Last April, not long after Maryland guard Juan Dixon had become
the third straight senior to lord over a Final Four, Bill Walton
parachuted into Tucson for a summit meeting of sorts. Over lunch
with Arizona's top two juniors--his son Luke and Jason
Gardner--and Gardner's uncle, Greg Livers, Big Bill launched
into his finest Waltonese: "Jason, you only have ONE CHANCE in
life to be a college seeeen-ior, to win an NCAA championship,
when EVERYTHING is going to be so purrrr-fect, so joyous." ¬∂
Instead of rolling his eyes, Gardner pondered the message.
Stick around, win a title. The pros can wait. "He helped a lot
with my decision to stay," Gardner says, proving that a
50-year-old with two fused ankles can still get into the box
score: Assist, Walton. ¬∂ One year later, on the eve of the NCAA
tournament, Gardner and his senior-laden Arizona team (the West
Region's No. 1 seed) are perfectly poised to perpetuate the
trend. Never in the post-Wooden NCAAs has experience been so
vital, whether you're a Final Four contender or one of the
prospective giant-slayers of March. Wondering why we're high on
Arizona, Oklahoma and Creighton--but not so keen on Texas,
Syracuse and UConn? Experience. Scratching your head over our
upset specials: Penn over Oklahoma State? Western Kentucky over
Illinois? Wisconsin-Milwaukee over Notre Dame? Experience.
Perplexed by our love for LSU, which barely got into the
tournament? It's a matter of experience.
Callow freshmen and sophomores are less accustomed to walking the
tournament's tightrope without a net. "I can tell them what it's
like, but it's hard for them to understand until they experience
it," says Florida senior forward Matt Bonner of the Gators'
fabulous freshmen, guard Anthony Roberson and forward Matt Walsh.
"You can't have a bad game or you're out."
Coaches like to say that talent trumps experience, but recent
tournament history shows that you need both. Consider: Each of
the last three national champions had a transcendent senior at
the helm--Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves (2000), Duke's Shane
Battier (2001) and Dixon--the first such three-year streak since
1987--89. After a 13-year span in which only one champ (UCLA in
1995) started three seniors, two of the last three titlists (the
Spartans and the Terrapins) had done so. As for the cuddlier
Davids, the last two mid-majors to reach the Elite Eight (Tulsa
in 2000 and Kent State in '02) had, you guessed it, three senior
How did this happen? Aren't seniors supposed to be as endangered
as the spotted owl? (And we don't mean Temple's John Chaney.)
Well, not entirely. True, the household-name seniors, the
four-year NBA icons-in-waiting, have largely disappeared. Of the
nation's top 44 high school players in 1999--2000, according to
the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, only 19 finished
this season playing in Division I, including just one of the top
15 (Michigan State sophomore Kelvin Torbert). If you can imagine
a world in which early departures were forbidden, this year's
tournament would include 14 players now in the NBA (chart, page
68). And that's not counting the players who skipped college
In their place has risen a new class of veterans--less blindingly
athletic, perhaps, but no less competitive--who are changing the
face of the game, and the tournament. To wit:
THE ELITE SCHOOLS PRIZE "PROGRAM PLAYERS" MORE THAN EVER. Say
what you will about the one-year wonders (Memphis's Dajuan
Wagner, Seton Hall's Eddie Griffin, Villanova's Tim Thomas) who
steal the headlines, then steal off to make their millions in the
NBA. Those guys rarely win anything at the college level, and
they often leave their programs worse off than when they arrived.
Better to stake your fate on four-year players--your regular
Mateens, Shanes and Juans--who continue developing season after
season, gaining the wisdom and skills needed for a crowning
six-game run to glory.
Small wonder that the tournament's top seeds include such
senior-heavy hitters as Arizona (Gardner, Walton and Rick
Anderson), Kentucky (Keith Bogans, Marquis Estill and Jules
Camara), Kansas (Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich), Oklahoma
(Hollis Price, Ebi Ere and Quannas White) and Pittsburgh (Brandin
Knight and Ontario Lett and Donatas Zavackas). With the exception
of Hinrich, it is unlikely that any of those players will be NBA
lottery picks, but so what? That hasn't kept their coaches, all
of them masters of player development, from building deep,
entertaining teams on their senior foundations.
