Final Four the culmination of a season filled with senior moments

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Villanova senior starters Ryan Arcidiacono (left) and Daniel Ochefu had much to celebrate after the Wildcats clinched the South Regional in Louisville, Ky. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

There was a stretch of Villanova’s Sweet 16 victory over Miami that was so good, so special … well, maybe you just had to be there. I was, and what the Wildcats’ Ryan Arcidiacono did to a very good Miami team over six-plus minutes of the first half took my breath away.

It started with a three-pointer on his first shot of the night and ended with a three for Villanova’s first double-digit lead in a game it never trailed. In between, the 6-3 point guard known as “Arch” took a smaller defender into the low post for a basket; pump-faked a different, taller defender into the air for an and-one; and converted a fast-break steal into a pair of free throws at the other end.

In a stretch of six-plus minutes that launched Villanova toward an Elite Eight upset of Kansas and the Final Four, Arcidiacono scored 13 points, got multiple teammates going with pinpoint assists — and defended like a bedlamite.

The same two words kept popping into my head: “Of course.” Arcidiacono had always been a good player, but now? Now, he was a four-year starter. A senior. A highly refined product of a full college career’s worth of development.

In this Year of the Senior in college basketball, it all made sense.

On the whole, the Final Four field — Villanova and Oklahoma on one side of the bracket, North Carolina and Syracuse on the other — makes a lot of sense.

Take Oklahoma, for example. What casual NCAA Tournament fans know about the Sooners roster can be boiled down to two words: Buddy Hield. To be sure, Hield has been the unequaled star of the tournament.

But Hield — terrific as he is — isn’t the reason the Sooners are in Houston. The reason can be boiled down to a single number: 104.

Hield, a senior, has started all 104 of Oklahoma’s games over the last three seasons. But so have fellow seniors Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler. So has junior Jordan Woodard. All four players average in double figures in scoring — collectively, a shining example of what can happen when a good group of players and a good coaching staff spend more than one or two fleeting years together.

“We knew we had good-character guys in the recruiting process,” said OU coach Lon Kruger. “We knew they were from programs where expectations were high and the work ethic was good. But, no, I don’t know if anyone could’ve projected this.”

It was much easier to project Kentucky’s recent runs to the Final Four, not to mention Duke’s 2015 national title, with parades of one-and-done mega-recruits on those rosters.

North Carolina has, as always, many former top-end recruits on its roster, but the key to winning it all for the favorite in Houston is the continued excellence of seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. Like Arcidiacono, Paige is a four-year starter at point guard. Johnson, a dazzling forward, improved by leaps and bounds over his last couple of seasons — like Hield did, and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, and Kansas’ Perry Ellis, and Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon.

“They have grown so much,” said UNC coach Roy Williams. “It’s one of the truly great things that I, as a coach, enjoy. That sounds corny and everything, but watching those kids mature and grow and develop over the four years has been a really, really neat deal.”

Even Syracuse, the surprise of the Final Four as a No. 10 seed, has a trio of seniors — guards Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney, and center DaJuan Coleman — in its starting lineup. Gbinije, much like Big Ten player of the year Valentine, entered college as more of a small forward but developed, not without difficulty, into a true lead guard and playmaker.

This tournament — this season, really — has had what one might call an old-school appeal. There won’t be a Jahlil Okafor or a Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor in Houston, but there will be plenty of seasoned quality.

There isn’t a darned thing wrong with that.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.


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