For the very best talent in the nation, college basketball still seems to be that necessary one-year stepping stone. One and done is just a fact of life in the NCAA Tournament. Second-seeded Kansas will likely lose Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. Duke will likely lose Jabari Parker. Syracuse could lose Tyler Ennis.
The best players in college basketball cycle out as quickly as they come in.
The best teams, however? There is definite staying power among the teams that are competing for a national championship this year.
The Tournament will develop its stars. Storylines will emerge. And surely some team full of freshmen or relying heavily on freshmen and underclassmen like Andrew Wiggins (and eventually Joel Embiid?) at Kansas will advance far, just not them thanks to Stanford. The teams that truly can win the title though are the ones that will rely on their seniors.
Look at the way the young Duke players seemed to wilt from the pressure of the moment as Mercer, led by seniors Jakob Gollon, Langston Hall and Daniel Coursey. Coursey had 17 points and Gollon scored 20 points including four of six 3-pointers.
Look at the way Pittsburgh rallied this season from Durand Johnson, relying more heavily on seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna to reach the Tournament and put in the most surprising rout of the second round.
Look at the way Saint Louis kept its cool down by eight points with a minute and a half to play and down 16 with eight minutes to play. The team has five seniors in its starting lineup and could rely on Jordair Jett and Rob Loe to crank up the intensity and finish things off, completing Thursday’s most improbable comeback.
Look at the way Manhattan hung with Louisville in the second round. It was not just Steve Masiello’s familiarity with Rick Pitino and Louisville. It was also the leadership from seniors like George Beamon and Rhamel Brown who made sure that not only were they putting in the work but they were also leading by example and bringing their teammates along with them.
“Seniors, we’ve been through it all,” Brown said. “Especially with coach, we know what he wants, and we know what we need to get, where we need to go. I think the younger guys have a hard time understanding that, and that’s just what we’re here for, just to lead them in the right direction.”
Of course, senior leadership helped counteract them Thursday as Russ Smith and Luke Hancock showed up in a big way in the final moments. Smith’s 3-pointer with 3:23 left tied the game and then Hancock scored Louisville’s next eight points to help the Cardinals seal the game.
The two survived poor shooting nights to do so, showing they had the composure to perform when their teams needed them to do so.
“It plays a big part being in situations like that,” Louisville junior Wayne Blackshear said after Thursday’s game. “We were in those situations last year, and we’ve got to give it up to Chris [Jones] especially. He was able to get into the paint and I was able to get open. As far as Luke goes, he was just playing hard and knocking down big shots.”
The Cardinals could have faith they could rely on those players to step up when their team needed them to. That is what is beginning to separate these teams in crunch time with a chance to advance on the line. There is still value in having guys who have been through the battles of the NCAA Tournament and can teach the young players all the scouts are buzzing about how to win games with this kind of pressure.
There was a confidence that veteran leaders like Russ Smith and Luke Hancock would take over the game when their team needed them to do so. They have, as Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin described, developed trust with their teammates, something that is important to building team success.
Having players who have been through the grind and been through the fire of the Tournament help young players prepare for their futures and push through the present.
“Definitely senior leadership is big because the young guys, just getting them through things, getting up at 6 a.m., no young guy wants to do that,” Beamon said. “All the stuff we’ve been through, you need senior leadership to get guys through it and keep guys motivated.”
Even Pitino had to admit following Thursday’s game that this is a generation of “excuse makers.” Pitino lauded his team for never making excuses during practices, which can sometimes get extremely physical. That kind of preparation has separated the veteran teams like Louisville and Florida from so many others. He has continued to push for an expect more from his players, especially point guard Russ Smith.
When things are going bad for these teams, they have the experience and the wherewithal to rally behind their experience, stay calm and push through. It is a theme that plays itself out over and over again throughout the Tournament.
While the story among major college teams remains the players who might be leaving after a year or two for the riches of the NBA. The NCAA Tournament remains about the players and the teams with experience and poise under the pressure of the NCAA Tournament.