Jerome Tang took his time finding the right players to fit into the program he wanted to build at Kansas State.
They meshed just right, taking Tang and the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 in a season that started with them being picked to finish last in the Big 12.
Four have been downright super.
Anchored by fifth-year seniors Markquis Nowell, Desi Sills, Tykei Greene and Abayomi Iyiola, Kansas State is heading from the Little Apple to the Big Apple to face Michigan State at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
“To have guys who have 100 college games under their belt, there are just certain things that you pick up that it doesn’t matter how talented you are that you can’t gain it except through experience,” Tang said.
Super seniors have had a huge impact on the teams that have made it this far in March Madness.
Nine of the 16 remaining teams have players in fifth seasons granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic. They bring experience, leadership and presence with them on these deep runs into the bracket.
“There is no substitute for experience,” Texas interim coach Rodney Terry said. “They understand what type of urgency you have to play with this time of year. They will help the young guys with that.”
Terry has leaned on his “old” players since former coach Chris Beard was fired in December. Texas has six players 22 or older, including super seniors Marcus Carr, Sir’Jabari Rice, Timmy Allen and Christian Bishop.
Carr started his college career at Pittsburgh in 2017, had a three-year stint at Minnesota that included a redshirt year and is the Longhorns' leading scorer at 15.8 points per game. Rice, a New Mexico State transfer, chips in 12.8 points and hit seven 3-pointers against Colgate. Allen adds 10.3 points after transferring from Utah two years ago and Bishop has been a valuable role player in two seasons since leaving Creighton.
“We’ve been battle tested time and time again,” Allen said.
Souley Boum is Xavier's leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, helping the Musketeers reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017 after stints at San Francisco and UTEP.
Jordan Miller is Miami's second-leading scorer at 15.1 points and is making his second trip to the Sweet 16 after starting his career at George Mason. Rasir Bolton has given Gonzaga another scoring option, 3-point shooting and clutch shots in two seasons since playing at Penn State and Iowa State.
David Singleton has been UCLA's sharpshooter in his five seasons in Westwood, hitting 43% from the 3-point arc. He suffered a sprained ankle against Northwestern in the second round, though the Bruins are hoping he can play Thursday against Gonzaga.
Even teams that didn't advance to the Sweet 16 had huge impacts from super seniors.
Furman pulled off one of the biggest upsets of March Madness' first weekend, knocking off No. 4 seed Virginia after reaching the Tournament for the first time since 1980. Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell were a big part of the Paladins' success, averaging more than 33 combined points after deciding to play together for a fifth season.
“They weren’t just scorers. They weren’t just really good basketball players. They became leaders,” Furman coach Bob Richey said. “They learned how to bear the burden of expectation. They learned how to bear the burden of people thinking, hey, is this story going to be written how it’s supposed to be written?”
Kansas State still has pen to paper.
The Wildcats weren't given much of a chance this season. Tang took a calculated approach to building his roster after 19 seasons as an assistant at Baylor, searching for players who would be the right fit.
One was already there.
Nowell, a 5-foot-7 guard who plays well above his size, averaged 12.4 points under Bruce Weber last season. He upped it to 17.1 while finishing second nationally with 7.8 assists per game.
Sills arrived in Manhattan following stints at Arkansas and Arkansas State. Greene played two seasons at Manhattan — the one in New York — and Stony Brook before heading to Kansas State. Iyiola, a 6-9 forward from Nigeria, played at Stetson, Arkansas and Hofstra.
The quartet helped Tang navigate a successful first season.
“I feel like we’re trying to set a standard, trying to build a legacy for the younger guys that that’s what you want to play in, the best tournament in the country," Sill said. "So we’re going to keep on working hard, just try to keep doing what we do so they know what the standards are when we leave.”
AP Sports Writers Jim Vertuno, Fred Goodall and Aaron Beard contributed.
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