As the NCAA tournament approached a year ago, much of the focus was placed on how a highly-touted group of freshmen—including Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, to name a few—would perform under the high-stakes pressure of March.
Fast-forward a year later and the script is reversed. This year’s Big Dance will likely be defined by the seasoned veteran that can solidify his legacy even further with a deep tourney run.
In place of the group of skilled rookies is a collection of steady seniors who have used their time in college to develop into players capable of succeeding at the next level. Don’t get confused—freshmen Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram will almost certainly still be the top two picks in June’s NBA draft. But for Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield, Michigan State swingman Denzel Valentine and Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon, cutting down the nets in April would be just as satisfying.
Throughout their careers, the trio of National Player of the Year candidates has epitomized what college basketball is really about—molding raw high-school talent into a complete player.
Hield, Valentine and Brogdon were all four-star recruits coming out of high school, but each has enjoyed astronomical rises in his scoring numbers since entering college—all three players averaging single-digit points per game during their freshman seasons. Heading into last night’s action, Hield’s average of 25.4 points per contest ranks second in the nation, with Valentine and Brogdon in the periphery at 19.6 and 18.5 points per game, respectively.
A look at 3-point shooting—one of the biggest skills a player can develop in college—produces more eye-popping results. The long-range sniper that Hield has become was once an inefficient freshman guard who shot 24 percent from beyond the arc, a far cry from his 48 percent this season. Valentine’s improvement has almost been just as large as the Lansing, Mich., native has improved from his 28 percent mark as a freshman to 45 percent this season.
But simply comparing averages on offense does little justice to the hard work the group has put in to becoming strong defenders. With his size and tenacity within Virginia’s pack-line defense, Brogdon has become one of the best defenders in the ACC. Likewise, both Hield and Valentine have taken strides and are capable up against an opposing team’s top option.
In addition to leading by example on the court, the trio enters March as the leaders in the locker rooms of veteran-laden teams well-equipped to make a run to Houston and the Final Four. After missing time with a minor knee injury, Valentine has helped the Spartans regain their mojo and have the pieces to make their second straight trip to the season’s final weekend. Brogdon’s Cavaliers have built up one of the best resumes in the nation with six wins against the RPI top 25. And don’t forget about Hield’s Sooners, who are still 22-6 despite just three wins in their last six games.
As Hield, Valentine and Brogdon have separated themselves from the pack, the question has been raised whether college basketball is less interesting this season because its stars are not as captivating as in past seasons, especially with Simmons and the Tigers—who are 17-12—at risk of missing the NCAA tournament.
Gone are the salivating stretch-four potential of Towns and the Tim Duncan-esque footwork of Okafor, leaving behind stars with much less acclaim. One of the most drastic reasons for the change has been a clear drop-off in top-tier talent from last year’s freshman class to this one. Around most NBA circles, the feeling among some general managers is that the upcoming draft could be one of the weakest in memory, with few clear rookies screaming “star” after Simmons and Ingram.
But that’s what makes this March even more entertaining than last. Throw out the NBA player comparisons and draft boards and take a look at the sheer will of three individuals looking to cement their respective legacies with an elusive championship run. Neither Hield, Valentine nor Brogdon possesses an uncanny athletic ability or one particular attribute that clearly differentiates themselves from other college players. But they are three of the smartest players in the country—extensions of their head coaches on the floor—and are capable of taking and making the biggest shots in the biggest moments of the biggest games.
Of the three, only Valentine has advanced past the Sweet 16, and Michigan State, Oklahoma and Virginia have not brought home a national championship since the Spartans in 2000. But in a season marked by widespread parity and upsets, we can only hope to see the three Player of the Year candidates laying it all on the line deep in the tournament.