Hey kids, it’s cool to stay in school.
So your bracket’s fucked, you’re still hungover and nobody listened to you about UCLA. It’s the biggest blue-ball week in all of sports: four days, 48 games, followed by *crickets* and wondering whether now or after the tournament is the time to start binge watching Bloodline (hint: it can wait).
I’m with you.
One curious development from the tourney thus far has been the dominant performance of upper-classmen, namely seniors of the Sweet 16 squads. Beyond Kentucky—which is giving every indication they’re the team Nick Nolte coached in Blue Chips—to a team, there are at least a pair of role players who’ve decided to go the distance in their college careers. And it shows in the quality of play this year.
Below, the top 16 Super Seniors of this year’s tournament and how their game has not only informed results, but may start a (ready?) micro-trend to stay in school and still hit the lottery.
- The definition of experience and deep bench, WVU played a dozen guys in both its tournament wins thus far. Juwan Staten, guard emeritus, has been leading the team in scoring, minutes and assists. He practically willed the Mountaineers to victory over a bigger and more physical Maryland Sunday night 69-59 in a game that was much closer than the box score. Staten outshined Maryland senior Dez Wells in the head to head and the Under Armo’u’r gang was sent packing back to the land of Elmo.
- Pat Connaughton is Notre Dame basketball’s answer to Jeffrey Alan Samardzija. A 6’5” guard (and Baltimore Orioles farm hand) who throws 95 and grabs enough boards to draw comparisons to David Lee and Kevin Love, Connaughton can exploit the opposing big men who have to guard him on the perimeter like a slippery guard seven inches shorter and then have to try to peel him off the boards like a barnacle the next possession. The Irish share the ball well offensively, but don’t turn it over, which is a winning formula in March.
- Connaughton’s Irish backcourt bestie is guard Jerian Grant. Grant, who comes with the NBA lineage, decided to skip the draft the last two seasons to hone his skills and grab that degree in South Bend. He averages almost seven assists per game and has next-level court vision. Plus he does that thing the NBA scouts love, he creates. Harvey didn’t raise no fool.
- Not only does Frank Kaminsky sound like one of Bill Swerski’s Super Fans but if you didn’t catch his play against Oregon he: 1) Is like the big dude with the Megadeth back patch on his jean jacket who holds court at the Mortal Kombat game for three hours. You don’t know how he does it but he straight dominates all comers. 2) He sets the watch of Wisconsin’s impossibly phlegmatic Midwestern pace frustrating the shit out of teams who run/score in transition. 3) He hits a handful of threes and then cooks up a dozen points in the paint in a half. Whoa.
- Matt Stainbrook has a NASA engineer dad who’s bigger than King Hippo and (we know, we know) hooks up with girls driving Uber. He’s a big man with big moves who happens to lead the team in scoring and rebounding. Leading in the trenches, 6’9” sophomore forward Jalen Reynolds does Stainbrook’s bidding, “Please tell me now, my liege, how many offensive boards would you like me to pull?” Coach Chris Mack and his kind-of-hot wife who shares a name with a porn star could well hop on Stainbrook’s ride all the way to the Final Four.
- Lest we forget the play of Musketeers’ senior guard Dee Davis, who was a non-factor in the Big East this year till about a month ago when he decided to become one of the top five point guards in the country, at least that’s according to Mack (and probably his kind-of-hot wife). Davis is only the fourth-best senior point guard left in the field of 16 (see: reason no.s 10, 6 and 2) but his vision and clutch shooting both from the floor and at the stripe have elevated Xavier to be a sudden factor.
- Not only the most underrated in the tournament but in his conference and on his squad, T.J. McConnell has done nothing but show up for four years and helped crank Arizona’s program back to Arizona standards. Don’t sleep on McConnell’s potential at the next level. He’s fast, gritty, and, most importantly, inclusive. Sean Miller glows as he sees this glue execute on the court. Without McConnell, the Wildcats are a bunch of talented dandelion seeds just counting down their gap year in Tucson.
- UCLA senior guard Norman Powell scored 15 points on 5-8 shooting in UCLA’s 92-75 win over UAB in the round of 32. It’s a typical stat line for Powell, who is surrounded by young and too-quick-to-shoot talent. What doesn’t show up in the box score is Powell’s ability to come off the bench and get to the line in crunch time. Without his 19 points against SMU, the Bruins don’t get out of the first round and the specter of the team that shouldn’t have been there hangs over Westwood.
