At a subregional jam-packed with NBA-caliber talent, five future lottery picks had just one priority: doing everything they could to keep on dancing
It was a typical answer from a savvy athlete who knows better than to say anything that could become bulletin board fodder. During a press conference in Pittsburgh last week, Villanova junior swingman Mikal Bridges was asked about playing in a subregional with so many projected NBA lottery picks, himself included. Bridges replied that at this point every team was great and he was focused on the Wildcats' first opponent, 16th-seeded Radford. A few minutes later Nova coach Jay Wright told the media he'd just run into Bridges in the hallway and learned another motive for his player's answer. "They asked me about the lottery—there's five guys here in the lottery," Bridges told Wright. "I don't even know who they are."
In this regard Bridges was a rarity: When the brackets were revealed, it was clear that high-end pro prospects would be flooding the floor at PPG Paints Arena. Chief among them were Bridges, Duke forwards Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., Oklahoma guard Trae Young and Alabama guard Collin Sexton—all projected as top 10 picks in June's NBA draft (and who, aside from Bridges, are all freshmen). It was an idyll for the forward-looking hoops fan.
But, as Bridges also noted, players try not to look too far ahead. When Carter woke on the day of his tournament debut, "he said he was bubbling with energy, with adrenaline and excitement," says his mother, Kylia. "They are kids—like kids in a candy store." Even Young, who has mastered a calm, say-the-right-things posture after being the subject of more frenzied media attention than any player in the country, was awestruck. Following one Sooners media session, he called his father, Rayford, to gush about his turn at the dais, the locker bearing his nameplate and the dozen reporters who gathered there to pepper him with questions. "Dad," Trae said, "it feels like I'm already in the league."
Alas, Young would be the first among the group forced to consider his next destination. Despite his 28 points and seven assists, Rhode Island knocked off Oklahoma 83--78 in overtime, and so some 24 hours after that call to Rayford, Trae again held court with the media, this time in an arena hallway. Would he be leaving his native Norman to go to the NBA? "Right now I'm thinking about my teammates," he said, head up and keel even. When the interviews ended, he retreated to the locker room, a heavy door marked with the Sooners' logo swinging closed behind him.
Young's lottery-bound brethren had more reason to celebrate, even if it was sometimes against their will. On March 14, Duke held a team dinner at Morton's, the upscale steakhouse chain, on what happened to be Bagley's 19th birthday. Though Bagley sheepishly insisted they not commemorate the occasion, a waiter emerged with a lava cake á la mode. Soon the whole room was breaking out in song. "We embarrassed him a little bit," says freshman guard Mike Buckmire.
The Blue Devils are unusually young for a Mike Krzyzewski--coached team, with four freshmen starting alongside senior guard Grayson Allen, who warned his precocious running mates against tournament distractions including ... watching tournament games. Bagley, who in his free time writes and records rap music under the moniker MB3FIVE, said he hadn't had time in Pittsburgh to pen so much as a bar. By the Saturday morning of the Round of 32, Kylia Carter said Wendell had been so busy with game prep she'd only seen him twice in four days, despite staying in the same hotel.
Kylia did get to spend time with Gia Sexton, mother of Alabama's Collin, whom she befriended while their sons' paths crossed on the AAU circuit. They sat together during Duke's game on Thursday, some six hours before the Tide would close the day's session. "Can you believe this?" she asked. Kylia said she could not. "This is March Madness," Kylia said, "and our babies are playing." Recounting the story later raised new goose bumps across Kylia's skin.
Two days later their sons would leave their first NCAA tournaments on divergent paths. Kylia's Wendell was on the right side of an annihilation, scoring 13 points in 19 minutes of an 87--62 win over Rhode Island. Gia's Collin, who had a front tooth knocked loose by an elbow in a first-round defeat of Virginia Tech, spent the last five minutes of his tournament cheering from the bench after being called for a technical foul in an 81--58 loss to Villanova.
They may meet again in a green room, babies no more.
F Wendell Carter Jr.
6'10" Fr., Duke
Averaging 13.6 points and 9.2 boards, he totaled 22 and 10 in two games.
G Collin Sexton
6'3" Fr., Alabama
The dynamic threat had 42 points on 50.0% shooting in two games.
G-F Mikal Bridges
6'7" Jr., Villanova
He poured in a game-high 23 points in the win over Bama, 22 of them after halftime.
G Trae Young
6'2" Fr., Oklahoma
The nation's leader in scoring and assists, he had 28 and seven in the loss to URI.