Granted, the mere presence of seniors doesn't guarantee success.
"People always say it's great to get those four-year players.
Well, yeah, if they can play," says Maryland's lovably
cantankerous coach, Gary Williams. "There's nothing worse than
getting a guy who can't play who's here for four years." Easy for
him to say, since the defending champion Terps have seniors who
can play--four of them starters, led by point guard Steve
Blake--and a combined 53 tournament games of experience, the most
of any roster in the field, ahead of Kentucky (46), Indiana (42),
Arizona (39) and Kansas (39).
THANKS TO THEIR FOUR-YEAR PLAYERS, THE MID-MAJORS ARE MORE
DANGEROUS THAN EVER. As Gonzaga, Kent State and Tulsa have shown,
early departures for the pros have leveled the playing field for
the smaller programs, whose coaches can develop their recruits
for four years without fear of losing players to the NBA. "A lot
of mid-majors will take a kid who isn't as highly ranked, but by
his junior or senior year he's as good as anyone," says Oklahoma
coach Kelvin Sampson. Adds Providence coach Tim Welsh, "I think a
Kent State or a Gonzaga will be in the Final Four someday soon."
Take Creighton, this year's most upwardly mobile mid-major. As
the West Region's sixth seed, the 29--4 Bluejays have all the
experience indicators for a deep run: two senior starters, a
combined 21 NCAA tournament games played--far more than
higher-seeded big boys Wake Forest (nine), Syracuse (five) and
Marquette (five)--and an uber-senior in All-America candidate
Kyle Korver. "Each year Kyle has made himself a better shooter,
passer and ball handler," says Creighton boss Dana Altman of his
lightly recruited forward. "It helps that we're in it for the
long haul. We don't lose anybody early to the draft."
Looking for other experienced mid-majors that could rattle the
brackets? Try 24--6 Southern Illinois (with tournament-tested
seniors Kent Williams and Jermaine Dearman), 26--5 Weber State
(and senior guard Jermaine Boyette, the Big Sky player of the
year) and 24--5 Dayton (a junior-and senior-heavy lineup led by
steady fourth-year guard Brooks Hall). And don't be surprised if
one of them breaks the glass ceiling and reaches New Orleans.
Experience manifests itself in any number of ways. On the whole,
veteran teams tend to:
MAKE THE SMART PLAYS THAT WIN CLOSE GAMES. Just as the term
freshman mistake has become a fixture in the hoops lexicon, so
too has senior savvy. Remember the audacious fake that Duke's
Christian Laettner put on Kentucky before hitting his legendary
buzzer beater in 1992? Classic senior savvy. For a recent
example, consider Kansas's Hinrich, who, after the Jayhawks had
fired up an air ball, took a pass at the top of the key in the
final minute of a 74--74 game on March 9 at Missouri. Not
realizing that the shot clock was down to five seconds, coach Roy
Williams frantically waved for a timeout, but the observant
Hinrich went ahead and jacked up the game-winning three-pointer.
"Kirk had more savvy than the head coach," Williams would say
Likewise, Indiana senior Jeff Newton had the presence of mind to
check himself into the game on March 1 against Iowa after
Hoosiers coach Mike Davis (as he later admitted) forgot Newton
was still on the bench. (Indiana ended up winning 91--88 in
overtime.) And who else but Division I's oldest player,
26-year-old Navy vet Matt Crenshaw of IUPUI, hit the buzzer
beater against Valparaiso to lift the Jaguars to their first NCAA
In the market for a whip-smart tournament hero? Wisconsin senior
guard Kirk Penney certainly knows pressure, having already played
in an Olympics (for New Zealand), a World Championship and a
Final Four. Two more wise seniors who can break open a game are
Cal forward Joe Shipp and Louisville guard Reece Gaines.