- Another senior role-player-who-suddenly-matters-most is Duke guard Quinn Cook’s career has gone from shot-till-you’re-hot two man to a guy who can dish…and pull up when it matters. Cook and Duke’s long-range game is the reason why the Blue Devils are still in the conversation as they dial 40-percent-plus from outside the arc. Cook has also been the one to help streaky center Jahlil Okafor grow. If you look closely in-game it’s the crafty senior who’s instructing Okafor on the court and inspiring the 6’10” freshman to a 28-point breakout game in the round of 32 against a more athletic San Diego State.
- Utah’s Delon Wright is the Brendan Gleeson of college hoops. The 6’5” guard isn’t exactly memorable in any way but is good in everything he’s in. In the upcoming matchup with Duke, he’ll have a few inches on their guards, thereby giving him, once again, the height and size advantage to lob touch passes to the Utes’ seven-foot freshman center Jakob Poeltl. Without Wright as the team’s anchor, the Utes are waiting in the tunnel to face off against Louisiana Tech in the second round of the NIT.
- Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos’ play of late may have NBA scouts moving their magnets around. Pangos leads the Zags’ most potent offensive attack since Dan Dickau had a song about him to the tune of “Brick House” (am I the only one who remembers that?). Pangos’ selective streaks means Gonzaga has posted a tourney-best 52.6 field goal percentage. Pangos squaring off against Bryce Alford and UCLA this weekend should have been a Final Four showcase of the best talent West of the Baldwin Park In-N-Out.
- NC State’s Ralston Turner is the elder statesman of the best backcourt in the tourney. Cat Barber’s handles connote And-1 Mixtapes and Trevor Lacey plays two guard as if he’s bouncing at the local Elephant Bar on two-for-one mojito night. But it’s Turner who only needs a sheet of binder paper space between him and the defender to get a shot off, who keys the underestimated Wolfpack’s offensive attack, and is the school’s one-man 2015 answer to Fire and Ice.
- Louisville makes its fourth straight appearance in the Sweet 16 and Wayne Blackshear has been there each year. The versatile veteran of a pair of Final Fours has more tourney experience than the rest of the seniors combined. At 6’5”, he took over with a game-tier against the surprisingly formidable UC Irvine Anteaters. Blackshear has had to earn it doubly since guard Chris Jones was booted for anger management issues and can be seen raising freshman Quentin Snider to the program’s level of prominence in real-time.
- Nobody better front on Wichita State’s backcourt. Not after they made 2-seed Kansas look like Bobby Brady in the ice cream eating contest. Tekele Cotton is the worker bee of these Shockers. Juniors Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Evan Wessel are the headline grabbers, but it’s Cotton who was the key to their undefeated streak last season and he was the lynchpin as the four finished with 60 of the the Shockers’ 78 points against the Jayhawks. I’m as tired of the Shockers Shocking _____ headlines as the next guy but Cotton and Co. one year older and wiser may find themselves pulling pots at the tourney’s main event table for four.
- Michigan State’s point guard Travis Trice is the second-best remaining senior guard in the field. After three seasons as the back-up to Keith Appling, Trice has made the most of his minutes—dishing and taking and saving the best of his career for late-March. Surely for Trice, there were some frustrating campaigns watching from the wood in East Lansing, but the quarterback’s patience continues to pay off in the form of the tourney’s best highlight reel. He scored 13 points (of MSU’s 15) in the first 10 minutes of the Spartans’ round of 32 win over the 2-seed Virginia Cavaliers while the rest of his squad was getting warm.
- Branden Dawson is the alien green lifeblood of this Spartan team and may be the tournament’s MVP at the break. “Coming to the locker room after the first half, we just kept telling each other that we definitely want to practice tomorrow,” Dawson said after the Spartans’ second-round win over Virginia. “…It being that Travis and I are seniors, we just kept telling each other ‘Hey, we definitely don’t want this to be our last game,’ so we kept playing hard and we just kept playing with passion.” While Trice runs point it is Dawson who happens to key Izzo’s tempo. Dawson checked in with 15 points, nine boards and four blocks against the Cavs, including a sip-and-you-missed-it run of seven in the second half. If Dawson can help the Spartans can stay honest at the line, East Lansing’s favorite sons will end up in their first Final Four since ‘10.