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One last appreciation for college basketball’s senior class

April 25, 2016 Columns No Comments

The 2015-16 college basketball season is in the books. There were many memorable moments, including right at the end, and things that help this season stand out from others. Perhaps the biggest one of all is something that was driven home often this season: seniors mean a great deal to college teams.

For years now, so much energy has been spent on the freshmen in college basketball, especially if there was a ballyhooed recruiting class. Since the NBA’s age minimum rule came into effect, much has been said of how the college game gets great talents for a year, talent it wasn’t getting for about a decade before the rule came. “One and done” has become part of the lexicon of college basketball because of players who come to college for a year and then turn pro.

The landscape, in plain English, has become dominated by the freshmen. Seniors have been pushed to the back of the class, away from the focus. The perception is that seniors fall into one of two categories: they play for mid-majors or are high-major players that aren’t NBA prospects. The thought is that seniors are on their last hurrah altogether, just good college players and nothing more.

If the seniors in 2015-16 were indeed players on their last hurrah, they sure went out with a bang. They left a mark on college basketball, more so than the freshmen did this time around – and that was despite the constant focus on one freshman in particular, whose team saw no postseason play.

To wit:

  • The AP All-America teams had four seniors of the five first team members and two more on the second team, along with a redshirt junior who is a senior academically (Providence guard Kris Dunn).
  • The USBWA All-America teams had four seniors of the five first team members and two more on the second team, along with Dunn.
  • Every National Player of the Year award went to one of two seniors: Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield or Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine.

That, however, is only the beginning of the markers of their importance to the season.

Look at the Final Four teams. All four teams had a significant senior presence, as Syracuse was guided by Michael Gbinje along with Trevor Cooney, while Oklahoma not only had Hield but also had two other senior starters who along with junior Jordan Woodard started 105 consecutive games together. In the national championship game, North Carolina was led by seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, the latter of who nearly went down as a hero with a clutch game-tying three-pointer, while Villanova was led by seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu. The Wildcats may end up being the first national champion in nearly three decades to not have a future NBA first round draft pick on their roster.

It doesn’t end there. Throughout the NCAA Tournament, senior-laden teams made runs, or at least impressed in an early game or two. Among Elite Eight teams, Virginia was led by Malcolm Brogdon, Notre Dame got a big year from Zach Auguste, and Kansas had the solid but unheralded Perry Ellis. Wichita State’s dynamic backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker cemented their place in program history and impressed with how they led the Shockers past Arizona. Kyle Wiltjer was a big part of Gonzaga making a run. Justin Sears helped Yale knock off Baylor. And Isaiah Miles had a great season for Saint Joseph’s that included a game-winning three-pointer as they knocked off Cincinnati.

You get the idea. Seniors made their mark on college basketball this season to a degree they haven’t in a long time. And it wasn’t just on mid-majors, as has become the case more often these days.

With the NBA Draft being perceived as a weak one – perhaps aided by perceptions of seniors – it’s possible that seniors will have a larger presence on draft night this year than in most prior years. Seniors have become less visible on draft night as the NBA Draft becomes more and more about upside and less and less about proven production. That has especially become the case at the top of the draft, with more teams opting for seniors in the second round of the draft where there is not a guaranteed contract.

But no matter what happens on June 23, and no matter what the professional careers they go on to have, the senior class in 2015-16 left a mark on college basketball. They were the class of the nation this time around.

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