Are Super Seniors the Secret to NCAA Tournament Success?

If this year’s NCAA basketball tournaments look bigger – a little older – your eyes aren’t fooling you.

Call it the silver line pandemic.

Before the pandemic broke out, college students had five years to complete four stages of play. For a variety of reasons – including injuries, one -time transfers or competition waivers – athletes can always find ways to increase their qualification. But after the pandemic wiped out several conference tournaments and the entire 2020 national tournament, the NCAA added a special year bonus: Any athlete who loses playing time during the 2019-20 season. can extend their college career to an entire season.

Now, every team heading into the Final Four this weekend, in the men’s and women’s tournaments, will include players who have taken advantage of this option.

More time is meant to even play, but some rosters are more stacked with super senior and graduate students than others, and the trickle-down effect can last for years.

“I think there’s no question that any of us in college athletics can see the benefits of a more experienced squad,” said Tom Burnett, the Southland Conference commissioner and chairman of the Division I men’s basketball selection committee.

Some athletes this year are older than their NBA counterparts. Just look at Kansas. On Friday against Providence, Mitch Lightfoot, 24, a veteran bench player and sixth-year student, had four blocks, and Remy Martin, a 23-year-old Arizona State transfer, left the bench. to lead the Jayhawks in scoring with 23. points. The two wouldn’t have been able to go back to college if it weren’t for the pandemic, Coach Bill Self said over the weekend, adding, “I really think Mitch is the best he’s ever done.”

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

And there are still times left. “If you look at our starters, the starters have the rest to qualify,” Self said. “Even if we’re an old team, they can technically come back next year.”

It is self -evident that Providence also has some players playing beyond the standard eligibility period.

“If they didn’t have those four cats, they would look different,” Self said. “Without Remy, we would look very different. If Villanova hadn’t been Gillespie, they would have looked very different.

Collin Gillespie, a 22-year-old guard, is the youngest of three students to graduate from Villanova to play this week.

But, aside from parity concerns, Self said the bonus year has contributed to “good ball quality this year.”

That’s what happened in the Horizon League, where Macee Williams, 23, a super senior center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, won her third consecutive League Player of the Year Award in the 2020-21 season. He chose to return for the 2021-22 season – his fifth year – and once again won the award.

“That’s an example of how our women’s basketball programs take advantage of that opportunity,” said Julie Roe Lach, Horizon League commissioner.

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

Depending on who you ask, the extra year of eligibility can look like a half-full, half-empty glass issue. It allows college athletes to recoup their lost years of playing, and a larger, older team can mean an extra layer of unity.

“Once the athletes are upperclassmen, there’s a certain maturity that comes with leading the team and managing the pressure once you’re in the last-of-season moments,” said Roe Lach, who added that “younger students and their teammates can benefit from their senior. leadership.”

But some officials are concerned about the long -term impact of padded recruitment rosters. If athletes choose to use their extra year of qualification, areas for new faces may be limited.

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

That’s exactly the concern of Adam Berkowitz, associate executive director of New Heights Youth, a New York-based sports-based youth development nonprofit. Additional eligibility periods have been added to an already complicated system due to the NCAA’s decision in 2021 to remove the rule requiring athletes to sit for a transfer season, with the effect of “doubling and triple”. on the number of players in the transfer pool, Berkowitz said.

Both factors have created a “changed landscape” when it comes to college recruitment, he added, resulting in a “scramble.”

“Last year was the hardest year I’ve ever had to put 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 think about it, because otherwise it might not be there.”

As a result, Berkowitz said, students are more likely to feel “under-recruited” and choose to attend low-ranking schools, both Division I and Division II, before attempting to transfer. Berkowitz said that when he spoke with college coaches last year, many didn’t even look at high school students, preferring to turn to the transfer portal and then to junior colleges.

Berkowitz said he expects this to happen for several years, while the option of athletes to play one more year remains. High school sophomores are the first class not to be affected by the change.

“It’s just a logjam in a lot of places,” he said. “If 200 boys take their fifth year, that’s 200 small places for high school graduates.”

Mitch Smith contributed to reporting.

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