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This year should be the seniors' show

'Dinosaurs' who passed up the NBA, like Warrick, Simien, Hodge will take center stage
Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick is one of the nation's best players — and it's no coincidence that he's a senior.Rick Wilking / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Syracuse forward Hakim Warrick was talking with reporters during last month's Big East preseason news conference in New York, when he looked around the room and saw Providence forward Ryan Gomes and Notre Dame point guard Chris Thomas.

"College seniors, especially the ones that make an impact, they're dinosaurs," Warrick said. "A lot of guys in this room had a decision to go pro and it's kind of funny we all made the same decision. It's great for college basketball that we all came back."

Forget about the one-year wonders. This college basketball season is about the upperclassmen — players such as Warrick, Gomes and Thomas — who all spurned the lure of NBA riches and instead remained true to their schools and will play for one more chance to make the Final Four in St. Louis next April.

From Gonzaga to Marquette to Vermont, there are realistic NCAA tournament hopes because star players returned to play one more year. At Kansas, seniors Wayne Simien, Keith Langford and Aaron Miles each delayed turning pro after nearly advancing to their third Final Four last March. Georgia Tech, the team that beat the Jayhawks in the NCAA regional finals last season, welcomes back four of five starters because guards B.J. Elder and Jarrett Jack stayed in school.

The Yellow Jackets are one of six ACC teams ranked in the preseason Associated Press top 25 poll and one of three in the top five. Wake Forest and North Carolina, ranked 2 and 4, respectively, have all five starters back. N.C. State is ranked because all-American forward Julius Hodge returned to school, and Maryland, which won the ACC tournament last season, lost only one starter. Mississippi State forward Lawrence Roberts, the reigning SEC player of the year, nearly entered the NBA draft but returned to school.

Seniority is the reason Kansas is ranked No. 1 in the preseason for the first time since 1956-57, when Wilt Chamberlain led it to the national championship game. The Jayhawks' expectations are as high this season, largely because of their four seniors, who already have won 87 games, including 12 in the NCAA tournament.

"A lot of coaches feel a team is only as good as the seniors allow them to be," Kansas Coach Bill Self said. "That's one reason we feel we have a special team, because of those four guys. It's a huge reason, maybe the biggest reason. . . . Talent alone doesn't win games. I think that's why this team has a chance to have a great year, because they are talented but they know how to win games."

The Jayhawks aren't the only team banking on its experience. Oklahoma State, ranked No. 7 in the preseason, welcomes back four starters with an average age of 23. Seniors Joey Graham, Stephen Graham and John Lucas III helped the Cowboys win 31 games and advance to the Final Four last season.

More and more, college basketball players are staying in school — and they're being rewarded. In June's NBA draft, only 12 college players who hadn't exhausted their eligibility were among the 59 players selected, and teams drafted nearly twice as many college seniors as underclassmen. In 2003, only 11 college underclassmen were drafted, and twice as many seniors were selected. That's a big change from three years ago, when 24 college underclassmen were among the 57 players taken in the 2001 NBA draft.

"You're still going to have kids leave early every year, but it's not like every program has one leaving," Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt said. "We've had one leave. Maryland had one leave. North Carolina has had one leave since I've been in the ACC. There are kids going pro, but I don't think it's as prevalent as a lot of people think."

While other coaches have changed their recruiting philosophies, staying away from the McDonald's all-Americans who are likely to stay in school for only one or two seasons, Hewitt said he's still going after the best players, even after Chris Bosh jilted the Yellow Jackets for the NBA draft after his freshman season two years ago.

"Our strategy is to get the best players to compete in the ACC," Hewitt said.

Still, Gonzaga, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh, Providence and Saint Joseph's all won big last year without any McDonald's all-Americans on their roster.

Illinois, ranked No. 5 in the preseason, has eight juniors and seniors on its roster and returns every significant contributor from a team that won the Big 10 championship and lost to Duke in the round of 16. Arizona lost sophomore Andre Iguodala to the NBA draft, but the Wildcats return everybody else, including seniors Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire, who could have joined their teammate in the pros. Washington, a surprise team in the NCAA tournament last season and picked to finish second in the Pacific-10 behind Arizona, returns its top nine players from last season. Overall, the Pac-10 returns 39 of its top 50 scorers.

"In this day and age, senior leadership can make a big difference at tournament time," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said.

Two programs who will be forced to rely on youth are defending national champion Connecticut and perennial power Kentucky, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. The Huskies lost all-Americans Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, the second and third picks in June's NBA draft after leaving school as juniors, and senior point guard Taliek Brown. The Wildcats lost senior guards Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins, and could start as many as three newcomers.

"No one has lost as many seniors as the SEC," Wildcats Coach Tubby Smith said. "Every year is a new challenge, but with the loss of the majority of our experienced players, it's going to be even more challenging. Those players are going to be hard to replace and we are going to hurt from the loss of their valuable experience. But, as always, the expectations are high for us."