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Mike Lopresti | | January 11, 2014

Well-seasoned vets


We interrupt the applause, adulation and acclaim for this year’s freshman class in college basketball for a special announcement.

Some pretty impressive seniors are bouncing around out there. Career guys who came in as teenagers, stayed the course, grew into men and have become the bedrock of their teams.

-- Shabazz Napier
The All-American at Creighton, who put off the NBA to stay one last season with his father. The do-it-all at Connecticut who made a promise to his mother. The academic whiz at unbeaten Iowa State. The pre-med defensive superstar at Ohio State. The forward at Michigan State and guard at Louisville, yearning to become the first persons in their family to graduate.

There is still so much value in what they bring to the table, even in the Year of the Freshman. Their stories are not just about talent or stats, but aspirations and wisdom and patience. Their college experiences span more than a hundred games, rather than coming and going faster than you can say Jabari Parker.

Their careers will end this spring, same as many of the freshman phenoms in the fast lane to the NBA draft green room. Seniors are one-and-doners, too. They just took more years to get there.

“Those guys that have been through the wars,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said, “they have an appreciation for it.”

So many things lured them back. The desire to improve their game. A promise made to family. The simple and pure motivation of not wanting to let go of their days as a college kid -- a joyous pastime that comes by only once.

“I wouldn’t trade this for the world,” Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier said.

The Huskies are 12-3 and Napier leads them in points, rebounds and assists. Nobody has done that at Connecticut since the school started keeping assists in 1969-70. All the years in Storrs have not only given him a national title, but also growth.

“The game has definitely slowed down for me. It’s much more understandable,” he said. “I take advantage of a lot of little things that a lot of guys don’t realize during the game; angles of the game that you don’t really as a freshman or sophomore understand yet.”

He is on course to graduate the second weekend in May, just days before his mother’s birthday. That should be one of the best weeks in his life.

“I made a big promise to my mom to stay and graduate. It made my decision so much easier,” he said. “My mother is my world. I know there are going to be tears.”

Only a senior would know such a feeling.

A senior such as Michigan State’s Adreian Payne. He has played 122 games as a Spartan to become the core of Izzo’s program. Same for fellow senior Keith Appling.

Together they scored 38 points to beat Ohio State the other night. “My seniors,” Izzo said afterward, “were warriors.”

They came back to add strength and depth to their games, a chosen path not without risks, for the longer people study you, the more flaws they’ll find. Human nature.

“The players that come back, they have more to prove,” Payne said. “When you come back, you’re going to have people analyzing your game, poking at your game, seeing if you’re getting better or getting worse. That’s what some seniors are afraid of when they come back. That can hurt you in the long run.”

But here’s the thing. Nobody in Payne’s family has ever been handed a college diploma. He is but one course away going into the spring term, having pursued credit hours like he pursues rebounds.

“I was there when his grandmother was alive and he promised her that he’d graduate,” Izzo said. “When he was making his decision last year, that was one of the things that came up. Everybody says you can go back later and graduate, and you can. But not a lot of people do.”

Aaron CraftOhio State9.3 ppg, 5.0 apg
Melvin EjimIowa State17.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg
C.J. FairSyracuse17.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg
Doug McDermottCreighton24.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg
Shabazz NapierConnecticut16.1 ppg, 5.7 apg
Adreian PayneMichigan State16.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg
Russ SmithLouisville17.8 ppg, 4.8 apg
So Payne’s senior season will lead to the day when he reflects back on the vow he made to a woman who cherished education.

“It changes the standard. It raises the bar, especially for my kids,” Payne said. “My grandmother instilled it in me and that’s what I want to instill in my kids.

“Times were changing. I guess she kind of knew that.”

Louisville’s Russ Smith also seeks to be his family’s first graduate. He seemingly had nothing left to prove after helping the Cardinals to the national championship. But a quest to further develop his game -- perhaps smooth away some of his inexplicable gaffes that could exasperate head coach Rick Pitino so -- brought him back. His scoring is down a tad this season, but his shooting percentage is better and his assist-turnover ratio much improved. Signs of a senior.

