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The Value of Experienced Leadership

The last two years, college basketball’s champions, Florida and North Carolina, had starting fives with no seniors. Four years ago, one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, combined with a gifted group of freshmen and sophomores to win the NCAA title. The Orangemen upset Kansas in a thrilling finale, 81-78, with a starting five of two freshmen (F Carmelo Anthony, G Billy Edelin), two sophomores (C Craig Forth, F Hakim Warrick) and only one senior (G Keith Duany). The kids played like veterans for the Orangemen, and note that Syracuse was 9-3 SU, 8-3-1 ATS on the road. No nerves away from home for the kids, straight up and against the number! In the final three tournament games they were a +3, +3 and +5 dog to Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas and won them all straight up (+200 in the title game on the money-line). Last year Florida was 3-1 SU/ATS as a dog.

We are in an era with fewer seniors in college hoops, but let’s not downplay the value of veteran leadership.

One characteristic that successful handicappers possess is perspective. In the world of 11-to-10, it’s essential to maintain an even keel – one can’t get too high over a big point-spread victory, or too low when lady luck drops a curveball on a game you’ve isolated from every angle as a strong play. Perspective is also important as the college basketball season gets underway, because what Syracuse did in 2003 – win with so many youngsters – is not common.

Last year’s Florida team had four junior starters who had been together for a while, while North Carolina in 2005 had three rock-solid juniors in Ray Felton, Sean May and Rashard McCants. In 2004, UConn had senior guard Taliek Brown and star junior center Emeka Okafor. If you’re looking for a team that might win it all, history suggests talent, depth, good coaching and experienced leadership are four key ingredients for success in college hoops.

NCAA Champions:

2006 Florida (4 junior starters)

2005 North Carolina (3 junior starters, Felton, McCants, May)

2004 UConn (1 key senior, Taliek Brown, junior Emeka Okafur)

2003 Syracuse (Starters: 2 frosh, 2 soph, 1 senior)

2002 Maryland (2 key seniors, Lonnie Baxter, Juan Dixon)

2001 Duke (1 key senior, Shane Battier)

2000 Michigan State (Starters: 3 seniors, 2 juniors)

1999 Connecticut (Starters: 2 seniors, 2 juniors)

1998 Kentucky (Starters: 2 seniors, 3 juniors)

1997 Arizona (Starters: 3 juniors)

1996 Kentucky (Starters: 2 seniors, 2 juniors)

1995 UCLA (Starters: 3 seniors)

Most recent NCAA champs possessed an abundance of junior or senior starters, most of whom were key contributors. Other than Syracuse, the only exception might be 1997 Arizona. Lute Olsen’s Wildcats had no key seniors and were led by dynamic freshman guard Mike Bibby, but even they had more experience than Syracuse, with three juniors as important contributors in Michael Dickerson, Miles Simon and Bennett Davidson.

In 2001 Duke won the national title with only one senior starter, but he was a key player in team leader Shane Battier. In the championship game win over Arizona, 82-72, Battier played all 40 minutes, scoring 18 points, with 11 rebounds and six assists. How’s that for senior leadership? The game before, in the Final Four, Duke overcame a 22-point deficit against Maryland. A very young team might react differently trailing by 22 in such a big game, than a team with one or two experienced seniors who can take charge during a timeout and say, “Relax, there’s a lot of basketball to play,” or “Give me the ball, I’ll get us back in it.” Those are the kind of team and player reactions you can’t find in a box score or gauge statistically and more often than not, it’s the seniors who take charge and remain calm.

It was interesting that a year later, in 2002, Duke had no seniors and despite a strong favorite to repeat, Indiana upset the Blue Devils early in the tournament. Duke was extremely young and it showed, as the Blue Devils suffered several upset losses and late collapses at crunch time. That season Duke was 10-19-2 against the spread, 0-3 SU/ATS as a road dog and a poor 5-7 SU/4-7 ATS on the road. You can’t expect McDonald’s High School All-Americans to possess all the qualities, physical and emotional, that a junior or senior college basketball player has developed.

College coaches in basketball and football face problems each season that don’t occur in the NBA or the NFL: Players graduating or leaving early for the pros. Stars like Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird each played 13 or more seasons in the NBA, all with the same team. Coaches such as Pat Riley and Red Auerbach could pencil in these stars year after year.

