Contributing reporters: Eamonn Brennan, C.L. Brown, Jeff Goodman, Chantel Jennings, Myron Medcalf, Dana O’Neil and Sam Strong. http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/14836575/college-basketball-senior-class-2015-2016-imparts-advice
As a rare, senior-dominated season winds down, college basketball’s elder statesmen impart wisdom to the freshman version of themselves.
Introspection is a luxury rarely afforded to college basketball players these days. The game is so young, dominated by one-and-done freshmen whose collegiate careers are too brief to offer much in the way of perspective.
But this season, seniors have overtaken the sport, not only fulfilling key leadership spots on their own teams but also running roughshod over the national conversation. They are players who have grown into their excellence, stumbling and learning through four years to emerge the better for it.
Along the way they’ve learned a thing or two. Given such a unique and rare opportunity to talk to players who are blessed with perspective, we decided to ask them what they’ve learned along the way and what they wish their younger selves had known.
GUARD | OKLAHOMA SOONERS
‘EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED’
My advice? Just expect the unexpected. When you think everything is going to go your way, it’s not going to happen your way. Coaches might tell you this and tell you that … but probably they’re not going to play you right away. It’s not going to happen. You have veteran guys in front of you, who have put in extra time, who know the system, and coaches trust guys ahead of you. If you don’t come ready to play and be mature about handling your situation, waiting for your time to come, it will be really hard.
My freshman year, I wanted to start. I felt like I deserved to start, but I didn’t. And then, you have a lot of people in your ear, telling you, “Oh you’re better than this guy. He might be ahead of you, but you’re better. You’re way better.” But [the coaches] are not playing you because you’re not ready to play. That’s the truth. You have to trust in your coaches and keep working to get better and get ready to play. … But don’t listen to people, your family members, your friends … they want what’s best for you, and like that’s the worst thing. You can’t have family members telling you things that you want to hear. … But the reason why the coaches don’t play you is you’re not ready. You have to wait for your opportunity to come and take advantage of it.
GUARD | MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
‘DIET IS ALSO DEFINITELY IMPORTANT. … IT WILL EVENTUALLY CATCH UP WITH YOU’
I would tell myself to be more relaxed and under control with what I was doing and how I was doing it. Sometimes as a freshman, I was all riled up and my nerves were out of control. Keep your composure, stay poised and be confident. I really wasn’t poised and relaxed until my junior year. It was when I realized I only had two years left, and that for my ultimate goal, the NBA, it was now or never.
Diet is also definitely important. Maybe you can get away with it, but it will eventually catch up with you. The better shape you are in, the easier it is on the floor. You can recover faster. Diet, weight training and being poised and relaxed are all important, and I didn’t realize it back then.
FORWARD | IOWA STATE CYCLONES
‘KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN AND HAVE A VISION’
The best advice I’d give is that through all the adversity, and you are going to face plenty throughout your career, keep your head down and have a vision. I don’t know if my vision was big enough when I got here. I didn’t even think I saw myself as being able to accomplish some of the things I have here. Don’t shortchange yourself and aim big.
I was a big, chubby kid, and I wish I had realized earlier how important it is to watch what you put in your body. I just wish I had been more aware back then, but I think you come in from high school and don’t know better. At least I didn’t.
I also wish I had known not to run my mouth quite as much. I took a couple of licks in the locker room. I shouldn’t have talked as much trash as I did because I hadn’t proven anything. Melvin [Ejim] was one of the older guys on the team, and I’ll never forget it. I was barking at him during practice, and he put me in a headlock, put me to the ground, and that’s the last time I ever talked trash to him.
GUARD | VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
‘EVERYTHING IS GOING TO WORK OUT FOR YOUR BEST INTEREST’
I would basically tell myself that everything will happen with God’s time. Not to worry, but if you work hard and have faith, everything is going to work out for your best interest and that you have a plan so don’t worry about anything.
I wasn’t impatient, but I think I had the mindset of a lot of other freshmen of wanting to play right now, wanting to score points right away, just eager to do really well in college basketball. I didn’t really struggle with it, but that was something in the back of my mind. I always worried a little bit and wondered if I’d be an elite basketball player on the college level.
