North Carolina and South Carolina share a border, a love of sweet tea and the thrill rides at Carowinds. More significantly for this Final Four, however, they also field basketball teams that brim with upperclassmen.
The one-and-dones are all done in the 2017 NCAA tournament, watching from home as they morosely await the NBA draft. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels and Gamecocks are fielding two veteran lineups in Arizona that are as tough and prickly as a cactus.
South Carolina’s best player is a senior in Sindarius Thornwell, and he will be joined by another senior, two sophomores and a lone freshman in the starting lineup when the “Sin-derella” Gamecocks play in their first-ever Final Four game against Gonzaga at 6:09 p.m. Saturday. The Tar Heels will start two seniors and three juniors at 8:49 p.m. Saturday when they face off against Oregon.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin believes, as he said Thursday: “Everyone falls in love with the one-and-done phenomenon. I get it. I coach them, too.... It’s part of what we do. But there’s a big difference between 18-year-olds and 22-year-olds.... and I think that’s why the older teams usually figure out a way to make it to this stage, in this moment.”
Tar Heels coach Roy Williams believes his program has been unfairly branded with the idea that he doesn’t want “one-and-done” players. In fact he has tried to recruit a number of them in the past decade, only to see them wind up at Duke or Kentucky.
Williams nevertheless has made it back to his second Final Four in a row at UNC. He has pooh-poohed the notion of experience this week – saying it would mainly be helpful for press conferences and the other ultimately irrelevant pre-game hypefests.
But it is true that a player like West Charlotte’s Kennedy Meeks has improved tremendously from when he reported as a 335-pound freshman to what he is now as a 260-pound senior.
Meeks now ranks sixth all-time in rebounding for the Tar Heels and had a career-high 17 boards against Kentucky in the regional final. Williams understands that players like Meeks, about to enter his last weekend of college competition, get the idea of how quickly it can all end.
Said Williams: “The easy answer would be that more experience handles tournament play better. ... I think that older guys understand how fleeting it is and how sudden the season is over with – and perhaps they focus a little bit more on that part of it.”