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Mike Lopresti | | February 16, 2023

'I’ve never thought about leaving': 5 elite seniors who'll end their careers where they started

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North Carolina was in a crisis.  The Tar Heels had just taken their third consecutive loss at Wake Forest last week, and a once-sunny season had developed into a big thunderstorm. They did not come out of the locker room for the longest time afterward because there were things that had to be said in a soul-searching team meeting.

Armando Bacot had taken the floor.

“I chose to talk,” he would say later. “I just told everybody, I’m not gonna quit. If you want to be here, be (at practice) on Thursday. If not, just go home.”

He had spoken to younger teammates as one of the veterans that he is. “We came back for a reason. And this isn’t it.”

That was leadership talking, and such a thing does not happen quickly. Which brings us to five players we need to hear.

They are names on the late season list for the John R. Wooden Award, which means they are five of the best college basketball players in the land. But there is something else special about them. They are five guys who stayed. Five seniors still at their original schools.

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Gee, do they still make that kind of career anymore?

The world is so different now. The appeal of the NBA, the lure of greener NIL pastures elsewhere, the express exit ramp that is the transfer portal — this modern concoction has caused mass migration among elite players across the landscape of college basketball, turning it into something like an airport concourse. So many come and go... and then go again... and maybe go again. It is no longer unusual to find a point guard on his fourth school. Rosters turn over like retail jobs.

Not these five. They’re still making noise — probably their last noise — at the places where it all began.

Armando Bacot, North Carolina.

Antoine Davis, Detroit Mercy.

Trayce-Jackson Davis, Indiana.

Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA.

Drew Timme, Gonzaga.

To listen to them is to hear a sense of roots, and an appreciation of what time can do when allowed to work.  “Being at a school this long, you get a chance to grow up,” Bacot was saying. “You come in as a teenager and you go out as a man.”

Same for Jaquez. “I came in here 18 years old and leave going to be 22 pretty soon. I call it a chapter. This has been a great chapter in my life. I think you just build a lot deeper connection with the fans and with the school and with your teammates. You help see it grow. I’ve been here four years and I’ve seen the bottom and I’ve seen the top of UCLA basketball. I’m just so grateful and feel blessed to be a part of it.”

Timme as well. “The people that help you grow up, you see them every single day. It’s kind of hard to speak on because it’s so cool.”

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Once upon a time, they all had to make a college choice. Where to go, whom to play for? So many athletes change their minds, sooner or later. Maybe they made a mistake, maybe conditions weren’t the same, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. Clearly, for these five, their decision was the correct one, and always will be and that means something to them. “Looking back on it, the recruitment process, it’s a lot,” Timme said. “And just knowing you did your research and you really made the right choice for yourself, it’s kind of reassuring that in a high-pressure situation you can count on yourself to make the right call.”

Bacot: “You have to fight through the tough times and be there for the good times, being able to choose and decide what you want to do.”

Take Jackson-Davis. Indiana’s campus is only 45 miles from his high school, so he has gone through this transformation — from incoming prospect to veteran All-American — virtually in his own neighborhood. He wasn’t going anywhere else.

“In my four years I’ve matured a lot, being a leader on and off the floor,” he said. “Seeing the freshman come in every day, it’s funny, because I remember when I was them. It feels like a long, long time ago. 

“Building a culture was the biggest thing for me.”

But just looking at today’s game, with so many things tugging at a player’s heart and patience, isn’t it getting to be, well, unusual to be someone like Jackson-Davis now?

“I don’t find it that difficult,” he said. “Obviously the NIL and transfer portal are a huge thing, but I’ve always loved Indiana. Since the moment I stepped on campus, I’ve never thought about leaving.” 

Jaquez grew up an hour from UCLA and arrived in Westwood when the Bruins were trying to regain national significance. Now he’s a four-year starter who helped return them to the Final Four. “I loved my time here. I would stay another four years if I could. It’s been easy to ignore all the outside attention.”

Davis was tempted to leave Detroit Mercy for his last season. He even said publicly he probably would, but then changed his mind. Of course, there’s the family thing. The guy who coaches him is his father.  “I wasn’t worried,” Mike Davis said of the idea of his son going elsewhere. “Any time you’re paying for his rent...”

Plus, there was unfinished business. Davis has shot his way into No. 2 on the NCAA’s all-time career scoring list, and to make that entire ascent in the same Titan uniform seemed natural. Plus, he yearned to get his father, his teammates and himself to the one place he has never seen as a player — the NCAA tournament.

“It’d be the icing on the cake. It’d be over the top, it’d be the perfect ending,” he said.

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“That’s why he came back,” Mike Davis said. “It means so much to him. He loves Detroit. We don’t get a lot of fans at the game but the ones we get, they support him and they’ve been supporting him from day one.”

Besides, how to leave a school where you’ve become a legend?  “They’re going to retire his jersey on senior day,” Mike Davis said. “No one else could retire his jersey.”

