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Where have they gone? Punching holes in myth of missing seniors

by | Senior College Basketball Blogger
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After C.J. McCollum led Lehigh past Mason Plumlee and Duke, both players return for 2012-13. (Getty Images)  
After C.J. McCollum led Lehigh past Mason Plumlee and Duke, both players return for 2012-13. (Getty Images)  

One of the biggest fallacies I've found over the past decade lies in the complaints of pundits who lament over college basketball's identity crisis.

"We just don't know these guys anymore," the saying goes from lazy story scanners and professional sportswriting busybodies too removed from college basketball, unlike the way they were 20 years ago.

The notion of alienation is true, but only on a miniscule-yet-mainstream level. Undeniably, the best players leaving school for the NBA Draft are younger. Whereas in 1987 we had but a handful of 19-year-olds bailing on college for the pros, many mistakenly believe that ratio has flipped to seniors; that it's only a few four-year players every year who are using up their eligibility and heading into the draft.

It's not even close to true. And this upcoming season, just like all the ones before, we'll have a plump crop of seniors who are recognizable, talented and NBA-bound.

I've always found it bemusing that in an age when hundreds upon hundreds of games are on TV (more than ever), when advanced statistics and intelligent writing get tossed out in gobs every week on the Internet, when coaches are available and promoting their teams more than they ever did when the shorts were short and the players were lanky ... yes, it's now that we know less about the sport than ever! C'mon. Let's stop falsely stating that college basketball's hard to follow or keep up with because you don't know the names. If that's your rue, that's on you.

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I bring this up now, of course, because the 2012 draft is still under immediate evaluation, and with that I wanted to see how many seniors were selected. I then went back and looked at the trend of drafted seniors ever since the NBA changed the game by disallowing high school players to make an immediate jounce to the pros.

This habitual "criticism" of seniors from pretty much anyone not directly involved or invested in the sport seems counterintuitive. In a cutthroat business, where a microscopic set of players from high school will wind up having their names called on draft night, I guess it makes sense. If anything, it speaks to the obvious, though, and why don't we hear more about the simple law of evaluation? The more we know about something, the more we can criticize it, thus the less apt we are to embrace it. It's why people get married at 22 and so many bands go through sophomore slumps.

In basketball, the more years a player plays, the more we know about him, and thus the less "potential" exists out there. Of course the NBA drafts on potential. (If that was a keyword for your drinking game last week -- that or "wingspan" -- then the hangover is probably only now subsiding.) Go with what you hope, not with what you know. These things are basic to the process. Obviously the gifted, young players are selected more often in the draft: We don't know as much about them! Ergo, optimism outweighs criticism. With less to criticize, there is more potential. There is more to sell. Dreams abound. And that's what teams in the lottery need: reasons to sell why times, they will be a-changin'. Using this as juxtaposition for a critique on seniors has never made much sense to me. Ever since the draft/college model changed in the mid-1990s, of course it was going to be this way.

Amid this non-revelation, I come to remind and bring good news: Seniors will still impact college basketball. They'll still be as valued as they've ever been and they're still going to get drafted. Let's consider the data, shall we? Because the data is paramount to understanding why it can pay off to stay four years, and for the players that do, it's normally the right decision. Here's how often seniors have earned a draft pick in the past seven years.

2012: 21 drafted, four in the first round
2011: 19 drafted, seven in the first round
2010: 18 drafted, five in the first round
2009: 21 drafted, six in the first round
2008: 19 drafted, five in the first round
2007: 21 drafted, six in the first round
2006: 20 drafted, eight in the first round

That's 19.6 seniors per year over the past seven years. It comes out to a third of each draft class, a significantly higher percentage than freshmen (10 total in 2012). It's not a paltry number. And if you're curious, the final year of the out-of-high-school era brought 18 seniors, half of them first-round draft picks. This is how it has been for a while. Yes, the first-round picks ratio is considerably lower, but that speaks to what I mentioned above. Potential, criticism vs. optimism, etc.

In 2012-13, the sport will again have seniors filling up rosters and leading the way to big things. Plenty of them will be draftable; we'll see anywhere from 16 to 22 chosen again. Guys like Mason Plumlee. You've heard of him, right? One of those Duke players. What about C.J. McCollum? He was the one who led Lehigh to that 15-over-2 upset of Duke last March, an NCAA tournament moment that we'll not soon forget. He could be the next Damian Lillard.

Kansas' Jeff Withey is a big one. His transformation from scrub playing minimal minutes to ever-swatting paint protector was eyebrow-raising. Because he needed four years -- which some players require, and hey, THAT'S OK -- he'll be drafted at his collegiate peak. Murray State will be led by Isaiah Canaan, an All-America candidate and certainly one of those elusive "recognizable" seniors who opted to return.

Here's a scad of others: Peyton Siva (Louisville), Dexter Strickland (North Carolina), UConn transfer/title-winner Alex Oriakhi (Missouri), Christian Watford (Indiana), Brandon Paul (Illinois), Michael Snaer (Florida State), Kenny Boynton (Florida). Kansas' Elijah Johnson will also likely turn into a pro.

I've only just begun. Even among players not likely to be taken next June, there's Brandon Triche at Syracuse and Anthony Marshall at UNLV and Jack Cooley at Notre Dame and Deniz Kilicli at West Virginia and a dozen others you would know of if you paid attention to the sport with a decent portion of interest last year. In the NCAA tournament, the Elite Eight teams boasted 10 seniors of impact, and that was a thin year for four-year players getting that deep into the NCAAs.

The point is, we're not hunting for snow leopards. Remove the stigma from seniors. It's not a problem for the sport and never has been. College basketball is not a niche sport because 34 seniors aren't being drafted every year. Experience and familiarity within the game still exists, it just stopped being an organic selling point somewhere along the way.

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