SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Lindsay Schnell and Scott Gleeson look at all four regions to determine the story lines that fans should follow during March Madness. USA TODAY Sports
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va . — Often times, when Virginia center Jack Salt catches highlights of the bevy of one-and-done players dominating college basketball this season, two words flash through his mind: Ice bath.
It’s not that the redshirt junior, who plays 20 minutes a night for UVA, is low on energy. But as a seasoned veteran in a sport where uber-talented freshman often get the attention, Salt sometimes looks around college hoops and feels like an old man.
That’s understandable. As the NCAA tournament tips off Thursday, two No. 1 seeds — Virginia and Villanova — will rely heavily on upperclassmen. The Cavaliers (31-2) and Wildcats (30-4) are favorites to get to San Antonio, though Virginia’s hopes were dealt a brutal blow Tuesday with the announcement that ACC Sixth Man of the Year DeAndre Hunter, a redshirt freshman, will miss the postseason with a broken wrist. Still, the top seeds in the South and East regions, respectively, hope their experience will give them an advantage this month over talented teams full of youth.
WOLKEN COLUMN: Fall in love again with Ron Hunter, Georgia State
Villanova is led by junior Jalen Brunson, a national player of the year candidate who averaged 24 minutes a game as a freshman in 2015-16, when the Wildcats won the national title. Last season as a sophomore, he averaged 14.7 points per game as the defending champs were bounced in the second round by Wisconsin.
“Walking into freshman year and winning a national championship you’re like, ‘This is easy, we can do this every year!’’ Brunson laughs. “But last season definitely showed me how hard it was to win. I feel like I got the best of both worlds. The experience (of losing in the tournament) has really helped.”
Brunson’s running mate is 6-7 forward Mikal Bridges, a redshirt junior who is the Wildcats’ best pro prospect. That’s something else Virginia and Villanova have in common — they like the redshirt year.
Villanova coach Jay Wright jokes of Bridges, “If you think he’s skinny now, at 210 (pounds), you should have seen him his freshman year.” Wright and Bridges agreed redshirting, and spending a year in the weight room, would benefit everyone.
Asked if he could even imagine what it would be like to be a one-and-done candidate, Bridges snorts with laughter. That wasn’t in the cards for him.
When he studies and talks with prospects, Wright is conscious of recruiting someone who sees himself in the Wildcats’ program for the long haul.
“It’s not that I’m against one-and-dones, that’s not it at all,” Wright says. “It’s just that someone who knows they’re one-and-one, that it’s already a given, and they want to be in and out (of college basketball) as fast as they can, this culture doesn’t fit that.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett feels the same way.
Bennett’s system — defensive-oriented, slower tempo — isn’t for everyone, and doesn’t necessarily attract top NBA prospects. Utilizing the redshirt year allows players to adjust to Virginia’s defensive system, a necessity in Charlottesville.
“I think if you aren’t able to get a lot of one-and-dones, or the extreme top 10 or top 20 guys year in and year out, I think the best way to do it at a school like Virginia is getting guys who mature in the system,” Bennett says.
SportsPulse: Trysta Krick runs through surprises, snubs and other highlights from Selection Sunday as March Madness officially begins. USA TODAY Sports
That’s been a formula for Bennett most his career, from his playing days at Wisconsin Green Bay — where he played for his father, legendary coach Dick Bennett — to his coaching stops at Wisconsin, Washington State and now Virginia. He likes to reference a saying from Notre Dame’s Mike Brey: “Get old, stay old.”
The Cavaliers have quite a bit of youth themselves this year, from sophomore leading scorer Kyle Guy to sophomore guard Ty Jerome, who has handed out a team-best 130 assists. But Bennett describes redshirt senior guard Devon Hall (12.0 ppg, 3.2 apg) and senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, the 2018 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, as “rock solid,” and integral to the Cavaliers’ success.
And for all the talk about how the freshmen phenoms can get you deep in the tournament, Bennett likes to point to North Carolina, the defending national champions, as proof that experience matters.
In the 2016 title game, North Carolina lost 77-74 on a buzzer-beating heartbreaker to Villanova. The next year, the Tar Heels made it back to the title championship and, with a starting lineup that featured all upperclassmen and four guys who had played at least 20 minutes apiece in the 2016 contest, beat Gonzaga for the NCAA crown, 71-65.
Get old, stay old, win titles. That’s path Virginia and Villanova hope to follow this postseason.
Source : https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaab/2018/03/14/virginia-villanova-rely-old-fashioned-experience/423307002/