BUFFALO — Every day in the NCAA Tournament is Senior Day, an occasion to reflect and try to hold off “goodbye” just a little longer. “Seniors hear the clock ticking,” said Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, who should know because he has four of them on his roster.
“They see the sands going through the hourglass, knowing there’s not much time left, regardless of how we finish it out,” Gard said on the eve of an experience-rich game against Villanova that will match teams that have been to the past two national championship games.
Players on each side have been around long enough to know how to relish such a moment. As Wisconsin’s four-year guard Zak Showalter said, “Obviously, this group of four seniors has been in a lot of big games in our career, and really got a lot from Wisconsin.”
He and classmates Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Vitto Brown would like one more chance to play in the glare, under a dome, as they did in the loss to Duke in the 2015 final. Then again, so does Villanova’s Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds, who beat North Carolina at the buzzer last April.
Not one of them is in the least embarrassed about being a senior, despite the common perception that the elite players stay in college only a year or two. Hart explored the NBA draft last spring but decided that his stock was not as high as it would be after one more year on campus. “Anyone who knows me knows that my main priority is I want to take care of my parents,” he said after practice, following a surprisingly daunting 20-point win over 16th-seeded Mount St. Mary’s Thursday. “I didn’t want to just get there and take care of my parents for a year or two. I want to have a long career in the league and I’m going to take care of them for the rest of their lives.”
The game today — someone’s last — figures to be a rare savvy vs. savvy matchup. “What I see in Villanova is a championship program-type swagger,” Gard said, “and I’ve seen it in our guys, too.”
Wisconsin showed its mettle late Thursday. Many times Virginia Tech drew within a point and most times Koenig responded with a clutch three. He had a school-record total of eight.
No matter when the senior Badgers’ careers end, each is sure he is better for having stretched it as long as they could. “You’re just changed as a person,” Hayes said, “able to develop yourself. You change — your beliefs, your thought processes, things that go on in your everyday life. That’s the beauty of staying in school.”
Phillip’s LI connection
West Virginia senior guard Tarik Phillip will go into his team’s second-round game against Notre Dame today buoyed by experience that featured AAU ball with the Long Island Lightning. “I felt like they were the best fit for me because they kind of treated me like family there. Dana Dingle is a great dude,” the Brooklyn resident said of his coach back then.
“It’s a great gym, a great facility, there are great people that run it,” he said of Island Garden in West Hempstead, mindful it once was the home of the Nets. “I learned you’ve just got to work hard.”