Upperclass starters on Final Four teams -- there are a lot of them

As much as young underclassmen play a huge role in college hoops, it’s interesting to see how many upperclassmen the Final Four teams have:

Oklahoma starts 3 seniors and a junior and has another senior coming off the bench.
North Carolina starts 2 seniors and a junior and has another junior coming off the bench.
Syracuse starts 3 seniors and a junior.
Villanova starts 2 seniors and 2 juniors and has another junior coming off the bench.

Some of the other favorites like MSU and Kansas also had a bunch of upperclassmen. Next year Michigan will have a bunch of upperclassmen and a couple of seniors who hopefully will actually play and not be injured. I think we’ll see that will help achieve better results.

This speaks less to the importance of experience and more to this season being a down year with a strange freshman class. Lots of top recruits went to small schools with no shot at a deep tourney run (Ben Simmons to LSU, Malik Newman to Miss St, Brown&Rabb to Cal, etc.)

Next year I expect the elite teams to be underclassmen-heavy again. Duke will be loaded with 5 star freshman and Allen, Thornton, Kennard will all most likely stay. MSU with or without Josh Jackson might start 3 or 4 freshman and a sophomore. Kentucky should re-load as well.


We’ll see what happens next year, but last year Wiscy started 2 seniors and a junior and had another 2 seniors coming off the bench. MSU started two seniors and a junior and had another junior and a RS junior coming off the bench.

In 2014 Wiscy started 3 juniors and a senior with a junior and a senior coming off the bench. I haven’t looked back, but I believe UConn and Florida were heavy on upperclassmen.

The best teams generally have been lead by top-north underclassmen (though the UConn team and the Louisville team that beat us were notable exceptions), but a lot of the most successful teams have had a lot of upperclassmen. In other words, to achieve high levels of success, either you have to have underclassmen who really step up or you have to have upperclassmen.

Probably only Duke, Kentucky and maybe UNC can turn over a high number of one-and-done players every year and still be among the elite, simply because they are the only ones who can bring in 3-5 five stars every year. Most schools are going to need to keep guys on the roster for 3 or 4 years to remain competitive. They can survive losing one guy a year or two guys every two or three years, but not more than that. There just isn’t enough talent in the pipeline to keep it going. That was a big part of Michigan’s problem starting in 2013.

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UMHoopsFan: Very interesting, definitely lots of seniors. Do you think Zak and Walton are talented as the seniors on the four teams you listed? I am not so sure. Irvin and Walton had a hard time being the number 1 option this year. There were very unconsistent. UM should be better, but not so sure the seniors can carry this team into the second weekend of the tourney.

Duke and UK are the only perennially elite teams that perform at a high level with freshman-dominant rotations. MSU and Arizona might make the jump next year, but that remains to be seen.

Over the last several years, other than Duke and UK, the elite teams have generally had pretty balanced rosters (in terms of upperclassmen v underclassmen). Some, like Louisville in 2013, UConn, UF, and Wisconsin in 2014, and Wisconsin and MSU in 2015, have had rotations comprised almost exclusively of juniors and seniors.

I don’t expect Zak to turn into Buddy Hield next season, but if you look, Hield is averaging 8 points more per game as a senior and shooting 8% better from 3 than he ever did before. I don’t expect Michigan to reach the Final Four like Nova and Oklahoma, who were farther along last year, but it’s worth noting that they had a lot of the same players two years ago when they were upset in the first round and had a kenpom defense in the 90s.

Increased success for upperclassmen is often true for groups that don’t have quite as much success. Looking at Iowa, they’ve had a core of Gesell, Woodbury, Uthoff, Aaron White, etc., and two years ago they had Roy Devyn Marble, arguably better than any of them, perhaps equal with Uthoff, and they went 9-9 in the B1G. The next year they lost RDM and went 12-6 as the core became upperclassmen, then lost White and went 12-6 again.

So I don’t expect Irvin or Walton to be All-Americans next year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both had much better years than this year, particularly as Irvin had offseason back surgery and Walton missed much of last year. And when looking at the group of upperclassmen-to-be, Irvin, Walton, Donnal, Robinson, MAAR, Chatman, Dawkins, and Doyle (or whatever contingent of that group is still there next year), I think there’s a good chance we’ll a significantly more successful version of that group, along with contributions from Wagner and Simpson and others, of course.