Are Super Seniors the Secret to NCAA Tournament Success?

If this year’s NCAA basketball tournaments look a little bigger, a little bigger, your eyes won’t be fooled.

Call it a pandemic plan.

Prior to the pandemic, college students had five years to complete four seasons of play. For a variety of reasons, including injuries, one-time transfers, or competition exemptions, athletes were always able to find ways to expand their eligibility. But after the pandemic wiped out many conference tournaments and the entire 2020 national tournament, the NCAA added a special bonus year: any athlete who lost playing time during the 2019-20 season could extend his college career by one season. complete.

Now, all teams facing the Final Four this weekend, in both the men’s and women’s tournaments, will include players who have taken advantage of this option.

The extra season was meant to level the playing field, but some lists are more stacked with seniors and graduate students than others, and the drip effect can last for years.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that none of us in college athletics would see the benefits of a more experienced team,” said Tom Burnett, Southland Conference commissioner and chairman of the men’s basketball selection committee. Division I.

A handful of athletes this year are bigger than their NBA counterparts. Just look at Kansas. Last Friday against Providence, 24-year-old Mitch Lightfoot, a veteran bench player and sixth-grader, had four blocks, and Remy Martin, a 23-year-old Arizona state transfer, left the bench for lead the Jayhawks in scoring with 23. points. They wouldn’t have gone back to college if it weren’t for the pandemic, Coach Bill Self said last weekend, adding, “I actually think Mitch is the best he’s ever been.”

Jalen Coleman-Lands, a Kansas super senior guard, is 25 years old. So is Devin Booker, who is in his seventh season with the Phoenix Suns.

And there are more seasons left. “If we look only at our headlines, they are eligible,” Self said. “Even though we’re an old team, technically they could all be back next year.”

Self noted that Providence also had a handful of players playing beyond the standard eligibility period.

“If they didn’t have these four cats, they would look very different,” Self said. “If we didn’t have Remy, we would look very different. If Villanova didn’t have Gillespie, they would look very different. “

Collin Gillespie, a 22-year-old guard, is the youngest of Vilanova’s three graduate students to play this weekend.

But, aside from parity concerns, Self said the bonus year had contributed to the “great quality of the ball this year”.

That was the case in the Horizon League, where 23-year-old Macee Williams, a super senior at Indiana University and Purdue University in Indianapolis, won her third Player of the Year award. the league in the 2020-21 season. He chose to return for the 2021-22 season, his fifth year, and won the award again.

“This is an example of how our women’s basketball programs really took advantage of this opportunity,” said Julie Roe Lach, Horizon League Commissioner.

IUPUI, the No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament, lost just 6 points in the first round to No. 4 in Oklahoma.

Depending on who you ask for, the extra year of eligibility can be seen as a half-full, half-empty glass. It allows college athletes to regain their lost game year, and an older, older team can mean an extra layer of cohesion.

“Once the athletes are top notch, there’s a certain maturity that comes with leading the team and handling the pressure once you’re in those end-of-season moments,” Roe Lach said, adding that ” younger students and their teammates can benefit from their senior leadership. ”

But some officials are concerned about the long-term effect that padded lists will have on recruitment. If athletes decide to use their additional year of eligibility, this could limit places for new faces.

“Many of us ask ourselves this question: are there still opportunities for high school student-athletes?” Burnett said.

This is exactly what worries Adam Berkowitz, the associate executive director of New Heights Youth, a New York-based youth sports development nonprofit organization. The additional eligibility season adds to an already complex system in light of the 2021 NCAA decision to remove the rule that required athletes to stay out one season after the transfer. having the effect of “doubling and tripling” the number of players in the transfer group, Berkowitz said.

Both factors have created a “changed landscape” in terms of university recruitment, he added, leading to a total “mess”.

“Last year was the hardest year I’ve ever had to place students in schools,” said Berkowitz, who has worked with transfer students for 20 years. “If you have an offer on the table, you have to consider it strongly, because otherwise it may not be there.”

As a result, Berkowitz said, students feel increasingly “under-recruited” and choose to attend lower-ranking schools in both Division I and Division II before attempting a transfer. Berkowitz said that when he spoke to college coaches last year, many did not even look at high school students, preferring to turn to the transfer portal and then to undergraduate colleges.

Berkowitz said he expects this to be the case for a few more years as the option for athletes to play one more year lingers. High school sophomores will be the first class not affected by the change.

“It’s just a blockade in many places,” he said. “If 200 boys are in their fifth year, that’s 200 fewer places for high school graduates.”

Mitch Smith provide reports.

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