Throwback look: seniors lead way for nation’s top-tier teams
The old guys are back in charge in college basketball this season.
After recent years with the focus locked on one-and-done talent, it’s the seniors – guys like No. 1 Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, No. 3 Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and No. 5 Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon – leading some of the nation’s best teams.
It’s created a throwback look to when upperclassmen stuck around elite programs instead of bolting early for the NBA, not to mention did more than just handle the dirty work behind some headline-grabbing youngsters.
Coaches are loving the dynamic.
“You’d always rather have experienced leadership than not, of course,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “Always, the message goes out when it goes from player to player as opposed to coach to player, it’s more effective.”
In this week’s Top 25, six top-10 teams and 14 teams in the poll have seniors as leading scorers – and in some cases there’s more than one in a leading role.
Compare that to last year’s final AP Top 25 of the season, when three top-10 teams and eight ranked squads had seniors as leading scorers. And this week’s totals are higher than for any of the final AP polls dating to at least the 2007-08 season, according to STATS.
The best example of that senior success has been Michigan State’s Valentine, who has grown from a complimentary scorer for a Final Four team to a candidate for national player of the year.
The 6-foot-5 guard, who will miss the next 2-3 weeks due to minor knee surgery announced Monday, is averaging 18.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists. He’s also had two triple-doubles this year, including a 29-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist performance to hand No. 2 Kansas its only loss.
“I can get a lot better,” Valentine said earlier this month. “I need to work on my defense. And, I need to make the most of every possession.”
This senior-led formula has worked well for coach Tom Izzo before. His 2000 national championship team had strong leadership with seniors Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, while touted freshman Jason Richardson took a supporting role.
“I like the one-and-dones because they’re pretty talented,” Izzo said. “(Seniors), they bring a lot to your team. They really do.
“I won a championship with a couple of redshirt seniors. That’s very important, because you’ve always got someone to go to. And we go to ‘Zel a lot.”
The signs were there to start the year that seniors were poised for a big impact. Three – Hield, No. 11 Iowa State’s Georges Niang and Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer – were named to the five-man AP preseason all-America team, the most in five seasons.
Hield, a 6-4 guard, entered the week ninth nationally in scoring at 23.5 points per game, up about a half-dozen from last year.
Niang, a 6-8 forward, entered the week averaging 18.7 points and is one of three seniors averaging in double figures for the Cyclones – an experienced group together so long that new coach Steve Prohm has largely stuck with former coach Fred Hoiberg’s playbook.
Wiltjer, a 6-10 forward who spent a year at Kentucky, guided the Zags to the NCAA Elite Eight last year and entered the week averaging 20.6 points.
Then throw in guys like Brogdon, who has earned the nickname “Uncle Malcolm” from Virginia teammates. Or No. 7 North Carolina’s returning all-Atlantic Coast Conference senior duo of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson – who are the top two scoring options for the preseason No. 1 Tar Heels.
Eighth-ranked Arizona added a No. 1 scorer in Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson, No. 9 Butler’s offense is at its best when high-scoring guard Kellen Dunham is hot and No. 13 Miami’s seniors have already led the Hurricanes on an impressive three-game romp through last month’s Puerto Rico Tipoff.
“When you look at our league this year, Kansas is a much older team, Iowa State’s a much older team, we’re a much older team,” Kruger said of the Big 12. “That’s kind of rare in teams that are ranked in the top 10 or top 15.”