“To see some of the players we have this year that have stayed in college basketball, and continued to improve and help their teams, I think that’s very healthy,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott was saying.

He ought to know. Son Doug will be making his 126th consecutive start this weekend as a Bluejay, averaging more than 24 points and seven rebounds a game this season. He is the brightest of the bright among the senior set, seeking to become the first three-time first team All-American since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale 29 years ago.

His father sees a better passer and ballhandler, maybe a little quicker shooter this season. All benefits of another year. “And I think he’s a better leader this year because he’s one of the seniors,” Greg said. “Although he’s led by example for a good portion of his career, I think he’s taken the leadership role to heart.”

The make-the-last-chance-count mentality runs deep among seniors, especially in the bright lights of March, but also here in the dead of winter.

Doug McDermott sprained his shoulder last week but made it clear to reporters that he had every intention of resuming the Big East chase this weekend, now that conference newcomer Creighton is off to a 3-0 start.

“It’s my final go-around,” he said. “This is what I came back for, to be able to come into this new league.”

Greg watched his son’s deliberations to stay or go this past spring in both the sober get-all-the-facts mode of a coach, and with the emotions of a father. And when that decision came?

“As a father, there was probably part of me that was worried for him. If he comes back, obviously, there’s a risk of things not going as well. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case. He’s off to a great start and our team is off to a great start.

“At the end of the day, he chose to be college student because he really enjoyed that experience.”

And so it goes in many places bolstered in the polls by seniors.

Syracuse is still unbeaten, led by C.J. Fair who has played in 124 Orange games. His iron purpose was clear enough in Maui, when he took a blow to the cheek that required 11 stitches, but came back to win tournament MVP.

Fair’s headband is a Syracuse echo of Carmelo Anthony, and so is his penchant for the big play. “In the end,” head coach Jim Boeheim said after a game, “we are going to C.J.”

Iowa State remains unbeaten, its leading scorer a history major and Phi Kappa Phi academic honorary member with a 3.7 grade-point average, and more than 1,000 points and 800 rebounds in his career. Melvin Ejim led the conference in rebounding his junior season, even at 6-foot-6, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was becoming the first Big 12 scholar athlete of the year.

-- Greg McDermott
Aaron Craft is still tormenting opposing guards with his defense at once-beaten Ohio State, while the nearly non-stop parade of A’s keep coming in his pre-med regimen. The Buckeyes would be lost without him, which is not often said about a player with a 9.3 scoring average. But then there are his 600-plus career assists and nearly 300 steals.

Should they all not also get their due, even amid the oohs and aahs over the phenoms at Duke and Kentucky and Kansas and Arizona? Or are we so infatuated with new faces, that old reliables get taken for granted -- not only the level of their game, but the burden they bear to still be around?

“I think we create our own injustice. There’s so much pressure on kids to leave early, it’s like, 'If I don’t leave by the time I’m a sophomore, I’m a bad player,' ” Izzo said. “I get asked how I feel about kids leaving early. I’m all for it. If they’re good enough, go. But I think there’s so much pressure on kids now, they don’t get to enjoy college.

“Everyone says kids should leave early because their warts will get found out. Well, these seniors’ warts are showing, and they’re still surviving.”

Greg McDermott said he never thought about it that way until after a recent game, when a reporter mentioned that it was a shame that Doug McDermott could have “30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and nobody wrote about it because we expect it.”

Said Greg McDermott, “You expect seniors to be able to do it game after game after game. When a freshman has a game like that, it makes national news. But the reality is, it’s harder to do for seniors, as people have had more of an opportunity to scout you and watch your strengths and weakness. There’s hundreds of games our opponents can watch on Doug, and he still has to find a way to score points for us.

“What the seniors are doing gets overshadowed somewhat by the freshman class, but I think a combination of both is really good for college basketball.”

Looks that way through seniors’ eyes, anyway.

“If you don’t get better, you get worse. You only come back to get better,” Payne said.

“I think I made a great decision in my life,” Napier said.

Could young men ask for more?


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