Final Four: Experienced teams make up the field in Phoenix
GLENDALE, Ariz. — They came to this flying saucer of a stadium one team after another Thursday. It was a good day to go from locker room to locker room to visit with all the one-and-done freshman phenoms.
This is the Final Four, so there must be a lot of them, as surely as the grass is blue in Kentucky, right? Isn’t that the way you do it now?
South Carolina is first. Let’s go find Sindarius Thornwell, who has been scoring 26 points a game lately falling out of bed and is the big reason the Gamecocks have trashed conventional wisdom to get here. He makes a fine one-and-done...wait a minute.
He’s a senior. Saturday will be his 132nd game — and his 132nd start — for South Carolina. He’s also not here. Sick. But that's Duane Notice in the middle of a gaggle of cameras. This will be his 138th game.
“We’ve been through a lot of hardships. We stuck with it,” he said. “The easiest thing to do would have been to transfer and leave. We can help teach the young guys that you’re not just born into this. You just don’t come to school and make the Final Four. You have to work at it. You have to understand you just can’t take things for granted.”
Know who isn’t taking one second of this for granted? Chris Silva, standing over there by his locker. It was barely four years ago that he left his family behind back in Gabon to take a flyer at basketball in America. He had only recently discovered what the Final Four even was. The first 16 years of his life, not a clue.
They’re following him back home this weekend. He thinks. “They tell me I’m doing something great. They see me as a proud citizen. I hope my mother and father are really proud, even though I haven’t had a chance to talk with them yet. Connections and all that.”
There’ll be no family in the stands for him this weekend.
“I coached a lot of foreign kids, and I understand their journey. That’s what my family went through,” coach Frank Martin is saying, the South Carolina coach who was the son of Cuban exiles. He mentions Christmas is the toughest time for such kids.
No one-and-done tales here, then. Let’s move along to Gonzaga’s locker room. Any freshmen in here with one foot in the Final Four and the other out the door to the NBA?
Not the guy with the beard. Przemek Karnowski’s a planet. No freshman can be that big. Fact is, the senior has won 136 games, an NCAA record.
“He has more wins than any player in history,” his coach, Mark Few said recently. “The great Grant Hill and [Christian] Laettner and all those dudes.”
Karnowski is telling the story of the time he received a recruiting letter from Gonzaga back in Poland.
“I thought it was a city in Washington, D.C. I bought a big map of United States to find where all the universities were that were recruiting me. After 20 minutes of searching with my parents, I went on the internet and found out Gonzaga is actually not a city, but in Spokane, and it’s not actually in DC, it’s Washington on the west side. After 20 minutes, we found out where it actually was. We didn’t have a hard time finding any other schools.”
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He first became aware of the Final Four watching Florida win back in 2007.
“The games were on at 2 or 3 a.m. My parents told me to go to sleep but I tried to find some streams online. I watched it up in my room and I was hoping my parents were asleep.”
Karnowski just found out Thursday that Polish TV has decided to carry Saturday’s game because of him. Everyone here has large fan bases, but he has a whole country watching him.
His teammates are no help in our one-and-done search, either. A senior, two redshirt juniors, a redshirt sophomore and the pride of Torun, Poland. That’s the Zags’ starting lineup.
Next, we’ll try Oregon.
Tyler Dorsey? No. The hottest player in the tournament this side of Sindarus Thornwell is on his 75th game with Oregon. Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks? Been there forever. Don’t even think about Dylan Ennis. This is his third school — and third time zone. He transferred from Rice to Villanova to Oregon, and with an injury redshirt year mixed in, he's 25 and on his sixth season. There are one-and-dones who have been traded in the NBA by his age. Twice.
“I’m sure everybody went through their journey, everybody went through their ups and downs in their basketball career,” he says, sitting at his locker. “But personally I do feel like this means more to me than anybody who will step on that court. I’ve been doing this for six years now, and this finally is the end. Whether that ends great or ends bad, my journey has been something you can’t write in a book. The dream never faded.”
He might be the old guy, but he’s rested only 11 minutes in four NCAA tournament games.
“I’m going to keep going because I know I don’t get another chance at this,” he says.
Last year, he was with Oregon teammates watching his old team, Villanova, when the championship. It had to feel a little odd.
“My phone blew up. 'Dylan are you glad you left?' It was fine. I congratulated them. I still talk to them now. I made the decision to leave, and everything worked out for me and for them.
“I think Sports Illustrated deemed me the unluckiest basketball player in the world. But hey, I’m not unlucky now.”
He’s six-and-done. So last chance, North Carolina.
Forget it. The Tar Heels’ lineup has been around so long — a combined 596 Carolina games among the five starters — they bleed sky blue by now.
Here’s senior Isaiah Hicks. He might not be the best-known of the Tar Heel starters, but Saturday will be his 150th game. Only one other man in North Carolina history — Deon Thompson — has more.
“It’s crazy to think about that,” Hicks says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to not miss any games. It’s about being healthy and trying to get far in the tournament.”
He grew up not far from Chapel Hill, idolizing the Tar Heels. In the media guide, it says one of his wishes is to go back in time and watch Michael Jordan’s shot win the 1982 national championship. But now he could win his own, and he talks about how these Heels have hung together for so many years — North Carolina has not had a player transfer away since 2011 — and his last chance.
“Why not leave everything out there? Why not play like it’s the last time? Even the freshmen. You don’t want to say, 'Oh, I’ve still got a few more years.' Then you don't play your hardest.
“It’s always the team with great chemistry that holds up that trophy. When everybody’s clicking, when everybody having fun together, that’s the best basketball a team plays.”
It’s hopeless. This is not the Final Four for one-and-dones. It’s about a 25-year-old sixth-year player, a veteran from Poland, a chance-taker from the coast of Africa, a North Carolina locker room of young men who say they are more resolute now because of what happened to them a year ago.
Something Martin said: “If I could coach one-and dones, I’d be more than happy. Because you’ve got pros on your team, you’ve got a chance to be real good. But there’s a difference. Seniors, you live together, you grow together. ... I know I was completely different at 22 than I was at 18.”
Remember when we called this the Year of the Freshman? In fact, there were a bundle of them out there doing great things, wowing crowds and NBA scouts. But none of them are here.