Veteran players highlight this year’s Final Four rosters



Frank Scicchitano

Think of the characteristic most often used to describe this year’s Final Four-bound Villanova men’s basketball squad. What word comes to mind?


Seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu have done a lot for the Wildcats. The duo have been integral in the 115-27 record over the last four seasons, and together with the team’s other graduating seniors, will make one of the most decorated classes in program history.

And don’t forget about juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. If the Wildcats turn in another outstanding season next year, Hart and Jenkins could graduate with the most career victories in program history.

Their story is unusual in today’s era of major college basketball.

Other programs have enjoyed trends of success similar to Villanova’s most recent four-year run, some even longer and more illustrious. But few have been led by the same core group of players that were the face of their team throughout the entirety of their career.

Freshman superstars and other young, breakout performers have dominated recent Final Fours. In 2015, four freshman led Duke to the National Championship over Wisconsin. Three of them, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, were selected in the first round of the same year’s NBA Draft. The other, Grayson Allen, returned for his sophomore year with the Blue Devils and finished the season ranked second in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring.

Prior to this year, Kentucky appeared in the Final Four in four out of five seasons since 2011. Each of those teams had at least two freshmen that were chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft the following summer. In 2012, the Wildcats won the National Championship led by a pair of freshmen, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who were chosen with the first and second overall picks, respectively.

Three sophomores helped Ohio State reach the 2012 Final Four while former NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose led his Memphis Grizzlies to the 2008 National Championship game as a freshman. UCLA’s Kevin Love was also in the Final Four in 2008, his only season as a Bruin.

This year’s Final Four field has a different feel than those in the recent past. It is a group of teams that is not only guided by talent, but also has a level of experience that will make this year’s four-team show in Houston unforgettable.

This time around, veterans will be the stars of the Final Four. Of the 22 players averaging more than 20 minutes per game for their respective teams, only eight are freshmen or sophomores. Three of the four teams are led in scoring by a senior and only four freshmen receive significant playing time.

Veteran leadership is not an uncommon characteristic of Final Four teams, but this year’s crop of seniors stands out more than most.

The most comparable pair of seniors to ’Nova’s beloved Arcidiacono and Ochefu are North Carolina’s Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. Like “Arch” and “Chef”, Paige and Johnson are a point guard and forward combination that rose to stardom for the Tar Heels.

Both Ochefu and Johnson have improved each of the last four years, as both players are averaging career-highs in scoring during their senior seasons.

The point guards? Both Paige and Arcidiacono boast more than 1,500 career points and 500 career assists, with Paige outscoring Arcidiacono by a little more than 200 points thanks to an outstanding sophomore season in which he averaged a career-high 17.5 points per game.

The only hope of those tandems facing off this weekend would be a National Championship showdown between the ’Cats and the Heels. Villanova must stop a different senior in the semifinal on Saturday, and he happens to be the most dangerous player in the country.

With 2,286 career points, Oklahoma’s Buddy Heild is the Sooner’s second all-time leading scorer. He averaged 25 points per game in the 2015-16 regular season and is playing his best basketball in the NCAA Tournament. In four tournament games, Heild is averaging 29.3 points per game and is shooting 47.8 percent from 3-point range.

Heild may seem like a one-man show, but his teammates must not be shortchanged. His supporting cast is made up of two seniors, guard Isaish Cousins and forward Ryan Spangler, as well as junior guard Jordan Woodard. All three of those players are in the top 40 of the school’s all-time scoring list.

After years of playing together, this group has become one of the nation’s most unstoppable offenses. As a team, they are shooting 42.8 percent from 3-point range and rank second in the country.

Syracuse rounds out the Final Four and is the only team to feature multiple freshmen in its starting lineup. While freshman standout Malachi Richardson was the hero in the Orange’s Elite 8 comeback victory over Virginia, seniors Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije have been the team’s most consistent players this season.

At 6-foot-7, Gbinije has played three different positions for Syracuse and is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 17.6 points per game. Cooney and redshirt junior DaJuan Coleman were both a part of Syracuse’s last trip to the Final Four in 2013. They are the first players in school history to reach the Final Four twice in their college career.

Villanova’s senior class is the most victorious of the Final Four teams. Their 115 victories are followed by North Carolina’s 107, Syracuse’s 99, and Oklahoma’s 96.

In addition to experienced rosters, there are some very impressive head coaching résumés in this year’s Final Four.

Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim has won the second highest number of games for a head coach in college basketball history. On Saturday, he will go head-to-head with the ninth-ranked coach in that category, North Carolina’s Roy Williams. Williams has coached in the Final Four eight times, while Boeheim has reached it on five occasions.

In the other national semifinal, both Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright and Oklahoma Head Coach Lon Kruger are making their second appearance in the Final Four. Wright made his memorable run with the Wildcats in 2009 while Kruger led Florida to its first Final Four in school history in 1994.

The Final Four will tip off in Houston on Saturday with Villanova taking on Oklahoma at 6:09 p.m. followed by North Carolina and Syracuse at 8:49 p.m. The winners will advance to Monday night’s National Championship game.