Michigan State, UConn fueled by experience

Written By BY SETH GRUEN Staff Reporter Posted: 05/01/2014, 07:28am

NEW YORK — Every November, when national letters of intent are signed, the Internet-infused recruiting hype machine anoints these phony offseason champions.

Stars, McDonald’s All-Americans, AAU accolades and, most importantly, would-be one-and-dones are counted. Everything except wins and losses.

Future victories are presumed. There’s logic in the formula. Talent wins games.

But come March, when the stakes are highest, teams such as Michigan State and Connecticut, whose experience-laden rosters will be on display Sunday in the Elite Eight at Madison Square Garden, refute that impact freshmen are must-haves.

Sure, there are exceptions, even this year.

But the Spartans and Huskies are two of the few programs perennially in position to reach the Final Four. The revolving-door programs with players who treat college basketball like a health club can’t say that.

“To win championships and advance in tournaments, usually you need some key things, and toughness is one,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “And I think the experience they bring and the hunger to get there, if they haven’t been there yet, is one.

“Experience is good in coaching, and experience is good with players.”

In the Sweet 16, Michigan State and UConn started four seniors, three juniors and three sophomores combined. Their freshmen combined to take nine shots.

It’s not that both programs don’t have success recruiting. They put a heavy emphasis on it.

But at these schools, for the most part, players wait their turn.

Freshmen such as Michigan State’s Kenny Kaminski and UConn’s Terrence Samuel have roles as reserves. That’s part of building experience, which has eluded so many programs in this era of one-and-done players.

Just look at Michigan State forward Adreian Payne. He could have left for the NBA last season as a junior but stayed. Izzo said Payne would benefit from staying, and he has improved his draft stock and his team.

For Michigan State, it’s somewhat assumed it will be led by upperclassmen. But for UConn, it wasn’t always a forgone conclusion that this group would stay together.

When coach Kevin Ollie took over last year after Jim Calhoun retired, there was a fear some would transfer or leave early because the Huskies were ineligible to play in the postseason.

“Everybody came back, and we all understood what it takes to get to the next level, with the chemistry we have, with the brotherhood and the experience of the core group that we have,” UConn senior Shabazz Napier said.

It’s cheesy, but it’s true.

While other programs act as orphanages for lost boys looking for a bridge year to the NBA, these two programs build players and continuity that serves them this time of the year.

“That’s always a good thing for a coach, when you know your team is fighting for one another, and that’s all we want to do,” Ollie said. “That’s the culture we want to build.”

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen

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