It was supposed to be the year of the freshman in college basketball.
Duke had Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson on board. Kentucky had Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. UCLA had Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. There were many others — Kansas’ Josh Jackson, Washington’s Markelle Fultz and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, to name a few — about whom excitement was running extraordinarily high.
Back in November, the Sun-Times’ season preview referred to the Class of 2016 as an “incredible group” and a “nonstop story” that would keep us entertained all the way until the first weekend in April.
And it nearly did just that.
But here we are staring at Saturday’s Final Four matchups — Gonzaga vs. South Carolina and Oregon vs. North Carolina — and what do you know? Freshmen don’t appear to have a heck of a lot to do with how things will play out in Glendale, Arizona.
Gonzaga has freshman 7-footer Zach Collins coming off its bench. South Carolina’s fifth- and sixth-leading scorers, Maik Kotsar and Rakym Felder, are freshmen. North Carolina freshmen Tony Bradley and Seventh Woods play limited reserve roles. Oregon has been starting freshman Payton Pritchard, but only since senior Chris Boucher got hurt during the Pac-12 tournament.
What stands out about this Final Four field is the Zags’, Gamecocks’, Tar Heels’ and Ducks’ experience. Man, these guys are old.
“Everyone falls in love with the one-and-done phenomenon,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “I get it. I’m lucky that I started my career [at Kansas State] with two of them. It’s part of what we do. But there’s a big difference between 18-year-olds and 22-year-olds.”
Case in point: 22-year-old Sindarius Thornwell, the Gamecocks senior who is leading this NCAA Tournament in scoring with 103 points in four games. Thornwell arrived at the Final Four battling a fever and had to miss Thursday’s team practice.
Oh, no? Nah. More like no big deal.
“He understands basketball at a high, high level,” Martin said. “He doesn’t need to be on the practice court to understand what we’re doing.”
Thornwell and fellow senior Duance Notice, the Gamecocks’ best defender, have led the team’s unlikely charge to the desert. They’ll face a Gonzaga squad that has four starters with at least four years of college experience under their belts. One of them, guard Nigel Williams-Goss, is a finalist for the Wooden Award. Another, mountainous center Przemek Karnowski, has participated in an NCAA Division I-record 136 victories.
“There’s a maturity about a Nigel Williams-Goss, who really understands how to process this stuff in a positive way,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “There’s a maturity about [senior guard] Jordan Mathews, who knows how to really process things and just shrink it down to what he has to do to be successful. And then, obviously, Przemek has won more games than anyone in NCAA history, so he’s been around the block.”
Why was Oregon able to play its way through No. 1 seed Kansas and into the Final Four? In large part because it returned nearly every key player from its Elite Eight run of 2016. Pac-12 player of the year Dillon Brooks, a three-year starter, has been around the block, too. So has fellow junior Jordan Bell, the shot-swatting, glass-cleaning sensation of the tournament.
But now comes the hardest part yet — beating UNC — and it’s no wonder. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams has nothing but upperclassmen in his starting lineup. Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II and Kennedy Meeks all started in last year’s national championship game against Villanova.
“Older guys understand how fleeting it is and how sudden the season is over with,” said Williams, “and perhaps they focus a little bit more on that part of it.”
It makes nothing but sense. Remind us of that when November rolls back around.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.