clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This is the year seniors took back college basketball

Great seniors are everywhere this year. It's time to take notice.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It isn't Ben Simmons' fault. That's the first thing you need to remember about the exhaustion college basketball fans express each time ESPN doubles down on its preseason campaign to hype up the best freshman in the country.

Simmons was the top recruit entering the season and will likely soon be the first overall pick in the NBA draft, a fact America has been bludgeoned with each time it turns on the television. He's the centerpiece of ESPN's "Green Room Guys" promotion and has been hailed as "the best of the one-and-done generation," all while his LSU Tigers struggle to get off the bubble.

The sentiment from many college basketball fans has been clear: Ben Simmons is good. We get it. Meanwhile, there might be more terrific seniors in college hoops this year than any season in recent memory.

Every top 10 team right now has a senior playing an important role, whether it's a blue blood like North Carolina or an upstart like Iowa. At the moment, KenPom's top five Player of the Year candidates are all seniors. It's looking more and more like this season will be decided by development and experience rather than five-star wins on the recruiting trail.


Yes, Frank Kaminsky took home the Wooden Award last year. The season before that was all about Doug McDermott's journey up the all-time scoring leaderboard. It's not like college basketball never has good seniors. But the shear volume of four- or five-year stars this season is jarring, and stands in direct contrast to last year's overarching narrative.

Kentucky got off to an historic 38-0 start a year ago in large part due to the contributions of their star freshmen, led by the peerless Karl-Anthony Towns. The eventual national champion, Duke, got 60 of its 68 points in the title game from four freshmen. A strong crop of freshmen made for a loaded NBA draft class, the fruits of which can now be seen in the pros each and every night.

This season of college basketball is different. For one, the freshmen crop just isn't that impressive as a whole, with only Simmons and Duke's Brandon Ingram truly separating themselves. Of the top 10 teams in the country, Maryland's Diamond Stone is the only freshman playing a critical role.

Instead, almost all of the top teams are being led seniors. Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono are the backbone of No. 1 Villanova. Jake Layman is the safety net for No. 2 Maryland. No. 3 Oklahoma has Buddy Hield, the nation's best and most exciting scorer whose surge to superstardom has been a joy to watch.

From Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff to UNC's Brice Johnson to Michigan State's Denzel Valentine to Purdue's A.J. Hammons, this has been the season veterans took back the college game. We won't even use this space to make a Perry Ellis joke, because those stopped being funny long ago. Well, except for this one:

Conventional wisdom says if you're good enough to play in the NBA, don't waste your time in school. Obviously, it makes sense, but it will be interesting to see if this season challenges that at all.

Just look at the recruiting class of 2012, the group that makes up this year's seniors. Who is the best player of the bunch? The No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, is one of the biggest busts in NBA history to this point. There's Nerlens Noel and Marcus Smart and Willie Cauley-Stein -- fine players just beginning NBA careers, but no surefire All-Stars.

Move down that list. There's Kris Dunn -- a redshirt junior at Providence -- projected to be a top-five pick this season. There's Hield at No. 86. There's Valentine at No. 81. It isn't crazy to think one of those three guys could have the best NBA career of their high school graduating class after doing the uncool thing and staying in school.

Damian Lillard was a senior. So was Jimmy Butler. NBA die hards will tell you Draymond Green is a top-10 player in the league -- after getting tutored by Tom Izzo for four years.

The point is, is that all development isn't linear, that every player improves on his or her own timeline and that you never know when a late bloomer will pop up out of nowhere to become star. Freshmen might always get the most media attention, but this season is proving seniors can win big, too.