College coaches don’t have anywhere near that kind of consistency or luxury. In the 1999-2000 college hoops season, Kansas coach Roy Williams started three talented freshmen in Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. They played together for three seasons before Gooden opted to leave school early as a junior, while Collison and Hinrich took the Jayhawks to the title game in 2003. The longer athletes play together, naturally, they become a stronger, more cohesive unit. Look at the chemistry John Stockton and Karl Malone developed, with quick cuts, passes and pick and rolls. That doesn’t develop overnight; it takes time, practice and competition under game conditions over many years.

Crash Course in Chemistry

Playing together also develops confidence, individually and as a team. When Russell won consecutive NCAA championships at San Francisco along with teammate K.C. Jones, each player learned the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates. If a guard got by Jones, for example, driving to the hoop, after a while he knew Russell was quick and smart enough to pick his man up and possibly block the shot. This allowed Jones to double-team somewhere else, cover Russell’s man or run down court anticipating a fast break opportunity. All of these things take time to develop, and with college athletes leaving earlier for the NBA these days, it’s becoming unusual for players to stay together longer.

This is why veteran leadership is so important in college basketball, from the perspective of the coaches, the public and oddsmakers. This explains why at the beginning of each season the teams judged to be the best have key returning starters. For example, before the 2003 season started, the teams favored to win it all were Arizona (5-to-1), Kansas (6-1), Kentucky (10-1) and Oklahoma (15-1). These teams were good the year before and possessed senior leadership with several key players returning. Syracuse, on the other hand, was a 50-to-1 shot because of many more question marks: a lack of veterans and the loss of their top two scorers (Preston Shumpert and DeShaun Williams). It’s unusual to have such a poised freshman like Carmelo Anthony come in and elevate a team to the championship.

Syracuse surprised many and bucked the trend by winning it all, but understand that that’s not common. Duke in 2001 was ranked No. 1 going into the tourney and won the title, and so did UCLA in 1995. That UCLA team featured three key senior starters in Ed O’Bannon, center George Zidek and guard Tyus Edney. The veteran Edney saved the say at crunch time in the tournament against Missouri, with a memorable end-to-end drive and buzzer-beater, while the senior O’Bannon was magnificent in the championship game victory over Arkansas.

In 1996, Kentucky won it all with senior center Walter McCarty, junior Derek Anderson, and senior Tony Delk. Delk was voted the outstanding player of the Final Four, even though the Wildcats had two other future NBA talents in Antoine Walker (sophomore) and Ron Mercer (freshman). Coach Rick Pitino recognized the importance of veteran leadership as the talented Mercer was eased in as the sixth man.

Sophomore guard Khalid El-Amin is remembered as the sparkplug of UConn’s 1999 champions, but don’t forget the other starters were Richard Hamilton (junior), Kevin Freeman (junior), Ricky Moore (senior) and Rashamel Jones (senior). In 2000, the Michigan State Spartans were a preseason No. 1 in several publications (including this one) largely because of a talented, veteran group that opted to stay together one more year rather than declare for the NBA draft, led by seniors Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, A.J. Granger and Charlie Bell. Michigan State roared through the tournament, winning the Big 10 title and the national championship with relative ease, even going 6-2-1 against the spread!

Setting the Example

It’s not easy to keep college athletes together very long, however. In the early 1960s, Ohio State had two future NBA Hall-of-Famers in John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas, yet they couldn’t even contribute in 1959 (freshmen were not allowed to play). Despite being enormous talents coming out of high school, UCLA centers Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton only played three years of college ball because freshmen were ineligible.

With that as recent history, you might get the impression that coaches have an easier time today building a contender, with freshmen eligible to play. This has not the case lately, with talented players leaving for the pros early – if they go to college at all. Which makes senior leadership a precious commodity these days. That was evident a few years ago when Maryland won the national championship on the wide shoulders of seniors Lonnie Baxter and star guard Juan Dixon.

Duke lost two star seniors from a year ago in J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. Kentucky has slipped as a powerhouse since losing three key seniors they had on one team (6’ 11” Souleymane Camara, 6’ 9” Marquis Estill and leading scorer Keith Bogans).

This makes a team’s window of opportunity short, and it’s no surprise that only one team has repeated as national champion since 1973 (Duke in 1991 and ’92). Cincinnati repeated in 1962, UCLA did it ’64 and ’65 before winning seven titles in a row from 1967-73. With a lack of senior leadership, it’s difficult for teams to repeat or even return to the title game. It’s also common for teams to slip against the spread after winning it all, and note that Florida was sizzling 21-11 ATS last season. That, and a title, won’t be easy to repeat.

By Jim Feist

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