Adam Kilgore, Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2016/03/18/the-first-day-of-the-ncaa-tournament-belonged-to-seniors/)
At halftime of Arkansas-Little Rock’s 85-83 double-overtime victory over Purdue, guard Josh Hagins had made one of the five shots he attempted. He recognized he needed to be more aggressive, and he resolved to make the rest of the game different. If his year was going to end, it would end on his terms.
“I’m a senior. I’ve waited 22 years, to be honest, to get to this point, this one game,” Hagins said. “I wasn’t going to go out like that. I wasn’t going to go without a fight. I made shots, missed them. I was going to go out swinging.”
All across the country, stars from the first round of the NCAA tournament may have heard Hagins and nodded their heads. Hagins provided the best performance on the first day of the NCAA tournament, scoring 31 points, snaring seven rebounds, delivering six assists making five steals and committing zero turnovers as his series of circus shots carried the 12th-seeded Trojans over Purdue in the clutch. It was both remarkable and representative: Seniors, those players who had seemingly gone out of style, owned Day 1 of the tournament.
Last year, Kentucky dominated the season with a phalanx of powerful freshman, and Duke won the national title with freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow leading it. In modern college basketball, it has become increasingly believed that teams either recruit one-and-done studs or settle for the second tier. This year, with LSU uber freshman Ben Simmons watching from home, seniors across the bracket imploded that convention.
Everywhere, and in every way, seniors dominated. Georges Niang carriedIowa State to a breezy win over Iona with 28 points and six rebounds. His time on campus has also taught him the value of playing the no-respect card. “Man, I just felt like since Sunday, that’s all we’ve been hearing is Iona is going to upset Iowa State, A.J. English, A.J. English, A.J. English,” Niang said. “I was like, ‘What about the Iowa State Cyclones?’ ”
Top seeds uniformly leaned on seniors. North Carolina’s Brice Johnson blocked eight shots in Raleigh as UNC pulled away from 16th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast, which trailed by just one at half. Forward Anthony Gill scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds in Virginia’s romp over Hampton; on any given day, fellow senior and ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon could carry the Cavaliers.
Seniors emerged even in places they rarely do. Duke faced a halftime deficit against UNC-Wilmington in the very first game of the tournament, and center Marshall Plumlee bailed them out with 23 points, eight boards and three blocks. The Blue Devils lean on freshman Brandon Ingram and sophomore Grayson Allen, but Coach Mike Krzyzewski called Plumlee their most important player. He is the only consistent inside presence they have, and often whether he plays well or poorly determines Duke’s outcome. His experience makes him a steadying presence.
“You know, we have three kids who are 18 years old, so I know they may be talented, but they’re 18,” Krzyzewski said. “I heard about McDonald’s All-American. We won because we had a 23-year-old: Marshall. These other kids are developing players. And the NCAA, especially this season, has been old.”
It’s trite, but true, that guard play takes on heightened importance in the tournament. So often Thursday, seniors were the ones at the rudder. Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell poured in 20 points and handed out 10 assists. Carolina’s Marcus Paige drained three three-pointers, an excellent sign for the Tar Heel point guard. For Virginia, London Perrantes made four threes and handed out four assists.
More interested in big, scoring guards? Miami’s Sheldon McLellan scored 20 points, and Butler’s 6-foot-6 Kellen Dunham scored 23 in a victory over Texas Tech.
The been-there-forever Wichita State back court of Ron Brown and Fred VanVleet stripped Arizona and sold it for parts, mixing oppressive defense with 29 combined points. VanVleet would have dominated if he never touched the ball, swiping five steals as he wrecked Arizona’s interior attack with double teams from every angle. Miami will face Wichita State on Saturday in what will be a smorgasbord of senior guard play.
“At this time of year, as you saw today with Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, guards really control the game,” Miami Coach Jim Larranaga said. “And those two guards from Wichita State always give them a chance.”
Thursday would not have been complete without underclassmen. Yale sophomore Makai Mason poured in 31 points, and Utah sophomore Jakob Poetl grabbed 18 rebounds to go with 16 points. But in a sport where seniors have lost ground for years, they seized some of it back Thursday.