport with his classmates was key to finally arriving at college basketball’s biggest stage.
“Just being around each other for four years and hanging around each other,” Hield explained, “Doing what we like to do and just having that chemistry. I think that’s what’s gotten us here right now.”
Far from alone in their key senior contributors, Oklahoma will have plenty of seasoned company in Houston. Their next opponent, the Villanova Wildcats, boast a talented pair of seniors, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, who helped carry that program from an uncharacteristic lowpoint, all the way back to the fifth Final Four in school history. “Just happy,” explained their freshman teammate Mikal Bridges after the game, “Especially for the seniors. They went through everything, and it’s just — they were here when they were 13-19 and they built to where it’s at right now, and I’m so proud of them because they played their butt off.”
Saturday’s 64-59 victory over Kansas, the tournament’s #1 overall seed, was an impressive reversal of fortune for Villanova, which had grown accustomed to underachieving in the Big Dance over the last few seasons. This year, Jay Wright and company have turned things around with balance, and defense, and both were on display in a game in which the Jayhawks’ feared attack was limited to 59 points, and just 11 free throw attempts.
“Our toughness on the defensive end,” explained Arcidiacono, when asked what the win revealed about his team, “We didn’t let the offense affect our defense. We stayed committed and stayed solid as a unit out there.”
“It’s like two ends of the spectrum,” added Ochefu, “It’s amazing. The last two years, the first three years, you know, just all the shortcomings and just continue putting in hard work and failing year after year. This senior year, finally getting there, just wow.”
The wow moments continued Sunday, and once again, experienced leadership was at the forefront. Although freshman Malachi Richardson was the star, with 21 of his 23 points in a dramatic second-half comeback, seniors Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney made key contributions for the Syracuse Orange, who, with a 68-62 victory over Virginia, completed the unlikely journey from controversial bubble inclusion, to Final Four participant. In a season defined by adversity, including an NCAA suspension that removed him from the bench for nine games, Head Coach Jim Boeheim credited the tandem for keeping the team from crumbling amidst the chaos.
“They’re the guys,” explained Boeheim,”even in a game like tonight when Mike wasn’t shooting well, he kept making plays. He kept getting in the lane and making plays for people and making great defensive plays on the other end… The two seniors… These two guys have just been there every game. When they don’t shoot well, they do something else. They play defense, make a steal. I just think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit because they’ve gotten these guys through this.”
“I mean, this has been a very interesting year,” said Cooney of a season that saw Syracuse open 0-4 in the ACC. “I mean, we’ve obviously been through a lot, and this team has just stayed together. I think we learned a lot about each other throughout the whole entire year, and all those things are paying off now. We’re sticking together, believing in each other, and good things happen when you do that.”
The Orange will see a familiar opponent in their semifinal matchup, facing off against a North Carolina squad that has defeated them twice already this year. The lone No. 1 seed to actually advance to this year’s national semifinals, thanks to an 88-74 win over Notre Dame, the Tar Heels have been pegged for greatness all season long, in no small measure thanks to the senior contributions of Marcus Paige, whose steady hand at the point guard position has been a key all year, and Brice Johnson, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, and who offered a glimpse into his own maturity by leading off his postgame comments with a mea culpa.
“Well, first of all, I would like to apologize for that technical foul,” said Johnson, who was whistled for throwing the ball towards the seats after being called for a push, “Because that was probably the biggest thing that sparked their run. It’s really dumb on my part to put my team in a situation like that… Marcus came in the huddle and said, hey, they’re going to go on a run. We just gotta go on a run, too. So, I really appreciate those guys just stepping up in a time like that.”
Indeed, North Carolina was able to answer The Irish’s 12-0 run with 12 unanswered points of their own, and both his teammate, and his coach, credited Paige for the team’s resolve.
“I didn’t call a timeout because I’ve always coached every day to handle things,” explained Head Coach Roy Williams, who advances to his eighth career Final Four, “I had confidence in my guys, and Marcus took the words right out of my mouth before I could even say it in the timeout. He said, ‘Guys, they made runs. It’s a game of runs. We’re going to make a run.”
“We had no choice but to keep playing,” offered Paige, who finished with 13 points in the win, “I kept telling the guys, it’s a long game. We had all the time in the world to just play better… We did a better job containing the ball and locating shooters and stuff. And then once we got in our rhythm and knocked down some shots, it was game.”
So it was that, at the end of a busy weekend of games, it fell to Coach Williams to try and explain what it meant to have this year’s Final Four so filled with seasoning, with continuity, with four year contributors on every roster. In the absence of any snappy slogan, Williams simply offered measured perspective.
“I’ve always said I want a little bit of both,” said a coach who has undeniably benefited from his share of one-and-done recruits, “I want some of those great players like a Marvin Williams or a Brandan Wright who came and played for us one year and he left. But I also want some guys that are going to be staying around for a long time… Some kids and the relationships that you can build with kids over four years I don’t think you can put a value on.”
There’ll be no better testament to that than this weekend in Houston, when, amidst all the McDonalds All-Americans making pit stops on college campuses, a number of exceptional athletes will prove that they’ve gotten the absolute most from a full college tenure. For a superstar like Buddy Hield, who still seems to be adding elements to his game, a prosperous pro career probably awaits. For others, the Final Four will be the end of the line, a bridge to the D-League or Europe, or maybe a resume builder for that eventual coaching gig. Either way, the entire group can take pride in putting the spotlight back on those who stick around for a while. Even if coming up with a right moniker is a bit of a challenge.
Is “Fourplay” a little too suggestive? We’ll keep working on it…