GUARD | INDIANA HOOSIERS
‘YOU HAVE TO GET OUT THERE AND PLAY WITH CONFIDENCE’
I’d tell Yogi Ferrell the freshman to take every day as a blessing.
I’d tell myself that it all goes by quickly.
I think I’d also tell him to not play nervous. You have to get out there and play with confidence. I don’t think I always did that during my first year at Indiana.
GUARD | NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
‘YOU’RE GOING TO BLINK AND BE A SENIOR’
If I could write a letter to myself as a freshman, I would just tell him not to take anything for granted. This is the first year we’ve been really successful and had a chance to be a 1-seed in the tournament and maybe win some hardware. So I’d say just don’t take anything for granted and enjoy the process because you’re going to blink and be a senior.
And soak in as much as you can from your Hall of Fame coach [Roy Williams] because I’ve learned so much from him over the past four years that I can take into any aspect of my life going forward. That’s been special.
FORWARD | IOWA HAWKEYES
‘DON’T UNDERESTIMATE HOW IMPORTANT YOUR MENTAL STATE OF MIND IS’
Don’t underestimate how important your mental state of mind is. Keep your confidence above most everything else. It’s so important for your state of mind. When you are a freshman, you don’t really think about the mental part of the game as much as you should, but it’s so important, and you learn that as you get older.
Another thing I was fortunate to understand, even as a freshman, was to be focused on the right things. I did a great job as a freshman of finding a wonderful lady. A lot of college student-athletes just party and spend a lot of time chasing girls. I’ve had the same one since I started college. We met my freshman year at Wisconsin. I transferred, and then she transferred a year later and was on the golf team. We’re engaged now [and getting married on July 30]. I think it helped me that I wasn’t running around chasing girls.
GUARD | WICHITA STATE SHOCKERS
‘I WOULDN’T HOLD BACK OR DEFER AS MUCH’
Any time you look back you see how you could have done things differently. I think the Kentucky game my sophomore year, the year we were undefeated, it was a round-of-32 game. At the time I was so locked in and focused on that game, and on trying to advance, that I didn’t really understand how huge the thing would be. There was a magnitude to it, and what came after. Now I understand that. It was one of the biggest games in the tournament in the past couple of years. And looking back, I could have — no, I should have done things differently.
I’d be more aggressive. … I wouldn’t hold back or defer as much. … I’d just leave it all out there on the floor. That year we were so good, I didn’t really have to try to play my best or do as much as I could every night because we were good enough to win without me being Superman. … If I would have taken my game to the next level like I can in that game, we probably would have had a better chance to win.
GUARD | WICHITA STATE SHOCKERS
‘DO THE LITTLE THINGS’
Stay the course. Try and get better. Be aggressive. Do the little things. Those are the things that will give you confidence moving forward, the things that eventually make you better.
It’s hard to prepare for the big games, for the experience of going through them. It would be hard to explain that to someone who hadn’t done it yet. Sometimes you just have to experience it to know what it’s like … the Final Fours, the game against Kentucky, games like that.
I hated losing them. I do know that. I hated losing to Louisville [in the 2013 Final Four], and I hated losing to Kentucky. Those games stick out. I suppose if I had the chance I might go back and tell myself some things that could have helped in the Kentucky game — the way some plays would happen. Strategies, maybe. I don’t know.
I’d just tell myself to relax. Be as confident as you can be in your own abilities. And ultimately: Enjoy it. Those types of games, the really big ones, they’re only given to a select few players in their careers. You’ve got to appreciate them.
FORWARD | GONZAGA BULLDOGS
‘KEEP WORKING HARD, GET BACK IN THE GYM AND LISTEN TO YOUR COACHES’
You know, it’s probably cliche, but if I could go back and talk to Kyle Wiltjer the freshman, I would just tell him to keep working hard, get back in the gym and listen to your coaches. I’ve been working hard since day one. And every single year, my work ethic has gotten better.
