BUFFALO, N.Y. — In recent years, the NCAA Tournament has seemed at times to be but a short stop on the ever-shorter route from high school to the pros.
"Kids all have their bags packed and expect to be in the NBA," said Southern Methodist coach Larry Brown.
Two years ago, Kentucky won the championship with a team reliant on freshmen one-and-done players. And some modern players have said that they can feel a stigma attached to staying in college to complete a four-year career.
But this year's tournament, which kicks into high gear with 16 second-round games on Thursday, including UConn-St. Joseph's at First Niagara Center at 6:55 p.m., should have many more senior moments. Many of those expected to be important players are, by college standards, grizzled veterans.
"I feel like I've improved as a player," said Shabazz Napier, the Huskies' senior guard.
"But at the end of the day, I came back to get here, where we are."
Napier considered going pro last spring, but it was unlikely that he would have been a first-round draft choice so he decided to come back. Louisville's Russ Smith had a similar choice and opted to return for his senior season and try to repeat as national champion.
"I went through that whole time last year about doing what I wanted to do," said Smith, who prepped at South Kent School in Connecticut. "I had almost done everything a college athlete on the court could have done. There were some things I was missing, being a senior on campus, helping new freshmen grow, so a bunch of maturity points that I wanted to get better in helped me a lot."
A few players are ready for the NBA at a young age, such as Middletown's Andre Drummond, who left UConn after one season in 2012 and became a productive pro with the Detroit Pistons. Others are ready to be drafted because of perceived potential, but they are not ready to make an impact, and that can shorten a career.
"Most make a mistake by leaving," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "It costs them a lot of money in their second contract because they're not ready to play."
The players in this tournament, though, returned for various reasons. UConn's Niels Giffey, from Berlin, Germany, played with and against pros in the European Championships last summer and probably could have signed a pro contract to stay at home.
"I would [advise a player], come back and get your degree," Giffey said. "Just take on that leadership role. I've realized it's so interesting to put yourself in that situation. It's easy to look up to team leaders each year and follow them and expect certain things, but when you're in that position, it's a whole different world. It's been a good experience for me."
UConn's seniors, a group that also includes Tyler Olander of Mansfield, have been through the gamut of experiences. They were freshmen on the Huskies' national championship team in 2011; they were with a dysfunctional team that was eliminated in its first game of the 2012 tournament; they stayed through the transition from Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun to his successor, Kevin Ollie; they were ineligible for the 2013 postseason because of the academic shortcomings of players who preceded them. Now they are back for one more chance.
"It's always something we call a brotherhood," Napier said. "That's one of the biggest things for us, is we continue to stay together."
The Huskies' opponent, St. Joseph's, also is reliant on a core of seniors. Langston Galloway, Halil Kanacevic and Ronald Roberts Jr., who have been through good times and bad, won the Atlantic 10 tournament to reach the NCAAs.
"After this, college basketball is over," Roberts said. "The thing you want is to keep playing as long as you can."
While sticking it out for four years is beneficial for a player's maturity, it can also be a significant advantage for a tournament-bound team to have seniors. In recent years, unheralded mid-major programs have made long tournament runs, notably Butler, which reached the final in 2010 and '11, with a more experienced cast than its younger opponents. This March, even the major programs have experienced casts.
Ohio State, which is also in Buffalo, will rely heavily on seniors Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Aaron Craft, both veterans of the Buckeyes' Final Four team of 2012.
"Lenzelle and I have been here four years, and just because we've had a little bit of success before doesn't necessarily mean we'll have success now," Craft said. "But I think it helps us to prepare mentally for what the NCAA Tournament means and what it's about."
The freshman phenomenon is not necessarily out of vogue. Kentucky began the season with a hyped recruiting class but struggled through the middle and later stages of the season and is in the tournament as a No. 8 seed. Kansas, a No. 2 seed with Andrew Wiggins, and Duke, a No. 3 with Jabari Parker, are also coming in with high expectations and top-rated freshmen not expected to stay long.
But the overall No. 1 seed, Florida, relies heavily on seniors, such as Casey Prager, Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete. Other seniors who could play a pivotal role include Doug McDermott of Creighton, who has scored more than 3,000 points in his career, UMass' Chaz Williams, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick, Michigan State's Adreian Payne, Providence's Bryce Cotton and Syracuse's C.J. Fair, who helped his team reach the Final Four a year ago.
"We know what it takes to get there," Fair said. "It's not an easy road, but it's fun. The great experience it was gives you that much more motivation to try to get back there again."
Whoever gets there this year, odds are that seniors will play an important role.
"That's what you're in the business for," Ollie said. "You're in the business to see young men mature like that. It's more than just being on the basketball court and making shots. It's about them becoming men."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun