Ever since the NBA told freakishly talented high school kids that they have to spend a year studying communications before getting paid to play basketball, college hoops has been dominated by teenagers with potential. This year was no different. LSU’s Ben Simmons, who’s been called the next LeBron, showed flashes of brilliance despite playing for a dismal team and Duke’s Brandon Ingram was every bit the offensive powerhouse Coach K expected.
With the Final Four field set though, this season is beginning to look different from the recent past in one big way: The last teams left are led by seniors. For the first time since 2010, none of the teams in the Final Four is being carried by freshman phenoms. The highest ranked freshman remaining is Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson, ESPN’s 26th best recruit before this season. And while Richardson has emerged as a potent scoring threat in the tournament, the Orange’s best player is, like those on the other three teams left, a wily fourth-year vet.
Syracuse guard Michael Gbinije began his college career at Duke, where he played sparingly his freshman year. After transferring to Syracuse and sitting out a year, he put up modest numbers in his first year under Jim Boeheim. He got better as a junior and again as a senior. This past season, Gbinije was fifth in the ACC in both scoring and assists, while leading the league in steals. Despite Richardson’s emergence in the tournament, it was Gbinije who had the ball in his hands with the game on the line against Gonzaga int he Elite Eight. And this is what he did.
By making it to the Final Four, Gbinije and Syracuse won the the right to take on the North Carolina Tarheels, who's two best players are in their final year in Chapel Hill. Guard Marcus Paige is a steady hand who led the Heels with 21 points on 6 of 9 three point shooting the Sweet 16 win against Indiana. Meanwhile, forward Brice Johnson has put up a double-double in all but one tournament game to go along with the double-double he averaged during the season. After four years in college, Johnson's skills have blossomed in his senior year and the young man stands to make a lot of money in June's NBA Draft.
On the other side of the bracket, Villanova is yet another squad with dominant seniors in both the front and back courts. Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono is an expert facilitator who can score when he needs to and feed fellow senior Daniel Ochefu when the big man needs to eat. Ochefu is a wide bodied bruiser who prides himself on being a "being a complete basketball player" and not just a "traditional big guy." But don't let him fool you, when it's time to throw down, the 6'11", 245-pounder can do just that (especially if he's saving face after getting rim stuffed).
No talk of seniors this college basketball season would be complete without the best senior and arguably player in the game—Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield. The 22-year-old Bahamian could have gone pro after last season and would have likely been taken near the end of the first round.
Instead he returned to college and after averaging 25 points-per-game and shooting 46 percent from three, he's in the conversation for the number one overall selection. That's no small thing for a senior guard who wasn't much of a recruit, but Hield has emerged in his senior year as a pure scorer with endless range and a knack for taking over big games. In a tournament led by seniors, none has been as exciting a Hield. Look for the run to continue in Houston.