Playing with guys like Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones my freshman year at Kentucky really made me work hard every day in practice.
GUARD | GEORGIA STATE PANTHERS
‘EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON’
Trust the process. It’s been a long road and one I didn’t expect, but everything happens for a reason. Stay in the gym and lock in. I put myself in a lot of bad situations as a freshman. … I was a kid, and it was a different world for me at Louisville, but I can’t use that as an excuse.
Then it was hard for me with everything that happened after the injury. I’ve never been the type of person who attracted and wanted attention. My whole world was turned upside down, and everyone knew who I was, but that didn’t help me focus.
It wasn’t until I got to Georgia State that I matured. It was exactly what I needed — a fresh start. I’m back to myself now, completely. I trust everything will work out. I trust the process now.
GUARD | LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
‘PLAY EVERY GAME LIKE IT’S YOUR LAST’
I would say, play every game like it’s your last. You never know when the game could be taken away from you.
When I tore my ACL, it was really devastating. I actually didn’t know how to react. … My game was starting to come around, and I got hurt. I was really depressed. I had to do some soul searching to figure out what kind of person I was.
And now this [the postseason ban at Louisville]. I don’t know, I think the injuries helped me with this. I know there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. God willing, this isn’t the end of my basketball career. This is a road bump.
I’ve worked so hard to get to this point, to showcase my abilities. … Things happen. It’s matter of how you adjust. You have to be mature about it. That’s what I’ve been through this whole process.
Life is never perfect, even though you want it to be. You have to go through things to find out who you are. I believe that hard work pays off. Eventually my day is going to come.
FORWARD | VILLANOVA WILDCATS
‘APPRECIATE THE STRUGGLE OF THE JOURNEY’
Appreciate the struggle of the journey because it makes you appreciate the outcome a lot more.
We would all like things to go easy and smoothly. Freshman year, I can remember we didn’t play well against St. John’s. Our defense was questionable. And that week, we had like nine days in between games. It was winter break, no students on campus, just us. That was a terrible week.
You would wake up, go to breakfast, the gym, practice, film or lift maybe. Then go to your room, sleep and repeat. It was cold out, snowing. It was awful. You would start off the morning, the cold hitting you in the face when you walk out the door, and then you walk out of the gym, sore, cold hitting you again, nobody else on campus. It was kind of like boot camp.
I didn’t want to hang out with my teammates. No one did. Everyone went to their rooms, in their own zone.
I think halfway through that week, I was like, “I don’t know if I can keep up with this. Is this what I want to do?”
But I got through it. We go through it as a team, and look at us now.
Guys now who say, “Oh, practice is hard,” I think to myself, “You have no idea what that means.”
GUARD | VILLANOVA WILDCATS
‘DON’T KILL YOURSELF OVER WHAT’S DONE’
I would tell myself that everything is going to be all right, that through all the tough practices and tough times, things will turn out really well. As a freshman, I would kill myself over games we should have won.
I remember we lost to Columbia my freshman year. We lost by  at home. … Everyone else was fine, and I didn’t want to talk to anybody. … I wanted to go figure out what I could do that minute to change the outcome of the game. I wasn’t accustomed to losing at all, and I just couldn’t understand how guys weren’t just distraught over this game.
But as the years went by, coaches would talk to me about not getting so frustrated and to trust the process. Don’t kill yourself over what’s done. Once a game is over, there’s nothing you can do about it except watch film and try to figure out how to get better.
Every year I got a little bit better with it, learning how to cope and how to turn the negatives into a positive. Even the losses we had this year, to Oklahoma and Virginia and Providence, I’ve looked at ways we could improve instead of trying to fix what we did wrong. I think our whole team has been really good at that, and that’s why we are where we are.
GUARD | SMU MUSTANGS
‘LET THE GAME COME TO YOU’
I would tell myself to slow down, to let the game come to me and not try to do too much as a point guard. Coming out of high school, you think the game is the same and it’s not. … You’ve got adjust to that. You can’t just go out and attack it.
I would go so hard and so fast, I’d turn the ball over, get trapped where I shouldn’t get trapped. I’d rush shots.
