As the college basketball season barrels toward March, the Player of the Year conversation is becoming less of a debate and more a gush-fest over Oklahoma senior Buddy Hield.
That’s not to say there aren’t other intriguing candidates. There are plenty, although none quite as dominant as the guard who regularly puts up 30-plus points — and occasionally 46 — and hits more than half his three-point attempts. Of course, there’s Ben Simmons, Louisiana State’s fawned-over freshman, and the requisite Kentucky first-year star, Jamal Murray.
But in a one-and-done culture that celebrates explosive, exciting youth, the list of freshmen that have survived the cut for the midseason Wooden Award list ends there. Instead, as much as any year in recent history, this season’s field is graced by a stockpile of elite seniors — headlined by the eye-popping Hield, who has steadily made himself into a superstar.
The Year of the Senior? It certainly looks that way.
This season, for the most part, teams have gone only as far as their veterans. A stunning 19 of the top-25 teams and eight of the top 10 are led in scoring by a senior. After the Wooden Award watch list was narrowed to 25 players on Jan. 13, there were 14 seniors that hung in the field.
Three Big Ten standouts are among them — Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and Michigan’s Caris LeVert — and the theme of upperclassmen excellence carries over to the conference as a whole. Five of the top six teams in the conference standings are led by a senior, with Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Purdue’s A.J. Hammons joining Uthoff, Valentine and LeVert. Only fourth-ranked Maryland, led by sophomore guard Melo Trimble and freshman center Diamond Stone, break that trend.
On the flip side, three of the bottom four teams in the league, the Gophers included, either have seniors who have been limited by injury or who are failing to make a major impact. The exception is Penn State, which is getting big play out of leading scorer Brandon Taylor.
The huge importance of fourth-year athletes belies the notion that top-flight college basketball players rarely reach senior status, and seemingly stands in contrast to last season’s formula, when a youth-infused Duke team seized the national championship after Karl-Anthony Towns helped guide Kentucky to the Final Four at 38-0.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. While the Blue Devils and Wildcats both embodied freshman fever, there were lots of upperclassmen — and seniors — on six of the top eight seeds in the 2015 NCAA tournament, including Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin. In 2014, Creighton senior Doug McDermott got the nod. There have been some truly notable seniors the past few seasons despite six of the previous seven Player of the Years, from 2007 to ’13, being in school for three years or fewer.
The value of senior experience and growth is not going away. That’s as clear this season as it has been in the modern era.
WEEKEND GAME TO WATCH
No. 3 Villanova at No. 11 Providence, 2:30 p.m. Saturday (Fox Sports 1)
Villanova’s 11-game cruise since late December has been interrupted only by a 77-70 loss at home to — you guessed it — Providence, coming on Jan. 4. Friars 6-9 sophomore Ben Bentil threw up 31 points and 13 rebounds in that one, but the Wildcats will get a chance for revenge possibly without having to face their No. 1 aggressor from the first time around. Bentil is day-to-day because of an ankle injury suffered in an uncharacteristic Providence loss at DePaul on Tuesday. Can the Friars bounce back and repeat the upset with Bentil less than healthy or on the bench?
NUMBERS TO KNOW
10 Years since Iowa — currently tied with Indiana atop the Big Ten standings — has finished in the top three in the league. The Hawkeyes haven’t won the conference since 1979.
11 Virginia’s offensive points-per-possession ranking in the nation, at 1.14. That’s a stark improvement from 40th (1.09) last season, when the Cavaliers were all about defense.
A week ago, after No. 20 Kentucky dropped a close one in overtime at Kansas, coach John Calipari challenged the general belief that the Wildcats are ready to take the next steps — claiming his team didn’t know “how to win.” A couple of days later, we got yet another hint that statement is true, when the Wildcats let a 21-point lead fall apart at not-so-threatening Tennessee for their fifth road defeat, fourth against an unranked team. At home, Kentucky looks close to achieving that next level, but away from Rupp Arena the Wildcats resemble just another young team. The freshman class outside of Jamal Murray really hasn’t stood up to the hype, it might be time to accept that the Kentucky of right now might be the only Kentucky we’ll see.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
Iowa (18-4, 9-1 Big Ten): Jarrod Uthoff is getting a big percentage of the attention, but senior center Adam Woodbury has averaged 11.3 rebounds in the past three games.
Maryland (20-3, 9-2): The Terrapins crushed a stretch of three games in one week, winning all three: No. 5 Iowa at home, and two road games.
Indiana (19-4, 9-1): The Hoosiers defense is real. In league play, only one opponent — Wisconsin, in their only loss — has managed to score more than 0.97 points per possession.
Wisconsin (14-9, 6-4): Suddenly the Badgers are as hot as any team in the league, ripping off a five-game winning streak to reach the NCAA tournament bubble.
Purdue (19-4, 7-3): Beating Maryland on Saturday would do a lot for the Boilermakers, who are still waiting for a signature victory.
Michigan State (19-4, 6-4): It’s safe to say Denzel Valentine is healthy again, and the Spartans are rolling, after they topped Northwestern and Rutgers by a total of 65 points.
Michigan (17-6, 6-3): The Wolverines are staying afloat, but they sure could use star guard Caris LeVert to return after a nine-game layoff.
Ohio State (14-10, 6-5): JaQuan Lyle broke out of his slump, but it wasn’t enough to stop Wisconsin on Thursday.
Nebraska (12-11, 4-6): If the Cornhuskers can get the little things together, they could start winning again. They have the offense for it, converting 46.8 percent of their shots in league play, second best.
Northwestern (16-8, 4-7): Chris Collins’ bunch have trumped the Gophers by a stunning 49 points this season after Thursday’s 82-58 rout.
Penn State (11-12, 2-8): The Nittany Lions rank last in the league in three-point percentage but eighth in attempts, a juxtaposition clear in their 1-for-20 performance at Iowa.
Illinois (11-12, 3-7): It wasn’t pretty, but the Illini sank 12 free throws in triple OT and kept Rutgers winless.
Gophers (6-17, 0-11): The Gophers have lost three conference games by 24 points or more and started the conference slate with 11 losses for the first time since 1922-23.
Rutgers (6-17, 0-10): The Scarlett Knights’ losing streak continues, but they did manage to hit the 100-point mark for the first time since 1988.