The five have many things in common, and one is a growing wonder about the passage of time. As Jaquez mentioned, “On one hand I think, man, everything’s gone by so fast, I can remember it like it was yesterday.’  But then sometimes when I’ve been doing the same drills for four years, I’m like, 'damn I’ve been here forever.'"

Same for Timme after so many years in Spokane.  “Part of me feels like I was a freshman a couple of months ago and part of me feels like I’ve also been here half my life. It’s weird. It’s gone by so fast yet so slow at the same time.” In a way, Timme represents the massive change that college athletics have undergone in his era. When he arrived as a freshman, NIL was only a debated theory. By his senior year, he was doing commercials for a casino.

They all decided they weren’t ready for their pro basketball journey early, or maybe pro basketball wasn’t yet quite ready for them. But while waiting, they’ve all come to appreciate the bond with a fan base that only the years can grant. “They kind of connect with me because I’ve been here for so long,” Bacot said. “I’ve just built a relationship with them because of all the things we do, like camps, and basically just being here around campus. All those things have allowed them to fall in love with me.”

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Bacot felt a responsibility to speak up at that meeting last week as North Carolina tries to right itself in a shockingly uneven season. He is a team captain. Old Tar Heels with names such as Phil Ford, Larry Brown, Kenny Smith, Brad Daugherty, Tyler Hansbrough — and Bacot’s own coach, Hubert Davis — had that job.

“I’ve been here and been able to experience everything, it only makes sense for me to be the leader,” he said. “You look at the school that I’m at, just being able to say I was the captain of one of these teams, when you look at some of the guys who were captain here, it’s a huge honor.”

They also now see that one advantage — a perk, if you will — comes with longevity. A player does not have the chance to work his way up school career lists for points, rebounds and the like if he is here today and gone tomorrow. A bonus for hanging around is the chance to leave a legacy in the record book.

And so there is Timme, who has won 111 games as a Gonzaga player and is closing in on the all-time scoring record. “It’s something that I really never thought I would accomplish,” he said. “It’s something that never really crossed my mind when I was younger.”

There’s Jackson-Davis, recently becoming the first Indiana player in history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. That’s a feat at such a glory-drenched program. He is sixth on the school’s school scoring list, and the next Hoosier he’s due to pass soon is the man coaching him, Mike Woodson.

“Do I know the numbers? Yeah, I do,” Jackson-Davis said. “I don’t pay much attention to it right now. We’ve got a lot of season left... but when my career is over, then I’ll kind of reflect and think about all that stuff.”

There’s Jaquez, now in the top 20 at UCLA in both scoring and rebounding, only the 10th player to do that. Given the Bruins' incandescent tradition, his name is in pretty renowned company.

“We’ve had so many Hall of Famers and professionals who came through here,” he said. “Just to be able to have my name on the list with those guys is good enough for me.”

There’s Bacot, already North Carolina’s all-time rebounder and in the top 20 in scoring. One Tar Heel he could reach soon is No. 13 on the point list, Michael Jordan. “Stuff that I never could have even imagined coming in,” he said.

Davis has long since left the Detroit Mercy scoring records behind. Only Pete Maravich is ahead of him in major college history basketball history, now 185 points away. And like Maravich, Davis will score all his points in one uniform.

There is another thing the five are all beginning to share: The growing reality of the finish line.  “I’ve been here for four years, so I almost feel like this is my life now,” Bacot said. “You know it’s coming to an end and we’ll never have a chance to come back. It’s starting to hit me, it’s almost done.” But in his final act can he get struggling North Carolina off the NCAA tournament bubble?

Added Davis, “It’s going to be really emotional. It’s going to be the end of something that has been great over the last five years. It’s going to be a lot of I can’t believe that it’s over.”

But first will come March, and history shows that seniors who desperately want their moment to last as long as possible can become very dangerous opponents in the NCAA tournament. They bring a fight-to-the-last-bullet mentality.

“I know from watching that seniority has a lot of power in March,” Jaquez said. “I’ve yet to experience it but I know from watching other guys on other teams how important it is and realizing and really understanding that this is your last time playing in your college uniform. I’m excited for when that time comes. I’m excited to get those powers hopefully."

So is Timme.

“They say college years are the best years of your life. I don’t know what the rest of my life holds for me but I know I’m having the best years of my life up to this point, just how much fun I’m having doing what I love at a place that I love. I know as the pressure gets broader and bigger, I feel like I’m going to have that feeling.”

Could the day come when stories such as theirs grow rarer still? Might the one-school senior be an endangered species, like the rhino or the leopard? “Only time will tell,” Jaquez said. “I think NIL has a lot of impact on the way the college landscape is moving forward. It could mean the guys are here less and it could also mean they stay longer because if they can get more money playing at a school rather than going to the G-League, it might entice them to come back.”

These five show it is still possible to do, and treasure the opportunity. In the end, they will all likely lose their last game, unless one becomes a national champion. But Jackson-Davis spoke for all those who once followed their hearts and have never wavered.

“Just being here, growing here, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

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