Coach [Larry] Brown showed me a lot with the shot clock. He’d talk about time and score, how many timeouts we had, how many fouls we had, all of the little things a point guard needs to know. It was overwhelming because you have to be a player and almost a coach at the same time.
It’s still overwhelming sometimes. I’m human. But most of the time, I sit back and tell myself, “Let the game come to you. See how the defense is playing and how the game is being called.”
GUARD | BYU COUGARS
‘FIGURE OUT WHO YOU ARE, WHAT YOUR IDENTITY IS AS A PLAYER’
I would just tell myself to take care of your body every day and to eat super healthy, stretch, do all of those little things. Because right when you step on campus, you’re 18 years old, your body feels good. As you get older, that stuff is super important.
On the court, the biggest thing is you have to figure out who you are, what your identity is as a player. You have to find something that you’re good at and bring that to the table every night. That’s the goal, right? To play how you played in high school, to be able to transfer your game to the college level. You have to figure out who you are and build on that. A lot of players don’t understand what their strengths are. You have to establish them and build off them.
My career was a little different because I had a good freshman year and we made it to the Sweet 16 [in 2011], and then I left for Russia [on a Mormon mission]. Two years later, I had to start all over again. Whatever momentum I had from my freshman year kind of died. I had to get in shape again.
But really, every year after that, my role as a leader increased. This year, I’m helping dudes out. I’ve been in the system four years. I can talk to them outside of practice and help them know what they need to do to play.
FORWARD | KANSAS JAYHAWKS
‘HOW CAN YOU IMPACT EACH PLAY?’
The key thing to growing each year is playing with energy every single possession. That’s what coaches are really looking at. How can you impact each play? I realize now it means so much. In games, all those little energy things you can do, playing every possession, it really does matter.
At first I was overwhelmed. I didn’t get it. I kept thinking, “Man, I can’t do anything right.” I remember [former Kansas forward] Kevin Young a lot of times telling me to just settle down.
I couldn’t. I laugh now at how fast the game was to me. … You realize you can’t do everything right. … You’ve got to have fun and just play with confidence, even if you don’t have it. You can’t think too much out there.
CENTER | ARIZONA WILDCATS
‘YOU JUST HAVE TO BE COMFORTABLE WITH WHO YOU ARE’
One of the most important things would be to be comfortable with who I am as a basketball player. It’s something I think a lot of people struggle with. You want to be the guy, the star, scoring points. But sometimes you just have to be comfortable with who you are and help the team in any way you can. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned in four years.
I’d also tell myself to get in the training room more and get more treatment. My legs would feel much better these days.
FORWARD | BAYLOR BEARS
‘YOU CAN’T WORRY ABOUT MINUTES’
I would tell myself to play with intensity every time you step out on the floor. I didn’t do that my freshman year. I was worried about playing time. I think every freshman worries about that, especially if you have an NBA dream. But I think I focused on that too much during my first two years at Baylor. You can’t worry about minutes.
FORWARD | KENTUCKY WILDCATS
‘THERE’S NOT THAT MUCH ROOM FOR ERROR’
I would just say to work harder in everything. It’s a lot different than high school. People think just because you come in, you can do whatever, but no, it’s really a lot different from high school, and you’re going to have a lot of challenges.
The talent level is different. People are a lot better than you think they are, and there’s not that much room for error.
GARY PAYTON II
GUARD | OREGON STATE BEAVERS
‘YOU CAN’T MAKE SHOTS UNLESS YOU TAKE THEM ’
I would tell myself to be aggressive every game, especially when I was in [junior college]. And to just take shots. You can’t make shots unless you take them. In juco, I wasn’t as aggressive as I am here now, taking a lot more shots and getting my teammates involved. But in some games, you’ve just got to be aggressive and know how to take over. There are certain games when I’ve learned I need to be more aggressive to get the win. … I would tell myself that [junior college] will help. It definitely didn’t hurt. While you’re there, make it count. Put in the work. Develop what you need to work on. Be patient. Everything happens for a reason.