Villanova guard Collin Gillespie thought his men’s college basketball career was over and he would be cheering on his alma mater from home this March Madness.
After back-to-back seasons of bad luck — the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19 in 2020, then Gillespie suffered a season-ending MCL injury last year — his eligibility in the sport was up.
His place in this year’s tournament changed when the NCAA instituted a bonus year for players due to the impact of the pandemic. This rule led to an influx of “super seniors” and an older brand of basketball than the sport has seen in decades.
“It was really frustrating and heartbreaking to have our playoffs scrapped all of a sudden (in 2020 due to COVID),” Gillespie told USA TODAY Sports. “I never imagined that I would still be here – in my fifth year – so it’s definitely a blessing in disguise for me after a serious injury. To come back to a healthy year with this program, I really appreciate every day, every practice and every game.”
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Gillespie, the Big East Player of the Year as a senior last season, is one of hundreds of sportsmen enjoying an unexpected boost to their college career. Villanova is a projected No. 2 seed in USA TODAY Sports’ parenthesis — largely bolstered by the leadership of its fifth-year point guard. The Wildcats’ path to a potential spot in the Final Four will be revealed on Sunday when the draw is revealed at 6 p.m. ET.
“College basketball is truly special and will go down as one of the best times of my life. Who wouldn’t want another (season) to play in March Madness? It was a dream of mine to grow up as a ‘child that I can live one last time.’
The impact of the “super senior” was punctuated on Saturday when Iowa defeated Indiana in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon, a 24-year-old sixth-year senior, banked on a game-winning three-pointer with a second remaining to take the Hawkeyes to the championship game on Sunday. Bohannon, an All-Big Ten performer who has started for Iowa since 2016, was able to write a final March Madness script — with his team greatly benefiting.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey said the NCAA made a necessary choice: “We didn’t have an NCAA tournament (in 2020), which is the high point of our sport, and then the last year just wasn’t the same to be played at one place in Indianapolis, so giving these athletes some legitimate experience is something they’ve earned.”
“But it’s not just our team that benefits, it’s everywhere,” McCaffrey noted. “If you look at Illinois, they’re getting Trent Frazier back for a fifth year. He’s a big part of the success of this team and the difference of having a championship team.”
What was once a freshman-dominated sport in the early 2000s and 2010s is now rich with 23- and 24-year-old seniors who have added a dose of maturity to the game. age for NCAA players.
“The quality of basketball has gone up across the country this year,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “Older players have doubled or tripled the quality of teams. We’re seeing more mature teams raising the bar. It’s less about pure talent. Now there are developed players who don’t make the mistakes ‘they used to do and benefit young players by passing on their wisdom to them.’
The extra year of eligibility paved the way for twin brothers Michael and Marcus Weathers — both sixth-year seniors — to play their final collegiate season on the same team at SMU. After the fraternal twins began their NCAA careers in Miami, Ohio, Michael transferred to Oklahoma State and then to Texas Southern, sitting out for two seasons. Marcus left Miami to play for Duquesne for three straight seasons, also out under previous transfer policy. The revised NCAA transfer rule that began this offseason allowed both brothers to transfer to SMU with immediate eligibility.
They’re 24 now and that’s led to a six-year age gap with 18-year-old freshmen playing for the Mustangs. “It’s just funny how young and goofy freshmen are and they sometimes take our trash talk too personally,” Michael Weathers said.
“They’re not thinking about their 401ks yet, that’s for sure,” Marcus jokes. “They’ll joke and call us eight-year-old seniors. But for us, it’s just the icing on the cake of our careers, becoming leaders and spreading the wisdom we’ve had over the years as sixth-grade seniors. year.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said the maturation across the landscape this season could be a flashpoint for bigger changes in the sport.
“There are private discussions in the halls of the NCAA about what giving players five years to play five seasons versus five years to play four seasons would look like. An extra year of eligibility,” Bilas said. “You’ve got a more mature game and a better product this year. Obviously that would be a reason for basketball to do that. But if the NCAA says education is so important, why wouldn’t you want kids stay in school longer to take more difficult courses and get a degree they can use anyway?
Fifth Grade Ripple Effect
The extra season of eligibility did not go without complications.
This created a recruitment imbalance. High school players don’t know if they should go to school and coaches don’t know if they should sign a certain player.
“When the NCAA first hosted the COVID year, it was seen as a good thing to do,” Bilas said. “But we didn’t really understand at the time that an extra year could be added to everyone at the end of their career. … So now there’s a trickle down through the sport when we benefit the older players.
“If you look at a player like Kihei Clark in Virginia, he’s a senior but could technically come back next year. If I’m a point guard in high school, I’m not sure I want to go to Virginia if I don’t. . whether Kihei Clark stays or goes.”
Clark, who started at point guard as a rookie on the Cavaliers’ national title team in 2019, told USA TODAY Sports he hasn’t decided if he’ll play another season. Virginia is a long way from reaching the NCAA Tournament as a bubble team, which means Clark might consider returning for a fifth year to get another shot at March Madness.
“I always tell people I’m living a dream playing college basketball, it doesn’t really get any better than here,” Clark said. “You play to sold-out crowds, travel to different states, and represent a college to play the sport you love.
“I haven’t decided yet and I’m not 100 per cent for next year yet, but I think we’re seeing a lot of older players who have led to mature teams as a whole. It’s good for basketball because now you can have older players showing younger players how to do it. That’s what happened to me with the (championship) team.”
The Year Five rule also has players approaching or breaking school records with additional games played.
Part of a gamer-centric trend
Jankovich said while he sees recruiting being significantly affected by the extra year of eligibility, he has already had to adjust his recruiting style over the past year due to the transfer rule.
“Now, more than ever, you’re training for year-over-year training because it’s harder to know who’s staying,” Jankovich said. “It’s not just about departures for the NBA now. There’s not a lot of building for the future because the coaches in this sport know the rosters are going to change. You can’t look past that. summer now.”
Belmont coach Casey Alexander knows that’s the norm in college basketball, but said it’s “180 of what we’re trying to do here.” Succeeding Hall of Famer Rick Byrd in 2019, Alexander is keeping Belmont’s plan alive by redshirting players in their freshman year and creating a culture where players want to stay through their four years of eligibility in five seasons. In other words, the Bruins have been playing 22- and 23-year-olds for quite some time.
Nicholas Muszynski, a three-time performer from the Ohio Valley, is an example of a four-year-old senior who could have left the Bruins this year and could still leave next year to play for a conference team of power. The 6-11 forward could also leave for the NBA.
“The only preventative measure you can take as a coach is to create an environment that is difficult to leave,” Alexander said.
McCaffrey said the NCAA’s decision to grant players the extra season follows a trajectory in sports that focuses on the player first, with NCAA players now allowed to profit from their name, image and their likeness, which makes the college experience all the more valuable for athletes who cannot play it professionally or profit from it.
“The transfer portal was already making it better for student-athletes and coaches have adapted to it,” McCaffrey said. “A lot of programs will now recruit a 22-year-old transfer instead of a high schooler. Because you’re picking a guy who’s mature and played the game at a high level, it’s faster and you don’t have to do it. develop that player.”
Gillespie said the NCAA’s decision to put the athlete first in this scenario is more influential than basketball.
“I’m playing for Coach (Jay) Wright again and it’s not just helping me in basketball, it’s helping me as a man – in life situations,” Gillespie said. “Being with the (Villanova) program one more year will be something I can learn more from and take with me forever.”
Follow men’s college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.