- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

ATLANTA Wanted: Basketball players with Final Four aspirations, four years of experience required, must be willing to put the NBA on hold.
Sure, there's a bunch of college players who can't apply. Many of them barely hang around campus long enough to learn their professors' names.
Then there's Maryland and Indiana, which have shown there are still guys willing to stick it out for four years.
Both made it to tonight's national title game Maryland with three senior starters, Indiana with two, plus a fourth-year junior.
Yes, experience does matter.
"The guys here wanted to continue to develop as basketball players," Maryland star and senior Juan Dixon said yesterday. "Every kid is dreaming of playing in the NBA. But the guys on this team used eligibility to their advantage, to become better persons and better basketball players."
Indiana's seniors are defensive stopper Dane Fife and forward Jarrad Odle, while Kyle Hornsby would have been a senior if not for an injury that caused him to be redshirted his first season.
The Hoosiers have another junior, point guard Tom Coverdale, along with sophomore Jared Jeffries, the team's leading scorer and rebounder.
Maryland's starters have combined to play 577 college games, led by seniors Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton. The Terrapins also have junior point guard Steve Blake and sophomore Chris Wilcox.
"None of us have ever been tempted to go out early," Mouton said. "Everybody has stuck together and everybody's got one goal, and that's to win a national championship."
Still, they didn't have much choice. There weren't a whole lot of agents buzzing around the Indiana and Maryland campuses, urging these guys to turn pro.
Dixon weighs just 165 pounds, raising questions about his ability to withstand the rigors of the NBA. Fife admits he didn't know how to score until he got to college, and he's still known more for his hard-nosed defense. Mouton says he was a one-dimensional jump shooter until he transferred from Tulane to Maryland.
"We don't have a lot of McDonald's All-Americans," Dixon said. "Since I've been here, I think we've had one, Danny Miller, and he left the program. Coach just recruits guys who want to work hard and become better players. We didn't come to school with big egos."
Gary Williams, seeking his first national title in his 24th season as a head coach, knows this team is an anomaly in today's instant-gratification world.
"We've been fortunate to keep them together," he said. "But they wanted to be here, too. They've realized that they can get better each year in the program. For them, this was probably the best thing, also."
Players who left school early or didn't go to college at all made up the bulk of the NBA Draft last year.
In fact, there are 55 pros who could have been in school this season. They were averaging 7.5 minutes and 4.4 points in the NBA, showing that stardom is no sure thing. Then again, they were being paid an average of $1.8 million, which certainly eases the sting of watching others play.
"Times are changing," Indiana coach Mike Davis said. "Kids are going to come out. Development is not really that important anymore. It's all about making money. I can't blame them."
Among those getting paid for what is, in essence, an NBA redshirt year, is former Indiana star Kirk Haston, who now rides the bench in Charlotte.
Fife didn't speak to Haston for more than a month after Haston entered the draft.
"I was upset with him," Fife said. "I thought he had taken away my chance to make the Final Four."
The two eventually made up, and Fife said he now wants to buy his former teammate a Final Four ring. Of course, Fife will have to wait until he gets a paying job.
In the meantime, teams are learning that it's just as good to have less-touted players who use their entire eligibility. In four years, they get a strong grasp of the coach's system. In four years, they learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. In four years, they learn to cope with the pressure.
"There's some exceptional freshmen and sophomores who can step up under pressure and make the big plays," Hornsby said. "But that's a limited few. If you have seniors and juniors who've been through it, it really helps your team."
Just ask Duke, which won the national title a year ago led by senior Shane Battier. Or Michigan State, which picked up the rings in 2000 after Mateen Cleaves decided to stay for a fourth season.
Of course, the NBA is hard to resist when a young man has dollar signs in his eyes. Jeffries said he hasn't decided whether to return for his junior season, but Davis is already preparing for the worst.
"I don't think there's any way he's coming back next year," Davis said. "But, hey, he's in the championship game."
Along with a bunch of seniors.

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