So now the NCAA Tournament curtain goes up. The stage, in so many ways, belongs to the seniors.
It is the opportunity this year to really see what the last chance mentality can do. Last chance mentality? Seniors with years invested in their programs, who understand it is now, or never. That power can take teams for a long ride through March, and into April. In the era of one-and-done, when many careers are brief fireworks shows, it can sometimes be rare.
But not this season.From North Carolina’s Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, to Kansas’ Perry Ellis, to Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon, to Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, to Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, seniors are at the head of most of the brightest championship contenders. And they all hear the ticking clock.
Michigan State will do as an example. Three seniors are in the starting lineup. Listen to their urgency. Listen to Valentine.
"Our goal, when we got here, was to win a national championship, and we haven't accomplished that yet. So ever since the season got over last year, going to the Final Four and being that close, it only just drove us that much more to get back.
"We have been hungry, and that has been driving us."
Or Bryn Forbes. "Every chance you get to get on the floor is pretty much of a blessing. There’s not many more of these."
Or Matt Costello. "This is our chance to lead the charge. I know I’m not going to be playing basketball for Michigan State in a month no matter what happens, so I’ve got to do the best I can with the time I’ve got."
Or coach Tom Izzo. "You have two kinds of seniors. You have seniors, and maybe they haven't worked to earn what they have gotten. And then you have seniors that have just killed themselves.
"I enjoy watching guys grow. Sometimes in this era, you don't get to do that as much."
True, we don’t see this a lot now, with the players coming and going so quickly. Only once in the past 13 years has a senior been named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four – Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier in 2014.
But for those who have stayed, it can be an experience to cherish. The man sitting at the press table the other night at the Big Ten tournament, preparing for his broadcast, understands.
In 1994, a somewhat unsung Duke team went to the national championship game, led largely by the heroics of a senior who wanted it all to last as long as possible: Grant Hill.
About the power of seniors . . .
"The obvious advantage is the experience. Just having guys who have been in the game, and more mature," Hill said. "They’ve had success and maybe failures in the postseason. They just kind of understand. You can’t teach that. But also knowing you don’t have that luxury of, well, there’s next year. I don’t know if you’re a one-and-done or guy who leaves early that there’s a lot of emotion that surrounds the idea of leaving. But you see these guys on their senior nights, they can be emotional roller coasters.
"You’re there for four years, you really form a relationship. It becomes a family. I don’t know if you can get that in one or two years. So I think there’s more of a sense of urgency and just realizing, this is it. So part of the motivation – not that you need motivation other than wanting to win – is not wanting it to end. You know when that day comes when you lose and you’re out, things change. It’s the ending of a special moment in your life, and in your career."
The most unusual senior story belongs to Seton Hall’s Derrick Gordon, who will make history as the first man to play for three different schools in the tournament.
In 2012, he was a Western Kentucky freshman, and scored 11 points with 11 rebounds as the Hilltoppers came from 16 points behind with 4:51 left to edge Mississippi Valley State 59-58 in the First Four. The rally was the biggest ever in the final five minutes in NCAA Tournament, and in the front row in Dayton were President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
"It’s a crazy feeling,' Gordon said that night. "That’s the President of the United States coming to watch our game. We wanted to put on a show.
"I’m sure he liked what he saw."
Two days later, Gordon scored 12 points in an 81-66 loss to Kentucky. Then he transferred to Massachusetts, and had 10 points in an 86-67 loss to Tennessee in 2014. Then after getting his undergraduate degree, he moved to Seton Hall, and now here he is again, for one final fling.
A lot of final flings are starting right now in the bracket. "It has been a long ride, but it’s been fun," North Carolina’s Paige said. "This is what makes it all worth it."
Last dance, and last chance. The other seniors understand what he means.