Are Super Seniors the secret to NCAA tournament success?

If this year’s NCAA basketball tournaments look a little bigger — a little older — your eyes aren’t deceiving you.

Call it a pandemic silver lining.

Prior to the pandemic, students had five years to complete four seasons of play. For a variety of reasons – including injuries, one-time transfers or waivers from competition – athletes were always able to find ways to extend their eligibility. But after the pandemic wiped out many conference tournaments and the entire 2020 national tournament, the NCAA added a special bonus year: Any athlete who lost playing time during the 2019-20 season could extend their academic career. by a full season.

Now every team making it to the Final Four this weekend, in both men’s and women’s tournaments, will include players who have taken advantage of this option.

The extra season was meant to level the playing field, but some rosters are fuller of super seniors and graduate students than others, and the trickle-down effect can linger for years.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that any of us in college athletics would see the benefits of a more experienced team,” said Tom Burnett, Southland Conference commissioner and committee chair. Division I men’s basketball selection board.

A handful of athletes this year are older than their NBA counterparts. Look at Kansas. Last Friday against Providence, Mitch Lightfoot, 24, a veteran bench player and sixth-year student, had four blocks, and Remy Martin, a 23-year-old transfer from Arizona State, came off the bench to lead the Jayhawks to score with 23 points. The two wouldn’t have gone back to college if not for the pandemic, coach Bill Self said last weekend, adding, “I actually think Mitch is the best he’s ever been.”

Jalen Coleman-Lands, a super senior guard from Kansas, is 25. So does Devin Booker, who is in his seventh season with the Phoenix Suns.

And there are still seasons. “If you just look at our starters, those starters still have eligibility,” Self said. “Even though we’re an old team, they could technically all come back next year.”

Self noted that Providence also had a handful of players who were playing beyond the standard eligibility period.

“If they didn’t have these four cats, they would look very different,” Self said. “If we didn’t have Remy, we would be very different. If Villanova didn’t have Gillespie, they would look very different.

Collin Gillespie, a 22-year-old guard, is the youngest of three Villanova graduate students playing this weekend.

But, parity concerns aside, Self said the bonus year contributed to the “great quality of the ball this year”.

Such was the case in the Horizon League, where Macee Williams, 23, a super senior center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, won his third consecutive league Player of the Year award in the 2020 season. -21. She opted to return for the 2021-22 season – her fifth year – and won the award again.

“This is an example of how our women’s basketball programs have really capitalized on this opportunity,” said Horizon League Commissioner Julie Roe Lach.

IUPUI, seeded No. 13 in the NCAA Tournament, lost just 6 points in the first round to No. 4 Oklahoma.

Depending on who you ask, the extra year of eligibility can be seen as a glass half full and half empty problem. It allows college athletes to recoup their lost playing year, and a bigger, older team can mean an extra layer of cohesion.

“Once the athletes are upper classes, there’s a certain maturity that comes with leading the team and handling the pressure once you’re in those end-of-season moments,” said Roe Lach, adding that “younger students and their teammates can benefit from their senior leadership.”

But some officials worry about the long-term effect the padded rosters will have on recruiting. If athletes choose to use their additional year of eligibility, this may limit spots for new faces.

“Many of us ask ourselves this question: are the opportunities still there for high school student-athletes?” said Burnet.

That’s exactly what worries Adam Berkowitz, associate executive director of New Heights Youth, a sports-based nonprofit in New York City. The extra season of eligibility added to an already complex system in light of the NCAA’s decision in 2021 to eliminate the rule that required athletes to sit out a season upon transfer, effectively to “double and triple” the number of players in the transfer pool, Berkowitz said.

These two factors have created an “altered landscape” in college recruitment, he added, resulting in a total “hustle and bustle”.

“Last year was the toughest year I’ve ever had to place students in schools,” said Berkowitz, who has worked with transfer students for 20 years. “If you have an offer on the table, you need to think about it seriously, otherwise it might not be there.”

As a result, Berkowitz said, students feel increasingly “underrecruited” and choose to attend lower-ranked schools in both Division I and Division II before attempting to transfer. Berkowitz said when he spoke to college coaches last year, many didn’t even look at high school students, preferring to look to the transfer portal and then junior colleges.

Berkowitz said he expects that to be the case for several years as the option for athletes to play an additional year persists. High school sophomores will be the first class unaffected by the change.

“It’s just a blockage in a lot of places,” he said. “If 200 guys are in fifth grade, that’s 200 less places for high school graduates.”

Michael Smith contributed report.

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