RELY ON THREE SENIOR STARTERS. Recent champions Michigan State
and Maryland have proved that division-of-labor leadership can be
amply rewarded, and no team has benefited more from such a system
than Arizona. Following the early departures of three Wildcats
before the 2001--02 season, Arizona's remaining juniors (Gardner,
Walton and Anderson) somehow guided five freshmen to the Sweet
16, "the best job of leadership we've ever had here," says coach
Lute Olson. Gardner has played the most minutes of anyone in
school history, while Walton, the sweetest-passing college
forward in decades, is a constant triple-double threat. For his
part, forward Anderson--like Walton, a fifth-year senior--serves
as the consummate glue guy, a jack-of-all-trades in the mold of
three recent senior titlists, Maryland's Byron Mouton, Michigan
State's A.J. Granger and Ricky Moore of 1999 champion
In all, 17 tournament teams are blessed with at least three
senior starters, ranging from title contenders (Arizona,
Oklahoma, Pitt) to overlooked-but-dangerous big conference
schools (Arizona State, LSU, Oklahoma State), from mid-majors
who'd be ecstatic to survive the opening week (Butler, Tulsa,
Western Kentucky) to minnows seeking an upset for the ages (Holy
Cross, San Diego, Troy State). While we're at it, let's raise a
glass (of Metamucil) to Southland champ Sam Houston State, the
only team with five senior starters--or, as Bearkats alum Dan
Rather might put it, more seniors than a Denny's in Delray Beach.
At the same time, be wary of the three elite teams that don't
have at least two senior starters and rely on freshmen or
sophomores as their top players: Texas, Syracuse and UConn.
TAKE CARE OF THE BALL. In hotly contested tournament battles, one
or two giveaways can make the difference between a win and a
loss. Assist-to-turnover ratio is an especially good indicator of
recent tournament success; the last two national
champions--Maryland '02 (1.44) and Duke '01 (1.32)--had better
full-season ratios than all but three teams in this year's field.
It's no coincidence that there are at least two senior starters
on 17 of the 20 tournament teams with the best assist-to-turnover
ratios (chart, page 71). For every sure-handed, veteran outfit
(Maryland, Notre Dame, Xavier, UNC Wilmington and Butler),
there's a butter-fingered bunch of youngsters (BYU, Duke,
Michigan State and Wake Forest, all of whom have more turnovers
STAY OUT OF FOUL TROUBLE. Restraint is a virtue, particularly in
March and April, when teams can ill afford to play without their
full lineups. Don't expect to see these squads, heavy on
experience and depth, crippling themselves with the dreaded DQ:
Arizona (two all season), Kentucky (three), LSU (three),
Creighton (four), Western Kentucky (five) and Maryland (six). By
contrast, keep an eye on Kansas, which needs the services of
foul-prone 6'9" juco transfer Jeff Graves (six disqualifications)
if the Jayhawks are to have any chance of winning the title
without injured starting forward Wayne Simien.
TAKE GOOD SHOTS. Though Pittsburgh is an atrocious foul-shooting
team (63.6%), the Panthers, who start three seniors and two
juniors, make up for it by hitting 50.2% of their field goal
attempts, second in the tournament behind Colorado State (51.0%).
"If somebody's open, we're looking to make the extra pass," says
Pittsburgh junior guard Julius Page. So are the experienced ball
handlers and sharpshooters at Creighton (49.9%), Kansas (49.3%),
LSU (48.7%) and Kentucky (48.3%). Judicious shooting is a
bellwether: Neither of the two previous champs shot worse than
48% on the season.
PLACE A PREMIUM ON SENIOR POINT GUARDS. There's a reason why only
two freshman point guards have led their teams to national crowns
(Utah's Wat Misaka in 1944 and Arizona's Mike Bibby in '97).
Younger floor generals have a harder time adapting to the varied
tempos of tournament games, particularly grind-it-out half-court
slugfests. What you need is a veteran PG, someone like Michigan
State's Cleaves, who mastered the wildly varying paces of the
Spartans' 2000 Final Four wins over Wisconsin (53-41) and
Florida (89-76). "If you've been through the tournament, it
makes it so much easier to go through again," says Maryland
senior point guard Blake, who ran the attack for the Terrapins
last spring and is the dean of active tournament graybeards with
13 starts under his belt. "I think I've been pretty good at
knowing when to run the ball and when to slow it down."
So too has Gardner, Arizona's only remaining starter from its
2001 title-game loss to Duke. Which brings us, strangely yet
somehow inevitably, back to Bill Walton, who woke up one morning
in his San Diego home last summer to find Gardner asleep on the
family couch. "What is the deeeee-al here, Luke?" Big Bill
boomed. "Don't you know you have GOT to take better care of your
seeeen-ior POINT GUARD?"
It's a story worth remembering when you consider that only four
of the 65 teams in this year's tournament come equipped with 1)
three senior starters, 2) a senior point guard and 3) an
uber-senior (i.e., a finalist for the Wooden or Naismith Awards)
who's ready to follow in the steps of Cleaves, Battier and Dixon.
It only seems right that we pick our champion from these Wizened
Four--Arizona, Maryland, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh--and so we'll
stick with our preseason choice.
On April 7 in New Orleans, Arizona's grizzled vets will enjoy an
entirely new experience: cutting down the nets. Stick around, win
For up-to-date tournament scores, analysis and news, go to
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH METRONOME The speed and poise of Gardner will allow the veteran Wildcats to push the tempo--or adjust to it.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK RULE OF THREE In Walton (shooting), Gardner and Anderson, Arizona has the requisite trio of senior starters.
COLOR PHOTO: GARY DINEEN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES JAY WILLIAMS
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH CASEY JACOBSEN
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES JASON RICHARDSON
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN WISE GUYS Besides savvy play, Hinrich (10), Bonner (15) and Collison (4) offer mature counsel to their underlings.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO BEEN THERE, DONE THAT The Terps' hardworking Blake has 13 NCAA tournament starts under his belt.
Imagine how much scarier these 2003 NCAA tournament teams would
have been if the players listed below had not left school early
for a shot at the NBA.
SCHOOL PLAYER TEAM/POSITION CURRENT
Arizona Gilbert Arenas, G Golden State Warriors
Cincinnati DerMarr Johnson, G-F Atlanta Hawks
Kenny Satterfield, G Recently cut by Philadelphia 76ers
Duke Carlos Boozer, F-C Cleveland Cavaliers
Jay Williams, G Chicago Bulls
Florida Donnell Harvey, F Denver Nuggets
Indiana Jared Jeffries, F Washington Wizards
Kansas Drew Gooden, F Orlando Magic
Maryland Chris Wilcox, F Los Angeles Clippers
Michigan State Zach Randolph, F Portland Trail Blazers
Jason Richardson, G Golden State Warriors
Marcus Taylor, G Sioux Falls Skyforce (CBA)
Missouri Kareem Rush, G Los Angeles Lakers
Stanford Curtis Borchardt, C Utah Jazz
Jason Collins, C New Jersey Nets
Casey Jacobsen, G-F Phoenix Suns
While it may not correlate precisely with the number of seniors
on a team, the assist-to-turnover ratio is a hallmark of maturity
and discipline that can be crucial in tight games. Here are the
teams in the 2003 field with the highest and lowest such ratios.
The last two champions, Duke '01 (1.32) and Maryland '02 (1.44),
had better ratios over the course of the season (including the
tournament) than 62 of the 65 teams in the '03 field. (Number of
senior starters in parentheses.)
HIGHEST TEAMS RATIO
Illinois (1) 1.39
Maryland (4) 1.34
Notre Dame (2) 1.32
UNC Wilmington (2) 1.27
Wisconsin (1) 1.26
Xavier (2) 1.26
Louisville (2) 1.24
Florida (2) 1.22
Butler (4) 1.20
Marquette (1) 1.20
LOWEST TEAMS RATIO
East Tennessee State (0) 0.81
UNC-Asheville (2) 0.83
Auburn (2) 0.84
Oklahoma State (3) 0.85
Purdue (1) 0.88
Central Michigan (2) 0.89
Austin Peay (0) 0.90
Alabama (2) 0.91
Mississippi State (2) 0.93
San Diego (4) 0.93
SENIOR HIGHS ... AND LOWS
Here are the tournament teams with the highest and lowest
percentage of points scored by their seniors.
HIGHEST TEAMS PCT. OF PTS./SENIORS
San Diego 72.8
Sam Houston State 66.6
LOWEST TEAMS PCT. OF PTS./SENIORS
Austin Peay 3.2
St. Joseph's 4.8
East Tennessee State 12.0
N.C. State 13.0
Be wary of the elite teams that rely on freshmen and sophomores
as their top players.
Coaches say talent trumps experience, but recent history shows
that you need both in the NCAAs.