College basketball isn’t a kids game, and this season its elders regained control. In a season initially hyped as Year of the Freshmen, seniors Sean Kilpatrick of Cincinnati, Russ Smith of Louisville, Shabazz Napier of UConn, Scottie Wilbekin of Florida and Doug McDermott of Creighton have been the nation’s best players.
Not since Lee High School in the summer of 1976 have upperclassmen demonstrated their authority over freshmen quite as emphatically as this year’s crop of college veterans.
The American Athletic Conference’s senior trio of Kilpatrick, Smith and Napier all flourished playing well-balanced basketball. Sure, each has shown off an uncanny ability to score big—Smith and Napier have multiple 30-plus-point games and Kilpatrick averages a shade below 21 a game—but they’re also talented passers and rebounders.
Their games have evolved over the course of their careers, and culminated in outstanding senior campaigns.
McDermott swung the meanest paddle of them all. McDermott’s continued climb up college basketball’s career scoring ladder is cementing his place in college basketball history and has Creighton thinking Final Four.
McDermott’s getting the national attention he deserves, including a Sports Illustarted that pays homage to Larry Bird. The subhead? “College Basketball’s Secret Weapon.”
— Creighton Fan HQ (@BandOfBluejays) March 12, 2014
McDermott certainly isn’t a secret anymore—not to anyone who has paid any attention this year, anyway. But he may have been at the outset of 2013-’14. Despite averaging more than 22 points per game as a sophomore and junior, McDermott and most of the nation’s returners took a backseat to the newcomers.
The 2014 freshman class is certainly impressive. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and the Kansas trio of Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden have all been spectacular (though Embiid’s tournament status is unfortunately in doubt). Wiggins is just a few days removed from scoring 41 points and almost singlehandedly leading the Jayhawks in a rally from down more than 20 at West Virginia.
Yes, the freshman class has made its mark. But its best have not dominated like the senior class’ best. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, as for years the game’s standouts were often the experienced players whose games developed over two or three seasons. And frankly, it stands to reason more experienced players would have an advantage.
However, that wasn’t necessarily the case in recent years after the institution of the NBA’s age limit. Ohio State ran to the title game in 2007 with first-year leaders Greg Oden and Mike Conley; a year later, Derrick Rose nearly carried Memphis to John Calipari’s first national championship.
Calipari proved especially adept at gaming the one-and-done trend. He won the 2012 national championship behind the play of super-frosh Anthony Davis and a kiddie corps at Kentucky. But Calipari’s also seen the other side of relying on the unknown in the last two seasons.
This year’s Kentucky team, one season removed from a different kind of one-and-done in the first round of the NIT, is sputtering heading into the postseason. Yet the preseason hype machine tabbed the Wildcats No. 1.
There’s no denying the impact freshmen have had and will to continue to have on the college basketball landscape, so long as the NBA’s age limit remains in tact.
Love it, hate it, want to expanded or abolished, get used to it because there’s no indication it’s going anywhere. There will continue to be standout freshman who wow college fans before heading to the NBA, and there will be mini-McDonald’s All-American teams that falter.
The age restriction for draft-eligible players resulted in players who would previously have jumped directly to the NBA draft making one-year pit stops in the college ranks. Whether that was good or bad for either level of basketball is a matter of personal perspective: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose were all pleasures to watch on the collegiate hardwood and may have toiled on bad professional rosters otherwise. Their fleeting moments on the college stage were special.
But there’s something particularly special about this stretch run for the long-haulers like Kilpatrick, Smith and McDermott.
Kilpatrick may have expressed it best after his 34-point farewell to the Cincinnati crowd last week in a Bearcats win over Memphis.
“The fact that I won’t be able to play in front of them again,” he said was his thought as he thanked the fans per GoBearcats.com. “I spent five years here.”